Boys and Girls
January 24, 2005
It is almost irresistible to talk about sex differences with other parents of young children. Watching the interplay of nature and nurture, the emerging of an individual personality in our kids, we find all kinds of ways of marveling at the big mystery of life: Where did you come from, we ask our children. Who are you? What goes on in that little brain of yours?
How much do we have to do with who our children are, and how much is some essential being all their own? These unanswerable questions are endlessly fascinating.
This is one reason Harvard President Larry Summers's provocative comments about girls and science caused such a stir. Besides the obviously maddening history of male academics proposing that women are men's intellectual inferiors, there is the eternal question--what makes us tick?
A few days after Summers's infamous comments made the news, I found myself pondering these issues for more personal reasons. Friends came to dinner and brought their six-year-old boy. My three-year-old daughter was delighted to have a playmate, and spent much of the evening trying to engage him in fantasy games. The boy complied occasionally--but being older, and a boy, he had other ideas. When she was a princess, he was a dragon. When she cooked him food on her little plastic dishes, he pushed it away and blasted off into space. You can easily imagine the scene. What really took me aback, though, was when this little boy found a spider in our basement, and, lovingly picking it up, informed us that "arachnids are my favorite animals." He played with the spider a long time, gently holding it and watching it roll itself into a ball, then letting it skitter across his hand. I was morbidly spellbound. My daughter lost it--shrieking and wailing. Good grief, I thought, we've raised a girlie girl.
I am convinced that a better woman than I--one who didn't have my arachnophobia--could raise a girl as cheerfully adept at playing with creeping things as this young boy. (At one point he asked her "do you like scorpions?" Informed that scorpions eat spiders, my daughter looked relieved and proclaimed, "I like scorpions!!")
Then again, when she was only about ten months old, my daughter was presented with a fuzzy toy spider that skittered across the floor when you pulled a string. She gave a very visible shudder and retreated, crying. Hard wiring? Subtly telegraphed response from adults? I just don't know.
There is no way we will ever get a clear answer to all our nature/nurture questions, because there is no way to take ourselves out of the equation altogether--parents, teachers, society have so much sway over how children see themselves. And how they see themselves affects who they become.
Take the classic experiment with infants, in which adults are told that the same babies have different genders, and are then left to play with them.
When they think the infants are boys, the adults are less responsive, rougher. With girls they mirror the children's emotions, offer more comfort, take a gentler approach. By one year of age, if babies raised as one gender are found to be the other (because of ambiguous genitalia), lasting psychological difficulties ensue--so strong is our cultural conditioning even before we learn to talk.
You see it all the time with parents. A tiny bald baby is "all boy," they say. A girl who picks up a truck is ignored, then cooed over when she picks up a doll. Moms and dads, grandparents and teachers selectively reinforce gender-appropriate behavior.
And yet . . . even the most carefully nonsexist parents laugh about what seem to be innate stereotypical behaviors. In a group of toddlers, my friends and I watch the girls do all the talking, concocting elaborate fantasy games, while the boys sit in the corner playing with trains--until some bossy girl tells them what role to take. Are little boys really more interested in figuring out things than people? Do we teach our girls to be social butterflies by the age of three? Is it us? Is it them? Anecdotes and speculation go on and on.
One thing is certain, though. As a parent it is the path of least resistance to "go with the flow" of what we half-jokingly call the "gender indoctrination process"--looking around at all the princess-and-fairy costumes, books, and toys in our household dominated by two little girls.
What seems a greater shame than gender stereotypes is when adults are so intent on projecting their own ideas on kids that they miss some of the brilliant, beautiful, and charmingly quirky traits that make kids their own unique selves. This deadening tendency to jam people into boxes, and wall off whole areas of human endeavor, is what women and girls have long struggled against. It seeps into kids' brains.
The limits are internalized. Perhaps that's why, as Natalie Angier, the wonderful science writer in The New York Times, notes, top-scoring girls on math aptitude tests are only 60 percent as likely as boys to pursue science or engineering careers. This is the very topic Summers was taking up when he suggested that perhaps women are innately not as good at math and science, and that accounts for their underrepresentation in the field. The real problem, it would appear, is that the women who do go down that road are only the very most qualified. All sorts of mediocre male math students are undeterred in pursuing science careers--perhaps because they have an inflated sense of their abilities, not born out by tests.
As long as that's the case, we need to be careful not to squelch girls' interest in science.
Just please don't tell me I have to learn to play with spiders.