I was inspired to write this article after a conversation with one of my closest friends. She informed me about a documentary she had seen about “being Gender Neutral” that was entitled “No more Boys and Girls”. Upon hearing this title I wondered whether it was going to be about “aborting” the terms, “girls”, “boys”, “Mr” and “Mrs” etc. from the English language altogether. There has been talk about that here in England and personally I disagree. So I was delighted when my friend informed me that the documentary was in fact about “subconscious things that parents, teachers and anyone working with children/ teenagers – all do that unconsciously causes a division in the “sexes” and create huge disadvantages in different ways for both girls and boys”. Before I continue I feel it’s important to put forward why I don’t think we should completely “abort the terms “boy”, “girl” etc.
The reason for this is because I believe it would cause mass confusion. There is a lot of evidence showing how women and men think differently, as well as look different. In his programme “Natural and Lasting Attraction” relationship Expert Christian Carter puts forward how in helping women create better relationships with men it became really clear to him that men and women think “so radically differently”. Having made similar observations myself, I agree with his very well considered point of view. Taking this into due consideration I believe we shouldn’t allow the “pendulum to swing too far” either way; that is to either go completely genderless, or totally separate. Think about it; what is the first question anyone asks someone who’s just had a baby? – Is it a girl, or boy? Also, when they begin to become more aware of physical differences they will subconsciously know there is a difference and it will be confusing if that’s not “recognised”. Plus, when studying subjects such as biology and learning that animals and even parts of a plant can be female, or male they will naturally be confused as to why it not used for them too. Being male or female is deeply embodied in our identity and changing this would create mass identity confusion and cause a lot of unnecessary upset. There’s always more than one path to any destination – so other solutions for any issue can be found.
Well after a deep conversation with my dear friend about the documentaries, (two in the series) – and she’s a Lecturer so it was very deep (!) – I was hooked on the topic and just had to see the documentaries myself. In the evenings over the course of a week whilst doing some food preparation I watched both documentaries on BBC iPlayer. I was absolutely fascinated and felt that I just had to share what I learnt and how I believe that it translates to the success of the whole “Family Team”.
The Source of Inspiration!
The documentaries are presented by Doctor Javid Abdelmeneim – I will refer to him as Dr Javid – who had become concerned about the differences in achievements he was noticing in boys and girls. What concerned him the most about his observations was how girls in general seemed to underestimate themselves whilst boys on the whole overestimated themselves. His study and knowledge of child physiology demonstrates how until a child hits puberty that boys and girls of the same height and build are of equal strength. So why do girls seem to feel boys are so much stronger? The whole documentary is an experiment led by Dr Javid with one class of seven years olds for a term in a Primary School on the Ilse of Weight. He used the parallel class as a control and his aim was to see if a few simple changes to expand both girls and boys visions of what they are both capable of achieving would make a difference and improve their self-image.
How stable an individual is and how well balanced their self-esteem is as an adult is centred on the self-image that they create as a child. Please note here that because childhood is very much a learning process and children literally come from nothing they have no preconceived ideas about anything, thus their self-image is largely dictated by how others around them, especially the key adults in their life, treat them. The important factor here is that even some adults still find it difficult not to allow the opinion of others to influence how they see themselves; so for a child it is vitally important that the key adults around them help them to build a really positive self-image. As someone who had a self-image that was through the floor as a child and teenager this area of development is very close to my heart. Through sheer determination I dramatically improved my self-imaged thus turned my self-esteem around. I really don’t want anyone else to severely lack the confidence that I initially lacked as a result of a poor self-image.
Dr Javid began the experiment by informing the children that over the course of the term he was going to make some changes to see whether it would help them do things better and he gave them a simple questionnaire to find out their existing ideas about what they perceived it means to be a “boys” or “girls”. He was shocked to find that girls significantly under-estimated their intelligence and had less self-esteem and self-confidence and their description of themselves was centred around looks. Whereas boys tended to over-estimate themselves and seemed unable to express their emotions except for anger, which Dr Javid described as disturbing. They also both had very fixed ideas about the types of jobs that “men and women do. When ask which gender was better all the children bar one girl (hooray for her!) said boys. – I definitely agree with Dr Javid that this is very alarming.
The Headmistress also noticed the parallels and differences in the attitudes of the boys and girls. Sadly the girls didn’t seem to think they were as capable as the boys. Yet they both seemed to agree on men and women’s “roles” in adult life. Men were the protectors and main money earner and women looked after the children and home. Education that sets children up for life should mean both can do either role just as well and therefore choose what they prefer.
It’s important to note here that although the children seemed to have very fixed ideas they are not so fixed that they cannot be changed. As Professor Gina Rippon, who was featured on the documentary and is a Leading Expert in Cognitive Neuro-Imaging, put forward; “structurally there is very little difference between the brains of girls and boys”. She describes the brain as very plastic, mouldable/ changeable, so something isn’t necessarily fixed and invariant. A person’s brain development is very connected to the society in that they live, plus their experiences and upbringing. Western Culture often subconsciously differentiates a lot between boys and girls; ideas about what it means and how they should look/ behave etc. It’s their experiences and nurture that have taught girls and boys different skills and mental attitudes. You only have to watch a period drama to see this and how it has changed over the years –So differences are not set in stone!
