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I think Jenny Payne (LM-mail, February) missed the point of my article ('Why try to make boys more like girls?', December/January). The research evidence suggests that trying to challenge gender stereotypes among young children is likely to make little impact: it is exactly because they identify with being a boy or a girl that they tend to be drawn towards these stereotypes; and there is very little that parents or teachers can do about this because of the salience of sex role differences between men and women in society and the complex ways in which children develop.

Earlier theories of socialisation tended to over-simplify the processes whereby children internalise norms, and to assume a certain passivity on the part of the child. In contrast I followed most current research in arguing that children take a remarkably active role in learning about the world around them and about their position in it. When they are young they generally pick up on the most obvious social patterns and stereotypes, and may even adhere to these despite direct experience to the contrary. But as they grow up and learn more about society they begin to assimilate more of its complexities, and can understand for themselves that sex stereotypes are over-simplifications of contradictory reality.

An interesting development today is that women are generally expected to be assertive and confident while men are told that they must not be aggressive and competitive. It is conceivable that the consensus may change to the point where traditional gender stereotypes are entirely undermined. In principle this would not be a bad thing, but if it means that our children grow up rejecting the 'masculine' attributes which drive individuals to take risks or aspire to be the best, then I would rather stick with what we have got and challenge women to be more like men.

Wendy Earle Acton, London

I do not believe that Jenny Payne's daughter turned into a confident, outspoken young woman because her mother reversed the names and roles of boys and girls in the Famous Five stories which she read to her as a child. I feel certain that her assertive personality will have been the result of a reasonably good education, teachers who stimulated her thinking, and opportunities for debate within her peer group and family.

My concern is that trends in society and education today encourage young people of both sexes to become more 'feminine' in their behaviour - inclined to dependency, little ambition, and to view themselves as victims of everything from bullying to chronic fatigue syndrome. That is the real problem, and it cannot be addressed by de-gendering toys.

Jenny Cunningham Glasgow

Chips with everything

What a relief it was to read Dr Dee Dawson's endorsement of crisps and chips for children in Jennie Bristow's article 'Let them eat cake' (February). Countless 'Healthy Eating for Your Child' leaflets which I received whilst pregnant and during my daughter's first year, all gave the impression that sugar, crisps and chips were a real no-no. Teeth would rot, appetites (for good food) would shrink and bad eating habits would be established for life.

In the technicolour pie-charts of appropriate ratios of different food groups, all the yummy, fatty foods were squashed into a sliver of 'pie', whilst veg and dairy products were huge in comparison. Like any mother wanting to do good by her child, I went about finding 101 ways of making spinach enticing. I was also advised to keep a diary of what my daughter ate - a sure-fire way to make mealtimes hell.

Then in the summer we went on a family holiday to Italy where my friends' children were reared on sweet biscuits for breakfast and the tinned babyfood has sugar and salt added. All three children are healthy and gorgeous, of course. You can guess what I did with the food diary...

Alka Sehgal London

The case for kids

I was disappointed with the response to Ann Furedi's article ('The case for kids', November), which I thought gave some thought-provoking insights into the anxieties endemic in contemporary life. I think it is only too true that these fears ensnare us, particularly in our most intimate lifestyle choices.

The best I can say for the letters you published (LM-mail, February) is that they confirmed just how frightened people can be these days: the first fretting over how much it costs to bring up a child and complaining that the wrong people are still having children too young; the second wailing about the increased responsibilities of parenthood and suggesting that potentially the best parents are the ones who decide never to have children. I can reassure your correspondents that such fears are just like the old boogie man you thought was under the bed. Having children around is great fun; the kids (and the parents) are all right.

Bernadette Whelan London

Manufactured opinion?

