So often in my 25 years of work at the Smart Therapy Centre I have heard parents tell me slightly different versions of the same story about their children. It goes like this: our girl and boy children were different from the start – she liked dressing up, drawing and reading whereas he just wanted to be outside playing rough and tumble with a ball – yet we raised them ‘exactly the same’.
Despite what people ‘believe’ they do, we know from decades of research that people do not raise their girls and boys the same. Far from it. Here are a few examples out of the many hundreds of differences.
From day one people handle boy babies much more roughly than girls, they encourage toddler girls to be appearance focussed, quiet, contained and helpful to others and toddler boys to be scruffy, noisy, uncontained and please themselves.
Boys are encouraged to be physical and play vigorous sport whereas girls are encouraged to be emotionally responsive (especially to others) and sport is almost always undervalued. Boys are given more freedom to act out and girls are more restricted and tightly controlled.
In fact, far from being ‘neutral’ on gender, people are so eager to know how to ‘think’ about and ‘treat’ a newborn that they ask its sex before even checking about the welfare of the mother or child following delivery.
Strangely, if these behavioural gender differences were actually ‘in-born’ we would not need to know the sex – as any ‘intrinsic’ differences would reveal themselves automatically without the need for any social intervention.
It is the very fact that these behavioural differences are not intrinsic that we are hell-bent (yet largely unaware) of our ‘socialising’ practices that are ‘absorbed’ by children in the same way language is ‘absorbed’ and we do not have to teach our children explicitly how to talk.
Yet our complex society now more than ever, demands greater gender flexibility, where we all have skills and character traits that cross the dichotomous male/female divide.
People do best in modern society when they are not restricted and forced to conform into narrow and prescribed female and male roles. These very limited gender behaviours lack subtlety and breadth and do not result in adaptive, smart people.
In fact, so many social problems could be helped and possibly rectified by changing our child-rearing practices. I often notice in my clinical work that people really struggle with life when they are either too ‘masculinized’ or too ‘feminized’.
For example, when people are too ‘masculinized’ they often want to blow things up, drink excessively, resolve differences with physical violence or need to put on women’s clothes in order to be able to cry. On the other hand, if they are too ‘feminized’ they are inclined to collapse into anxiety, become full of self-doubt, lack any serious career and lack the mental toughness to push through hard situations.
Yet, despite the gravity of these problems, we still do not even have a gender-neutral pronoun for person (such as per) rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ and we continue to say things like ‘chairman’ even though it requires more effort than simply saying ‘chair’.
If we are serious about improving many ongoing societal problems (like violence against women) then we need to raise children differently, so they have ‘androgynous’ brains, where they are encouraged to adopt the wonderful and highly functional attributes of both genders within the same brain and discouraged from adopting the less functional aspects.
Our society desperately needs children (and later adults) who are emotionally responsive, socially intelligent, aware of others, cooperative, have an inner-world and can self-reflect and self-critique, yet at the same time are independent, mentally tough, career-minded, self-respectful, can shoulder responsibility, are not appearance focussed and are physically capable. That is, a smart, all-rounder type of person.