We must let boys explore their feminine side

Since I gave birth, I have been struck by the belief people have in the innate differences between girls and boys
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A number of British families are currently trotting off to Belgium in order to secure the services of a clinic where they can select the sex of their future offspring. The desire to choose the sex of one's child is nothing new. In the past, all sorts of treatments were advised, from special diets to intercourse at particular stages in a woman's cycle. The difference these days is that the procedures are effective, and if they are prepared to pay, couples can be pretty sure of getting a child of their preferred sex.

A number of British families are currently trotting off to Belgium in order to secure the services of a clinic where they can select the sex of their future offspring. The desire to choose the sex of one's child is nothing new. In the past, all sorts of treatments were advised, from special diets to intercourse at particular stages in a woman's cycle. The difference these days is that the procedures are effective, and if they are prepared to pay, couples can be pretty sure of getting a child of their preferred sex.

Some couples have their sperm sorted into those carrying X and Y chromosomes, and they use the set they prefer; others go further and use in vitro fertilisation, so that they can pick out embryos of the desired sex. Although selecting embryos by sex for non-medical reasons is not legal in the UK, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is about to begin a nationwide consultation on whether sex selection procedures should be made available over here.

It may seem puzzling why anyone would choose to use an expensive and complicated medical procedure to choose the sex of their child. We no longer, thank God, live in a culture in which giving birth to a boy is necessary to bring status and wealth to a family. On the contrary, one fertility specialist who offers the techniques in the United States has said that couples have requested more girls than boys over the years.

Indeed, it is notable that the parents from the UK who have gone public about their desire to choose the sex of their next child tend to speak about their desire "to balance their family" by having a daughter after one or more sons. It seems perfectly possible that if sex selection became acceptable in the UK, it would be the female babies who would be preferred. Girls, as one journalist put it earlier this week, are the new boys.

Although only a tiny handful of families would ever think of resorting to a sex selection service, this debate emphasises how many people see little girls and boys as being quite different, not because of nurture, but by nature. One parent, Nicola Chenery, talked earlier this week to a newspaper about why she has decided to use the sex selection service. She wants to try for a girl after having four boys, saying that she wanted "the close togetherness of a mother-daughter relationship. It's not the same with boys".

Ms Chenery may be unusual in her desire to pick out the sex of her child ahead of time. However, she is not at all unusual in having strongly held ideas about the kind of people that her children will be, and the kind of relationship she can have with them, based simply on their sex.

A friend of mine who has recently given birth to her second child, a boy, has been knocked backwards by the strength of opinion on the character that she has brought into the world. Every time she mentions that he feeds a lot, or that he needs to be held a lot, or that he won't sleep at night – things that were also true of her daughter – the reaction is immediate. Friends say: "Hey, that's a boy for you."

"I get that reaction every day," she told me. "If your baby boy is challenging, it's because he's a boy. He's one month old and everyone thinks they know exactly what a problem he is going to be, just because he is a he."

Since I gave birth to my daughter two years ago, I have been struck by the strength of the belief that people have in the innate differences between girls and boys. The feminist idea that children's behaviour is not heavily gendered until social pressure kicks in seems, in this generation, to have become utterly discredited. The popularity of theories of evolutionary psychology has made it respectable again, all the way from academy to playground, to believe that it is nature rather than nurture that puts dolls in girls' hands and mud on boys' clothes.

So in these precious years of early childhood, when they should be so free, I watch my daughter and her friends being marked with blue and pink labels. Take the small example of children's toys. Where I live, the parks are full of children with wheeled toys. Both girls and boys have tricycles and plastic cars, but there are also dozens of toy pushchairs in the parks, with dolls nestling inside them. These pushchairs belong to the girls.

The first time my daughter took her toy pushchair to the park, she had never been so popular. Everywhere she went, she had one or two little boys following her, desperate to push her pushchair or pick her doll up. At last I said to the mother of one of the boys who couldn't leave her doll and pushchair alone. "Does he have his own doll?" She looked at me as if I was crazy. "Oh no, there's no point. He doesn't like dolls," she said. "He's not interested." You could have fooled me, I thought, watching him clinging to my daughter's pushchair and stopping from time to time to pat the doll in it.

But that little boy won't be given a doll and a pram to push it around. This mother, like so many others, didn't really think that she was directing her son's play – she genuinely believed he didn't like dolls, however enthusiastically he played with them when he got the chance.

I can see that if you believe that boys won't ever want to play with dolls, or show a nurturing side; if you believe that they won't ever want to dress up; if you believe that they would always prefer to be out and about than reading – that then you might feel that your family is unbalanced if you only have children of one sex. But as I watch my child and her friends in parks and homes and playgroups, I can see that, although we now put those behavioural differences down to nature, we are still leaning very hard on our children to make sure that nature grows only in ways that we find acceptable.

In talking about the sex stereotyping that we visit on our children, I realise that I am in danger of sounding like the grossest stereotype of a feminist myself – the sort who denies her daughters Barbie dolls and makes her son go to ballet lessons, whatever they want for themselves. Obviously that would be absurd. I want children to have more freedom, not less.

But while it has become easier for parents of girls to encourage them in all sorts of different behaviour, both aggressive and amenable, both nurturing and independent, it is much, much harder for parents of boys to do likewise.

This is understandable. Feminine behaviour in boys is still rather disliked, while masculine behaviour in girls is praised. And most of us believe that if our children are to be happy, they will have to be accepted by their peers. Some parents are frank about why they don't buy their sons certain toys or let them wear certain clothes. "In the end, it's just about what other children are doing," one said to me yesterday. "I don't want him to be teased. When I see a little boy who has longish hair or cuddles dolls or goes to ballet, I just think, he will be ripped to shreds in the playground, and I don't want that for my son."

Although it is understandable, it strikes me as sad that people are losing faith in the idea that individuals should challenge stereotypes if they don't fit them. It's tragic for society, which would reach greater equality and stability if men could be allowed to take up traditional feminine traits. And it's also miserable for our children, if we insist on seeing them as boys and girls first, and individuals second.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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