To give an example of this; my dear friend mentioned that her niece and nephew had an opportunity to see the inside of an aeroplane on a guided tour by a pilot. He told them about how the aeroplane worked and her nephew (NB the older child) put forward that when he grew up he wanted to be a pilot. With no obvious source of influence her niece then piped up; “Yes and I can be the hostess and look after the passengers”! (NB words to that effect) Their mother gently put forward that she was sure her daughter could aim higher than that! As my dear friend said; “We didn’t realise until watching this documentary how much what we do effects how they see themselves. It was quite alarming to hear this from my niece who’s only three and a half! – She must have somehow subconsciously received this message; it’s quite alarming!” Children definitely pick up very strongly either subconsciously, or unconscious on the “hidden messages” in the things we say and do. I remember very consciously picking up one these messages and my second book, that will be more detailed, will go in to this a lot more.
The Beginning of Change:
Dr Javid wanted to begin by changing boys and girls images of both themselves and each other. Changing the way you think and perceive something is the key to changing attitudes and behaviours. So the very first thing he did was to put messages round the classroom with simple statements on them that read; “Girls are Strong; Boys are Strong; Boys are Sensitive; Girls are Sensitive; Girls are Clever; Boys are Clever, etc.” Hence this gives both genders the same message that it is possible for girls to also be strong and boys are capable of sensitivity. J
Obviously the most important influence in the classroom is the Teacher, Mr Andre, so it’s crucially important to ensure that he is also giving the children the message that girls and boys are all equally capable. To effectively create any lasting change, as Dr Javid put forward, it is necessary to eliminate anything where girls and boys are treated differently solely based on their gender. Dr Javid quickly observed that the Mr Andre called the girls “love” a lot and the boys “mate”. To sensitively discourage this he put a simple chart on the wall and enlisted the children’s help by instructing them that every time Mr Andre used pet names the children were allowed to put a sad face by either “love”, or “mate”! – It worked very successfully!
I have to say here that I’m guilty of using “pet names” with children. My career has been centred on working with very young children from “babyhood” right up to “early primary-school age” – mainly with children from 8 months to five years. Plus, I have mainly worked with children in their home; you work more closely with children and observe a lot more when you work with them in their home. The first thing that I have observed is children seem to subconsciously “grow closer” to, and feel more “cared for” by an adult who uses “pet names”. This makes sense because it’s an affectionate means of addressing someone. In my defence (ha!), I do call both boys and girls “Honey, Sweetie, Lovely”; I don’t use Mate at all!” I actually call my friends “Honey” too; however here I do differentiate and don’t give any males friends a pet name at all!! – Sorry about that!! Very interestingly my sister will call me “Mate, or Dude” and she does this with her friends too. How we’ve both “evolved” to use different pet names for people is interesting. Her career’s been with secondary aged children and mine with mainly pre-school, may be that has something to do with it? I’d be intrigued to know what Dr Javid has to say about whether it cancels out any difference to give both boys and girls the same pet names?!
Very interestingly Dr Javid gave the children a list of jobs – teacher, fire-fighter, hairdresser, pilot etc. – and asked them to say whether they thought each job was more likely to be done by and man, or a woman. Quite shockingly the children were very certain about which types of jobs were for men and which type for women with little, or no flexibility. Obviously this is completely limiting because they are already cutting themselves off from whole professions based on their gender alone. To challenge this Dr Javid first asked the children to draw four characters; a make-up artist, a car mechanic, a magician and a dancer, and give them a name. As you may have guessed, almost without exception the children made the dancer and make-up artist a woman and the mechanic and magician a man. After this activity Dr Javid introduced the children to four people; a female car mechanic, and magician and a male dancer and make-up artist. The children were absolutely fascinated and you could see that it instantly changed their perspective about the types of jobs that men and women can do. One of the boys in particular enthusiastically informed his Mum at the end of the day how he had met a “lady car mechanic……and a male make-up artist”! What really “spoke” to me about this part was when Dr Javid put forward that this is such an easy activity for schools to do, yet they aren’t; so more children are growing up with limiting ideas about what they can achieve. This was what made me feel that I had a duty to write this article and share the message with more people. You want children to choose a profession based on what they are truly interested in; not because they feel it’s the only profession they are capable of doing. Interestingly both the dancer and the make-up artist both worked in film. So anyone struggling with the idea of being more gender neutral I would ask this; do you have limiting ideas on what a make-up artist/ dancer does?? –There are more skills to certain jobs than what some people may initially think.
The importance of Spatial Awareness in Male Dominated Jobs:
As Dr Javid put forward, it was great to start to change the children’s perceptions about what they can do; he also wanted to improve the girl’s self-confidence about what they can achieve. “The Office of National Statistics” reveals that less than 10% of engineers are women and only 20% of architects are women. One ability central to both these professions is spatial awareness, which is the ability to process numbers and shapes and have an understanding of how they “fit together” and how this will change when they are rotated or turned over. This is also important even in surgery, which is also male dominated.
For anyone not convinced of the connection between the toys a child plays with and the profession they choose in adulthood; Professor Robert Winston in his “Child of Our Time” series mentioned a study that revealed a connection between adult profession and favourite childhood toys. For example, people interviewed in the building profession put forward that their favourite toy as a child was Lego. There were other striking examples like this too! So to assess the children’s spatial awareness abilities Dr Javid decided to give the children tangram puzzles, which involves putting a set of 7-8 two dimensional shapes together to create a “given image”. The boys definitely completed this notably more quickly than the girls and Dr Javid took the results to Dr Gina Rippon to discuss possible reasons for this outcome.
Dr Rippon put forward that the difference is Not due to any structural difference in the brain. This can only mean that nurture and how children have been encouraged to play is what has created the difference. Boys who may often grow up used to playing with Lego and other toys that increase spatial awareness skills will be more practiced at thus more able. As Dr Rippon put forward; “The more practiced you are at doing something the better you become and the more you enjoy doing it”.
