The path to a pigeon-holed mind may well be littered with a parent’s good intentions. No one sets out to clip their kid’s wings but we do – by showing them gender constructs that have been honed over generations. It all begins at birth. “The difference in gender and play comes right from childhood. When there’s an infant we try to segregate the toys, the colours,” explains Arfa Banu Khan, Clinical Psychologist, Aster Jubilee Medical Complex, Bur Dubai.
On October 11, International Day of the Girl Child, another gender split was in focus – a new survey found that creativity is perceived by both girls and boys as something that’s a man’s claim.
The US-based Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media released their findings in a recording played at the 2021 ‘Girls Are Ready’ Lego press conference. The survey report presented data on parents and children’s perceived creativity in Russia, Poland and Czech Republic. The Implicit Association Test found that parents encouraged their daughters to engage in activities that are performance-like or related to the dramatic arts (dancing, singing, acting and playing dress-up); artistic (cooking, knitting, crafting); and domestic (cooking, cleaning).
The boys, on the other hand, were found to be encouraged to engage in activities that involved tools and building, and were computer and tech-related.
It has been suggested in the past that due to better connections between the left and right side of the brains, girls are better at verbal creativity – for example, in language and arts. Conversely, due to a seemingly greater engagement of one side of the brain in boys generally, they may have better efficacy in science-related analysis and problem-solving.
When it came to professions that required creativity, both girls and boys tended to associate creative professions with men rather than with women. They relegated the nurturer’s roles – such as teaching and performing ones – to women.
Earlier research, published in 2015 in the Association for Psychological Science journal ‘Psychological Science’, suggests that this association is caused because of the predisposition of men and women to ascribe qualities such as risk-taking, adventurous and self-reliant – which are associated with creative thinking – to men, not women. "Our research shows that beliefs about what it takes to 'think creatively' overlap substantially with the unique content of male stereotypes, creating systematic bias in the way that men and women's creativity is evaluated," lead researcher Devon Proudfoot of the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University was quoted as saying by Science Daily.
Sadly, this demarcation begins when we are quite young.
Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant in Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatry, Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, nixes the well-worn statement that denies women are as creative as men, saying instead that the creativity is expressed and developed in different ways. “Biological and cultural factors are likely to play a role in determining differences in types of creativity, if at all. Whilst an average boy and girl may have similar degrees of creativity, some earlier studies suggest that at higher and lower ends of the spectrum of creativity, more men are represented than women. Boys and girls in general may be creative in different ways,” he explains.
He adds: “For example, it has been suggested in the past that due to better connections between the left and right side of the brains, girls are better at verbal creativity – for example, in language and arts. Conversely, due to a seemingly greater engagement of one side of the brain in boys generally, they may have better efficacy in science-related analysis and problem-solving. One has to be very cautious about applying population studies to individuals, as every child is uniquely different and distinctively creative. Moreover, there are many other recent studies that buck the above trend of thinking.”
So how do we create a generation of children who think in a gender neural way. Who behave in a gender neutral way?
The difference in gender and play comes right from childhood. When there’s an infant we try to segregate the toys, the colours.
It all begins, say the experts, at home. “What we need to do is avoid this gender bias in the play or in the perception. Right from the birth of the child, we can have things be neutral. Like, we should not limit the child to specific colours or games. If the child is willing to read books [typically popular for a different sex], or prefer certain colours that we think are for girls/boys, we should be okay and let them explore that area,” says Banu Khan.
Here are some other ways to teach your child gender neutrality.
1. Build a strong foundation: Teach your child that their choices are okay, no matter what they are. “If the child selects something and we signal it’s not okay, the child gets the vibe that this is not acceptable, he will generalise the concept that if the parents are not accepting then it’s not accepted outside as well. The foundation at home has to be very strong so that no matter wherever the child is going – whether to school or the play area, the child should be strong in his/his preferences and should not be influenced by his/her peers,” explains Dr Banu Khan.
2. Model the behaviour: Children learn through observation, so if you decide that ‘mum only does this’ and ‘dad only does that’, they will associate those behaviours with those gender roles.
3. Avoid using ‘typical boy/girl’ adjectives: There’s a predilection for adults to label boys ‘strong, brave, smart’ and girls, ‘sweet, delicate, cute’. Since children seek their parents’ approval, this type of reinforcement could not only push children into boxes, but weld those boxes shut.
4. Don’t make general statements: ‘All boys are like this’ or ‘All girls like to do that’ are also reinforcing subliminal messages.
When it comes to creativity in young people, boys are more practical and perhaps need to combine that practical element with creativity. Girls generally use more creative play in their creativity.
5. Let your child pick the toy/activity – and observe whether the child actually likes the toy or is simply doing it because he/she is expected to. If the toy chosen isn’t something you think is right for his/her gender, hold back and confront your own biases. Ask yourself why are you not all right with your son playing with Barbie or your daughter playing football, for example?
6. Combine type of play for best results: Annette Du Bois of UK-based confidence and emotions coaching Champs Academy says, “When it comes to creativity in young people, boys are more practical and perhaps need to combine that practical element with creativity. Girls generally use more creative play in their creativity. Parents can reduce stereotypical labelling by encouraging both forms of interaction and engage both elements of the creative process. An example could be gender mixed play dates and problem-solving, and teaching the child to listen and learn from each other without the need for the parent or adult to intervene too quickly.”
7. Ask why: When it comes to kids’ choices, there must be an element of analysis. Help them embrace a concept when resistance is present by asking questions. “Parents could also use an example of famous people who have pushed passed the stereotypes to achieve great things. Another good question could be ‘what happens if I try this and it helps me (insert specific outcome of desired feeling?)’,” says Du Bois.
8. Use metaphor/analogy/storytelling to teach: “Peer pressure is a constant, but parents can use it as an opportunity to teach their child about not allowing peers to influence how they feel and behave. When you allow a person in your head, you become their prisoner. Children learn more when an appropriate metaphor/story is utilised in the persuasion mix,” she adds.
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