Joanna Mathers looks at the stereotypes of gender and how pigeonholing children has become even more an issue

The lounge is a parking garage, and the garden pockmarked with holes made by excavators, dirt carried away by dump trucks and thrown down into the gully. The gumboots get a workout every day as he trudges across the road with his dada, watching the builders and truck drivers develop a new subdivision. Every time we ask him what he would like to do, he answers "watch cars".

When he was a blue-eyed blond baby, I dressed him in pink and green and blue (not at the same time). He was often mistaken for a girl when dressed in pink, an assumption I only occasionally corrected. A friend once said: "You are so brave, dressing your boy in girl's clothes." She meant pink. "Colours don't have a gender," I wanted to answer, but didn't.

He had toys of all permutations — dolls, blocks, tiny animals — all of which he took an equal interest in. My "raising my child gender-neutral" ideology didn't extend to calling him "they" but I didn't want extremes of gender foisted upon him at an early age. I wanted him to be free to make his own decisions about the toys he liked, the way he played, the colours he liked.

From the minute he knew what they were, he chose cars. Red cars, blue cars, Lightning McQueen. Not just cars though, diggers and cranes and buses and planes. Anything made from metal, with wheels, will suffice. He's become a "boy" (note the quote marks) without any help from me.

This identification with all things "masculine" and mechanical is fascinating to me. As a little girl, I eschewed dresses and dolls, preferring to wear trousers and climb trees. Makeup and fairies did nothing for me — instead, I was obsessed with World War II. My mum always tells me "you were a strange little girl". (Nothing's changed.) People thought I was a boy. A lot of people.

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So, my son's gender stereotypical tendency seems rather surprising. But it's there and I'm happy to embrace it. I have no issue with him loving cars, per se. I'm just surprised at how early it developed and I'm fascinated about where it stems from.

I read an interesting study about involving monkey babies (not kids, obviously, but close). The rhesus monkeys in the 2008 study conducted at Emory University in Atlanta were given wheeled vehicles and plush toys to play with. The male monkeys overwhelmingly chose the wheeled vehicles; the female monkeys overwhelmingly chose the plush toys.

The socialisation argument, which is the generally accepted basis for gender preferences, can't be used to explain the primate's proclivity for gender stereotypical play.

Monkey research aside, it's extremely difficult to isolate just why boys and girls go for different toys. Annette Henderson is a senior lecturer at the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland.

She says that while there are genetic differences in the male and female brains, it's very hard to prove that these play a role when it comes to gender-stereotyped play, as from the moment they are born, boys and girls are treated differently.

"Boy babies and girl babies will be engaged with completely differently according to their gender," says Henderson.

"People commonly will say, 'Oh, isn't he strong?' of boys or 'Isn't she beautiful?' of girls. Just listen to how people talk about girls and boys — even the youngest child will be absorbing all of this."

As kids grow up, the differences become even more pronounced: "If a girl is doing something dangerous the carers are far more likely to tell her to be careful. And if boys fall or hurt themselves in some way, people are more likely to tell them to just get over it; to suppress their emotions," she says.

As the experience of being treated differently according to gender is so ubiquitous, Henderson says it's almost impossible to conduct studies on the development of gender identity based on the concept of genetic difference. But there is some indication in overseas research that hormones may play a role in what kids like to play with.

A British study conducted in 2010 found that girls who had a high level of the male sex hormone androgen preferred to play with toys that were male stereotypical. But with such a small sample, it's hard to generalise the findings and apply them across the board.

Gender identity has been a hot topic in recent years, as the experience of trans people has moved out of the shadows and into the glaring light of mainstream media. Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce, ex-Olympian and ex-husband of Kardashian mum, Kris) documented her transition on E!'s I Am Cait. While the show was cancelled due to low ratings after two seasons, it brought the trans experience into the consciousness of millions for probably the first time in documented history.

Caitlyn Jenner documented her transition on E!'s I Am Cait. Photo / Getty Images
Caitlyn Jenner documented her transition on E!'s I Am Cait. Photo / Getty Images

The development of gender identity in trans people is an interesting topic. We live in a world that's rife with gender norms — extremes of femininity and masculinity bombard us whenever we turn on the telly.

Caitlyn Drinkwater is a doctoral student who specialises in gender development. She is currently doing her doctorate in clinical psychology and her thesis focuses on non-binary gender identity development.