I agree with Tony Gilland about the disturbing trend of government and scientific bodies invoking public opinion to justify their own fears about genetic research ('Genes, Greens and Soya Beans', February). At the end of January the Human Genetics Advisory Commission (HGAC) along with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) issued a consultation paper seeking views on the ethics of cloning. 'It is the public who should control science and not the other way round', said HGAC chairman Sir Colin Campbell. Yet the HFEA paper announced it will ban the cloning of human beings from the outset and limit its consultation to the 'controversial' use of cloning technology to treat and avoid disease.

Readers may remember the HFEA from a few years ago, when it conducted a consultation exercise about the use of foetal ovarian tissue for IVF treatment. On that occasion the authority again displayed its not-so-neutral credentials by raising groundless fears about the 'psychological effect on a child knowing that it was born from an egg derived from a cadaver or an aborted foetus'; and the tone of the public debate was set by the HFEA's senior medic telling the press that 'my reaction to the idea of using foetal tissue is "yuk".'

Medical and public consultation bodies may believe that they are promoting understanding and empowerment, but more often than not they are hiding behind the skirts of public opinion and promoting their own prejudices.

John Webster Leeds

Growing intelligence

We are seeing today the old arguments resurrected and brought forth in another guise. How is intelligence measured? Is there an intelligence quotient that can be measured? Is there an intelligence gene? These are all part of the divisive technique that is celebrated in the hymn about the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. The current version is the 'clever gene', that is, the gene that is supposed to decide if you are a plonker. And if the supposed divide in intelligence fits in with the real divisions in society, all the better - the one will be used to justify the other.

Once our forebears stood erect on two feet instead of four, it allowed the development of the hand we know as man's. This new hand allowed man to manipulate his environment and encouraged him to work with others, which in turn created the need for sophisticated communication and the development of language and speech. And so man arose as the master and manipulator of nature by his own efforts. Today when mankind is portrayed as some bungling idiot flopping from one disaster to another, it is as well to keep in mind our real capabilities. No limit to our capacity for intellectual development has been reached. Who can compare our intellectual ability today with that of the last century, never mind the last thousand years? Who is to measure something that is developing and has yet to reach a plateau?

Dave Hallsworth Manchester

Insufficient consensus

Monica McWilliams (LM-mail, February) says it was a considerable achievement for the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition to have received 7731 votes in May 1996, given that it was founded only six weeks previously. This may be so, but the question I raise in my article ('Look who's talking', November 1997) is whether an organisation with so few votes deserves to be put on a par with mass political parties like the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

McWilliams argues that 'sufficiency of consensus' does not give the Women's Coalition a 'veto on the process' (I never said it did), but that it seeks their support as 'one of the eight parties required to reach a majority'. But why should the UUP (over 250 000 votes at the last count) have to seek the support of her group (3024 votes at the last count) to push forward a political proposal? It is just as well we do not have 'sufficiency of consensus' in Britain (yet), since it would seem to involve New Labour or the Tories having to tailor their proposals to take account of the Natural Law Party.

'Sufficiency of consensus' is designed to ensure that the majority pro-Unionist view does not prevail over the 'equally valid' views of nationalists and other minorities. I have always opposed British domination of Ireland, hitherto implemented through Unionism and the gerrymandering of a spurious majority in the artificially-created six-county province of Ulster. But I always thought that the solution was to have more democracy, by getting rid of Partition and letting the majority of Irish people decide how to run their affairs. McWilliams suggests that majoritarianism is itself the problem.

McWilliams accuses me of being a 'dinosaur' while her Coalition is one of 'the new voices heading into the twenty-first century'. At 23 I am no 'dinosaur', but I will defend democracy whether it is being attacked by Unionists, the British government or a clique of politically correct women.

Brendan O'Neill Edgware, Middlesex

The what's NOT on guide

DERRY CLOSE: When Tony Blair's former head of chambers Derry Irvine called for 'prior restraint' of newspapers which might otherwise be in breach of privacy, the Daily Telegraph dubbed him 'Lord Censor' and Number 10, we were told, was keen to distance the PM from his remarks. Shortly afterwards the voice of Number 10, Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell, censured the 'downmarket and dumbed-down' BBC for giving too much airtime to the extra-marital activity of foreign secretary Robin Cook - the same story which the Lord Chancellor had cited as the sort of news which ought to be screwed by 'prior restraint'. (Singled out by comedian Sean Hughes and quizzed as to whether he has 'ever had sex in the middle of the day in your living room?', the press-gag peer remained silent in his seat in the front row of Islington's Almeida Theatre - a case of 'prior restraint', presumably.)

