The way we treat children shapes how children think of themselves, the adults they become, and the society they perpetuate.
Seemingly out of nowhere internet interest in two early-2000s Channel 4 documentaries ‘Boys Alone’ and ‘Girls Alone’ has spiked. They charted one group of 10 boys and another of 10 girls left alone in a fully-stocked house for five days. The differences were shocking: the girls cooked, cleaned and comforted each other while the boys destroyed the house, ate only cereal and sweets and generally invited comparisons to Lord of the Flies. Twitter took this as indicative of larger societal flaws, especially female leadership, or the lack thereof, in business and beyond. For a country where in 2020 there were fewer female CEO’s than men called Peter, this remains a vital discussion.
One article particularly stood out: Bored Panda dates ‘Boys Alone’ and ‘Girls Alone’ to 2017 and discusses themes of BBC2’s ‘No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?’, apparently conflating the previous two with this newer work. ‘No More Boys and Girls’ is a documentary that explores similar topics, but rejects sensationalism in favour of scientific explanations for why boys and girls show difference.
Note that this documentary is less about gender non-conformity than exploring unconscious sexism, arguing how we treat children underpins how they view themselves and the adults they become. Such exploration is not ‘rather gentle’, however, as one reviewer suggests, but insistent and persuasive. I would argue that this documentary, devised by Dr Javid Abdelmoneim, deserves just as much renewed attention as the ’Alone’ series, through exploration of three of its key studies.
In this first study, adult volunteers were asked to play with a baby: either a male baby dressed in pink clothes and given a traditionally female name or a female baby dressed in blue and given a traditionally male name. Most shocking about this particular experiment is just how stark the difference is in how the babies were treated. The adults waste no time in giving each child what they think the child wants: which translates as construction toys, shape puzzles and robots for the ‘boys’ and dolls and soft plush toys for the ‘girls’.
Abdelmoneim also notes the way they are physically treated also differs: the volunteers tended to leave the girls where they were sat but were much more physical in picking up the ‘boys’. After being confronted with the facts, one volunteer laments: ‘we’re trying to teach children that you can be what you want to be, but yet we’re still forcing an identity on a child’. Early in the documentary’s first episode, neurobiologist Gina Rippon busts the common misconception that men and women have different brains, explaining that although they begin as structurally the same, they are extremely mouldable and subject to change from external stimuli. Thus, she explains: ‘this hungry brain arrives in the world and the world is instantly plunging it into a tsunami and pink and blue’. It is easy to see how when a child only receives the opportunity to play with a certain kind of toy, the possibilities of toys designed for other genders will never be explored.
However, the experiment with infants is not what the bulk of the documentary explores. Most centre on children at age 7, thought to be a critical age for child development: at this point, children begin to have fixed ideas on what boys and girls are, but not fixed enough they cannot be changed. Despite being so young, plenty of the children already echoed beliefs we would now call sexist. Tiffany timidly, but still assuredly, asserts: ‘Men are better at like…being in charge’, whilst Bradley explains that ‘Men are more successful because they can have more harder jobs’. In a country where men and women are supposed to be equal, to hear these ideas coming from future generations—which we might hope would be more progressive than previous ones—is deeply upsetting. In one telling experiment, the boys and girls are asked to describe and synonymise different emotional states. The girls perform much better than the boys, scoring better on every emotional state bar one: anger. This is manifested by the children during another experiment with a high striker, designed to show the children that, at their age, boys and girls of the same size have the same strength. Lexie cries happy tears at scoring doubly as high as she predicted she would and is congratulated by the other girls (in a touching moment one girl even tells Lexie she’s going to post her a well done card). Riley, after telling the group he’s going to ‘break that bell’, misses with the mallet and responds by throwing himself on the mud in frustration. When Abdelmoneim asks him what he’s feeling, why he is reacting that way, he is unable to articulate his feelings beyond ‘I don’t want to do it anymore!’. Asked ‘Aren’t you even happy that your friends did well?’, he responds simply ‘No… I always win everything’.
Conversely, where boys appear more developed is in the tangram puzzle experiment, designed to test the children’s spatial awareness, which Abdelmoneim explains from the outset are skills essential for STEM careers. The boys complete their puzzles much more quickly than the girls, some of the girls are unable to even complete them. From this, it would be easy to extrapolate the thought-terminating cliché that said skills are somehow biologically ingrained for boys.
However, if we consider what Professor Rippon’s states, that male and female brains are structurally the same, but incredibly mouldable, it raises the question of whether these boys are better simply because they have more experience. That is, their brains are moulded into their spatial awareness. All the shape puzzles, Lego, construction toys, rocking horses and robots boys are given – from the babies of the first experiment up to now have developed skills in these boys to complete their tangram puzzles quicker than the girls. Therefore, they develop the skills needed for careers in science, technology, engineering and maths, from which ‘generations after generations of little girls [are] excluded’ (Rippon).
In the second episode, Abdelmoneim instructs parents of the seven year olds to remove every ‘gendered’ item in their child’s rooms – princess dresses and pink castles are sequestered into large plastic sacs and taken away from the children. This seemed to me unnecessarily harsh, and at odds with the message I had assumed the documentary was trying to make: that both types of toys have value and only when given both do children gain the fullest set of skills.
Surely the solution would be to provide both types of toys to all children; there is nothing inherently wrong in the colour pink or princess dresses, and to dictate to girls that they cannot engage with this kind of femininity seems restrictive and indicative of a kind of misogyny that prescribes what kind of femininity is and is not acceptable. This part of the documentary did also focus more on the girls’ gendered playthings than the boys’, which felt dismissive when the overall message of the documentary is to treat children equally: tangram puzzles and dolls for all!
Regardless of this small criticism, I cannot overstate the impact this documentary had on me as a teenager. As far as I can remember I have had a fierce desire for male and female equality, that there is no reason why it should not be. This documentary gave me objective backing for that argument, whilst explaining how it is time and again undermined by unconscious sexism. I was elated to learn that the reason for skill difference and discrepancy between men and women is not biological, yet angry that it is something children continue to be taught. In the years since first viewing the documentary, it has made me much more aware of the unconscious sexism I see around me and in media, with an understanding that what is purely taught can surely be untaught, and taught differently going forward.
The premise of ‘No More Boys and Girls’ is not at all as sensationalist or eye-catching as the ‘Alone’ series, which may speak to why the former has not gone viral. Sadly, I think were it to be released today, it may have seen a greater impact, and the fact that it was on satellite TV instead of a streaming service has also limited its reach, especially among younger generations. When all is said and done, the message it presents is not a particularly complicated one: the way we treat children shapes how children think of themselves, the adults they become, and the society they perpetuate.
However, it is a message that I see staunchly refused to be acknowledged. Much of this behaviour persists, consciously or not, and particularly those behaviours that seem innocuous on the surface. But if Abdelmoneim’s documentary has taught me anything, it is that these “innocent” behaviours are the most lasting, pertinent and damaging.
There is much more to this two-part documentary than I have been able to cover here, so I cannot recommend enough watching the documentary for yourself. It’s available in full on Youtube, and beyond everything I’ve discussed here, it remains an interesting and enriching watch in its own right.
Image Credit: BBC