Is gender about what children ‘are’ or about what they ‘do’

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Upon looking into the argument as to how gender is ‘given’ to children or whether it is about what they pick up from society, it is firstly important to understand the difference between sex and gender. I will firstly begin by addressing this question and then will be looking into it in more detail, looking into how a scientific approach interprets this question and how a social constructionist would approach it. It is important to understand gender as being different from sex. Gender comprises the differences between men and women.

Sex refers solely to the physical and biological differences that distinguish male from female. In biological terms the male gender is defined by the presence of XY- chromosomes, the female gender is made up of XX chromosomes. The World Health Organisation interprets ‘Gender’ as “… the socially constructed roles, behaviour, activities and attributes that a particular society considers appropriate for men and women. The distinct roles and behaviour may give rise to gender inequalities, i. e. differences between men and women that systematically favour one group.

In turn, such inequalities can lead to inequities between men and women in both health status and access to health care”. (http://www. who. int/topics/gender/en/) Over recent times, within the last 30 years or so, there has become a difference in how we can interpret human males and females, this can now be done under the classification of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’. The sex differences can be referred to as the feelings that as child is born with, this is often referred to as the child’s nature. It is common nowadays to hear a parent saying “it’s in my child’s nature”, meaning that they were born a certain way.

The opposite of this therefore, is gender. This is the experiences that a child goes through in their lives, such as their upbringing and is known as the child’s nurture. It is possible to nurture a child, for example, with their self esteem. There can be a mixture of the two in a child’s life and the influences of both could still shape how the child grows. The scientific approach views a child’s sex as the foundation upon which the gender of a child is built, it suggests that nurture takes precedence over nature.

However, social constructionists take the opposite view to this, in that they believe that gender and sex is a product of humans making this meaning. They are of the view that gender produces sex and not the other way around. If there were no gender then childhood would be very different, there would be no influences in how a person would be treated or how they should act. If there were no key role models for children to look up to and learn from, no identifiers such as hairstyles or clothes then a child growing up would have a different outlook on gender and sex.

Gender determines how adults raise their children and it also determines how parents teach their children. For example, if there was no gender, parents may not give girls dolls to play with or boys tanks and guns; and yet, society dictates this are toys associated with male and female gender. There are physical and psychological differences that arise in this issue too. The physical differentiation in children is caused by the biological processes that take place in the human body.

The hormones that human beings are made up of, this being that boys have predominantly androgens and girls oestrogens, although both sexes have each of the hormones one type rules over the other. Around the time of adolescence, usually considered to be around 10 to 14 years of age, these hormones change the appearance of girls and boys. The psychological differences that occur can be seen when comparing how females and males score against each other in tests. The Cerebral cortex of the brain is divided into two halves, the left and the right. The left of the brain being used for language skills and the right for spatial skills.

In tests, females scored higher in language activity tests and males in mathematical problem solving; this could therefore be summed up as males using the right side of their brain more and female vice versa. However, it has been noted as recently as 1999 that changes in our society are occurring, with the assumption that males and females are better in separate areas of problem solving and language being challenged. This could be viewed that social and cultural factors play a large part in how education affects gender. The environment in which a child grows up in can help them acquire their gender.

Television programmes and toys that children play with all have a part in determining a child’s gender; boys would more often then not be encouraged to play with other boys and girls with girls. In a society where imitation of an adult can occur, boys will more often follow male role models, such as a Father or an Uncle whereas girls will copy the female role model, being a Mother or Aunt. Boys are often encouraged to play football with the Father’s taking them to training or just kicking a ball around on a field, where girls can be taught domestic skills such as cooking or taken to dance classes.

Although boys and girls are much freer to partake in any activity they wish to, due to a lot of changes in society, many activities are highly gender related and should a boy wish to take dance lessons, he can still be thought of as being a ‘sissy’. In the video clip ‘Children’s bedrooms’, it becomes apparent that even a child’s bedroom can become gender orientated. The girl in the clip talked about her pink bedroom as having pictures of angels and roses, filled with dolls. Dolls with which she could brush and arrange the hair on. Whereas in her brother’s bedroom, it was a dark colour, very blue.

Filled with influences from movies such as Indiana Jones and action heros. It was a room in which he could dress up and role play being a hero himself, however, in his sister’s bedroom she explained her room was someone she could get in touch with her emotions and feelings and write them down. These things being what society would consider very gender orientated, with boys playing at rough and tumble and girls playing with dolls. Looking back to the theories that Piaget and Kohlberg recognised about children’s development, it is clear that children can be actively involved in making sense of their own gender within their social world.

A very young child can take a view on what sex they are and what would be expected of them, what would be gender appropriate behaviour, however, this would come from role models displaying the behaviour they should be using for themselves. From the evidence on the video clips on ‘being a girl’ many of the girls has the same feelings about their gender. They explained that they liked dressing girly and going shopping, even sharing or swapping clothes with their friends because that is what is expected of them.

However, in Bangladesh girls are seen as being expected to marry at a very young age, they have to fetch water and cook for the males. Girls here have much less freedom than males and where the males can choose whether or not to marry, a girl must do so. If she marries and then chooses she no longer wishes to be so, then the two families involved become involved in a court battle over the marriage. For a male, gender takes the form of masculinity. This can be displayed in the clothes her wears or the music he decides to listen to.

In a workplace, there are roles which are gender orientated towards a masculine role and men would be expected to take these; although females are now challenging this. Challenges to the masculine role are often heard in the term ‘big boys don’t cry’. Many a time on a school playground can this phrase be heard said to young males and yet, there is nothing more meaningful to a woman than a man in touch with his emotions. Looking more at the social constructionist’s approach, Judith Butler argued that gender produced sex and not the other way around.

She claimed that possession of a gender was a large feature of a person’s identity. She went on to claim that the films people watch or the books they read are all set by gender. Society has, therefore, created a gendered world in which we live and without it, gender would be unimportant. In this way, people have no choice over how or if they want to be gendered, as society groups people in this way anyway. Another social constructionist approach to this question is to deconstruct the differences between boys and girls.

In doing this, clear differences between the two occur and thus stereotypes the nature of boys and girls. These stereotypes can be viewed in poorer countries, where the level of educated boys and girls differs; this is because girls are expected to become wives and mothers and therefore would have no need of an education. A child’s gender can therefore provide more or less opportunities in differing parts of the world and can have a knock on effect on their own children. However, even in the United Kingdom today, a female can be better educated than a male and still not have the earning capacity that a male will have.

Statistics from the year 2000 show that women working full or part time are still discriminated against when it comes to salary, even with many more females taking on many roles that were traditional thought of as male, with full time working males earning upwards of £150 a week more than women. (data pg 209, Understanding Childhood). This gender discrimination is slowly being worked out of the system but at a very slow rate and because it is so embedded it will take many, may years to be fully removed and for equal pay rights to be fully established.

In conclusion, when taking the theoretical positions of the scientific and social constructionist approaches into account, it is clear for me to understand that sex and gender are separate issues when defining whether a child chooses who they are or what they do. Whilst there are clear and obvious sexual differences between males and females the gender differences are created through nurture and yet nature also dictates what a male or female should ‘do’.

Key male and female role models display the behaviour that is expects in their ‘roles’ and these can be passed on through generations. Although these can and are adjusted by he children themselves, there can still remain a strong link to male and female role models as examples of who they should be. Society tells us what is expected of a person, it outlines who and what their gender involves; Western societies being more open to change than those in other cultures. Society therefore, gives more meaning to how children’s gender is about what they do more so than what they are.

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