How can I teach my child how to counter gender stereotypes?

Gender has a powerful influence on your child but don’t let stereotypes hinder his or her happiness

How can I teach my child how to counter gender stereotypes?

YOUR CHILD CAN begin to grasp the concept of gender as early as nine months. And, the science is coming in thick and fast to back up what parents have long suspected: there is a fundamental difference between the behaviours of boys and girls, and there’s not a lot you can do to influence it.

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As children generally know whether they are a boy or a girl around the age of two, but don’t grasp the fact that their gender is permanent at this age. The two-year mark also sees both sexes demonstrating curiosity about parts of the body that have been largely hidden by nappies. Young boys’ curiosity tends to be more obvious – it does stick out, after all. Little boys will often tug at their nether regions in much the same way they will tug their ears or toes, as it offers a feeling of comfort and reassurance much like sucking their thumb.

Evidence on brain development suggests that babies start to exhibit different gender behaviour from as early as two months. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge University, claims this is because girls focus more on emotions, while boys are simply interested in how things work.

The two-year mark also sees both sexes demonstrating curiosity about parts of the body that have been largely hidden by nappies.

According to Baron-Cohen, every child is born with a particular brain type – male, female or balanced. The empathising or ‘E-type’ brain is generally found in girls who respond more to the distress of others, showing greater concern through sad looks, sympathetic gestures and comforting while boys more often possess the systemising or ‘S-type’ brain. They love putting things together, building towers or playing with vehicles.

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It’s much more than when boys start selecting male super-hero dolls and girls prefer baby dolls and household objects. This is generally because boys have higher levels of  testosterone, leading them to prefer louder, less subtle toys. Boys’ testosterone levels typically soar at around four years old. This is when the Action Man antics and macho behaviour kicks in. A boy who was previously not fussed if he was dished up pasta on a pink plate will suddenly find the concept of a ‘girl’s’ plate revolting.

However, when children start school this parental influence is tempered as children begin to conform to peer pressure and stereotypes.

Full gender consistency – understanding the permanence of gender despite changes in outfits – is reached at around age six. Research has shown that parents give boys much stronger clues about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behaviour, than they do with girls. However, when children start school this parental influence is tempered as children begin to conform to peer pressure and stereotypes.

However, neat though this theory is, it is important to point out not all girls will have E-type brains, and not all boys type S. Some girls are ‘tomboys’ and some boys are more sensitive than their rough-and-tumble mates. Some children have balanced brains with a mix of the E- and S-types, it’s all part of the nature versus nurture debate. “In the Sixties and Seventies, gender differences were put down to parenting, or “nurture”” says Baron-Cohen. “Today, it is recognised there may be a partly genetic, or “nature” component.”

Kelley King is a Master Trainer at the Gurian Institute in the US, a centre that trains schools and workplaces on how to help both girls and boys reach their full potential. King recommends parents try simple exercises to help their child achieve a balance of skills. “Girls generally have difficulty judging space and distance, so create games using basic maps or building blocks”, suggests King.

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“Get your child to draw a map of your living room or garden, and colour it in with crayons or markers. Or, when you’re driving your child to school or nursery, ask her to tell you which way to go.” Boys tend to struggle more with fine motor skills, which can lead to sloppy handwriting. “Encourage your child to thread beads onto a piece of string to develop hand-eye coordination”, recommends King, “To help him manage his emotions, look at books that show people’s faces, and discuss what their expressions mean forget him to talk when you are shoulder to shoulder, like walking together or sitting in the car which he may find easier than direct eye contact.”