Four mums on stereotyped from birth
Four mums chat about raising children in a world that's all too often driven by gender roles, meet our mums:
Do boys and girls naturally fall into their expected stereotypes?
MICHELLE: I think we all start off in pretty much the same place. Put in a neutral setting like a toddler group, I haven’t noticed little girls only playing with dolls or boys only playing with cars. More often, they go after the same toys, like ride-on vehicles or walkers. I think it’s only when children get to a pre-school setting at about four that they feel they have to fit in and play up to the gender stereotypes a bit more. It’s all about copying what their peers do at that age.
NAOMI: I agree that they’re definitely led by friends, but I’ve seen how nature plays a part too. My two daughters have been exposed to the same toys and the same environment, yet Stephanie, mum to Jude, 3 months my eldest daughter is as girlie as they come while the younger one is more of a tomboy.
STEPHANIE: Anthropologically, males are hunters and females are gatherers, and I think that even in our more enlightened times some of this remains in our DNA and that’s why the things boys enjoy and the things girls enjoy can diverge. But I don’t think the differences are as pronounced, or emerge as early in life, as marketeers encourage us to believe.
How do marketeers play a part in shaping gender stereotypes?
STEPHANIE: They exaggerate the differences between boys and girls to the point where you’d think we’re different species, and that’s why we end up with girls playing solely with Barbie dolls and boys with guns. We try to establish the differences at far too young an age and there's no way back.
NAOMI: TV adverts are terrible. My three-year-old, Florence, announced the other day that cars are for boys, and considering you only ever see boys advertising them, that isn't a ridiculous assumption for her to make. It wasn't until I pointed out that I drive a car, and that I hoped she'd also drive a car one day, that she started to think differently.
STEPHANIE: I rarely see TV ads for toys appealing to both genders. It seems that boys advertise chemistry sets and superhero toys while girls advertise dolls and all things pink. Are they really saying there aren't any toys a brother and sister can play with together?
NAOMI: What annoys me is that the toys marketed towards boys are a lot more stimulating than so-called girls' toys. If we label science and engineering toys as being for boys, is it any wonder there are significantly more men than women in these professions?
IDo you think children are more gender stereotyped than they were 20 years ago?
MOLLY: I think so. I was brought up in quite a liberal environment and was encouraged to be an individual. I could play with whatever I wanted and had an Action Man and soldiers as well as a Tiny Tears. There wasn't the pressure to have everything pink in order to fit in with the other girls, as there is now.
MICHELLE: I agree it wasn't as OTT but I definitely fell into the girl stereotype, despite having two brothers. I was surrounded by train sets, footballs, Spider-Man and cars but I remember thinking, 'I don't want to play with those things; I want to play with dolls.' My mum didn't push dolls at me; I just instinctively wanted them.
NAOMI: I was a girlie girl too and loved playing with Barbie and Sindy, but I also played with Lego. And that was way before Lego Friends, the recent range specifically targeted at girls, came about.
STEPHANIE: Lego is surely the most genderneutral toy out there. I'm really surprised a range needs to be specifically targeted at girls.
MOLLY: It's a shame it needs to exist but I don't think my daughter Rosa would be as into Lego if it didn't. It's pink and based around an imaginary place called Heartlake City, and she really likes the role-play aspect.
What do you think about genderspecific toys?
NAOMI: Even toys for newborn babies are gender-specific, which I think is weird. When my son was born he was given a set of rattles shaped like a tool set. My daughter was given one in the shape of a vanity mirror. It's difficult when other people buy your children things. I'll never forget the pink plastic iron and ironing board a family friend bought for Iris. I could hardly hide my horror!
MICHELLE: I try not to be offended because I think it would be sad to go around telling everyone what they can and can't buy. If someone buys a present I think it's important to accept it. Saying that, I haven’t bought a toy gun for Jude as it’s not something I feel comfortable with – for either gender – so it wouldn’t be my choice of gift.
MOLLY: The only things I don’t want my girls to own are Barbie dolls because they’re highly sexualised which I think is completely wrong. Apart from that I’m happy for them to play with whatever they like.
Do people have prejudices about boys playing with ‘girls’ toys’ and vice versa?
STEPHANIE: There’s definitely a stigma associated with boys playing with dolls or buggies, and it’s your responsibility to protect your child from negative attitudes when they’re at a sensitive age. I wouldn’t want Jude subjected to comments about him playing with so-called girls’ toys, but at the same time, I want him to play with what he likes.
NAOMI: In my experience it’s the adults with the problem. My friend’s son came round the other day and was having a ball playing with my daughters, dressed as a princess. It was all very innocent and we thought nothing of it, but when my friend told her husband he was cross, and worried about ‘where it would lead’.
STEPHANIE: I think men are protective of their sons and don’t want them to be subjected to ridicule. A little girl playing with boys’ toys is just a tomboy and everyone thinks tomboys are sweet. But flip it around and people aren’t always as accepting of boys playing with dolls and fairy wings. Modern people will say ‘Isn’t that sweet!’ but others will be afraid of it. It’s silly because I think telling your child certain toys aren’t for them also teaches them about boundaries that don’t need to exist.