He is boisterous, I was clumsy - Gendering Children's Behaviour

He is boisterous, I was clumsy

By Maisie Geelen

There’s a little boy in my family who I look after regularly, he is a sweet, goodnatured child who actively enjoys helping others. I have watched him help push children on the swings, hold out zip-lines for others, and even check in with his pals if they seem unhappy. All very impressive for an eight-year-old, but then I am biased in this case. Let’s call this kid Apple.

Apple, as well as being remarkably good-natured towards his peers, also struggles with coordination and balance. This, when mixed with playing games, has led to comments of ‘boisterousness’ or ‘boys will be boys’ from other parents. They act like he chooses to hurt others, but that it is ok because he is a boy. Ironically, whenever I have seen Apple crash head first into another child he has always stopped playing to apologies even if the other child hasn't.

22 years ago, when I was a child, I also struggled with coordination and balance. But because I was a girl, this was labelled as ‘clumsy or ungraceful’. It is astonishing that these stereotypes have been sustained over the course of a generation. A generation that has seen so much progress towards equal rights, but still experiences persistent inequalities between men and women. We continue to be obsessed with categorising our children into two different gendered roles and describing all of their behaviour using these roles.

So how do we solve this? How can we safely address these issues and respect the diverse needs and individuality of the children in our society? Let’s first take a look at the problem.

Gender stereotyping is the categorising of children into behaviours, feelings, types of play, and even learning as those belonging either a ‘girls’ or ‘boys.’ Girls, for example, are often labelled as sensitive, submissive, quiet, emotional, or weak, while boys are strong, practical, assertive, or tough.

These categories are reinforced by multiple factors. The media they are exposed to, the opinions of their social environment, the toys they have access to, and the lessons that they have in nursery or school each play a part.

A study recently found that the artists, composers, scientists, inventors, and historical figures that school’s cover in their curriculum, and display in classrooms are overwhelmingly (white) men.

The artists, composers,  scientists,  inventors, and  historical figures that school’s cover in their curriculum are overwhelmingly (white) men.

Gender stereotyping affects what children aspire to be and the activities they engage in. It contributes to issues in childhood and adolescence such as poor mental health, self-esteem, and engagement in risky behaviours. Ultimately, this stereotyping causes inequality with children and young people of all gender identities. Boys who are told they can't cry are negatively affected, as are girls who can't imagine themselves as leaders, as are non-binary and trans children who are forced to conform in a way they don't identify.

These gender inequalities that persist into adulthood are a root cause of violence against women, girls, and non-binary people. The evidence persistently shows that there are higher rates of gender-based violence in societies that have firm expectations of men and women based on their gender.

We can all do something to prevent this violence. The easiest means of challenging these gender stereotypes is to start by reflecting on our own behaviours. Consider how you engage with the children in your life. The language that you use, your expectations, and the space that you create for them.

I'm not an expert on the challenges of gender-neutral parenting, but I ardently believe this isn't just the job of parents. It's for all of us who work with, care for, or interact with kids.

Language is always a good place to start. Using gendered terms reinforces stereotypes while influencing behaviour, ideas and thought patterns. Just by adjusting the way we talk we can in a small way, create women's equal place in the world. For example, using humankind in place of mankind, manufactured for man-made, police officer, and firefighter in place of police/fireman. While also avoiding putting 'female’ or ‘woman' in front of a profession. We can have comedians and doctors in the world rather than 'female comedians', or 'women doctors'.

Adjusting our own biases and expectations in the way that we relate to children is also important. Do you perhaps give more help to boys while having higher expectations of girls to look after themselves? Do you criticise girls more when they get something wrong? Do you support all children to play with building blocks, dolls, cars, and mini-kitchens?

Clothing is another key issue, often boxing children into either princess or adventurer categories. Giving children the autonomy to dress how they wish, while ensuring they are appropriately clothed for the weather can, as I've seen, be a challenge. But, certainly one worth finding solutions for. Having conversations with older children who already have gender stereotyped ideas about clothing is just as important. Not only does it mean that they know they can express themselves however they wish, but also it encourages a safe and inclusive environment for the other children they interact with.

When we encourage children to transgress their gender roles, it can lead to issues with other children or adults that try to ‘police' them. Often by either passively or assertively making it clear that the child has done something strange or wrong. If this happens, we have to be ready to support the child by listening, backing them up, and coming to a solution that they would be happy with.

Breaking down gender stereotypes is about objectively critiquing the environment that we are all providing. Holding a mirror up to our own behavioural patterns should enable positive changes that ensure children feel safe expressing themselves while rejecting many of the stereotypes we ourselves faced.

Thankfully, it's not just up to us as individuals, there are brilliant projects and policy changes happening in Scotland. Zero Tolerance, along with the Care Inspectorate, have created a resource for early years practitioners to help them enhance gender equality for children across all ELC settings. It has been developed for early years educators and it will also be helpful for parents, and anyone working with young children. It explains the importance of challenging gender stereotyping in the early years and provides ideas and examples of existing practice from across Scotland.

If you have used this resource, we would love your feedback!

We want your feedback on Gender Equal Play

Zero Tolerance is also running the #TalkingGender series, challenging gender stereotypes by providing resources and blogs to help others engage.

While the Scottish government are providing resources and training to Early Learning practitioners and teachers to improve gender balance and equalities in education.

The reality is that if we each do our own little bit, then we can be part of a wider movement. Achieving this alongside the larger scale projects and policy developments currently taking place will facilitate a movement for whole-scale change. Across my experience in working on gender-based issues, a multi-systemic approach has always been the most effective means of producing change. Engaging people and children in multiple ways, in various settings within their community, has the most sustainable impact. We each have the opportunity to be part of that.


About the author

Maisie is a researcher who has specialised in a rights-based approach to gender equality in international development. She has worked across programmes and policies including ending child marriage for girls in Ethiopia, ending female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone and equal water provision for women in Iraq. She considers herself a feminist who works hard to be intersectional and inclusive, always welcoming feedback on blog posts from marginalised, non-binary and trans women. Her current research focuses on evaluating the impact of advocacy and accountability programming for Water Witness International.

ZT logo