Girls who may be more used to playing with dolls are going to be less practiced at spatial awareness activities and thus less good at them. Dr Rippon also put forward that if this was the case, if girls were encouraged to do things like Tangram Puzzles regularly it would increase their spatial awareness skills and create a lasting difference in the brain! To find out more Dr Javid decided to conduct an experiment to see how adults would encourage infants they thought were boys and infants they thought were girls to play.
Gender Distinctions Starting in Babyhood!
A couple of infant girls were dressed as boys and vice versa and different volunteering adults who were not familiar with the child were asked to encourage play with them. Startlingly in every case when the volunteering adult thought they were playing with a boy they went for “traditionally boy toys” such as cars and robots and if they thought they were playing with a girl, the adults chose dolls, or soft toys. When they had the child’s “real gender” revealed to them they were actually shocked at their own choices of toys for the children and said they just were not aware of what they were doing until it was pointed out!
Interestingly Professor Robert Winston conducted the same experiment in an episode of “Child of our Time” and the same results were apparent; when they adult thought they were playing with a girl they chose toys such as dolls, and for boys, toys such as cars. As Dr Javid put forward “When adults keep choosing for children”, in most cases “they are going to end up there” in the direction they are being subconsciously pushed. I personally think that the fact the adults genuinely didn’t realise what they were doing until they had it pointed out to them demonstrates how unconscious this “attitude” is towards “play” with boys and girls, and for me the obvious solution is Awareness!!
An Emphasis on Educational Toys:
I think it would be interesting to note here how I, as a Montessori trained Child-Education Expert “thinks about” choosing toys for young children. Because my passion is “Child-Education with-in the Home” it’s no surprise that I have worked with families mainly with in their home (as opposed to working in a classroom). Thus, I have been in the advantageous position of choosing most of the children’s “playroom toys”. This is mainly the case when I have worked with babies and small toddlers. This is how I choose toys regardless of gender. My first question (to myself!) is; “what do I think is necessary for the child/children to be learning?” Then I ask myself; “what toys are best for teaching this?”– Obviously now having built up a career over a number of years I pretty much know after more brief periods of observation what toys an individual child needs at their particular stage of development. I will tell you now what toys and why I feel are a Must for the playroom of every 7 month – 2 year aged child:
· An Abacus. This is obviously great as you can count, most often, up to 100 on them! Believe me I have worked with two multi-lingual girls – one from 12 months and the other from 8 months – who very quickly began to enjoy watching and listening to me count up to 100, often several times in a row, on the abacus!! You can also do some elementary maths with 1.5 years+ on an abacus and it makes everything instantly visual and concrete for them! Please see my article on Mathematical Development to learn more.
· One of those wooden cubes where the child has to post through different solid shapes. The reason this is a good toy is because the child has to recognise which shape matches which space; they can also learn the names of different shapes too! I have known a child (girl!) as young as 17 months begin to master this activity and tell me the names of the shapes – she remembers most of them!!
· Simple wooden puzzles with “knobbed handles”. These are great because once again the child has to observe the shape of each piece to fit them in correctly. Plus the “knobbed handles” subconsciously encourage the child to develop the tripod pincer-grip in preparation for writing.
· Ordinary puzzles. These are best introduced at around 15-16 months and I have worked with a child who, when given the opportunity, by 2.5 years was able to complete 50-piece puzzles by himself. Children probably could learn to do more; I would encourage you to remember that at this stage of development you really want a child to develop rounded skills so they are able to “deal/cope” with all aspects of life.
· Lego. Please get what I think is known as Duplo for this stage of development. It’s what I think of as “Large Lego”! What I thought was Duplo is in fact mega blocks! – Mega blocks in my mind are too big for small hands to use efficiently. So please get what I call “Large Lego” (Duplo); it is too big to be swallowed by a young child and they can build it using their own creative imagination any way they want!
· A toy garage, plus a variety of balls. These are great, especially when the child is learning to crawl and walk. When they “zoom” the toy cars, or balls down the garage, obviously they roll away encouraging the child to want to move after them; so please don’t be too quick to retrieve them for the child otherwise they will not try and get it themselves. When the car has rolled too far a great trick is to put it just out of their reach and encourage them to stretch to retrieve it – use their muscles! Believe me; when they manage to grab-hold of it themselves the delight on their face at their own achievement is priceless.
· A wooden toy train set. Together you can play with this showing the child different ways the track can fit together and then how they can drive their trains along the track they have built. Great for when the child is learning to crawl and walk and also when they are older they can build the track themselves. I know a little girl who will choose this over dolls any day!!
· A tea-set. This is important for both genders to encourage adult role-play and social interaction. Children, even very young, will often like to “make you a cup of tea” and this encourages thoughtfulness and sensitivity for the needs of others.
· A toy push-chair, preferably one that’s more of a neutral colour. NB Best for 12 months upwards. The reason this is great for both boys and girls is because when they have just learn to walk it encourages them to want to walk more. I know a little boy who, as his Mum put it; “will walk for miles with his push-chair”!! Plus, if they have a doll/ teddy they like to put inside this will encourage a caring attitude because they’ll link it to you putting them in a push-chair to take them out. Thus it’s great for encouraging sensitivity in boys.
· Tessellation shapes. I remember having these when I was young. They encourage you to fit together different shapes to make any pattern of your choosing, (Creative). Great for 18 months onwards. Any child given tessellation shapes young will whizz through tangram puzzles at school!!
