Whether we like it or not, all grown-ups are some kind of role model to the children with whom they come into contact. We can never be certain when some throw-away thing we say or do will have a lasting impact on some little soul with a super absorbent brain.
I got to thinking about this recently with regard to gender. Gender stereotyping is very much of a hot topic at the moment, with plenty of discussion around the products available to boys and girls and the whole pink/blue, princess/car kind of imagery they are exposed to and limited by. Similarly, concerns have been raised around boys being able to express anger over and above other emotions, and girls being led to believe that their appearance is more important than their achievements.
So how do children fare who spend their crucial developmental years almost exclusively in the company of their own gender, in single sex schools? Where do they obtain exposure to the opposite archetype, and what impact does this have on the sections of our society where this is more prevalent?
I grew up in a street full of boys, went to mixed schools and had strong female and male personalities in my extended family - however the culture at the time laid down very conformist rules for women and for men.
When I look back, I can remember having my world rocked by my Aunty Val who went back to college to train to be a teacher after she’d had her third and final child - before she did it, I didn’t know it was possible. My Uncle Bob and Aunty Rita didn’t have any children, it wasn’t by choice, but I compared and contrasted their lives with those of my own family and saw that they enjoyed a level of intimacy, a frequency of holiday and an abundance of disposable income that was enviable. I know they would have swapped it all for a family of their own, but it showed me an alternative way of life. In popular culture, both Suzi Quatro and Poly Styrene opened my eyes to ways it was possible for a woman to be - both were a revelation, and I adored both of them for it.
Other youngsters yearn for relevant role models in different ways, I recently heard comedian Shazia Mirza (of Pakistani heritage) on Radio Four, recounting how her parents used to call her every time Trevor McDonald was on the television because in those days on the media, “Trevor McDonald was the closest thing there was to an Asian Woman.”
Times are changing more quickly than we can sometimes keep up with, and no, we don’t know the kind of world our children will experience in the future. All we can do is to encourage them to meet, to investigate, to read - to really see and hear - as many different kinds of people as we can expose them to. We owe it to them to give them as wide a range of possibilities as we can, to see that there are more choices available to them now than arguably at any other time in human existence.
They need to know that they will be supported as they explore who they are and who they want to be. Perhaps it doesn’t matter who they go to school with, what colour their bedroom is, or how glittery their t-shirt, as long as they are aware that there is always a viable, valid alternative - and it’s up to us to show them that is true.