I took my niece out for a walk in the pushchair yesterday. She’s a year old. At the park we saw another kid, about a similar age, and went over to say hi. His Mum introduced him and the two babies kind of looked at each other, as babies do, without really interacting. I’ve read that it’s not until 18 months or so that kids start paying much attention to other kids.
Neither baby seemed very interested, so after a bit of smalltalk, I walked off, carrying the niece, for her to look at a nearby boat she was staring at. An older couple, who I assume were his Grandparents, came over to the little boy and his Mum and I could hear their subsequent conversation. It went like this:-
Gran to little boy: Were you eyeing up the girls then?
Granddad: Oh, he’s been eyeing up the girls. *laughs*
Gran: Starting as you mean to go on, are you? That’s right!
All this was said in tones of encouragement and approval. Now I don’t think there’s anything wrong with eyeing people up, or joking about same. But what struck me was:-
1. How gendered this was. Maybe I’m making assumptions, but I doubt they’d have said to a little girl, ‘Been eyeing up the boys have you?’ in the same approving way.
2. How kind of desperate it was. The kids really, to my eyes, showed very little interest in each other. The Grandparents were seeing behaviour that wasn’t there, and sending a message about what behaviour would be approved of. I’m pretty sure the kids – being only a year old – were oblivious to that message. But it served to reinforce for all the grown ups what was desirable behaviour in little boys. Making sure everyone’s on the same page. And one day pretty soon the kids will be old enough to get those messages.
From babyhood onwards, many (most? all?) little boys and little girls are given messages like this all the time. Messages about how they should behave and how their care-givers will react to their behaviour. To my mind it makes a mockery of the idea that any observed difference between male and female behaviour is innate. We just don’t know what any of us would grow up like, if we grew up free of gender programming like this.
And actually, if differences were really innate, would we need this constant policing and programming of ‘suitable’ gendered behaviour?