It’s not likely, these days, that you’ll hear a grade-one girl proclaim that “Boys have cooties” or a seven-year-old boy agree with his buddies that “Girls smell.” Today’s kids learn early that name-calling and insults are not OK. And chances are, they’ll come to grade one from daycare and kindergarten environments that encouraged them to experiment with all kinds of play and to be friends with all people.
Does that mean that the barriers between boys and girls have fallen?
Nope. The grade-school phenomenon of boys and girls gravitating to their own sex for friendship is alive and well. Studies in the early ’90s found that a preference for playing with same-sex peers is observable by age four and, by grade three, children choose same-sex peers and playmates at a ratio of 7½ to one for girls, and 11 to one for boys.
In Valerie Pettifer’s grade-one/two classroom in Ottawa, there are 13 boys to only six girls, so the girls do sometimes play with boys. But, she says, “there is the girls’ side and the boys’ side of the circle. The girls stand together and the boys stand together. It’s like an unwritten rule.”
In the elementary years, explains Heidi Cowie, a social worker in private practice in Burlington, Ont., kids develop a more sophisticated idea of friendship. In preschool, your “friend” may be whomever is standing next to you at the water table. But now, says Cowie, “children start to choose playmates with the same interests and same sort of temperament. They mutually agree on the relationship and they start to trust that person.” And the reality is that girls and boys do tend to favour different types of play.
But it’s not all based on a logical evaluation of interests. Even though kids may have a more open-minded view of what’s appropriate for males and females, at this age their gender identity is quite stereotyped, says Cowie. So it’s not surprising that they perceive kids of the same gender to be more “like me.” Peer pressure can play a role as well: “A boy who would like to play with the girls in the playhouse might not because of what his male friends might say,” explains Cowie.
There’s nothing to worry about in all this, Cowie adds. “As long as they’re not mean to each other, let them go. They’re doing what’s normal.”
Still, it’s nice when school-aged kids can step outside of the schoolyard’s social norms. My own boys had that opportunity with their girl cousins and the two girls next door, whom they played with on weekends and through the summer. Often these encounters resulted in rich imaginative play as they worked to come up with something that engaged both camps.
But if your child passes his early school years entirely focused on friends of the same sex, just sit back and enjoy this stretch of relative calm. Ask any intermediate school teacher — he’ll be interested in girls soon enough!