Traditional gender roles are irrelevant

23rd May 2008 at 01:00
When I was very young, I thought I knew how men and women should behave, men were the breadwinners and women housewives, but already the world was changing
When I was very young, I thought I knew how men and women should behave, men were the breadwinners and women housewives, but already the world was changing.

Now, 70 per cent of women with children have paid work, and men are taking more responsibility for housework. A survey we carried out for the Child of Our Time series, which is tracking 25 millennium children from birth to adulthood, showed that the great majority of our parents believe that traditional gender roles are almost irrelevant.

At the same time, we talked to their children and discovered something disturbing. The children were busy constructing new gender roles, influenced less by tradition, parents and schools than by an outside world which bombards them with advertisements, music, magazines and TV stations which live off a diet of sex, celebrity, money and beauty. Young children, although not their intended audience, are more impressionable than their elders and soak up messages professionally crafted to seduce the population for the benefit of the market.

Last year, the National Consumer Council published a sobering study of children and materialism in the UK. They found that almost half the children polled in deprived areas would rather spend time buying things than doing almost anything else.

Other studies show that, although girls like shopping more, it is actually boys who are the more materialistic sex, a finding corroborated when we asked the Child of Our Time children about the qualities they most admired. Girls wanted to be kind and healthy, while the boys almost universally chose wealth.

One might think the desire to be rich would spur boys to get educated, but it does not seem to. Some of the able boys in our cohort told us: "Clever is so boring." They felt cleverness was not cool, influenced, perhaps, by a celebrity culture which underestimates the hard graft needed to get there.

That may go some way to help explain why boys are falling even further behind girls at school, with negative effects on their self-esteem. Again, children split neatly into gender lines, our seven-year-old girls telling us: "If you are clever, everybody likes you more" and "Clever means you know what to do quite a lot of the time".

Even so, girls' self-esteem is also under threat and they respond to the way the media magnifies materialism by becoming increasingly perfectionist about their school work and their weight. Oliver James, author of the NCC study, told me that depression and anxiety among girls from high-income families had increased from 24 per cent to 38 per cent in just 12 years. It is a high price to pay for having it all.

Seven to 11-year-olds make up an increasingly lucrative market worth nearly pound;20 million a year. The tragedy is that girls and boys are being manipulated into believing not only that they are divided from eath other but that they are inadequate, a dangerous state that can easily damage self-belief.

Confidence makes all the difference to a life. Our children get affection and encouragement from parents and teachers. Don't they deserve the same from the world outside?

'Child of Our Time: Early Learning', by Tessa Livingstone, is published by Transworld. The Child of Our Time series is on BBC1, Wednesdays, 8pm

Tessa Livingstone is an author and executive producer of the BBC series 'Child of Our Time'.

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