She says that it can be hard for individuals to determine their gender identity, as it's quite nebulous and many transgender people struggle to determine whether they are trans or whether they have gender non-conforming behaviours, but some trans people are very certain about their gender identity and this shows up at an early age.

"These children will often gravitate to the boy's clothes or toys [if they are biologically female] or the boys will show traits that are commonly associated with females."

She says there is growing evidence of a biological component to what is known as "gender dysphoria" (the feeling of incongruence between someone's birth gender and the gender
they identify with).

"There is growing evidence that children who experience gender dysphoria had brain structures and neurological patterns that were more similar to the gender that they identified with. That being said the evidence is not entirely conclusive, so we cannot say for certain whether transgender identity is caused by biological factors."

With the rise in awareness around trans issues, girls who chose to have short hair and wear jeans may find themselves cast as trans, which some argue is further entrenching the concept of what "male" and "female" looks like.

An essay in the New York Times entitled "My Girl is Not Transgender. She's a Tomboy", by Lisa Selin Davis, met with both delight and derision when it appeared last year. Selin Davis' daughter has short hair and likes to wear trackpants, is strong and sporty, and has mainly male friends. She's not trans, Selin Davis is at strengths to point out. She is a girl who likes to do things a bit differently.

Selin Davis penned the article as a reaction to questions by teachers, doctors et al around whether her daughter wanted to be referred to as "he". She says, with some relish: "I love correcting them, making them reconsider their perceptions of what a girl looks like. But my daughter had been attending the after-school programme where this woman taught for six months.

"'She's a girl,' I said. The woman looked unconvinced. 'Really. She's a girl and you can refer to her as a girl.'"
She acknowledges that it's great that people are so accepting of the trans experience, to a point.
"It shows a much-needed sensitivity to gender non-conformity and transgender issues. It is considerate of adults to ask her — in the beginning. But when they continue to question her gender identity — and are sceptical of her response — the message they send is that a girl cannot look and act like her and still be a girl."

In a New Zealand radio interview, she went further.

"Our gender roles have [become] a lot narrower and the time that we ask kids to assume them is a lot earlier. When I'm looking for toys and I have to look in the boys' section to get the cool toys but those aren't things that boys would want, those are just cool things, but they're being marketed that way because they sell better that way and we don't want our identities to be determined or affected by marketing."

I tend to agree. I'm glad I have a boy, because I don't think I could deal with the hyper-feminised toys that girls have thrust upon them these days — even My Little Ponies (a childhood favourite) have had their big-eyed femininity camped up beyond recognition.

If I was growing up in this day and age, I wonder if I'd question my gender identity. For while we are open and accepting to a far larger extent than ever before, it seems that gender norms are still set in concrete.

Pink for girls, and blue for boys isn't going anywhere soon.

Climbing trees in fairy wings

Tash Kuri with her two children, Emelia and Kalani. Photo / Michael Craig
Tash Kuri with her two children, Emelia and Kalani. Photo / Michael Craig

Emelia and Kalani are children of the wild west coast. They've been raised on sea, bush, and air, they are free to run and roam, push and break boundaries.

Emelia, 5, came first. The blue-eyed, blond-locked girl loved books and animals first and foremost. Then came dolls, and later ponies, unicorns and fairies. Kalani, 2, had access to toys of all types — dolls, cars, trucks — and early on the machinery became a favourite.

He plays with dolls, putting them to bed with his teddies, but he doesn't carry and nurture them the way Emelia did. And with the same opportunities for play, they have taken different paths.

"I tend to buy them toys that I would like to play with myself," says their mum, Tash Kuri.

"I like old fashioned toys, wooden toys. The don't watch television at home so I make sure they have lots of different things to play with. They do gravitate to toys that you would consider typical for their gender."

Emelia was in daycare early on, and she learned a lot by watching how other kids played. It's impossible to tell how many messages she got about gender norms and play from her observations — all children are bombarded with these constantly — but she definitely oriented towards "girls" toys from an early age.

It's the same with Kalani – he loves cars and trucks and trains but also loves playing with sparkly ponies. However, the machinery takes precedence.

Both children are extremely capable and bold; Emelia scaling heights that would leave an adult vertiginous. She's a tough kid in fairy wings, angel-faced, fearless. Kalani's the same — at 2 he's already climbing tall trees. But while they are both strong and bold, their choices around play are different. It's the girl with the doll and the boy with the car.