Channel 4’s hit series The Secret Life of Five Year Olds is back – and this time, they’re exploring gender stereotypes in children.
The show will look at whether traditional ideas of masculinity and femininity are ingrained in children from birth, or whether they’re learned from cues in their environment – and from the very first episode, there are some surprising results in store.
Professor Paul Howard Jones asks: ‘Why might a child choose to play with one toy instead of another? Cutting edge science now tells us that a few weeks after birth, a surge of hormones such as testosterone shapes their development.’
‘Remarkably, the hormones that are released then can predict whether – four years later – a child will play with a doll or a truck.’
However, the children in the show do not always conform to these gender norms, with two of the boys, Oscar and Oliver, avoiding the bricks and toy crocodiles and heading straight for the hair and make-up station.
‘Everybody, I’ve got lipstick on!’ Oscar cries excitedly.
One little girl on the show, named Alice, is disappointed her fellow girls don’t share her interests.
‘The girls won’t play dinosaurs with me because they think it’s a boy’s game,’ she laments.
She is, however, invited to play ‘baby baby’ by another girl in the group, to which she responds: ‘No, I do NOT want to play that’.
Another experiment sees one of the teachers, Kate, make a lemonade that she’s secretly added salt to. When it is served to the children, the boys declare that it’s disgusting, whilst the girls take a more polite approach, with one child admitting: ‘I pretended I did like it so it made Kate happy’.
The children are also given fake babies, to which the girls are far more attentive, and a penalty shoot out game with the option of a reward or a retry, which shows that boys are more likely to take the risk.
When confronted with a chocolate fountain, the girls are shown to have more self control, whilst the boys cannot resist dunking a finger, or in one memorable case, sticking their tongue out under the sugary river.
Professor Jones explains: ‘These children were not born with these ideas. They’re not innate. They’ve learned them from the world they’ve grown up in.’
‘Despite Oscar and Alice’s role reversals, many of the tests in the programme reveal that the children do generally act in a way that is typical of their sex.’
However, he stresses that there is an important differentiation between sex and gender.
‘It’s important to understand that sex is biological, but gender is an interpretation.’
‘If a child is quite typical of their sex, they benefit from playing with other similar children, but if they are not sex typical, they can become quite isolated from the group as there are fewer play styles for them to fit into.’