Monday, December 27, 2010

On Ballerinas And Football Players: The Failure of Gender-Neutral Parenting


This week I'm going to write up some of the ideas I got from reading on the science of sex differences, off-the-cuff mostly and as short summaries of certain topics which keep cropping up in the books.

The first of them is that clever quip of one of the bully boyz of EP (the scary type of evolutionary psychology; I use the capitals for them). It goes like this:

What are the people called who don't believe in innate sex differences? Answer: Childless.

It doesn't come as a great surprise, then, that every single one of the authors of the three books I read mentioned that when they were talking about their book projects, parents would always tell them the same story: They (the parents) brought their children up in a gender-neutral fashion, and what did they get? Girls in pink ballet tutus and boys in blue football uniforms! Ergo, sex differences are all innate, every single one of them.

Well, it's pretty clear that upbringing has much to do with such differences (as I will discuss in later posts this week), but sure, some differences are most likely innate. Though ballet tutus and football uniforms or the color preferences for blue or pink are not. They are all culture-coded as things that girls can like and things that boys can like. Go into any toy store and check for yourselves.

A Theory About Gender And Toys

Indeed, I was very pleased to find my own theory about how this gender-coding happens mentioned in one of the books, though of course proposed by someone else. It goes like this:

Children at a certain age appear to have a very strong need to determine their own sex and how that sex is supposed to behave. They become little gender police officers, forcing other children to follow the same rules. This need may well be innate (though see later in this post).

What the cues are for how one's sex behaves depends on the culture the children find themselves in. For example, a child growing up in an African tribe where only men weave will soon learn to think of weaving as something men do, but a child growing up in an African tribe where only women weave will soon learn to think of weaving as something women do. It happens that there have been tribes with both these gendered divisions of labor, and though I made up the example of how children might react to them, it's not an unlikely consequence of a gendered world that boys would try weaving in one tribe and refuse to try it in the other tribe, and vice versa for girls.

Note that this doesn't necessarily mean that there wouldn't be innate differences in children's play. It's just to point out that things like the colors pink and blue are clearly societal and not something to do with genes. They only became firmly connected with gender in the current order (at first pink was proposed for boys as the more virile color of the two) less than a hundred years ago.

How would one test the theory I summarized above?

Ideally, children should be brought up in the middle of nowhere so that they get hold of no television or other images that have to do with sex and gender, and, ideally, all the adults should model reverse gender roles.

Why Gender-Neutral Child-Rearing Is Impossible

Such an experiment is impossible. But so is the experiment of bringing children up in a gender-neutral fashion in a world where practically NOTHING is gender-neutral. What the parents say about this may not be what they do, in any case, but even if they tried their utmost, the society will cause the plot to backfire.

Cordelia Fine makes the point best in Delusions of Gender (pp 209-210):

Imagine, for a moment, that we could tell at birth (or even before) whether a child was left-handed or right-handed. By convention, the parent of left-handed babies dress them in pink clothes, wrap them in pink blankets, and decorate their rooms with pink hues. The left-handed baby's bottle, bibs and pacifiers -- and later, cups, plates and utensils, lunch box, and backpack -- are often pink or purple with motifs such as butterflies, flowers and fairies. Parents tend to let the hair of left-handers grow long, and while it is still short in babyhood a barrette or a bow (often pink) serves as a stand-in. Right-handed babies, by contrast, are never dressed in pink, nor do they ever have pink accessories or toys. Although blue is a popular color for right-handed babies, as they get older any color, excluding pink and purple, is acceptable. Clothing and other items for right-handed babies and children commonly portray vehicles, sporting equipment, and space rockets; never butterflies, flowers or fairies. The hair of right-handers is usually kept short and never prettified with accessories.

Nor do parents just segregate left- and right-handers symbolically; with color and motif, in our imaginary world. They also distinguish between them verbally. "Come on left-handers!" cries out the mother of two left-handed children in the park. "Time to go home." Or they might say, "Well, go and ask that right-hander if you can have a turn on the swing now." At playgroup, children overhear comments like, "Left-handers love drawing, don't they," and "Are you hoping for a right-hander this time?" to a pregnant mother. At preschool, the teacher greets them with a cheery, "Good morning, left-handers and right-handers." In the supermarket, a father says proudly in response to a polite enquiry, "I've got three children altogether, one left-hander and two right-handers."

And finally, although left-handers and right-handers happily live together in homes and communities, children can't help but notice that elsewhere they are often physically segregated. The people who care for them -- primary caregivers, child care workers, and kindergarten teachers, for example -- are almost all left-handed, while building sites and garbage trucks are peopled by right-handers. Public restrooms, sport teams, many adult friendships, and even some schools, are segregated by handedness.

You get the idea.

It's not hard to imagine that in such a society, even very young children would soon learn that there are two categories of people -- right-handers and left-handers -- and would quickly proficient in using markers like clothing and hairstyle to distinguish between the two kinds of children and adults. But also, it seems more than likely that children would also come to think that there must be something fundamentally important about whether one is a right-hander or a left hander, since so much fuss and emphasis is put on the distinction. Children will, one would imagine, want to know what it means to be someone of a particular handedness and to learn what sets apart a child of one handedness from those with a preference for the other hand.

We tag gender in exactly these ways, all of the time.
I borrowed such a long quote because it is an important one. Bringing a child up in a gender-neutral fashion is impossible in a society which regards gender as the crucial aspect of children. Just think of the first question people ask of new parents.

What Do Children's Toy Choices Share?

At this point I'd like to turn the science of gender differences upside down and pay a bit more attention to gender similarities in toy choice.

Gender-neutral toys are many and include various games, balls, coloring books, crayons and building blocks. (At least this is true in studies of children's play, though Legos and Lincoln Logs are now stocked with boys' toys in toy stores.) But those are not the ones I want to discuss here. Instead, I want to ask what the pink ballerina outfits and the blue football uniforms share.

A funny thing happens when you ask that question, or at least it happened to me. I immediately realized that ballerinas and princesses are the female equivalent of football players and space heros.

These are all highly valued roles for individuals of a particular gender. In short, both girls and boys aim high in their play schemes, even though they pick their heroes on the basis of a gendered code. Note also that ballet is a strenuous physical exercise. When girls' choices are discussed, we rarely notice the similarity between ballerinas and football players in that sense.

And One Final Difference

I'm concluding this post by drawing your attention to one difference between girls and boys which crops up in study after study but doesn't seem to get much attention. This is the fact that the aversion towards the toys of the other sex is not symmetrical. Boys refuse "girls' toys" more than girls refuse "boys' toys" and play with them shorter lengths of time when they are not refused.

I found this pattern fascinating, because traces of it can be seen in the behavior of adults (in, say the percentages of men and women who read books written by the other gender), too, and because "a tomboy" is mostly not punished for her behavior but "a sissy" is (this is an actual research term, believe it or not!).

What causes the stronger gender-coding by boys (and men)? Is it the fact that they have more to lose from gender-deviant behavior, given that women still have less power, in general? Could it be that parents discourage "gender-deviant" play more for boys than for girls because of the differential costs of it for each sex? Or is there a "girls have cooties" gene?

Well, I doubt that last theory myself.