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Boys and Girls

I’m sure you’re aware of all the continuing discussion around children and gender stereotyping, in the papers, on television and also within social media. Some time ago, I posted this quote on the 'How to Speak Child' Facebook page and it prompted a slew of comments, mostly expressing frustration at how engrained in common language those stereotypes can be.

Both men and women said they hated phrases such as, “Man up!”, “Throw like a girl”, “Boys don’t cry”, and “You punch like a girl”. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, famously rails against the use of the word ‘Bossy’. When she asks attendees to her workshops and presentations whether or not they have been described as ‘Bossy’ in the past, she says few if any men raise their hands, but almost every woman in the room does. No wonder so few women rise to positions as senior as Sandberg enjoys, if the implication of behaving like a boss is viewed as negative from children's earliest days.

When you stop and think about it, it’s unbelievable that this language use is still so widespread. We’ve just about managed to shift behaviour so that it is now viewed as unacceptable for workmen to whistle at passing women, or for men to refer to women as ‘birds’, and yet we are much less vigilant about the language of the playground that helps to enforce these ideas in the first place.

Where does it come from?

I don’t think it’s some kind of innate instinct that just hatches out of children at a certain age, in fact I believe that our youngsters have pretty fluid and non-judgemental attitudes to gender to begin with.

Growing up in my street of mainly boys, at least one liked to wear female costumes and take on female roles when we played dress-up, two others had extensive collections of dolls, I was more interested in playing with my toy garage, and all of us enjoyed climbing trees and shooting each other with our fingers under the guise of 'Cowboys and Indians'. At the age of six I wrote a story entitled, “The little boy who thought she was a girl”, and my friend Tony insisted on being called Samantha for a whole week. None of any of this seemed odd to us, and I think we were a perfectly representative group of kids.

The attitudes that angered the people who commented on my post would appear to be learned. So perhaps it’s time to fight back. Maybe we need to start coining some phrases that celebrate the strengths of girls and women, and also ones that celebrate the gentler sides of boys and men that are often overlooked by the mainstream.

I’m putting the challenge out there, and am looking forward to hearing your suggestions.

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