SHIRTY: Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran have come under fire for Mosley (Channel 4), their portrayal of the British fascist leader. The two scriptwriters are Jewish and were advised that this might help in their bid to dramatise Sir Oswald Mosley's life. The Marks and Gran version made it to the screen - but not without incident. Leading the charge on Mosley is the Daily Mail - no relation to the paper of the same name which once said 'Hurrah for the blackshirts!'.

PUNCHED: Wiltshire county council ordered copies of a Punch and Judy book to be withdrawn from libraries. The council acted after parent Paul Kernton complained about the 'sickening' violence of scenes in which Punch tricks a policeman into putting his head in a noose and hangs him, coshes Judy, and bangs their baby's head to get it to sleep. A spokesman for the Police Federation said that the book 'sent completely the wrong message', adding: 'we are constantly having to counter this sort of thing. We recently took action against a video game which awards points for mowing down policemen in a car chase. It just doesn't encourage any respect for law and order.' Given the Home Office's intention to ban replica firearms, presumably children will soon be barred from playing cops'n'robbers. And unless those Peter Rabbit books are withdrawn soon, can we expect a wave of copy-rabbit lettuce heists?

FREE VETTING: Headlined 'The Sunday Service', an advert in the County Down Spectator featured a naked woman sitting on a swing with her arms outstretched as in a crucifixion. Not content with an apology from the Lava Lounge club night in Bangor, Northern Ireland, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) upheld a complaint of blasphemy and advised the advertisers 'to seek copy advice in future', ie, have their copy vetted before publication. In its monthly report, the ASA claimed that the role it plays is 'an essential part of commercial free speech'.

DARK DAYS: Bernie Grant MP and the local Council for Racial Equality (CRE) objected to Darkie Day, when the people of Padstow customarily paint themselves black and parade through the Cornish town. CRE chair Eileen Bothery said 'I am not black and it offends me'. Meanwhile Padstow's only black resident was said to be 'bemused by the whirlwind of disapproval'; and black pundit Darcus Howe suggested that Darkie Day was a celebration of the abolition of slavery.

CROSSED: The Roman Catholic bishop of Salford and the Catholic Union of Mothers (CUM) have objected to the transfer of the Manchester United v Liverpool fixture to 3pm on Good Friday, allegedly at the behest of less-than-heavenly BSkyB, who will broadcast it live. If fans cannot be persuaded to go to church instead of the match, CUM has asked for a two minute silence in memory of the man who was prostrated on the cross but got up and scored three days later.

SENT OFF: Gateshead council is applying to the Department of Transport for permission to ban ball games on the streets of the borough. Local soccer hero Malcolm MacDonald protested that outlawing street football will 'do untold damage to the North East' and harm 'the whole football pyramid'. Such a ban would have stunted the development of Paul Gascoigne and the brothers Charlton. A spokes-man said that even if the transport ministry rejects the application, the council would have recourse to the Road Traffic Act 1980 which 'makes it a specific offence for a person to play football in the street to the annoyance of the road user'. Game over.

OFF LIMITS: The prime minister has banned 'furious' cabinet ministers from going to France to watch World Cup games. So now they too know what it is like to be barred from their favourite game.

TAKE OFF: The Association of Chief Police Officers is likely to ask for the legal power to order people to remove hoods and balaclavas. It looks like the days are numbered for the Boyz 'n the Hood.

WE ARE NOT AMUSED: The entire print run of PTQ, the student magazine of Queen's University Belfast, was pulped because it contained a page of Diana jokes.

Reproduced from LM issue 108, March 1998

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