Saturday, July 5, 2008

It's a Boy Thing. No, Wait. It's a Girl Thing, Too.

M. Peevie and I walked around the neighborhood on July 3, looking for the best places to see local (illegal) fireworks displays. As we were walking toward an alley that seemed to be the source of promising booms and flashes, we caught up with another mom and kid, seeking the same thrills.

We found a safe spot to watch the rockets' red glare, and M. Peevie immediately started talking to the little boy, who appeared to be nine or ten years old. "Do you like Pokemon cards?" she asked him. "My brother likes Pokemon cards, and he gives me some of his cards."

Neighbor-mom--let's call her Rhonda--said, "Oh, yes, Matthew loves Pokemon cards. It's a boy thing."

M. Peevie continued, without taking a breath or waiting for an answer from Matthew. "Do you like baseball cards? A. Peevie like baseball cards, too. He collects them. He has about a thousand. He even has a Babe Ruth card."

The boy may have tried to get a word in edgewise, but between M. Peevie's chatter and the frequent explosions, he really didn't stand a chance.

"She's a chatterbox," I told the mom. "She'll talk his ear off."

"Oh, that's what girls do," the mom said. "Boys don't talk as much."

Mmmmmkay, I thought. She's never met C. Peevie, obviously. Then, a few minutes later, the boy/girl comparison came up again. The boy was getting too close to the action for the mom's comfort level. "Matthew, come back here," she cautioned him, and then she turned to me. "Boys!" she said, noticing that M. Peevie had stayed back in the safe zone. "They're just so careless."

While we watched the backyard pyrotechs ignite Roman candles and aerial repeaters, Rhonda and I talked about schools, neighborhoods and parenting. Four or five more times she made references to boy/girl differences: "Oh, that's because he's a boy," she'd say; or "It's a girl thing."

It's strange to me that Rhonda assumed that so much of what happens around her, so much of what other people do, is directly tied to their gender. I wondered if she felt that way about adults, too, or if it was just children's actions that could be boxed up and labeled so neatly. It made me feel a little sad on behalf of her children, who are probably being short-changed by their mom's unconscious labeling.

It also bothered me in a sociological kind of way. If it's not just Rhonda, but it's a pervasive way of looking at the world, then I think this kind of thinking is not just inaccurate, but also disturbing and dangerous. If we assume that boys behave a certain way because they're boys, we're saying that they're not really responsible for their behaviors and choices. Same with girls.

If we say boys are good at certain things, and girls are not--or vice versa--we're unnecessarily limiting our expectations for them, and also probably limiting the opportunities and experiences that we expose them to. We won't urge our daughters to excel at math and science, for example; or we will nudge our boys away from nurturing career paths like social work and teaching--when these might actually be where their gifts lie. What an unnecessary waste!

It even bugs me when I purchase a kid meal at a fast-food joint, and the drive-through cashier asks me if I want a toy for a boy or for a girl. I have tried to keep that kind of toy sexism out of our family lexicon--but alas! it has crept in. My boys have very definite opinions about what is acceptable for a boy to play with--and the only way they'd be seen playing with a Barbie is if they were playing a game that involved throwing, mutilating, or dismembering it.

(Toy sexism doesn't go the other way in our household, though. M. Peevie is perfectly happy to play with anything that her brothers enjoy: Pokemon cards, action figures (the male-acceptable version of dolls), Hot Wheels, and tiny green army guys.)

But back to my point: I wonder if there is actual data that supports Rhonda's assumption that boys and girls are so inherently different (or possibly, that they are typically socialized so differently) that you can associate certain behaviors with their gender. Anyone?

I've read a couple of good books about parenting boys that, if I remember correctly, dispute those narrow, gender-based notions. Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon, and Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from they Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack. Maybe I'll try to post a review of these books in the next week or so for those of you who are parenting boys and who would like some sociological perspective.

I'm sure there's at least two of you out there.


Anonymous said...

Hi E. Really sad how narrow minded that lady is, but unfortunately, I think she's in the majority. One of my very well educated friends, really, really freaked out when his son would come over and put on my girls' dress up shoes, crowns, gowns and jewelry. This was before the boy was 5. "Are you a girl?" was asked loudly and forcefully. As for my girls, I kept keep my first dd's toys gender neutral as well as her clothes. But kids are who they are. She is uber girly. Sometimes I wonder if my efforts backfired LOL. My little one loves cars but is heavily influenced by her older sis.

Steve said...

Hi e. peevie,

Great to read about your children! On this gender issue, I can't cite chapter and verse of studies, but people as credible, to my mind anyway, as Gary Smalley say there are some hardwired influences of nature, not just nurture, on how and how much boys and girls / men and women talk, how they go about shopping, etc. But that doesn't mean everybody fits, or should fit, on the same point of the bell curve with respect to any one of these things.

I certainly share your concern not to limit a child's potential by saying only boys, or only girls, can do a particular thing well. Why don't we all just go with the flow of the child's manifest abilities and interests?

My wife and I got really into Gilmore Girls. We watched every single episode of every season on DVD. Our two boys, aged 11 and 6, also got into it. Still, whenever it was their turn to choose, they seem to have an ingrained preference for Star Wars and anything with action and noise.

Now this thing lilia said about a boy in girl's clothing is curious. I mean, didn't mothers in a previous generation purposely dress up their little boys in what sure as heck looks to me like a dress, and have them professionally photographed in it? And that was a pretty macho culture back then. I've never quite figured that out. Maybe the mothers just wanted to have an instrument by which to blackmail their sons, by threatening to show it to people when they're teenagers! ;-)

E. Peevie said...

Lilia and Steve,

Thanks for commenting. It's a shame when parents use shame as a corrective measure, no matter what the concern is.

Steve, I don't know how credible Smalley is on this issue. I checked out his web site, and he tends to make gender-based generalizations without supporting them with research/data.

I think much of what passes for research on gender differences lies somewhere closer to "bogus" than "boffo" on the reliability scale.

I can feel another post simmering on this topic.