Gendered toys and toy shop displays regularly make appearances in articles and social media chat and whilst some parents resist princess parties and buying guns for boys it is pretty much accepted that on the whole boys prefer playing with boys and girls prefer playing with girls. This has been backed up by quite a bit of child psychology, some neuroscience and even primatology. Frustratingly this has not been discussed in a wider cross cultural context very much at all. The BBC rebroadcast the Horizon documentary Is Your Brain Male or Female last week and the programme didn’t think to include different cultures when discussing nature/ nurture. How can we discuss ‘nurture’ as a generic thing when the way we bring up our children varies so much across the world?
I think one of the reasons for this is that in most societies men and women are still very unequal, so it starts to look like a universal that boys and girls tend to play differently. When you compare farmers in Mexico, with Japanese village life for example, their children playing doesn’t look that different. This is why hunter-gatherers (or foragers) have so often featured in anthropological research, because they are some of the most equal societies on earth and they often prove the exception to the rule.
I’ve referred to the Bofi before. They’re interesting because we get to compare two distinct societies without having to account for huge differences in circumstances. They are both in the same area of the Central African Republic but one group are farmers and one group are foragers.
Bofi farmers have very distinct roles for men and women. Women are responsible for the majority of farming, child care, and household tasks; men are involved in village politics, hunting, and procurement of palm wine. Young women are encouraged to help their mothers whilst teenage boys are allowed to roam free with their peers. They also tend to ridicule those who step out of the prescribed roles. Bofi foragers do have distinct roles for men and women but they are much more fluid, sometimes men cook and take care of the children, sometimes women participate in house building and so on.
So how do they play as children? Well, as you might expect, with a few degrees of variation, on the whole farmer children tend to play with their own gender a great deal more than their forager counterparts.What’s more because Bofi farmer young children are looked after by older children rather than adults they also show a much greater openness to playing with other children than their forager neighbours who are used to more adult attention and play and don’t always want to engage with new children.
What does this show? That, surprise surprise, children mimic their environments and reflect the societies they are growing up in. This seems obvious but it is unfortunate that it is not included enough in discussions on gender and biology that instead focus on research conducted only in Western societies. Our brains do show distinct male/female characteristics but exactly how this plays out is very much dictated by the society we are born into. It’s not that boys and girls aren’t different it’s that this doesn’t explain why they don’t play together they are just learning to fit in with what they see around them.
All the Bofi research I’ve read is by Hillary N Fouts this article is collaboration with Rena A. Hallam and Swapna Purandare
This is a classic article on cross cultural play