Influences on Young Children’s Gender Identity: Observational Reflections

Bobbie: I’m Snow White.

(Bobbie has placed a cup on his head to symbolise a tiara and has draped his coat around his shoulders like a cloak)

Bobbie looks delicate, has long, blond hair and is easily mistaken for a girl. I made a mistake as I watched Bobbie and a group of boys and girls playing pirates. Thinking Bobbie was a girl, I was shocked when Terry and David, said: “He‘s always like this” “Bobbie is a girl.” “He’s a sissy.”  Bobbie‘s response to me about these comments also left me stunned: “You might think this is strange, but I like girls and I like being a girl.” These brief exchanges and the realisation that Bobbie was a boy made me question my understanding of gender. Why had the boys reacted to Bobbie as they had and why, at such an early age, was their behaviour so stereotypical and Bobbie’s not? Perhaps Terry and David were being ‘normal’.

I observed Bobbie playing on three occasions. In the first observation Bobbie was called a “girl” and a “sissy” because he said he was “Snow White” while the other boys were playing pirates. In the second, a group of five boys are using the Lego to play ‘bad’ Super Heroes. Bobbie, joining in the game, has chosen Cruella De Vil as his ‘baddie’. As a result, Ben tells him he cannot play if he is a lady. And in the third observation during a role-play activity, Bobbie has put on a nurse’s uniform and Terry points out that only girls wear dresses.

From my observations, (and this may be coincidental) the boys who challenged Bobbie were ‘macho’ boys. They showed many of the characteristic traits associated with ‘real’ boys – they were loud, pushed and shoved each other and were very active. Robbie is quite the opposite.

Unfortunately, my observations of Bobbie were restricted to the classroom. I have no insights into his home background, which might explain why he is different to the boys in his class. What is apparent from my observations is that Bobbie is prepared to defend his way of being and refuses to hide his feelings. He displays a positive view of who he is and is constructing his own social world. Despite being called a “girl” and a “sissy” by several boys he responds by declaring: “…I like girls and I like being a girl.” Equally, the following extracts from my second observation, in which Bobbie and a group of boys are playing ‘bad’ Super Heroes with the Legos, demonstrates his determination to reject the dominant culture’s conventional messages of how boys should think, act and behave.

Ben: Look Mrs Thomas (Teacher). We’re making Super Heroes and they’re bad ones – like I’ve got at home.

Bobbie: (To Mrs Thomas, showing her the house he has built) Cruella De Vil. lives here. She’s stolen all the puppies and she’s got them in the truck…I’ve got Cruella De Vil’s long black gloves at home and wig and cloak. The gloves go up my arms. My mum lets me wear them when I watch my favourite film

Ben: I’ve got Spider Man’s. Cruella De Vil’s not bad and ladies aren’t bad

Bobbie: She steals the puppies to make them into a coat

Ben: You can’t play if you’re a lady.

(Bobbie continues to play alone, talking to himself about the stolen puppies)

Bobbie was undeterred by Ben’s aggressive stance. He appeared to be comfortable with his identity and willing to show the other boys that it is acceptable to be who you want to be.

The teacher is the figure of authority within the classroom. They have the power to create and control the environment in which the children exist – for good or bad. Not surprisingly, their influence on children’s gender identities should not be underestimated. Bobbie’s school pursues a policy of equality for girls and boys. Mrs Thomas, the Reception class teacher, is aware of the way boys and girls like to play out their stereotypical roles that they frequently bring with them into the classroom. The extract below from my classroom observations – in which Bobbie is putting on a nurse’s dress – highlights the staffs’ commitment to establishing a non-sexist environment and to challenge stereotypical behaviour when it arises.

Terry: (Looking at Bobbie and talking to me) I don’t like dresses. Girls wear dresses.

Mrs Stephens: (To Terry): Boys can wear a dress if they want to. We’re all pretending to be whatever we want to be. It doesn’t matter what you wear. You don’t have to dress up. Girls and boys can be whatever they want to be – astronauts, doctors, nurses, vets, train drivers, teachers.

I set out to examine the influences on children’s gender identities, with particular reference to boys. My interest had been sparked by the stereotypical behaviour display by Terry, David and Ben towards Bobbie and his non-traditional display of masculinity. I suggest that children entering the reception class have already acquired a definite gender identity, an identity that is socially constructed and shaped by society’s established beliefs of what it means to be a boy or girl. And children are under considerable pressure to conform to those norms – even though they play a significant role in the construction of their own gender identity. Stepping out of line is not taken lightly as Bobbie has discovered. For teachers, the challenge must be to open children’s eyes to the possibilities of life outside the confines of a rigid gender identity.

Colin Turner (Primary PGCE student, Goldsmiths)


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