· Stacking toys; both wooden rings on a “pole” and stacking cups!! The child has to learn about size and volume here. Stacking cups can be played with in the bath and they can fit inside each other so the child has to discern the correct order. It encourages focus, hand-eye co-ordination and awareness of size and volume.
· Large threading to help develop their hand-eye-co-ordination and focus.
· Wooden (if possible) children’s musical instruments. The reason these are important is because when you sing with your little ones it gives them an opportunity to actively join in before they talk. Even when they are talking children still love playing with musical instruments. I know a child (learning three languages!) who at 16-17 months old began singing along – even though she was still learning to talk – with a lot of the nursery-rhymes I sang to her. She has the best ear for the tune of a song that I have heard in a child so young. Being musical encourages various links in the brain that are great for intellectual development so musical instruments are a must too!
· Children’s drawing pencils and paints. For the obvious encouragement of the tripod pincer-grip, plus gross/ fine motor skills, hand/eye co-ordination and focus in preparation for writing. Also, for the development of the child’s own individual creativity.
· A great selection of books. NB I would just like to put forward here that there are a few books that are great for teaching letter sounds to children; these are detailed in my Language Development article. So please see this article, or message me for further details, thank-you!
Can you see how the common thread of all these toys is that they are all educational in some way or another encouraging all-round holistic development in children? Also, importantly they should be bought for both genders; I have used these toys with both genders and the results are Amazing! Plus, where possible, I have stated that it’s best to get wooden toys. Natural materials are best, especially considering very young children are still at an oral stage of development where they put everything in their mouth. The reason for this is because it’s how they judge the shape, size and texture of each object. As young baby’s vision is still developing, it is easier for them to learn about the size/ shape/ texture of an object by putting it in their mouth. If everything is plastic this limits their learning experience. Montessori Practical Life and Sensorial activities are also great for supporting the holistic education of 2-5 year old. For more details please see my articles on The Genius of Montessori Practical Life, and on Montessori Sensorial, thank-you. So, when choosing toys for children’s birthdays and at Christmas time, etc. please endeavour to choose them for their educational value and avoid any boy/girl emphasis.
With books, I would also just like to put forward that Dr Javid mentioned that a study done in Florida State University that revealed only 31% of books had a main female heroin. Plus, books with a male hero often showed them celebrating negative characteristics such as obsessive competitiveness and aggression. This is not giving primary school-aged children with still very impressionable minds a great message.
Sadly, when asked what girls were better at than boys, one girl replied; “Being pretty and wearing dresses.” Girls are capable of so much more than just looking good and we need to give that message at home, in books, toys on television programmes/ adverts they may watch/ be exposed too etc. In the same way we need to give boys the message that violence is not the answer and there are smarter ways to get what you want – box cleaver!! This is the only way to create lasting change.
If I’m honest, I would really encourage retailers to start considering consulting child education/ development Experts about the design and marketing of children’s toys with the specific aim to give as much of an educational emphasis to all toys as possible. This would help maximise “constructive play” where children are able to subconsciously learning whilst playing, plus: it could help create a fairer, less-biased society and help support children’s holistic education in all areas of society.
The Strength Test:
In addition to changing the children’s classroom environment to create a more neutrally positive message, Dr Javid also want to improve the girl’s self-esteem because they very much still underestimated themselves. Self-esteem is vital for holistic success in life so it is crucial to change the girl’s self-image and help them see exactly what they are potentially capable of achieving. So Dr Javid devised a “Strength Test” using a “fairground high striker”. First he asked the children to estimate how well they thought they’d do and this was labelled by the class Teacher, Mr Andre. Almost all the boys said they’d score 10 (the highest score) with one boy claiming he’d break the bell! There was even some quarrelling amongst the boys as to who would score the highest. This underlines exactly how boys pick up on the subconscious messages in books and in general attitude when negative characteristics such as obsessive competitiveness are celebrated amongst male characters. The outcome is quarrelling about whose best rather than working to be better themselves. The girls on the other hand mostly estimated their scores between 3 and 6, and were happy to put themselves behind the boys. There is no muscle-mass difference in boys and girls of the same height and build at this age. Also, interestingly the children seemed to be linking strength to emotion; boys cry less therefore they are stronger. This obviously has nothing to do with physical strength; even mental strength in my mind is shown through vulnerability – not emotional suppression.
After every child had estimated their score they each received three attempts to hit the target; their results were recorded by their class Teacher. As you can imagine, a lot of the boys scored much lower than 10 and more girls scored 10 than boys. One girl was so overwhelmed by how well she did that she burst into tears. She was immediately comforted by her fellow girl classmates. Interestingly the boy who claimed he would break the bell scored “0” because he rushed his turn and missed the target. He then had a “paddy” on the lawn. An intriguing difference here is that he was given no empathy by either boy or girl classmates and just left to paddy. He was essentially throwing a tantrum as opposed to being genuinely upset and the children could all see that. Only Dr Javid and Mr Andre went to speak to him. This suggests that perhaps the girls did slightly better because they took the time to focus and didn’t rush. Another interesting factor here is it actually suggests that despite his huge over-estimation of himself, he is actually rather insecure in himself because a secure person doesn’t need to come top in everything all the time as they are comfortable with whom they are regardless. Please note that a secure individual may want to achieve more – they would work for it rather than fuss about it.
