Kids may need help to keep opposite-gender friendships alive
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.”