This 2 parter suggested it was about political correctness gone wrong, but it is an intriguing concept. Dr Javed Abdelmoneim was given access for a month to a class of 7 year olds, chosen as this is the age that gender ideas become fixed. In the first episode the children were asked to describe themselves, what jobs they thought were suited for men and women, and the results were pretty scary. Many of the girls described themselves in terms of appearance, one claiming to be ugly. For both sexes, they were clear on what jobs men and women should do, and most of them saw men as leaders and women staying home with the kids. Psychological tests showed the boys had far more confidence in themselves, the girls consistently underestimating their own abilities. But the girls were far better on verbal skills; the only emotional vocabulary shown by the boys was in expressing anger.
Javed began by changing the classroom, by putting up signs like girls can be strong, boys can cry. He abolished separate cupboards for clothes based on gender, the teacher was told he addressed the kids differently, with sweetpea for girls and mate and buddy for the boys. They cleared out all the books about princesses and strong boys to be replaced with gender neutral stories. This all seemed pretty straightforward, but then Javed noticed how the girls wanted to play football, but were not as good as the boys so they stuck with girlie games. Until puberty, girls and boys are equal in strength, so Javed set up a fairground for them. The kids were asked to guess how hard they could hit the strongman test. Most of the girls thought they could get 5; none thought they could make the bell ring, whereas the boys mostly thought they could. Some of the girls made the bell ring first time; one was reduced to tears, she had no idea she could do it. That was the moment I began to think he was onto something. The most aggressive of the boys, who thought he was the strongest, couldn’t hit the hammer at all. He threw himself on the floor in a tantrum. He had no way to deal with failure. This was a revelation. You could see the kids changing.
The following episode went from the school into their homes. A mother claimed that gender was genetic; she had tried to control her boy’s choices in toys, but his room was full of lego and guns. Everything in the girls rooms was pink. Javed went shopping, finding a limited colour scheme for boys and girls clothing and toys, noting it had never been that bad when he was a kid. I’ve also noticed how little generic toys are in the shops; most of what kids play with are characters from Disney films, so their form of playing is strictly controlled. This is not political correctness; it is discouraging kids from experimenting, with playing in the broadest sense. In class, the girls could not figure out spatial problems; arranging coloured shapes in certain patterns reduced them to tears while the boys, experienced in lego, found no such problems. Javed showed parents how their choice of clothes affected their kids. A boy’s t shirt saying ‘I’m trouble’ encouraged the child to be naughty, failed to take it seriously.
Javed got parents to remove all the gendered toys, with many leaving little else. He gave kids new toys, unmarked so some of the boys got to make glove puppets and some of the girls made tractor things. It was amazing to see the tough boys inventing conversations with the puppets and for the girls to be playing with the trucks; they all got on so well together.
They all went to the beach, and could help make sandwiches or dig a fire pit; there were equal numbers in both. After their meal, they were offered a game of football, and could choose if it would be boys against girls. The former tough boy said it should be mixed as there was no fun in beating the girls.
The programme ended with an end of term performance in which the kids described how much better it was for everyone to be treated as equals. Some of the parents were in tears to see their kids – especially the girls, so happy and confident. The boys were less aggressive and a lot happier. Parents noted the boys were less troublesome. It was a revelation. The school plans to change all its classes to become gender neutral.
In a way this is not about being gender neutral, but about offering the kids more variety. I learned how to read by walking in the gutter reading rubbish. (yes I know that sounds sad, but we could do that). My brother collected bits of junk to turn into stuff when he got home. He became an electronics technician. We wore lots of different colours, I read sci fi books passed on from my brother from about 9 years old . We invented our own games rather than parroted those of the media.
Dr Abdelmoneim is a former Medicine sans Frontiers doctor, and I was intrigued as to how he went from emergency medicine to child education. At first I thought he was not seeing the big picture; I doubted how much of our 7 year old selves survive into adulthood. But maybe seeing the effects of war has made him more aware of the importance of kids learning good behaviour, of better emotional communication. After all, the difference between genders is a lot bigger than between races or creeds. If we can bridge this gap at least in childhood, it seems the world will be a better place.
The other – small quibble I had was the class had a male teacher – a notoriously rare creature in primary schools. I wonder if this, combined with the male Dr had more impact than if a women had introduced the changes. the class was not really typical, but the results were impressive and should be taken up by others