What this experiment essentially demonstrated to the children is how much the girls underestimated their actual capability and vice versa for the boys. This was a real confidence booster for the girls and an eye-opener for the boys. One boy commented; “Before I did this I thought that boys are stronger than girls because everyone just said that. Now I think that girls and boys can be strong.” “Out of the mouths of babes”; “because everyone just said that”! – Do you subconsciously give that message? Also, I think the boy who threw the paddy and received no empathy – especially in stark contrast to the overwhelmed girl receiving a flood of empathy – subconsciously began to become more sensitive. His need to be the best was thwarted by the lack of attention he received when he didn’t live-up to his own expectation; hence this I noticed began to encourage more empathy in him.
Although Dr Javid was pleased with the change the experiment bought to the children’s attitudes, he was concerned about how deeply engrained the children’s attitudes were. The girls should have more natural confidence and the boys seemed to initially delight in obsessive competitiveness that only upset them when they fell beneath their own expectation. Dr Javid thought that the only solution was to take the “case” home to the parents and convince them to support his goal.
Taking the “Case” Home to the Parents!
One very telling sign that the children often received (unwittingly) a very gender biased message at home is what they themselves said about their home life! One boy said; “Mum’s wash-up and do the dinners”. One girl put forward that her Dad “usually just lays on the sofa a snores”!! Another boy’s view of adult life was that “girls look after the child and boys go to work and do lots of cool stuff”. This may seem amusing and innocent; it demonstrates how young girls and boys are already developing an image of what adult life will be like for them. Plus, it shows how they’re receiving this message just from observations at home in addition to in books, television programmes/ adverts etc. I can’t impress upon you enough the importance it is to actively ensure your child sees you both do a variety of tasks around the home to show them that women and men are capable of most things.
You may think that this sounds difficult/ unrealistic – it is possible – you just have to be determined enough to find a way of fitting it in your life. What better motivation than for the holistic benefit of your child’s/children’s holistic education. Just too also give you a little inspiration; I’ll tell you some of the things children I’ve worked with have said about me. I have worked with children in various capacities in their home, including taking over “parental duties” whilst their parents were at work, (I have been nicknamed “Super Nanny”!!). One little boy (4 years at the time) over the period of a couple of months (NB when I first started working with him) said on three separate occasions, first; “how come you’re so cleaver?” – I had only been working with him a few weeks and he has intelligent parents – and he knows it!! About three week later he said; “how come you’re so strong?” This was after he noticed I could lift heavy objects. About a month or so after that in the warmer weather when we were at the park he said; “how come you’re so fast?”
If you notice, apart from being cleaver, the other two characteristics are both ones that may, by most people be seen a “male characteristics” – definitely by the children Dr Javid was working with. Somehow, in a couple of months through role-modelling alone I manage (with effort!) to convey these characteristics to the little boy I was working with, hence showing him that girls can be cleaver strong and fast too! Also, several girls I have worked with have exclaimed that they want to be just like me when they’re older. I know from their interests that the definitely wouldn’t choose the same profession; what they’re noticing is how I’m able to “take charge” in a situation, and am “respected” and “liked” by them and other children. So you can role-model “successful characteristics” in all types of situations including at home round the house.
To approach the matter to the parents sensitively Dr Javid started by handing them “packs” that detailed what he had been doing with the children and what he hoped to achieve. He asked for their co-operation and arranged to meet some of the parents at their home to talk further about how they needed to help in order to create lasting change. I actually feel that the parents were already open to what Dr Javid had to say as a result of the enthusiasm the children clearly demonstrated to all the changes he made. They could clearly see this and thus were intrigued to hear more.
What I noticed when Dr Javid was talking to the parents was how interested they were in what he was proposing and how they definitely saw how they unwittingly contributed to giving a gender biased impression to their children. This is a very tough thing to admit and “high five” that they did it with honesty and grace. They also put forward to Dr Javid that they felt it was a difficult task to achieve. I would definitely agree that suggesting to a parent that most of their children’s toys (the gender biased ones) are going to have to go is very difficult! Considering all the factors – the parent’s guilt, the children’s “probable unwillingness” – that’s tough. Dr Javid even gave them black bin-liners to start getting on with the task!!
Incredibly, what happened I felt was pretty amazing!! The children were so enthused by everything they had been learning at school and were obviously inspired by Dr Javid and their class teacher that they willingly gave up most of their toys!! – The only kept a few old favourites. One girl was particularly enthusiastic about getting rid of anything gender biased!!
Obviously for the children to make such “big sacrifices” (for a child – it is) with their toys, Dr Javid gave them all a gift in return. Their gifts had a twist!! A lot of the girls received Meccano and constructions kits and quite a number of the boys received a sewing kit – including the boy who was very overly competitive during the strength test and ended up scoring “0”! After having a chance to play with their new toys at home one girl was especially enthused and asked her Mum to buy some more Meccano!! She put forward; “I think it’s aimed at boys because of what the outer package looks like”! This to me clearly demonstrates that the reason she was never interested in playing with it before is because it was not presented in a way that showed it’s fun for girls too! One of my favour parts of the documentary was when the very over-competitive boy was asked how he enjoyed playing with the sewing kit!! He proudly showed the finished pieces to Dr Javid and Mr Andre and told them he did it by himself as his Mum didn’t know how to do it!!!! – Well “High Five his Mum”!!
I definitely remember having Lego, Tessellation Shapes and a Garage when I was young; they were not presented to me as boys toys, hence I enjoyed playing with them in addition to also playing with some more traditionally “girls toys”. The way toys are presented to children by both the manufacturer and the parents – “Parents,” you can make a real difference here” – does make a difference to how interested they’ll be in playing with it. Hence if it’s just presented a “fun and interesting” – because educational toys are – then children will enjoy playing with them. I can testify to that with all the children’s I’ve worked with!
