CHILDREN / Boys will be boys: They turn household objects into weapons of war and believe they will grow up to be the boss. Do we blame their parents or is it in their make-up? Deborah Holder on the latest findings

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The Independent Culture
WHAT happens if you show a group of adults a video of a nine-month-old child playing with a Jack-in-the-box, tell half of them the child is a boy and the other half it's a girl, then ask them to describe the child's behaviour? The result is a clear demonstration of the power of preconceptions. When the child reacts animatedly to the toy, those who believe it is a boy will describe the child's behaviour as anger; those who believe the child to be a girl will call it fear.

Few parents like the idea that they fall prey to sex-role stereotyping, yet research suggests most do. Fathers are more vulnerable than mothers, particularly where sons are concerned. Although they are only slightly more concerned than mothers about their daughters doing traditionally 'masculine' things, they are horrified by their sons doing 'feminine' things. They are also more prone to emphasise the strength of their sons and the beauty and fragility of their daughters.

None of this is lost on the children themselves. Take child's play, for example. Countless experiments have found that, under the age of one, both sexes seem content to play with whatever is at hand. Later, up to the age of five, girls show a much clearer interest in masculine toys than boys do in feminine ones. After this age, both sexes make increasingly sex-appropriate choices with the tendency even stronger in boys. Interestingly though, boys are more likely to experiment with girls' toys when they think nobody is looking.

Children clearly catch on fast, with a little help from parents and peers. They soon recognise that cultural taboos against effeminate behaviour in boys are stronger than those against masculine behaviour in girls. It's one thing to be a tomboy, quite another to be a sissy. What is surprising is that children begin to absorb the preconceptions of those around them at such a tender age. In a recent American study, most two to three-year- olds agreed with the following generalisations: girls like to play with dolls, help their mothers, talk a lot, never hit, say 'I need some help' and will grow up to be nurses or teachers; boys like to play with cars, help their dads, build things, say 'I can hit you' and will grow up to be the boss.

An English report published a few months ago echoed these results. It found 46 per cent of six- year-old girls wanted to be nurses, and 30 per cent teachers. By the age of 10, 38 per cent of girls still wanted to be teachers while the other 60 per cent had moved on to hairdressing and air hostessing.

For some parents, apparent gender stereotyping is alarming and they feel the need to counteract it. But perhaps these children are simply following their instincts. If girls are naturally inclined towards caring professions and boys towards more active and 'heroic' choices, then what right do parents or psychologists have to mess with this process? Aren't they doing so purely to satisfy their own ideologies?

Anne Moir, geneticist and co-author of Brainsex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women (Michael Joseph pounds 12.95), argues that boys and girls make different choices, from toys to careers, because they simply are different and the difference begins in the womb. She dismisses 'the vain contention that men and women are created the same' as 'a Utopian fantasy', without which 'men and women could live more happily and organise the world to better effect'.

She cites decades of research by psychologists and physiologists, supporting the theory that the difference is biological and begins as early as six weeks after conception. The only reason this is not more widely accepted, she believes, is because it is a deeply unfashionable message in these politically correct times. She personally believes it is intellectually dishonest to deny it.

According to Moir, the brain is structured and 'wired up' differently in males and females. They consequently process information differently and develop different perceptions, priorities and behaviours. It is this simple biological distinction, not social factors, that results in the gender differences we see from childhood.

One of the key ways in which the brains differ is that in women the left hemisphere, which deals with verbal skills, is dominant. In men the right hemisphere, specialising in visual, spatial and reasoning skills, predominates. This explains why men generally make better architects, map-readers and mathematicians, says Moir, while women tend to be better communicators.

The evidence of intellectual differences between the sexes has existed since testing began, but many psychologists claim these variations are now disappearing. The latest GCSE results seem to confirm this, with girls achieving only 1 per cent fewer passes than boys in science and 2 per cent fewer in maths. The figure for maths was 10 per cent in the early 1980s.

Parents often agonise over the question of nature versus nurture. Quite apart from the issue of sexism, there is something about the 'biology is destiny' determinism of Anne Moir's argument that leaves a nasty taste. Before having children, parents-to-be often lean towards the view that boys and girls start out the same. It is only social pressures, they believe, that make children slip into traditional male and female roles. By adopting a consciously non-sexist approach, they reason - the right books and toys, non-gender-specific clothes - those who wish to can counter this.

A year or sometimes only a few months down the line, however, the same people can find themselves questioning their thinking on gender. Their beloved 'blank slates', not as yet exposed to television or peer-group pressure, conform immediately to gender expectations. Boys seem more aggressive, capable of transforming the most innocuous household objects into weapons of war; girls come across as more verbal, sociable and affectionate creatures who do like dolls.

'Grace's toys were varied, her friends mixed and her books chosen to be non-sexist,' says one mother, 33-year-old Jacqueline. 'I didn't want to impose anything on her. On the contrary, I wanted to avoid the restrictions that conventional sex roles impose. But by the time she was a year old, she was seriously into dolls; as soon as she could walk, she wanted nothing more than to push the buggy at playgroup. She's less aggressive than the boys I see, and more affectionate. I see sensitive boys and aggressive girls, too - but not often.'

