Gender stereotypes: Nature or nurture? Do you forbid your daughter from playing with Barbies and insist that your son learns to cook from the age of two?

And are these efforts to impose equality on your children doing any good at all?  We look at gender stereotypes and asks can we really avoid them.

Is it nature or nurture?

Are gender stereotypes down to nature or nurture? Can we as parents really influence our children’s behaviour and habits to pull them away from traditional roles? As is always the case in these debates, it seems that a little bit of both is the answer, as former headmistress and parent coach Sue Atkins highlights in her book Raising Happy Children for Dummies, ‘Many parents would agree that most little boys play and act differently from most little girls, and do so from an early age. Scientists generally agree that gender-specific behaviour is a complicated mix of both nature and nurture.’ Hormones have a lot of influence in this aspect. Tessa Livingston explains that the particular qualities and weaknesses discussed below ‘seem influenced by the amount of sex hormones in the womb, for these not only affect physical characteristics but also have a role to play in behaviour’.

So how do boys and girls differ? Let’s take a look.

Boys will be boys

Biologically boys and girls are different as their brains develop differently. However, in what ways does this happen?

  • Boys are better puzzle-solvers According to Tessa Livingstone, ‘boys tend to think better spatially than girls’, a fact backed up by Sue Atkins, who comments that ‘boys are better at problem-solving and figuring out puzzles’ than girls.
  • Boys do better under pressure Interestingly, boys tend to do better when a little bit of stress is brought into the equation. Sue Atkins attributes this to a fundamental difference between boys’ and girls’ personalities. ‘Research by Dr Leonard Sax shows that a certain amount of stress enhances learning in boys…
    [as they] define themselves by achieving goals and accomplishing things by themselves because they feel competent and in control.’
  • Boys struggle with expressing their emotions Because the right side of the brain – which is in charge of language and emotions – develops more slowly in boys than in girls, boys tend to be slower at reading and also struggle with expressing their emotions. Sue says ‘One of the hardest questions for many boys to answer is: “How do you feel?”.’ To help develop their emotional awareness, try talking  generally about emotions with them rather than pushing them further away.

Girls will be girls

Just as boys have their strengths and weaknesses, so do girls.

  • Girls have better language skills As stated above, the rights side of the brain develops faster in girls than in boys. Since this side is responsible for language and learning, it follows that girls tend to learn to talk and read faster than boys.
  • Girls are better with emotions Again, thanks to the right side of the brain, girls mature emotionally much quicker than boys, as Sue Atkins observes: ‘Most girls find that talking about their emotions easy…[they] will feel the need to talk about people and emotions whereas boys eel the need to talk about things and activities.’ Tessa Livingstone agrees, adding: ‘girls are frequently early talkers and more empathetic.’
  • Girls struggle with stress and spatiality While boys excel under pressure, it seems the opposite is true of girls. Sue Atkins says that this is down to the fact that ‘Girls define themselves by the quality of their relationships and have the need to share and nurture others’. They also are less adept at puzzle-solving. To help them out, sit down and do a jigsaw together some time, or get out your shape sorter and
    have some fun.

Nurture yourself first…

You accept that your son will be a whizz with his shape sorter and your daughter is rapidly improving her empathetic skills. However, you still don’t want Timmy growing up to think that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, while Susie frets over how feminine she’s looking today. What do you do? Do you make Timmy play with dolls and banish Susie from the dressing-up drawer?

Before doing anything, you should look at your own ingrained stereotypes, warns Sue Atkins. ‘During my 22 years as a teacher, I’ve come across fanatical yet well-meaning parents… making boys play with dolls and girls play with Lego, which seems rather a contrived way to let children play.’ Tessa Livingstone agrees, adding that children are like ‘blotting paper’ in the way in which they soak up parental and societal stereotypes and store them in their unconscious.

Nurture your child

Rather than banning your child from playing with toys that are gender-specific, Sue and Tessa both advocate allowing your child to play with the toys that they will enjoy, not what  you want them to. This enables your child to make small but important choices according to his or her interests, rather than your imposed beliefs. Sue supports this by saying that ‘Children left to their own devices with lots of choices soon find what they enjoy playing with, regardless of their gender’.

Additionally, think about what sort of example you are setting at home. If you ban toy cookers for her and toy power drills for him, yet at home mum does the lion’s share of the cooking while dad does the DIY then aren’t you reinforcing a set of values that you’re trying to step away from?

Love is all you need

At the end of the day, even if you try to be as ‘equal’ and ‘PC’ as possible, your child may still vehemently argue that princesses must have long hair and that princes come riding along on a dark steed to rescue them. They hear this in stories, on television and at school. You cannot protect them 24/7 from other people’s opinions and beliefs, nor should you. Again, as is always the case in parenting, it boils down to common sense. You do the best for your child and that’s all we can hope for in the end. Sue confirms this and recommends focusing on developing your child’s self-esteem over anything else. With a healthy self-image and quiet self-confidence, ‘you can easily overcome any differences.’