The Unisex Toilet!
The only “change” that the children didn’t like so much was the unisex toilets!! Obviously if you have a son and a daughter – they both will use the same toilet at home. So Dr Javid’s reasoning was why should this change at school? The main “issues” that the children put forward were first, waiting longer to use the toilet. The boy’s didn’t like the fact that as the urinals were not in cubicles they used the ordinary toilet, hence all the queuing. The girls didn’t like the fact that they observed the boys use the toilet then go out without washing their hands afterwards! – I can empathise here as I’m pretty big on hygiene!! J
I have to say that I can empathise with both points of view here! Plus, I have a solution for Dr Javid!! The reason I believe it didn’t work is because all they could do in the time was to change the signs from “girls” and “boys” toilets to one with an image of a girl and boy to show that both genders could now use them. Whereas I feel you need to have specifically designed toilets rooms that can be used by both genders and avoid the obvious “issues”. You need to have three different “toilet-rooms” all joined by doors. One on one side for just “girls” and on the other side for just “boys” – this would have all the urinals in it. The one in the middle can be for both. On each adjoining door (both inside and out) you need to have a sign stating clearly whether the toilet is for “boys”, “girls”, or “both” so the children clearly know. This way when the boys want to use the urinals there is no embarrassment caused, and if the girls need to pass more that water they don’t have to worry about the boys being present. I’m certain that would work; curious to know what Dr Javid thinks?!
Another things I’d like to point out here also is that this was an experiment and very “in line” with how Maria Montessori approached things. You don’t know until you try and if it doesn’t work you either find a solution, or change the plan! Maria Montessori did certain things that may be considered a little “risky” now – obviously not disproportionately risky, just with a risk element! People willing to give things a shot – even if the results are uncertain, or may not turn out as expected – achieve more. – Look at what Maria Montessori achieved!
The T-Shirt Example:
I really implore that you take notice of this; it’s subtle, yet the message is clear when demonstrated. I have long held the opinion that some of the statements on children’s clothing are not “helpful” to encourage holistic success and good manners. One example I would personally give is a top a baby girl with whom I’ve worked with in a classroom setting wore. It read “High Maintenance”. The saddest part is that she was – through no fault of her own, just a result of how her parents responded to her. Most of the other staff found it amusing; myself and one, or two others didn’t. You definitely don’t want to encourage children – boy, or girl – to be high maintenance as it’s a needy, unattractive characteristic. Equally I would also say avoid “low maintenance” as that sounds like you shouldn’t have any expectations/ take care of yourself. Well, there are image related “sayings” on children’s clothing that can subtly be just as damaging. Dr Javid very cleverly pointed out a couple. He approached it cleverly with t-shirts he’d had especially designed to demonstrate the connection.
First, he demonstrated that a top reading “Forever Beautiful” for girl’s subconsciously suggests that; “Looks are Important”, “Boys are better than girls” (if they’re just about looks) thus, “Made to be Underpaid”. This is a very really issue that women all over the World are feeling right now. Hollywood has helped make this a very talked about subject in the media. Who would have thought that the different ways girls and boys are subconsciously treated during childhood could be one of the main causes?? The (permanent) solution is simple – First, think about the message you are giving your daughter/s – the subtle ones as well as the more obvious. In addition to the words you say, they are also receiving more subconscious messages, as demonstrated above, in the clothes you buy them – it doesn’t need to be written on the clothes to give a clear message; how frilly is it? How revealing is it? Plus, your body language give a clear, subtle message; this is especially relevant if you have a son and daughter as you may be unwittingly giving them different messages that are not always beneficial to their self-image. Second, ensure that whether you have a daughter/s, son/s, or both please take an educational approach to buying them toys and get a broad variety for both genders so they can both grow up feeling holistically prepared for all areas of life.
The other example Dr Javid gave was a t-shirt designed for boys that read something like “Made to be Tough” (I can’t remember the exact words). Again, Dr Javid demonstrated how that subtly gave the message; “Boys Shouldn’t Cry”, and “It’s Ok to be Angry”. Something seemingly innocent giving a very negative message when looked at it more closely. The parents, with both examples, instantly noticed the connections and felt quite alarmed. For anyone having any doubts about this it’s also worth considering that, as Dr Javid pointed out, less than 5% of the prison population are women. So are we inadvertently encouraging boys to be more likely to go to prison and girls, more likely to be underpaid? After watching the documentaries I would say “Yes”, unwittingly we are. I have definitely always had a subconscious awareness of this and the way I approach education shows that. I am grateful to Dr Javid for helping me gain a conscious realisation of this and thus be able to share it with all of you.
So I would really encourage you to consider the subconscious message that your children’s clothing is giving them. It’s not just about what’s written on their clothes, it’s about the style also. For example, I recently had a conversation with someone who put forward that children’s clothing in high street stores– especially for girls – is designed often quite openly to sexualise them. Not all children want this and parents I implore, and may even insist a little, that you shouldn’t want this either. Please, if you’re uncertain, do get in touch (details at the end) whether you’re a parent, designer, retailer etc. I can most definitely advise and help here.
