When her son Alex* was six, Anne French* read him the Henry Huggins series by Beverly Cleary. In the books, Henry’s friend Beezus helps him out of many sticky situations, but when his friends put a No Girls Allowed sign on their clubhouse, Henry doesn’t have the guts to stick up for her. “That story generated quite a conversation,” French recalls.
Later that year, a new girl joined Alex’s grade one class. She and Alex became friends and played together in the schoolyard. That didn’t go over well with the other boys, who yelled, “Alex plays with girls!” His reply: “What’s wrong with girls?”
What happens at this age to make the girls play with girls and boys play with boys rules so strict?
Heidi Bailey, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Guelph (Ont.), explains that by age three, children are starting to pick up on cultural gender stereotypes — women like to cook, take care of babies and clean, for example, while men like to build things. Once they start school, peers often reinforce the social norms. “Many children in kindergarten take gender violations very seriously,” says Bailey.
This can feel uncomfortable for parents. Bailey explains that researchers think kids tend to follow these exaggerated stereotypes because they are trying to figure out what it means to be male or female.
Calgary parent educator Judy Arnall says that she finds kids this age realize it’s “not cool” to have opposite-sex playmates. “It’s an age when they love rules. They decide how girls should play and how boys should play, and that’s what prevails.”
It’s also an age of cliques and clubs, says Arnall, and gender is often one of the factors determining who’s in and who’s out. “Excluding people reinforces being part of the special group,” she says. Comments like “girls are stupid” or “boys stink” shouldn’t be ignored, says Arnall. “Parents need to step in or this can become bullying. Make it clear that it’s not OK to say those things or be mean. Coach your child to focus on the problem by saying something like, ‘I don’t like it when you use my iPod without asking me’ rather than ‘You are just a stupid girl!’” Arnall finds that adults sometimes sexualize relationships between boys and girls. “They will tease kids and say, ‘Oh, is that your girlfriend?’” she notes. The message to the child is that girls and boys can’t be just friends — even at age seven or eight. This message is reinforced by parents having same-sex birthday parties and sleepovers, adds Arnall.
What if your child is the exception — the boy who still happily plays with girls or vice versa? Arnall’s nine-year-old son has had a female best friend for several years. Arnall says, “Friends of both sexes enrich children’s experiences and help them understand the opposite sex in the teen years. Parents should encourage this.”
At the same time, Arnall recognizes that peer pressure can be very strong. She adds: “If children need to distance themselves from the opposite sex in public, that’s OK, as long as it’s not hurtful. Let your child choose who she wants to play with. But take down the No Boys Allowed signs from the tree fort.”
* Names changed by request