Our gendered world

by Eszter Hargittai on August 20, 2004

A propos this very interesting discussion about gendered pronouns, and à propos all the babies being born in my social circles, I thought I’d post a note about the salience of gender the moment we are born. I became an aunt last week and so the following has come up a lot in the past few days. The first thing everybody wants to know about the baby is its (their?:) gender. At first I was not hiding this bit of information on purpose, but by now I consciously phrase announcements about the event in gender-neutral terms to see how long it takes for the other party to ask whether it is a boy or a girl. As you can imagine, it doesn’t take long. One may argue that this is because, grammatically speaking, people are unable to ask questions about the baby without knowing its gender. But I think it is more than that. Our world is so gender-based that it is hard for people to think about a person without knowing the person’s gender. But what is it exactly about a baby that makes it necessary for us to know its gender? In what ways is it going to be important? Is it so we can say whether the baby is beautiful versus handsome? Is it so we know what types of presents to get for it? If yes then we are off on the path of gendered socialization the moment the little person takes its first breath. All this shows the pressure parents must be under to choose between girl and boy when a child is born sex unknown.

UPDATE: I thought I should add a bit to this post drawing on some work by sociologists who actually study this stuff. Some people in the comments – and elsewhere as well, I am sure – argue that if you look at the behavior of girls and boys already at an early stage you will observe their different preferences for certain colors and activities. We should not forget, however, that it is not possible to raise children in an isolated manner and their social environments – as evidenced by the anecdote in this post – start differentiating them by gender from the start. So the fact that a girl may opt for a “girlie” toy or pink may simply be a reflection of what she has already picked up from her surroundings. It is interesting to note, however, that historically pink and blue were assigned to girls and boys in the exact reverse of today’s conventions. I quote from Padavic and Reskin, Women and Men at Work (p.4.):

Clothing for babies illustrates the creation of sex differences in appearance that have no natural basis. Disposable-diaper manufacturers, for example, market different designs for girls and boys. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, however, male and female infants were dressed alike—usually in white dresses. When Americans began to color code babies’ clothing, they dressed boys in pink and girls in blue. Not until amost 1950 did the convention reverse, with blue becoming defined as masculine and pink as feminine (Kidwell and Steele 1989:24-27). Such shifts demonstrate that what is critical for maintaining and justifying unequal treatment between the sexes is not how cultures set the sexes apart but the fact that they do it at all.

Also, for a very good look at children in their early years, read Barry Thorne’s book on Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School.

{ 47 comments }

1

Peter Levine 08.20.04 at 5:49 pm

I don’t know about other people, but I always ask about a newborn baby’s sex because I want to show interest in the child, and what else is there to ask about? Babies don’t have favorite hobbies or political preferences. (They do have height and weight, and I ask about those figures too, when I remember.)

On your broader point, though: I absolutely agree that gender-stereotyping is rife, even with babies. Highly educated and ambitious Washington Moms and Dads consistently treat their boys and girls differently on our neighborhood’s playgrounds.

2

Ophelia Benson 08.20.04 at 5:54 pm

Yeah it’s funny about that, isn’t it. I think it’s just the only way available to start telling a story about the baby-child-person – in the absence of hobbies, interests, points of view, etc. To start thinking about it and having something to say about it; to start ascribing a personality or character or identity or meaning to it – all loaded words, just as boy and girl, he and she are. Identity (and gender, meaning, etc) are both constricting and limiting, and the necessary condition of not just being a blob of cells.

3

Des von Bladet 08.20.04 at 6:09 pm

One might need to use a pronoun for it (although I’m fine with “it” for babies, personally).

Assuming Hungarian (like Finnish) has gender-free third-person pronouns you’re presumably in a position to refute that immediately, though. (I am so very falsifiable!)

(Is that Ophelia channelling Judith Butler there? Hooda thunkit!)

4

harry 08.20.04 at 6:10 pm

My god, peter, you know some dull babies. Babies round here have interests in classical music, victorian literature, high fashion, and obscure european movies from the sixties.

