A wonderful piece in The Australian Magazine this weekend, Raising Sasha, brought up some interesting points about gender stereotyping. A couple in Britain, and another in Canada, have tried the ultimate gender bias experiment – hiding the gender of their baby. But while their intentions were pure, were they condemning their child to a life of not fitting in, of being a little odd? When you deny a developing personality part of its identity – its gender – are you stunting part of its growth? Or liberating it to cross boundaries and explore all avenues?
It’s a mind blowing concept because hiding your child’s identity is going to raise a few eyebrows and these couples continued in their endeavours until their children were about five years old.
But what of these children who don’t have a strong identification with either girl or boy? Does it affect their self-esteem? As an adolescent would a young girl who was raised in an intensely gender neutral home feel feminine?
And developmentally, are there things that the developing young girl learns, knows and understands as she grows, that might be absent in someone who has no strong connection with impending womanhood?
I don’t know any of the answers, but I do wonder. Social experiments are interesting because they have the potential to expand our understanding of ourselves, our society and our global community. But perhaps there’s a downside that isn’t mentioned in the Oz’s article. The impact on the child. We didn’t hear from Sasha, nor did the reporter offer any insights into how this experiment may have affected Sasha.
It’s topical at the moment, following MamaMia’s piece about Lego’s gender-stereotyped set for girls. Inevitably, this issue can be boiled down to nature vs nurture.
Are girls attracted to pink things because that’s what they’ve been programmed to like, or, is there an innate love for girly things that is being tapped? The good people at Lego claim that extensive testing found that girls were drawn to pink Lego pieces over the traditional `boy-coloured’ pieces.
Before I had a daughter, I was determined that she would be raised in as gender-neutral a way as possible. I wanted her to explore all life had to offer, not be drawn via social programming to the things that have been ordained to be ‘for girls’.
To a large extent, having two brothers ahead of her has ensured that she experiences boy toys as much as girl toys. In fact, all her early childhood toys were hand-me-downs from her brothers. Drums, shape-fit toys, yellow remote-controlled cars, puzzles, and tons of Wiggles stuff – all remarkably gender neutral actually. She got nothing new bought for her, save for those that were gifts on her birth. Her first Barbie came at age 3, her first dolly was Play School’s Jemima, a birthday gift from her aunts and uncles, also at 3.
Her first clothes were hand-me-down shorts and shirts from her brothers and until only very recently, these comprised the lion’s share of her wardrobe. However, even though they outnumbered things like dresses and skirts and frilly pink shirts, they were by no means the most-worn items of her wardrobe.
Matilda has been choosing her own outfits since she was about 2.5 years. I would lay out her clothes on the bed, as I did for her two older brothers, but instead of complying quietly as they did, she would firmly say ‘no’ and point to her outfit of choice. Usually, it was a dress. A hand-me-down dress from a mothers group mum or a hand-me-down skirt from the same mum.
If I am to look at Matilda’s behaviour and try to answer the nature vs nurture argument now, I would say there is a very strong case for nature being the primary influencer of her behaviour, with a tiny bit of nurture thrown in.
Even though I have tried to limit the girly stuff in her life, television (of which she watches a solid hour in the afternoons – yes, I know, I’m a bad mum) has had something to add on the matter. Most of her viewing is either Play School, Hi 5 or Dance Academy. Play School is wonderfully androgynous, focusing on singing, dancing and craft. Hi 5 has lots of dancing and doesn’t really focus heavily on girly stuff, although there are girls in frilly skirts, it’s a largely gender-neutral environment, in my view. Dance Academy, however, is where the girly stuff gets ratcheted up to 10.
In case you missed the common thread, it’s dance. Matilda loves to dance. She doesn’t walk around the house like a normal person. She pirouettes. She leaps. She spins. She shuffles. She struts. She does anything but walk. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit.
That love of dance is nature. None of her family dances, aside from the odd drunken nightclub shuffle from her parents in their wild and heady younger days, and five minutes of ballet classes when I was a young girl. She’s not been inducted into it in any way aside from being drawn to everything that features girls dancing. (Some of the Dance Academy episodes are too old for a four-year-old, so we’ve whittled it down on the iQ to those episodes that don’t feature any kissing or bad behaviour – well, aside from Kat’s G-rated rebellion against rules and institutions). She doesn’t care. She only wants to watch it for the ballet. She wants to dance in pointe shoes like the main characters do on Dance Academy. When Young Talent Time is on, she’s up dancing, copying their moves.
But on the flip side of the coin, her playmates are her brothers and they play rough. She plays poison ball, tiggy, and Star Wars (not, I might add, as the token Princess Leia, but rather, a storm trooper). Her kindy friends are an equal mix of boys and girls.
So, to sum up. The case for nature – she’s a dancer with no induction/brainwashing into dancing whatsoever; she goes for dresses and skirts every time in the wardrobe.
The case for nurture - she holds her own with her brothers at play time because that’s all she’s known; she’s comfortable holding a water pistol as a weapon because that’s the only game the boys play with her; and even though she owns dolls, she doesn’t play with them or the dollhouse Santa brought last Christmas.
She’s a girly girl sometimes, the rest of the times she’s the way I raised her – an equal opportunity four-year-old.