"Once upon a time, there was a boy. He was very brave, and he could kick everybody, and he was very strong and tough. He was so strong and tough that he thought he would just hit 100 men with only one bowling ball."
This story was written by a five-year-old boy. The same boy, asked to write a story about a girl, came up with the following: "Once there was a princess. One time, she was in a castle tower, and then her hair came tumbling down. And then a pretty guy came to climb up her hair and kissed her and saved her from the magic spell which the witch put on her."
New research conducted by Lynn Dietrich, assistant professor of early childhood education at the University of Mississippi in the US, reveals that five-year-old children already subscribe to many common stereotypes of gender, believing that boys should be strong and brave, and that girls are more concerned with family and love.
Professor Dietrich asked 75 five-year-olds to dictate two stories of their own invention on topics of their choice: one to appeal to their own sex and one to the opposite sex.
She found that boys and girls were equally able to construct coherent narratives. However, there were clear differences in the emotions, characters and themes featured. Girls' stories for other girls tended to involve more love, affection and affiliation than the boys' efforts, focusing largely on princes, princesses and romance, as well as affection and family life. Boys' stories for boys, meanwhile, tended to involve villainy, or villainy vanquished.
Others wrote tales of heroism. "Once there was an army man that was very brave," one boy wrote. "Until he became old, and he lived to be 33."
Mick Connell of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said that boys were much readier than girls to see themselves as the heroes of their stories. "It's really important that girls see themselves as active protagonists, rather than passive victims," he said. "Their happiness is being brought to them, rather than their actively going out to seek it."
But, he added, boys lost out as well. "English teachers come to value that kind of psychological navel-gazing that marks out the classics of English literature: Jane Austen or the Bronts or Hardy," he said. "What we seem to value most is that kind of insight into the human condition, which doesn't occur to you much if you're slaying an Orc. So we tend to undervalue boys' narratives, particularly of the beat-'em-up variety."
It is notable, therefore, that the gap between girls and boys achieving level 4 or above in key stage 2 tests is greater in the writing teacher assessment than it is in any other subject.
Twists in the tales
When asked to tell stories from the other sex's point of view, Professor Dietrich's subjects all made adjustments to their narratives. Girls' stories for boys involved more male characters, and boys' stories for girls involved more female characters.
"Once time, a doll was being played with by a girl," a boy wrote, hoping his story would appeal to girls. "The doll broke. The end."
Meanwhile, a girl writing for boys decided that she needed to include some violence. "There was a guy who went to find some animals," she said. "He wanted to kill 'em to eat with his family."
Mr Connell suggested that such stories also reflected those that the children had encountered elsewhere. "They're being asked to draw on their experiences of books and films and then tell a story as best they can," he said.