Children know and understand more than what we give them credit for.

Fights hairstyles cars and dolls When 25 kids spoke about genderPTI
Features Talking Gender Monday, January 16, 2017 - 17:07

When gender based violence erupts on our TV screens, as it did recently with instances of molestation in Bengaluru, we react in shock. What does it say about a society where such acts have become routine? The shell of silence surrounding sexual violence needs to be shattered. As a first step towards a more honest conversation, we bring you “Talking Gender”, a series of articles on the fundamental problems of the collective mindset on gender.

Sex, gender and sexuality are difficult topics to speak about and understand (or so many think). How do you explain to children that their genitals may one day make babies or that the way their favourite hero who's pursuing his love interest in a film is actually indulging in sexual harassment?

So, you don’t speak about these things, thinking that kids will learn when they grow up, and that all of this is too complex for their young minds. But when we spoke to 25 children, between the ages of 5 and 16, we could safely deduce that kids deserve more credit than we give them.

For instance, ask a child as young as five what it means to be a boy, and he will tell you that he can run faster and fight better. Ask a girl the same question, and she’ll tell you that she is more sensitive, loves dressing up and wearing her long hair in different hairstyles.

Normal? Or conforming to stereotypes already?

Probe a little more and you'll find that the girls will also tell you that their parents don’t allow them or their sisters to go out sometimes because of “safety” concerns. And boys will also tell you that they don’t like playing rough all the time or being expected to run errands because their sisters cannot go out after sunset. The makings of what is considered important and appropriate for which gender are already in place.

Children are conditioned into playing out gender roles and norms from very early on, and it’s not from explicit instruction, but because of what they observe and understand from the world around them. 

The lack of conversation beyond the binaries of “male” and “female” reinforces what they see, compelling them to identify themselves within those molds. And it confuses them to see behaviours outside of these boxes. 

The 25 children we spoke to come from across Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Thrissur. We asked them two questions:

1. What is the best and the worst part about being a boy/girl?

2. Do you think boys and girls are different? If yes, how? If no, why not?

And while some of the answers will make you laugh, they are also equally sobering – they reveal how early the conditioning sets in, and the compelling need to speak to them about it.

Strength vs Sensitivity

Most children consider boys different, even better, because they are physically stronger. Girls meanwhile are considered more passive and also easy criers.  

Seven-year-old Aru, for instance, believes that boys are “very naughty and they don’t cry when they fall down while playing football. They can also run faster.” She adds that boys are “bullies” and that while they cheat in games, they justify it saying it’s for “fun”. Aru’s opinion is a popular one, so much so that five-year-old Aditi believes that boys are naughty by birth!

Dhanya says, “Girls are not bad like boys. They are responsible like an elder sister.” She is seven.

But five-year-old Navdeep believes he has a much bigger responsibility being a boy: “I’m a boy so if there are enemies attacking us, I can save you,” he valiantly offers.

Navdeep also says that while he is ready to fight enemies, it’s only the bad boys who fight. “And girls don’t fight because they are all good,” he concludes.

Vedanth (5) says no girl can beat him in fighting. 

And while most boys were happy being the stronger ones, six-year-old Anirudh and 12-year-old Tarun, say that the worst part about being boys is that they are rough. “For girls, the best part is they don’t beat and bite each other like boys,” says Anirudh.

10-year-old Surya says that she hates it when people assume she is a boy because of her name, because girls “would never get into silly fighting matches or pounce on each other’s lunch boxes.” Nihira, also 10, agrees that boys play “harsher and wilder” while girls are “sensitive”.

Chaitanya, who is almost seven, says girls are “calm and silent”.

15-year-old Naaz from old Hyderabad city loves being treated like a “princess” by her father, while her brother gets scolded more often.

Appearance and anatomy

It appears that what most girls like about their gender is being able to dress in beautiful clothes, wear their long hair in different dos while boys have to wear the same old pants and shirt. Most boys also believe that what differentiates them from girls, apart from strength and speed, is the clothes they wear.

But the exception to the rule is six-year-old Aadhya who hates hairstyles and disagreed that girls cannot fight boys. 

Aru too feels that the worst part about being a girl is having to dress up to go to a party, which takes a long time.

Five-year-old Mourya points out that boys don’t wear makeup and that this is what makes them different.

Meanwhile, six-year-old Shravan expresses a general dislike for earrings, something he thinks neither girls nor boys should wear. He also likes that girls are generally “sweeter” than boys, but says that he would never want to become a girl because he “loves and wants his penis”. He also says that boys and girls are “different but equal”.

When it comes to anatomy, Navdeep says that boys will grow up to become “nana” and girls will become “amma”. Five-year-old Shiv*, says that while boys have a “tap like penis”, girls have a “flattened penis”. Shiv adds that apart from anatomy and how they dress, girls and boys aren’t different.

Naaz feels that while she is thankful to god for making her a girl, she hates having periods because of the pain. “Sometimes I think being a boy is easy because you don't have to miss schools and religious occasions due to periods,” she complains. 

She adds that boys and girls are otherwise equal: “There is nothing that a boy can do and I can't. I play sports with my brother and I will grow up and become an engineer.”

Unlike Shiv’s candid description of male and female anatomy, Naveen, a class 1 student has been told by his elders to not ask too many questions about it. So, while he knows the difference, he obediently refrains from saying it.

Access and movement

Boys like cars and girls like Barbies: and along these lines appears a clear demarcation between what the children access to engage themselves.

While Dhanya says that boys don’t play with Barbies, Navdeep feels that it’s completely okay for boys to watch Barbie cartoons. Tarun says that boys generally like “action stuff” while girls like dolls. Six-year-old Tanvi has similar views: “Boys like to watch Power Rangers, but girls like movies like Frozen.”

In terms of movement, children notice early on how their elder sisters are not allowed to dress a certain way or go out after a certain time.

Nihira (10) says that the worst part about being a girl is not being allowed to go to shops because her parents are concerned for her.

Chaithanya, a class 9 student, says that while girls and boys are “equal in many things”, some of his female friends have to go early after tuition. “Best thing about being a boy is I can go out any time without worrying about my safety. But my (female) cousin is told to be back home by 7.30 pm. But then, mom sends me out for silly things like buying groceries and paying bills because I have scooter and can go out anytime,” he says.

Anjali, a class 4 student, says that she has been told to be careful about her school uniform when she plays. She explains that her elder sister studies in an all-girls college because their parents wanted her to and that unlike Anjali, her sister is not allowed to wear jeans. “She is not allowed because she is older. She has to wear salwar to college,” Anjali says.

(Inputs from Sowmya Rajendran, Megha Varier and Aditi Mallick)

Also read: Culture of entitlement: If boys will be boys, there's not much hope for the girls

The Good Girl’s Dress Code: How schools police girls’ bodies in the name of modesty

Sexuality education doesn't mean teaching your kids to have sex: Here's why it's important

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