Positive relationships: Ask the expert ... Boys and girls

Dr Maria Robinson
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Practitioners need to be careful to treat children as individuals when establishing a sense of gender identity, advises Dr Maria Robinson.

I care for a four-year-old boy who seems to have become very aware of gender recently. I have a wide range of resources, but where a year ago he was happy to play with the prams and in the home corner, he now says that's for "girlie girls". He is more interested in aliens and acting out cartoons. He does not often play with girls and says that "boys are better". Is this a normal stage of development, or has something sparked this attitude change? He is an only child.'

This issue can become very tangled because the concept of gender has become so embroiled with people's concerns about promoting, supporting or reinforcing stereotypes. Linked with these concerns are worries to do with attitudes and perceptions towards either gender. However, while accepting that the attitudes of adults towards the behaviour of girls and boys will have an effect on the child's own gender-related perceptions, it is important that we 'stand back' and untangle whatever biological and cognitive predispositions might exist. This will help us consider whether this boy's change in attitude is a reflection of early 'stereotyping', or highlights an important and necessary phase in his development. Perhaps this change is part of a voyage of discovery into his essential 'boyness'.

Perhaps the biological differences of both genders that obviously exist to ensure reproduction may also encompass more subtle differences in the way in which males and females actually feel and think. Research is beginning to highlight how gender is not just about reproduction, nor a 'social construct', but also that differences in behaviour, skills and abilities may also be a result of our existence - as not only as human beings, but also mammals. Gender may be one of the 'two great organising principles in child development, the other being age' (Sax, 2005).

Gender differences

When broadly considering gender difference, there are some interesting facts on which to reflect. For example, while women are noted to suffer greatly from depression, suicide rates are much higher for men. Boys are more likely to develop childhood personality disorders, such as attention deficit disorders. Males are over-represented in the incidence of severe mental health problems such as schizophrenia, learning disability and autism. Some 'explanations' of the aetiology of autism have described the condition as one of the 'extreme male brain', where the predisposition of males to be 'systemisers' - ie, seeking to analyse or construct a system - becomes enmeshed into a 'concrete' view of the world (Baron-Cohen, 2002, 2003,2005). This perhaps gives some insight into the interest of many boys into how things actually work and their fascination with construction - including pulling things apart!

Conversely, according to Baron-Cohen, females tend to be 'empathisers', who are more able to understand someone else's feelings. But we must never make the mistake of thinking that somehow boys are less emotional than girls.

It is crucial not to over-generalise. Every child will have their own unique 'take' on the world according to their particular experiences, genetic inheritance and so on. Nevertheless, their gender, as a biological fact, may 'colour wash' the way they interpret and manage those experiences. No 'one size fits all' approach will do - neither towards thinking about an individual child, nor assuming that one style of provision will equally engage girls and boys in the same way.

Who am I?

Between the ages of two and three years, children become aware of their gender (following on from the realisation that their body is 'theirs'). However, they may still have some confusion about whether they will stay a boy or a girl. This has links with the understanding of the permanence of objects.

Recognising that you are a specific gender may be a concept that needs 'testing out', so the realisation that one is permanently a boy or a girl doesn't get 'firmed up' until around six years of age, when same-sex play often begins to be preferred. But a preference may begin earlier in individual children. Social attitudes and cultural expectations count. Adults' attitudes to a baby differ depending on whether it is a boy or a girl, with mothers and fathers responding differently to emotional and play displays. However, a study quoted by Sax (2005) notes that even at eight months, boys and girls showed more interest in the toys traditionally labelled as boys' and girls' toys.

So where does all this leave us when thinking about gender issues, in particular our four-year-old boy? Perhaps it highlights that there may indeed be genuine innate differences and that this child is merely going through a phase where such statements as 'boys are better' are helping him organise his experiences and feel safe and secure as a boy.

This may be particularly important in the female-dominated early years, especially where a boy may not have a traditional male role model within the family. A female practitioner could perhaps recognise this for what it is and could say, 'Yes, I bet it feels good to be a boy - and I like being a girl too!' This would support him in his quest to understand who he is and what he can do, while not undervaluing girls.

The boy's shift in attitude may be a necessary move in his understanding, but we cannot discount if he is also receiving certain messages from adults. Practitioners need to tread a fine line between helping boys, and girls, establish the wonder of discovering their physical/biological identity and falling into the trap of stereotyping where, for example, they perceive boys as boisterous and girls as more compliant.

There is such nonsense spoken about whether males or females are 'superior' to one another, instead of recognising that the innate strengths of either gender are complementary. Perhaps we should focus more on understanding the general predispositions of both genders and within that framework, working out the specific needs of any particular child who may or may not fit the pattern.

Maria Robinson is an early years consultant and author of From Birth to One and Child Development from Birth to Eight: A journey through the early years (Open University Press). Her Nursery World series on child development can be bought online at: www.nurseryworld.co.uk/Books


- Baron-Cohen S (2005) 'The Empathizing System - a revision of the 1994 model of the Mindreading system' in Ellis B, Bjorklund D (eds) Origins of the Social Mind. Guildford Publications Inc

- Baron-Cohen, S (2003) The Essential Difference: The truth about the male and female brain. Basic Books, New York

- Baron-Cohen, S, (2002) 'The extreme male brain theory of autism', Trends, Cogn. Sci. 6: 248-254

- Sax, L, (2005) Why Gender Matters. New York, Broadway Books

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