The final episode of the series examined issues of gender identification and how this may affect children’s development. Children generally start to identify themselves as a boy or girl at around age 3 and may then begin to segregate activities along the lines of gender. The children in the programme this week, all aged between 6 and 7 years, were asked to split in to 2 competing groups. They quickly and unanimously voted to divide into girls versus boys groups. In one activity they were asked to choose a leader for their group before entering a competition with the other group. The boys all wanted to lead, but focused on the end goal and chose the boy whom they felt had the best ability. The girls all wanted to be the leader too, but ended up with one child who had the casting vote. She chose the girl who had been the most visibly upset during the discussion, because she “felt sorry for her”.
What does this tell us about gender difference? The debate about the influence of nature or nurture on a child’s development is long established, with a general acceptance that there is an interplay between the two. Interestingly, in an experiment when children as young as 18 months are given the choice between playing with either a doll or a truck, the majority conform to a gender stereotypical response. This seems to be true across the world. However, by focusing on the nature/ nurture debate in relation to gender, we may be missing a more important point.
Can children learn empathy and be ambitious to achieve their goals? How can we help them to embrace the best aspects of both approaches? We need to embrace our children for who they really are, not who we think they ought to be! We often give children fixed labels such as “clever”, “sporty” or “pretty”. It’s not surprising really when they then start to limit their view of themselves to a static persona over which they have no control. Instead, how about encouraging their actions and attempts at doing things, celebrating each child’s uniqueness? This will help them to be, as the programme presenters hoped, “free to become whoever they want to be”!