Jacqueline is shocked by the degree to which the huge majority of children conform to type. 'Either stereotyping begins earlier than I'd imagined,' she says, 'and is all-pervasive. Or there is some basic gender difference outside my control.'

Anna is happier to concede a basic difference that she cannot influence - even if she wanted to. Her two-and-a-half-year-old son Barnaby is currently hooked on He-Man and the cartoon character's macho, raised-fist catchphrase, 'I've got the power.' Anna has no problem with this.

'He always seemed to give out a 'boy' vibe. He liked rough-and-tumble games and play-fighting. And that was before he started watching television. I find the aggression wearing, but not worrying. Although I don't like the 'boys don't cry' type of sexism, I see his aggression as normal. If channelled correctly through play, it's not a problem. It's the way boys are.'

The views of another mother, Alison Thomas, are based on a combination of academic study and personal experience. A social psychologist at the University of East London, with a background in the study of gender identification in adults, she found herself with an unusual case study on her hands when she gave birth three years ago to twins - one girl and one boy. While she agrees that social pressures can lead many children to conform to type, she has never believed that biological gender explains differences in behaviour.

'Since having the twins I haven't changed my views. What I've realised is not that there are gender differences, but how much other people attribute differences to gender. I see many differences between Catherine and Gareth but while I ascribe these to individual differences, I find others want to see them in terms of gender. People see what they want to see. If it reinforces their world view, they're happy with it.'

Even if parents believe they can provide a relatively non-sexist environment, they will still find themselves at the mercy of childminders and playgroup leaders. A recent report by the Equal Opportunities Commission found that teachers still asked girls to hand round the biscuits at break or look after the younger children. They still used expressions like 'Big boys don't cry' and in one case even barred boys from the Wendy House.

In a letter to the Independent, playgroup leader Wendy Bishop responded: 'Anyone who has spent time in a playgroup with three- or four-year- olds knows that women's lib and equal opportunities are not in the genes. The boys hog the climbing frame, repelling the girls like defenders of a medieval castle. The girls retreat to the Wendy House, not because they like cooking-pots but because the boys leave them alone there. Many playgroup leaders are simply unable or unwilling to confront the naked aggression and chauvinism of the boys, and resign themselves to defending the rights of the girls in the Wendy House.'

Rebecca, a mother of one girl and one boy, blames parents for endorsing such stereotypical behaviour. 'My friendship with another mother of a two-year-old boy is doomed, because I feel like screaming every time I hear her tacitly condoning his aggression on the basis that he's a boy. He kicks, pushes and bullies my kids and never leaves our place without breaking something. By reacting with a weak grin and mumbling 'Boys will be boys', his mother is as good as encouraging him. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour. Gender is irrelevant. But my concern is that by bringing my own son up differently, I will make him a great human being but an outcast among his male peers.'

Children are thought to develop a sense of their own gender at around 18-24 months. It is initially a matter of observing the anatomical differences and realising that they belong to one of two categories. They then build on the concept by noting what the two sexes do, how they talk and interact. The first stage is termed 'gender identity', the second 'sexual identity'.

The many factors involved make it almost impossible to establish where biological influences end and social conditioning begins. Some bizarre but fascinating studies of gender identity have concentrated on hermaphrodites - people born with ambiguous sex organs, such as a very overdeveloped clitoris, an underdeveloped penis or conflicting internal and external organs, like a penis and ovaries. Hermaphrodites offer psychologists a rare opportunity to compare the influences of environment and hormones in determining gender identity. Most studies come out in favour of environmental factors over biology.

One study followed two genetically female infants, born with over-large clitorises because of exposure to too much androgen in the womb. Both had corrective surgery. In one case the clitoris was reduced, or 'feminised', and the child was brought up as a girl; in the other it was enlarged, and the child was raised as a boy. Each adapted and grew up in accordance with the gender label assigned to them.

Another disturbing case that supports the 'environmentalist' view of gender identity, was that of a seven-month-old boy whose penis was accidentally severed during a circumcision. His parents were finally persuaded that the best way to proceed was for the child to be transformed by surgery into a female. With the help of hormone treatment, he was raised as a girl. Within a few years he had completely assumed the female gender, despite being genetically entirely male. Although cases like these are compelling, they are too rare to form a reliable basis for theory.

Anne Moir accepts that parents treat boys and girls differently, but argues they are only responding to the innate needs of the infant which differ according to gender. She believes her view is not sexist, but emphasises the sexism of others who have consistently valued male skills above female ones, making the idea of differences negative.

'It's better,' she says, 'to exploit the complementary difference. Women should contribute their specific female gifts, rather than waste their energies in the pursuit of surrogate masculinity.' Understanding and accepting biological differences, says Moir - like the fact that the roles of mothers and fathers are not interchangeable - might make people better parents.-

(Photographs omitted)