Does nature or nurture govern how a child grows up, or is boyish and girlish behaviour just part of our DNA?
Not too long ago it was reported that a child had been stopped from playing with an imaginary gun at nursery school. The four-year-old had been running around the playground ‘shooting’ pals with their finger.
Whether or not you agree with the nursery or daycare for taking such an action there is one thing we can be pretty certain of. The child in the story is most likely to have been a little boy. It would be very surprising if anyone reading this had pictured a little girl. Of course, children don't necessarily fit the stereotype of what is perceived as male or female behaviour, so there is no reason why this shouldn't have been a girl.
But most little boys do want to run around playing action games, so should we try to curb their natural tendencies for rough play, or is the way they play totally guided by us in the first place? In the first five years of a child’s life there are virtually no differences in growth rates and physique of boys and girls. They have the same complement of bone, muscles and nerves and on average they are almost the same in weight and height.
However, there are some interesting early differences between the sexes. For example, on short runs five-year-old girls are faster than five-year-old boys. Boys are better at throwing and catching and seem to have more strength. Girls are better at games that involve judgement and precision.
In every playgroup across the land groups of boys will be seen running about, playing rough and tumble games, playing noisily with cars, trains or large scale layouts. In general girls will more likely be found arranging the Wendy House, reading books, doing jigsaws and helping the teacher.
But this boyish behaviour is also seen in young babies. You may notice that baby boys, when offered a choice of several toys, will often go for the car, digger or football while ignoring the teddy bear, doll and cooking set. And even at a very young age they find mechanical images more appealing.
The question of sex differences is a very controversial one. And every family has to decide how they want to bring up their children. There is a school of thought that girls are more likely to become scientists if they are given the opportunity to play with numbers or building toys but that doesn’t mean you should deprive your little daughter of a much loved doll or deny her the opportunity of helping you in the kitchen. It depends on whether she actually wants to become a scientist.
Similarly, just because many boys can throw and catch better than girls there is no reason to exclude your daughter from games of cricket or rounders. Physically your daughter is just as well equipped as your son and, with equal practice, could be just as useful a batter or bowler. The reverse is also true. If your son is very keen to become a ballet dancer, don’t hit the idea on the head because you think it’s not the sort of thing he should be interested in.
Some parents allow boys much more physical freedom than girls, allowing them to run, climb, play fight, ride bikes and play ball games while girls are discouraged from being 'tomboys' and steered towards safe, more ladylike pastimes like handicrafts. There are absolutely no physical reasons for doing this. It is important to let both boys and girls join in all the physical activities they are capable of.
Sons should be encouraged to take care of other people, be gentle with babies, learn the basics of cookery, or they could be missing out on life skills they need as adults. Girls who aren’t given the chance to ride a bike or climb trees are missing the chance to be adventurous.
Playing at dressing up is another area that is open to stereotyping. There is no reason why young children should wear gender appropriate clothes when they using their imaginations to create a pretend role for themselves. For example, a girl may see herself as a cowboy or a boy may want play at being a Disney princess – the important thing is to encourage them to use their imagination freely.
Children should be given the opportunities to do all the activities they might be capable of so they can work out what they enjoy doing, what they are good at and what kind of person they are going to develop into.