Another little boy teases Jeremy, telling him that he must be a girl because 'only girls' wear slides in their hair. Eventually, in frustration, Jeremy pulls down his trousers and undies to display the incontrovertible proof of his maleness. To which the other child, unimpressed, merely responds that everyone has a penis but only girls wear hair-slides.
Jeremy is the son of feminist scholar Sandra Bem, and this anecdote illustrates something about what children know about the sexes. By pre-school, a child can easily be a bit hazy regarding the hard facts on how males and females differ. But on the topic of what colours, symbols, toys, accessories and activities are 'for' boys or girls, they are certain to already enjoy extensive and quite sophisticated knowledge.
This shouldn't surprise us. We continually emphasise gender. The child's world continually reinforces that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance, saturated with information about what 'goes' with each sex. It's impossible to raise children in this kind of strongly gendered environment and not expect it to influence them powerfully.
Even before the moment of self-discovery, could babies' gendered environments already be influencing them? Very young babies already favour the familiar: could those truck pyjamas be contributing to the modest sex differences in toy preferences seen in the under-twos? And what about that most important part of the baby's environment: caregivers? We all have a head full of assumptions and expectations about gender. Even if not consciously endorsed they can, influence how we perceive boys and girls.
Gender-neutral child-rearing isn't the great social experiment that failed. It's the experiment that's never been tried.
By Dr Cordelia Fine, senior research associate, Macquarie University, honorary research fellow, University of Melbourne.
Cordelia Fine is the author of 'Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences'