Generally speaking, little boys like playing with toy trucks and cap guns, and little girls like playing with dolls, right?

But ah, how times have changed. Society has changed, and with it, attitudes towards “gender assignment” – with particular regard to the impressionable childhood years.

Railroading a child, so the argument goes, into a culturally stereotyped gender identity from a young age is regressive, presumptuous, even misogynistic. The product of a bygone, paternalistic era, in which the woman of the house ironed the trousers that the man very definitely wore. Although admittedly this rarely happened at the same time.

Does the girl play with the doll, though, because it is handed to her, or is there something in her nature, in her biology, that innately draws most of her sex towards it at a young age?.

The question forms part of the wider discourse on “Nature vs. Nurture” that has been fiercely debated amongst developmental psychologists for well over a century.

John A. Barry, the author of a recent study into how sexual difference affects play preferences in children, believes that whatever else the new gender politics might have to offer, they should not cloud any analysis of hard scientific data:

“… Research into gender differences often attracts criticism which seems to be based on the moral judgement that biological bases for sex differences are somehow harmful to society … as scientists, and as members of the public who value truth over opinion, we need to move beyond moralistic arguments about facts and instead use the facts in beneficial ways …”

So what facts can the new study be said to have found? Well, for one thing, it indicates that there does appear to be a significant correlation between a child’s gender and their subsequent toy choice when playing.

Generally speaking, boys chose items “typed” to their gender, and girls to theirs. This tends to confirm previous gender proclivity found in children as young as nine months.

Barry, of the University College London’s Institute for Women’s Health, has good reason to want to focus on the hard evidence. The research paper, published in last November’s Infant and Child Development Journal, came about as the result of his prior research into Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a condition in which women exhibit above average androgen levels. And that includes testosterone.

A glandular condition, PCOS causes ovarian cysts and other reproductive complications. There is currently no cure.

Whilst the condition’s cause is presently unsubstantiated, some research indicates its origins as being in utero, in cases of foetal exposure to above average testosterone levels.

“If elevated prenatal testosterone is the cause, then one of the effects we might see in childhood is increased interest of girls in male-typical toys,” said Barry.

If such a relationship can be shown to exist, then, perhaps more can be understood about the nature of PCOS, its early diagnosis, and even its cure.

The study took the form of a meta-analysis, which statistically considered 16 other studies over a period of 37 years, up to last year. The studies were conducted over three continents, and totalled over fifteen hundred boys and girls, aged from one to eight years. In each of the studies, children were observed in so-called “free play,” with little adult regulation or suggestion as to play direction.

A statistically significant gender-bias was shown even after such factors as the year of publication, country, and presence of gender-neutral toys were accounted for. The study did note, however, that the instances of girls playing with female-typical toys had decreased in the more recent publications, despite still being more favored generally.

Given such a trend, it remains to be seen if the gender neutrality increasingly demanded by society will affect children’s recreation in the future.

It is hard to imagine any child being compelled to turn their head from a TV-set advertising “HePerson! And the Peacefully Mandated Gender-Neutral Trusted Figures of the Universe!!” There again, it is rather hard to imagine them asking Santa for such a toy, either. A bad example, perhaps.

Be that as it may, if any new medical insights can be gleaned from such predilections as currently exist, culturally instilled or otherwise, then arguably so much the better.

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