We are very much an ordinary family when it comes to kids. We have two, a boy and a girl. When you start out as a parent you tell yourself that sexism won't come into it. If your boy wants to play with a pram then let him enjoy it. If your girl wants to kick a rugby ball around, encourage her to go for it.
The thing is, in most cases, boys and girls fall very neatly into gender stereotypes without any help from you. We didn't consider this until our girl was born. However, when she did arrive, the differences were so stark it was almost laughable.
The first thing we noticed was communication. My boy mostly communicates through grunts. This is interspersed with bouts of verbal diarrhoea. My girl on the other hand is, what can only be described as, a talker.
When I ask my boy what he did in school he answers the same way every single time. "I don't know". In fact, as he is now approaching the age of 6, he actually laughs when he says it. He is fully aware that he hasn't the faintest idea what happened ten minutes ago and he now finds this faintly amusing. However, ask him to describe his favourite TV show or Wii game and he can communicate all the finer points with a level of eloquence normally reserved for the Oxford debating society.
Sound familiar? Mrs Hapless often jokes that I wouldn't remember my own name unless it was written on my jumper, and yet ask me about Blackadder and I bet I could regurgitate an entire episode without too much trouble.
My daughter on the other hand remembers everything. From the moment she could converse she could tell you who was where, who did what to whom, what happened last week, where she's going tomorrow and what Mrs Jones said to Bryn after he'd been stealing crayons from the nursery. When my son is watching telly you could sacrifice a goat in front of him and he wouldn't notice. When it comes to my daughter, she does not miss a trick. There are no secrets from her. You can guarantee that the staff room at my daughter's school is alive with all the gossip from our home life that she has passed on to the teaching staff.
The communication differences extend to other situations too. When grandparents phone, Josh's only contribution is a raspberry down the phone before wandering off scratching his balls. On the other hand, if Lucy get's to the phone first you'll be lucky to get your hands on it before the new year.
There are significant differences in the way they play too. When my daughter turned 3 we had 8 of her nursery friends around for a little party. It was eerily quiet. Everywhere you looked little girls were colouring, making things, chatting and role playing. But oh my god, the politics was worse than a government re-shuffle! Friendship groups changed twenty times in the space of a two hour party, and they were pretty ruthless about it!
The next day, still reeling from the quietness of the girlies event we had ONE of my son's friends over to play. Within five minutes of arrival they had decided to throw the entire contents of Josh's bedroom down the stairs. It was like a scene from the London riots. Some kind of mob mentality took over them as they got more and more excited about objects they could sling down two flights. It wasn't long before they were play fighting, with swords, guns and anything else to hand. This inevitably turned into real fighting, followed shortly by a bollocking from yours truly.
What about the choice of toys? Big differences her too. I served in the reserve forces as a young man but I have never knowingly promoted this at home. Josh has found guns all by himself. He absolutely loves them. Lucy, on the other hand, spends her time tending to her many 'babies' and enough push chairs to warrant their own garage. When she's not looking after her ever expanding family, she finds ways to steal my wife's makeup.
There are so many other examples. Take potty training. My girl merrily trained herself while we were still battling with Josh. Even now he's never happier than being sat in his own filth.
I could go on. The list of gender specific behaviours displayed by my children is endless. However I have learned that you cannot take this for granted. Take sport for example.
Josh is, and always was, extremely athletic. As a four year old he ran the sport relief mile in 10 minutes without walking a step. There are many adults who could not achieve that. He's also quick over shorter distances and has the agility of a cat. As such we have pushed him into every sport imaginable.
As the younger sibling, Lucy always had to tag along too. We never thought about her in sporting terms as, the big joke in our house is her clumsiness. She falls over 8 or 9 times a minute, on a good day. Both have been going to gymnastics since they were very young. Josh spends most of his lesson getting told off as he tends to get up to mischief when he's waiting for his turn on the apparatus. However, while this was going on, something else was happening that we didn't expect. We were approached by the coach of Lucy's younger group. She told us that Lucy was a natural and she felt she was ready to try out for the elite girls group over a year early. She tried out, and got in!
This was quite a wakeup call for us. We never set out to treat our kids differently based on their gender. They naturally gravitated towards gender specific behaviours all by themselves, with no help from us. The thing is, you shouldn't let this influence your thinking whether consciously or otherwise.
Josh will always be a 'proper boy'. This is reinforced by his goggle eyed reaction every time Jessie J comes on the telly. Lucy will always be a girly girl but she posses a rod of iron down the centre of her body that my son doesn't posses. For all his physical toughness, she possess an emotional toughness that could reduce a rabid dog to tears.
In short, let your kids be what comes naturally to them - but never assume anything.