Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Boys will be boys if we make them

I've been thinking about gender differences after this article came out the New York Times: "Math Scores Show No Gap for Girls, Study Finds".

"Although boys in high school performed better than girls in math 20 years ago, the researchers found that is no longer the case. [...]

"'Now that enrollment in advanced math courses is equalized, we don’t see gender differences in test performance,” said Marcia C. Linn of the University of California, Berkeley, a co-author of the study. “But people are surprised by these findings, which suggests to me that the stereotypes are still there.'


"The researchers looked at the average of the test scores of all students, the performance of the most gifted children and the ability to solve complex math problems. They found, in every category, that girls did as well as boys. [...]

"Janet Hyde, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who led the study, said the persistent stereotypes about girls and math had taken a toll.

"'The stereotype that boys do better at math is still held widely by teachers and parents,” Dr. Hyde said. “And teachers and parents guide girls, giving them advice about what courses to take, what careers to pursue. I still hear anecdotes about guidance counselors steering girls away from engineering, telling them they won’t be able to do the math.'"

It brought back to me that old debate about nature vs. nurture when it comes to gender roles, and I looked at how I treat Mikko in terms of his boyness.

male femaleI found that the toys we've bought for him and that others have bought for him are gender neutral or considered by our culture to be masculine. Examples of the former are stuffed animals (allowed for young boys), puzzles, and word games. Examples of the latter are vehicles of every kind, Mega Bloks, and a pirate sword.

I started imagining what I would be playing with if we'd had a girl and realized that what's missing is any sort of human stuffed animal, i.e., a doll, and anything that could be remotely construed as girly: tea sets, play kitchens, all things pink.

Did my son pick out the toys he has and reject the others? Absolutely not. It's all on our heads.

In fact, he much prefers real objects to toys anyway. He has endless fun exploring "girly" items like whisks and measuring cups as he watches his father cook for the family, and he goes crazy for the broom when I'm sweeping and loves to help water the plants with his own watering can. We tried getting him his own mini-broom, but he prefers the one that's twice as tall as he is as he scootches around with it. I have to finish sweeping once he's asleep, because he won't give it back!

So, clearly, he wasn't born with a gender bias, and I can see how it easily could develop. That's not to say there aren't biological differences in the sexes. Some are quite obvious, such as, oh, genitalia. But I can tell how easily a child can be guided into the direction of behaving "appropriately" for his or her gender. I considered myself open-minded, a feminist, and here I am making vroom-vroom noises before he's the least bit interested in cars or trucks, showing him how to work a fake tool set, and cringing from the thought of playing babydoll with him.

I'm not even sure exactly how I feel about all this, because my child will need to grow up to fit into his society. Is it bad that a lot of gender behavior is culturally influenced? And, anyway, it's not possible to raise a child in a cultural vacuum where no direction into gender roles is given at all. And how much of gender-specific behavior is due just to personality, ingrained genetically at birth? So how accepting of it should I be, and how much should I challenge myself to stand back and let him follow his own path?

I realize that these aspects of gender inculcation occurred to me so late only because I had a boy -- I think, as a feminist, with a girl I would have been more aware of the dynamics earlier, worrying that I was unconsciously teaching her to be quiet and submissive and pleasing, whereas I don't often worry that I'm teaching Mikko to be loud and dominant and assertive.

I had heard a lot of parents say that they tried to supply only gender-neutral toys, but then their boys started turning bananas into guns and their girls started carrying around footballs like babies. But left out of this resignation to gender differences was how these preschool or older kids had been treated their whole lives -- is it really possible to treat a baby as gender-neutral? As I've just shown in my treatment of Mikko, even before he's showing any gender preferences, we're providing him with the supplies and encouragement to become more masculine than feminine.

I think Sam & I are each an interesting mix of feminine and masculine characteristics, neither of us fitting neatly into our gender's mold. And, yet, we certainly have our share of typical traits and don't stand out as radically other to our society. I wouldn't mind if Mikko grew up like us, minus some of the discomfort that our other-gender characteristics have caused us culturally.

I'm using a lot of "I think"s and hedging, supposing talk, so clearly I don't have the answers to any of my questions yet. I will be more aware of it, though -- and I'll have to look for a babydoll somewhere. It's never to early to learn how to babywear, right?


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