Nature vs nurture ... Are gender stereotypes embedded from birth in some children?

Nature vs nurture ... Are gender stereotypes embedded from birth in some children?

My just-turned-two-year-old doesn’t have a Barbie. She has plenty of dolls and soft toys, as well as the trucks, trains, drums and guitars she’s inherited from her big brother. She has a wardrobe full of pretty pink clothes, but most nights she eats her dinner from a Ben 10 plate. She likes to wrestle with her brother, tears around the house on her trike and laughs the loudest when she bashes into someone. No princesses here.

And certainly no gender stereotypes, right? Well, not exactly.

We often joke it will be my daughter and Daddy going to the footy while her brother and I go to see a show 

Last week there was a boxed Cinderella Barbie sitting on our kitchen table, ready to be wrapped for a six-year-old girl’s birthday present. When my daughter spotted it her eyes lit up. “That for Poppy?” she asked excitedly.  

“No, not for Poppy,” I replied. The rejection was met with the biggest tantrum I’ve ever seen her stage; she screamed and cried, threw herself on the floor, pounded her fists and wailed in distress.

I had to laugh at this powerful display of consumerism and the innate desire for a perfectly presented Barbie. Are girls really that programmed to be attracted to pretty pink things?

The tantrum ran its course and I thought we’d moved on … until I noticed she was too quiet.

I went to investigate and found her digging through my handbag, trying to find my keys so she could use them to jimmy open the Barbie box! Despite this worrying indication of future criminal behaviour I admit I was quietly impressed with her tenacity.

My six-year-old old son came over to see what all the fuss was about, and made a vomiting noise. “GROSS, Barbie. Boys HATE Barbies,” he loudly proclaimed.

Hello, gender stereotypes!

It reminded me of the Toronto couple who were in the media last year for choosing to hide the gender of their child, so he or she was free of the assigned gender roles society places on children. Their decision was condemned by social commentators (and the general public) as a drastic over-reaction, and as a potentially harmful act to the child’s sense of identity.

It seemed pretty over the top to me too, seeing as we are much more relaxed with our gender stereotypes these days anyway. We certainly don’t box kids into traditional expectations as much as we used to.

But it’s very interesting to see just how much kids lean towards those traditional roles. I’ve watched my daughter cradle her baby doll in her arms, feeding her a bottle and instinctively rocking her back and forth. My son had a doll too, but he never did that.

In contrast, despite my refusal to buy my son any kind of weapon, he still manages to turn Lego, sticks and anything pointy into a sword or a gun. If he’s around another boy for any period of time there’s guaranteed to be some form of wrestling. Is that behaviour ingrained in them?

But kids don’t always fit the moulds. I remember when we were shopping for my son’s first pair of ‘big boy’ sneakers at about two years of age; after scanning the shelves he selected the pair he wanted – the bright pink sparkly pair.

It seemed like everyone in the store watched me as I reacted to his choice. How committed was I to being free of gender stereotypes?

After a few moments I said he could have them if he wanted them – but then he decided he liked some others more. They were navy, and I admit I was a little relived the decision had been made for me. While I was totally fine with him wearing pink shoes I knew others wouldn’t be, and that I would have to deal with their reactions.

It’s been interesting to see how Shiloh Pitt, Brad and Angelina’s daughter, has chosen to dress ‘like a boy’, and what society’s reaction has been. I think it’s fantastic and hope as society becomes more accepting of individual expression, we won’t have as many kids growing up feeling they have to be something they’re not.

I’m also passionate about encouraging the creative and artistic side of boys, as well as the traditional physical side. Over the years my son and I have been to lots of shows, musicals and art galleries. He learns piano and has done dance classes, we’ve made costumes, played dress-ups and put on concerts.

And in future I’ll take my daughter to soccer, drum lessons and karate if she so desires. In fact, we often joke it will be her and Daddy going to the footy while her brother and I go to see a show.

I don’t want my daughter to feel constrained by the princess tag any more than I want my son to feel he has to play footy instead of singing or dancing. I love that we’re seeing more and more examples of those stereotypes being broken down, with their role models being more varied than ever.

But still, when my kids flick through the pages of the toy catalogue it seems nothing much has changed at all. I won’t be caving on the Barbie yet, but I’m sure I will eventually. And I’ve already thought about getting my daughter a kitchen set for Christmas, proving I’m not as forward thinking as I’d like.

But there is one thing I will never buy her: a toy iron … although as she’s never seen Mummy use one, she probably wouldn’t know what it was anyway!

View our gallery of gender-neutral parenting around the world.

Do your children fit their gender stereotype? What behaviours do they display that seem ingrained in them? Would you be comfortable letting your child dress like the opposite sex? Comment on Amity's blog in the Essential Baby forum.