The End of the Experiment:
First I will give you the results in statistics, and then I will put forward some impressive observations to demonstrate the fantastic outcome of this experiment. Ok, statistics! The girl’s self-esteem that Dr Javid had been quite concerned about had improved a great deal; initially the girl’s self-esteem was 8% lower than the boys, now there is only 0.02% difference! Plus, no girl described themselves as ugly this time either! The boy’s ability to describe all of their emotions (not just anger) had improved and their “Pro-Social” behaviour was up by 10%! Even more impressively, the boys “poor behaviour” had gone down by a whopping 57% – Well Done Boys!!!! As one boy put it; “It’s better to tell people than to strop”!! The girl’s self-motivation had gone up by 12%, and their ability to predict their scores had gone up by a massive 40% – Well Done Girls!!!! I’m sure the “Strength Test” helped here! Finally, ability to complete spatial awareness puzzles; five girls are now in the top ten (Note – a 50/50 split!) and a couple of the girls who were really struggling with tangram puzzles are now able to complete them with no assistance –bravo!! This is thanks to their class Teacher providing the opportunity to spend a bit of time each day doing tangram puzzles!
Ok, now for those impressive observations I mentioned!! To “test” how much the experiment had actually changed the children’s thinking Dr Javid and Mr Andre first took the children to the beach and gave them two tasks; the children had to decide what task to participate in. The first task was to make the picnic for everyone. The second task was to build a fire (both life skills); NB Please note that the children just collected the wood and put it together to make the fire – an adult lit it! Interestingly it was a fairly even girl/boy split with both tasks. Even more interestingly with both tasks it was a girl who seemed to “take charge”! The girl who took charge of the picnic task put forward that she knew what to do because she’d seen her Mum make lots of picnic before. The girl who took charge of building the fire was actually one of the shier girls so both Dr Javid and Mr Andre were please at the obvious improvement to her confidence. Dr Javid and Mr Andre needed to give a little bit of supervision towards the end of the tasks – especially to the “picnic team” – largely the children were on top of things!!
The second “test” that Dr Javid gave the children was to practice for a class game of football in even mixed teams. Obviously it was only since the experiment that the girls had started to join in football game more often. Before the experiment it was pretty much only boys that played football so they were obviously better, being more practiced. Initially the boys were a little unsure about doing mixed teams. I think personally that it was realising how fun it was to include everyone that changed their minds. The real test came when Dr Javid put to them whether they would like to stay in mixed teams, or revert back to a boys V girls match. The vast majority of the boys insisted that they wanted to stay in mixed teams. Most impressively it was the boy who claimed that he would “break the bell” on the strength test who put forward very thoughtfully; “Boys are better at football because they do it more. Boys verses girls wouldn’t be fair!”! This shows reasoning, plus it’s a clear demonstration of sensitivity from one of the most competitive boys – fantastic! He could recognise that the boys would win easily and not only would this not be fair, but it wouldn’t be so fun either!! The children all had a great time playing football on the beach!
To mark the end of the experiment the children did an assembly completely put together themselves to demonstrate what they had been learning throughout the term. It was lovely, they had picked up so much both directly and indirectly from the whole experience that had changed their limited way of thinking. The Headmistress was definitely keen to adopt some of the strategies that Dr Javid had put in place, plus Mr Andre was so enthused by the results that he started teaching the strategies to other Teachers!
I was very impressed with all the children by the end of the experiment. It was extremely apparent how much they had all taken “on board” both consciously and subconsciously what they had learned. NB You can recognise the subconscious learning from the more subtle detail the children picked up on. It’s why they were so willing to give up most of their toys and it’s what led to the permanent change in their attitude/perspective. It was a life-changing experience for them that I am certain will “pay them dividends” when they are older if the changes are kept in place. The whole experience had completely united the class. I was really struck by the children’s “Team Work” and eagerness to all work together. As the children put it in their assembly; “boys and girls can make a team. To help us to achieve our dreams – we work in mixed teams and not on our own”. This line in their assembly alone demonstrates first that the children recognise the value of working together and want to actively choose to do this. It also demonstrates great sensitivity from both boys and girls for each other to stick together and not leave anyone out. The children concluded their assembly with; “change your opinion on gender toys”! They clearly felt the benefits strongly and highly valued them.
As the above demonstrates the changes that were made clearly united the class. I strongly believe this could either help greatly reduce, or may even completely prevent bullying altogether! – Think about it; the children were keen to work together and not leave anyone out. They recognised the value this bought to everyone. If Teachers adopted these simple strategies with the same enthusiasm and care that both Dr Javid and Mr Andre did, it would most certainly bring about the same life-changing results that would definitely work towards a much fairer World where bullying was greatly frowned upon and thus easier to prevent. If children learn to work together and respect each other in Primary School they are far less likely to become bullies in Secondary School.
Another thing that could be dramatically reduced by this is divorce! Please just take a moment to think about it; girls and boys learning similar skills and “attitudes” and are eager to all work together – this sounds like a recipe for successful adult marriages to me!! This is supported by an article I serendipitously read in the Times magazine. It was about Chris and Kem; for anyone who doesn’t know they were “Bromance Stars” of “Celebrity Love Island”. I have a small confession to make; I don’t watch Celebrity Love Island!!!! – I just read the article and was impressed at their openness in talking about their feelings. As Kem put it; “I feel strongly about guys being open about their feelings”. Their sensitivity is what stood them out as a lot of men could relate to the fact that it’s genuinely difficult for them (men) to talk about how they feel at any given moment. Chris had apparently opened up a lot about anxiety he felt when he was 18 (now 24). Kem (aged 22) also opened up about his anxieties that were so bad he wasn’t able to complete school. As the article underlines; “Male mental health is still something of a taboo” and sadly men are “three times more likely to commit suicide than women”. As Chris puts it, “Anxiety suffocates you” and for some men it is too much. So encouraging sensitivity and openness about feelings in boys could not only help reduce suicide, it could also mean that more marriages are a success because both men and women would then be in-tune with their feelings and what they really want in a partner, rather than just going for what looks right at the time. I also feel it’s relevant to point out that this also demonstrates how a person’s vulnerabilities is what makes them attractive to other and this was clearly demonstrated with Chris and Kem’s their popularity on Celebrity Love Island!
