Some of the things that come out of seven-year-olds’ mouths are shocking.
“Men are better at being in charge,” a small girl with a ponytail suggests.
“Boys are cleverer because they get into president easily, don’t they?” declares a solid-looking little boy.
These two children are part of a social experiment carried out for the BBC. In a documentary called No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?, a Year Three class on the Isle of Wight is turned gender-neutral for six weeks.
Books featuring princesses and superheroes are cleared from the classroom. Signs saying “girls are strong” and “boys are sensitive” go up on the walls. The teacher is told to stop calling the girls “sweet pea” and the boys “mate”. The toilets become unisex. Parents are told to bag up their kids’ toy guns and tiaras.
Before the experiment begins, the children are tested on behaviour and psychological traits, to see what differences exist between the genders.
It’s then that some shocking 1950s attitudes are exposed. Kids of both genders see boys as being stronger, smarter and more successful, while girls are good at “being pretty”. All the girls except one say they think boys are “better” than them.
The aim of the experiment is to reduce the differences between the boys and girls in the class in the space of six weeks.
Before the documentary aired in the UK, it had already come under fire. Conservative Party councillor Mary Douglas called the experiment “abusive”.
“Children in particular are very vulnerable and susceptible to what adults say,” she said. “To even suggest that he or she might not be essentially male or female is potentially very harmful.”
But the documentary’s presenter, Dr Javid Abdelmonein, told the Telegraph the experiment was “absolutely not” about gender identity, and it certainly wasn’t going to harm the kids.
“In no way could you imagine anyone ever trying to steer children in a way that’s harmful,” he said. “We’re talking about the BBC. I’m a doctor. Their parents and teachers were involved.”
Psychologist Dr Kimberley Norris from the University of Tasmania doesn’t think the experiment would be harmful to children, either.
“The only way it could be harmful is if we were telling them, ‘You are wrong, you have done the wrong thing,’” she tells Mamamia.
Although Dr Norris isn’t sure how much could be achieved in a six-week timeframe, she thinks the idea has merit.
“We are trying to open children to the idea at a younger age that there are different ways of thinking about the world, including gender.”
She says children the age of those in the experiment “definitely” have ideas about things, and they tend not to question those ideas. That’s where parents can help.
“There’s that wonderful opportunity to say, ‘Oh, okay, that’s really interesting. Can you tell me, can a girl be powerful? Can a girl be a good leader?’ You use it as a stimulus.”
Rather than throwing out books with princesses and superheroes in them, Dr Norris thinks that parents should teach their children to question them. For example, could a prince take the place of the princess in the story?
“It’s getting them to think about it and expand their minds, rather than purely sheltering them from that,” she adds.
Meanwhile, the president of PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) NSW, Judy Brown, thinks the gender-neutral classroom experiment is an interesting concept.
“I do think that if the school environment was more gender-neutral, with no preconceptions of superiority of one sex over another in academic subjects, sport, etc, it would make life easier for kids who identify as gay, lesbian or gender diverse,” she says.
LISTEN: 'If you don’t talk about gender with your kids… you treat them exactly the same.’ (Post continues below.)
In Australian schools, the gender-neutrality movement seems to be slowly gaining traction. Organisations such as the Safe Schools Victoria coalition have been pushing for gender-neutral uniforms. Sydney International Grammar School is one of the schools that has recently changed its rules to allow students of both sexes to wear whatever items of uniform they want.
Dr Norris thinks gender-neutral uniforms could be helpful from a pragmatic perspective – making it easier for girls to do certain activities – but she also thinks it’s good to give kids a greater range of choice, like adults have.
“Perhaps if there was flexibility, in that, ‘Here is the school uniform and you may choose which components you wear,’ whether that be a female choosing pants or a male choosing a skirt,” she says. “We need to be careful not to just be imposing another set of rules or expectations on children, but again encouraging that question and that flexibility.”
You can watch the trailer for the TV series here.