21 February 2006

on gender differences and parenting

I've been thinking some more lately about the "boy crisis" and about the differences between boys and girls in general. I've just finished reading Mismeasure of Women: Why Women Are Not the Better Sex, the Inferior Sex, or the Opposite Sex, by Carol Tavris, and it gave me a lot to think about. It was written in 1992, so it's not exactly current, but also not completely outdated. I'd like to believe that culture has changed at least a little since this book was written, or maybe I am privileged by the company I keep, because I don't see that some of the assumptions that Tavris bases her arguments on are clearly the standard of American thinking today. (And Greg informs me that medical research as described in the book has certainly improved over the last decade.)

It was a good read, and although I didn't agree entirely with everything Tavris wrote, I felt I learned a lot, particularly in examining the way I think about gender. I thought it was a timely read, too, coming on the heels of the Newsweek article and the general uproar in the blogosphere over what to do about poor disadvantaged American boys. Let me say before I get too far that I haven't come to any kind of a clear conclusion on this topic, but it's something I think will give me a lot of thought, especially while my boys are growing up.

But there's one thing I want to focus on in this post, one buzzword that keeps cropping up all over the place: hardwired. People use this word to explain all kinds of things, but I'm not sure I'm buying it. If boys are hardwired, for example, to be more aggressive than girls, than won't my boys naturally prefer football and wrestling to tennis and golf, even if I encourage them otherwise? If boys' brains are hardwired in favor of math and science over reading, then why are there male novelists, why are there female scientists, why does James love to read so much? If boys are hardwired to be less nurturing than girls, I had better start saving for retirement and old age now, since I can't rely on my boys to take care of me when I'm eighty.

There are differences between men and women, obviously, in biology and physiology and body chemistry. But are there really such significant effects from those differences? I think there's a danger in labelling certain behaviors or characteristics as "hardwired" -- it's too simplistic. It lets us off the hook for taking responsibility for ourselves and our children. To write off male aggression, for example, as "hardwired", "boys will be boys" behavior, normalizes the behavior and frees men, or the parents of boys, from taking responsibility for the effects of that aggression.

To label certain characteristics as "hardwired" denies that people can or should change, and maybe I'm too idealistic, but I think that can't be true. If my boys are "hardwired" to have certain behaviors, certain aptitudes, then why am I putting such effort into parenting them at all? If they're naturally meant to be aggressive, then why should I discipline them for hitting another kid? Should I expect James to listen to his (female) preschool teacher, to sit quietly and pay attention when required at school, if society doesn't believe he should have to act like a civil human being? This is what really gets me about this "hardwired" stuff -- I take it as a personal insult. It implies that there are certain facets of my childrens' personalities, their very beings, over which I have no influence. If that's the case, why did I take this job in the first place? It's the old nature vs nurture debate, and a lot of people seem to be coming down on the side of nature lately. Well, I can't do it. I can't believe that my nurturing will have no effect on my children, or I might as well stop right now.


Anonymous said...

*you* should write articles for newsweek, my dear! seriously. this was a wonderful and insightful read. especially because not being a parent i don't usually think about these issues (being an aunt hardly compares).

i so totally agree with what you're saying. this whole thing reminds me of the "he's like that, he can't change" cliche that annoys the hell out of me (especially when coming from a mouth of a wife who's being abused, for example). i don't think anyone is simply predisposed to aggression, hyperactivity, quietness etc. and especially not just because they're male/female. it's all a puzzle of a million pieces, personality features, upbringing, society and tons more. i also don't believe people can't change. they always can, if they want to.

hope you have a great day! :)

kim said...

Good post! I heard a person on a radio talk show arguing once that it's near impossible to tell what gender characteristics are solely genetically determined and what are socially determined because the social influences begin so early. By the time a kid is a preschooler, he has already observed so much human behavior and received subtle and not-so-subtle cues from adults and his peers. He may naturally have more aggressive tendencies but how those are cultivated, expressed, or amplified is rooted in the social ecosystem around him.

Anonymous said...

i keep forgetting to thank you for your lovely e-card, so thanks :) have a nice day!

Samay said...

Dude - respond to my email...