For anyone feeling slightly sceptical I’d really like to highlight once again that the points being raised are not about saying boys and girls are the same, or taking away gender identity – No. If this was the case Dr Javid wouldn’t have written “Boys are……”, “Girls are……” on the wall – right? He didn’t ask girls to cut their hair and boys to grow theirs – No – Both boys and girls need to learn everything to ensure they both fully and holistically equipped for all aspects of life as an adult. That way they are capable of complete independence and only need to rely on themselves. When a person is able to do this, even when life gets tough; it’s comforting to know you have all the tools within you to know how to deal with it. Plus, any “help” you do have is a real “felt” luxury because you know the effort it takes to do it yourself. People who appreciate things in life are happier human-beings. Dr Javid was just showing this to the children by avoiding distinctions and showing a more united perspective on life and learning. The children’s response demonstrated that they felt girls and boys were capable of do the same things, and were actually both equally equipped as human-beings to handle all aspects of life. Real gender neutral in my mind is definitely not an abolition of gender identity, rather a celebration of both masculine and feminine qualities in both women and men.
It’s a person’s individual character and interests, regardless of whether you’re male, or female that stands someone out. The more “skills” parents and teachers equip a child with, the more choice they have to find their passion and purpose in life!! Hence Dr Javid and Mr Andre created a learning environment where both boys and girls felt capable of being able to do anything they set their mind too. This obviously includes things that are traditionally seen as either being a “man”, or “woman” task. So the reason for a gender neutral approach is to take the stigma away that some things are for boys and other things are for girls to provide an equal learning opportunity for both genders. Taking a gender neutral approach is the only way to totally eliminate any subconscious message that there are certain things they should and shouldn’t do. Thus making whatever they decide to do in adult life a totally free choice because they are making it because they have chosen a specific path – not because they feel incapable of doing anything else.
I debated with myself whether or not to include this section and decided to go for it! Dr Javid mentioned a lot about adults creating a very “pink” World for girls and a “blue” World for boys, thus making a clear distinction between the two genders. When I was discussing the documentaries with my friend I became extremely aware that I was wearing a bright pink top!!!! – It said, “Never Give Up” on it – that’s a positive message!! On a more serious note it had me thinking that I like bright, deep, pastel and dark colours and I wouldn’t want to stop wearing any of them. Therefore, the best solution is not necessarily to completely stop dressing girls in pink and boys in blue, rather to have all colours accessible and acceptable for both genders. Anyone apprehensive about dressing a boy in pink it’s worth reading this:
At the beginning of my career when I worked in a purpose-built Montessori classroom one of the boys (aged 3) had parents who felt it should be his choice how he had his hair and what he wore, etc. Hence they naturally embraced a gender neutral approach. Once he came in wearing a cerise pink (deep bright shade of pink) t-shirt; his Mum told me he had chosen it when on holiday. I was struck at how, pardon the expression, un-girlie he looked in it.
This is also a very interesting story for anyone who thinks pink “takes away” from a boy’s masculinity:
When I was a young teenager I was visiting all my cousins with my family. We did the traditional “after lunch walk” and for some reason my Dad was wearing my Auntie’s (his sister) pink coat. Being a typical teenager I commented to the cousins my age how embarrassing that was! The cousin who I always nick-named my “cool cousin” piped up; “I think your Dad’s really cool! Most men would be too self-conscious to wear a pink coat like that; look at your Dad, he doesn’t care and that’s how he gets away with it.” Something about this made sense to me and I was suddenly filled with pride as opposed to embarrassment – My Dad was officially cool!!
Masculinity and femininity both come from within – whatever you are wearing, or whatever you do does not make a difference if you feel masculine/ feminine on the inside. So embracing certain things that are traditionally seen as feminine definitely doesn’t take anything away from a truly masculine man and vice-versa.
Interestingly I noticed that throughout the documentary Dr Javid wore a charcoal-grey shirt. I challenge him to try out wearing a pink shirt and embrace a more gender-neutral wardrobe himself!!
Finally, another interesting factor that will get anyone still feeling sceptical thinking; is the parallels this has with Montessori. For any of you who don’t know, Maria Montessori was a Doctor and she took a scientific approach to children’s education. She gave children different things to “play with” and observed what they did with them. Through her observations she inevitably began to noticed what worked and what didn’t, plus what was helpful to set all children up to succeed holistically in life. The Practical Life area in Montessori isn’t just for girls – No – it’s for all children and I have to tell you I’ve worked with a lot of boys from different cultural backgrounds who love Practical Life activities such as sweeping, mopping and washing-up!! This helps them to develop good focus and co-ordination that is great preparation for sports and academic subjects. Maria Montessori made no discrimination of any kind, to her; education in all areas of life should and can be for all children regardless of gender, racial/ financial background, ability etc. – Education is for Everyone. That’s the approach I take and the children’s achievements are truly amazing.
To discuss further any of the points raised please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or message me through Instagram/ Twitter @FamilyTeamCoach, or on Facebook/ LinkedIn at Paula-Elizabeth Jordan, thank-you.