The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Olivia Dickinson

What is innocent socialisation and how can I challenge it?

Gender stereotyping starts from birth. Olivia Dickinson explains the effects of innocent socialisation and how to challenge assumptions in early years settings.

When you welcome a child to your early years setting, whether it be a preschool, nursery or Reception class, how much do you think about what that child has already experienced?

You may well know if the child has older or younger siblings, possibly what jobs their parents do and maybe what other childcare or early years settings they’re used to.

Pre-Covid, you may have been able to visit the child’s home before they started Reception or nursery, giving you a chance to see what toys and books they have, what TV shows are on during the day or what digital devices the child is regularly using.

That home visit can sometimes give an insight into what a child is particularly enjoying at the moment – superheroes, minibeasts, dressing up, colouring and drawing…

Unconscious bias is everywhere

Have you ever stopped to think how all those experiences of early childhood have already been affected by gender stereotypes?

They will have formed from the unconscious bias of all the adults around them – parents, grandparents, older siblings, previous childcare providers – as well as the ‘wallpaper’ of the culture they have grown up with – children’s TV, adverts, online games, books, slogans and the colours or even cut of their clothing.

Innocent socialisation perpetuates gender stereotypes that eventually lead to inequalities

From my work with the grassroots campaign Let Toys Be Toys and the educational charity Lifting Limits, both of whom challenge gender stereotypes in childhood, I now often view all that children are surrounded by through a ‘gender lens’.

What is innocent socialisation?

When you have a chatty girl in your setting, or a physically rough boy, how much of that behaviour is caused by how they’ve been socialised?

Children are socialised to conform in certain ways and the influences aren’t necessarily the major or most obvious things. It could be the slightest look or touch indicating a parent’s approval or disapproval of toy choices, or the tone of adults’ conversations, or even the different topics that parents choose to talk about to their sons and daughters.

For instance, parents tend to assume that boys are more physically adept than girls; in general, they punish them more harshly; they talk to them less than to their daughters; they are certainly less likely to discuss emotions with boys – with the exception of anger, which they are more likely discuss with boys than girls; and they are also less likely to read to boys or to take them to the library.

Rebecca Asher and Judy Chu, both of whom have written on how particularly boys are socialised, talk about ‘innocent socialisation’. None of it is intentional, and some of it may be done by well-meaning parents who want to ensure their child gets on with their peers or in society.

Innocent socialisation perpetuates gender stereotypes that eventually lead to inequalities. Here are a few examples, provided by Lifting Limits:

  • the indefatigable gender pay gap
  • only 10% of the UK engineering workforce is female
  • only 11% of NHS nurses are male
  • 95% of prisoners in England and Wales are men
  • 75% of suicides in the UK are male.

It starts at an early age

Often, at ages 3, 4 and 5, children are just figuring out who they are and, while rules give them some security, the impact of trusted adults questioning peers’ assumptions and then affirming their (non-stereotyped) choices is incredibly powerful.

In their book The Gender Agenda, a mum and dad document how their daughter and son were treated differently from birth, and some of that is clear in language from strangers, other children and relatives. It’s a brilliantly easy read, taken mostly from tweets written in their early days as parents.

When parents and educationalists talk about gender stereotypes, often the default is to think about the effect on girls. But gender stereotypes can affect boys as much as girls, so for example boys’ language development is often delayed because they’ve had less chance at role-play and home corner play, or their parents have spoken to them less than they might to a daughter.

Challenge explicitly when you can, but gently

Parents may be less aware of the effect on boys, and are often happier for ‘boys to be boys’ than for girls to conform to stereotypes. Both in research studies and anecdotally, it’s often dads who worry most about their boys going against gender norms, possibly reflecting their own experiences as boys and men among their peer group.

Often a way to help parents see that boys benefit from not conforming to stereotypes is to point to their own experiences: ‘Why can’t he play with dolls or push the buggy? He wants to be like you, a dad.’ ‘What books did you like reading as a child?’

So what can you do in your early years setting?

The task for early years practitioners is how to challenge that ‘innocent socialisation’ in order to stop perpetuating gender stereotypes.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Encourage the children to be their best selves, in a safe space that is not colour coded ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ in any way.
  • In early years, the joy of play means anything goes, and boys can dress up as princesses and girls can play with trucks.
  • Challenge explicitly when you can, but gently – ‘why can’t he wear the dress?’, ‘Why aren’t girls supposed to be truck drivers’?
  • Being aware of your own use of language is also important – it’s saying ‘children’ instead of ‘girls and boys’ or ‘firefighter’ not ‘fireman’, but also not making assumptions about most animal characters being ‘he’, or that it’s always ‘Mummy’ who comes to pick up the child. Small changes can help to affirm the things we have in common rather than our differences.
  • Display a poster with 20 tips for raising children without gender stereotypes and share it with parents. While it’s intended for use at home, most of the tips are equally valid in early years settings.

Let Toys Be Toys, which produced the poster, also suggests 8 ways to challenge gender stereotypes in the early years, and 10 ways to challenge gender stereotypes in the classroom.

Some approaches you will already be taking in terms of best practice – you just need to think about doing more of them.

Looking for more resources?

Zero Tolerance A guide (produced in partnership with the Care Inspectorate), blogs and research to provide inspiration for talking about what is ‘normal’.

Let Toys Be Toys This campaign asks the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls, and others only for boys.@LetToysBeToys on twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Gender Friendly Scotland takes a ‘whole-setting approach’ to gender stereotyping in early years and childcare settings, which aims to ensure that nobody is limited because of their gender (also on Twitter).

No More Boys and Girls A two-part documentary exploring the effects of removing the emphasis on gender on a class of seven year olds.

Girl Toys vs Boy Toys A clip showing the unconscious gendered toy choices made by adults for babies.

Breaking the Mould The National Education Union’s resources to promote inclusion at nursery and primary level.

Early Years Alliance More ideas and suggestions for challenging innocent socialisation.



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