I read an article recently in a London Newspaper that reviewed a TV program titled “The Secret Life of Five Year Olds.” I am writing this article as a precautionary measure because some of what we read in today’s newspapers reflects an entertaining but superficial view of child development. In this particular article, the headline focuses on gender differences and at what age they are “fixed.” The teaser is that adult behavior in the boardroom really begins in nursery school.
Furthermore, the writer asserts that gender options should remain open for every child because biological differences between males and females are “modest.” The picture accompanying the story shows a little girl applying bright red lipstick to the lips of a five-year-old boy, who is wearing fluffy, feminine clothing. The picture is cute, no doubt, but is it necessary, and where is all of this going? The article’s final paragraph states: “It’s the old adage. You can’t be what you can’t see. Luckily, thanks to this compelling TV program, what our five-year-olds are seeing has become all too painfully clear.” Anna Maxted, Family and Features, The Daily Telegraph, Feb. 2, 2017.
So is there something painful about what these kids are seeing? Somehow, I missed that, unless they mean boys acting like boys and girls acting like girls (Careful, we mustn’t let stereotypes rule us!).
What the article really reveals is that gender differences at age five are pretty much what parents have always experienced in the majority of their kids. As with any generalization, there are always exceptions, but the TV show reports the following observations:
•The boys’ football (soccer) team loses a penalty shootout and the captain declares he is changing his team’s name to “suckers” and then begins to sulk and blame his mates.
•When left to their own devices, boys the trash the studio while the girls are more competent and compliant. Extra tasks need to be added to keep the girls busy.
•Boys are also blunt in their opinions and referred to a drink made by their teacher as disgusting, while the girls tactfully indicate it is good but admit they don’t like certain flavors.
•And what about so-called “gender fluidity?” When these five-year-old TV “actors” are asked to cross-dress, the boys are horrified. This is what the professionals interviewed for the article call “gender boundary maintenance.” Most parents have other, less fancy names for this.
The writer of this article finally seeks professional input. In response, a psychologist states that our personalities are not fixed but are rather like plastic (referring here to the brain, I think), and it takes until the mid-20s to really complete maturity (of the brain).
So, does boardroom behavior really begin in nursery school? I think the answer is no. Boardroom behavior begins at conception, with powerful genetic influences, and is affected strongly, even in the first 12 months of life, as pointed out in neuropsychological research from the University of South Florida, reported in an earlier paper. After that, future behavior is influenced all through early life, with solidification in the early 20s, but plenty of opportunities for changes in behavior, even after that
What’s the point of trying to show that gender differences are modest when they really aren’t? Unfortunately, what isn’t raised in this article is what we might lose if we do not have a firm gender identity. Is it good not to feel comfortable with one’s own identity? What about a father as a role model for his son, or a daughter accepting her mother as a role model? And, truth be told, genders differ in so many ways that it would require an encyclopedic listing to cover even a small percentage of those differences.
Why then do we see continuing journalistic efforts to soften gender differences? Is this a response to the highly publicized but tiny percentage of people who express trans-gender feelings? Or does the attempt to show that boys and girls are the same go much deeper and reflect a longing to know where we came from, how our personalities develop, and where we are headed as humans?
Before we go too far, we had better question the ethics of exposing a general population of children to this type of exploratory research on gender identity. I think most research granting agencies would have concern about enticing kids to forego their biological sex-role predisposition in order to study what happens in their lives over the following 25 years. What are the unknown and negative effects of experimenting with kids’ sexual identity?
One of the basic problems with this push for answers is that psychological research can go only so far in solving the question of who we are and how we got here. As with any science, psychology is better at answering the “whats” and less adept at answering the “whys.” Since we humans are far too complex to be broken down into small pieces and analyzed like the parts of a computer, perhaps common sense, philosophy, and accumulated wisdom still have a place in offering us a deeper understanding of our role in this world. And that includes five-year-old boys and girls, bless them.