At least, that’s what their parents tell me.

Mine weren’t dull, they just screamed every waking second, which I took to demonstrate an interest in heavy metal, but my friends though displayed an interest in opera. Fortunately, I turned out to be right. (Girls, both).

5

Ophelia Benson 08.20.04 at 6:17 pm

No! No! No! Not channeling Butler. You can tell, because my post is in English.

6

kevin donoghue 08.20.04 at 7:03 pm

Five comments already and nobody has asked! Does everybody know?

Well, Eszter, is it a boy or a child?

7

dairy queen 08.20.04 at 7:37 pm

“If yes then we are off on the path of gendered socialization the moment the little person takes its first breath.”

That usually begins when you announce you are pregnant. Many people want to know if you are going to try and determine the baby’s sex prior to birth (via ultrasound) so that they will know “what color clothes to buy.”

Our answer to this question was always to say that we were really eager to *meet* the baby, but didn’t feel any need to know the gender prior to birth. And we think little boys look grand in pink onsies. ;)

btw- if you are wondering what to ask new parents or relations about a baby, how about asking how nursing is going, there is always the perennial subject of sleep (baby’s, parents’, quality, quantity, etc etc etc) and I like to ask about the shape of their feet and hands. Fascinating and very, very cute.

8

Ophelia Benson 08.20.04 at 7:46 pm

Yeah but that’s just it. Asking about nursing, sleep, etc – naturally people will do that and it’s interesting in its way, of course, especially to people who for instance aren’t getting much sleep and want to vent. But. It’s a different thing from talking about the baby as a person. I’m thinking that the gender thing is the closest we can come (at this stage) to talking about the baby as a person.

Maybe that’s sort of an absurd impulse – like trying to talk about how people are doing at learning to fly or hang upside-down from branches. But I think it’s an understandable impulse. To hurry to move from the eating-excreting phase to the more interesting stuff.

9

joel turnipseed 08.20.04 at 7:53 pm

…60s experimental movies.

As new father myself (just sunday: a girl, 21″, 14.4 oz.), I never thought to think this early of personality (though homecare nurse eyed wall-length shelves of books in living room, as well as piano, with evident approval).

Now, time to queue up the Tarkovsky, Bunuel, Goddard, Fellini, Bogdanovich, etc.–maybe we’ll start w/Antonioni (or is it Mike Meyers?): “Yeah, Baby, Yeah!”

As for gender stereo-typing, she was already flyfishing in the womb & wears both pink and blue (but we’re NOT queueing up Replacements’ “Androgynous” just yet).

10

Chance the Gardener 08.20.04 at 8:15 pm

I read a textbook on sociology where the author had dressed his toddler son up in a very pink showsuit.

People would be very uncomfortable when they were told that they were mistaken about the assumed gender of the child.

The author went on to say that this is one of the burdens of being the child of a sociologist.

11

common sense 08.20.04 at 9:39 pm

“But I think it is more than that. Our world is so gender-based that it is hard for people to think about a person without knowing the person’s gender. But what is it exactly about a baby that makes it necessary for us to know its gender? In what ways is it going to be important? Is it so we can say whether the baby is beautiful versus handsome? Is it so we know what types of presents to get for it? If yes then we are off on the path of gendered socialization the moment the little person takes its first breath.”

Or maybe people are just curious without any bad intentions and desires to oppress, etc?

12

Dave In Texas 08.20.04 at 9:46 pm

Then again, maybe they ask whether the new baby is a girl or a boy because they know it’s one or the other.

Without doubt, sexual stereotyping can start early. That doesn’t mean ever instance of “Boy or Girl?” is an attempt to assign value by sex. Sometimes, folks just want to give specificity to the event.

The color scheme for our two kids never included pink or blue. We went with yellow. They had plenty of stuffed animals, ‘learning’ toys, Tonka trucks and books or rhymes. We never once hesistated to call them beautiful, because they were.

Yet we never looked askance at anyone calling them ‘boys.’ Because they were that too.

Calling them ‘it’ however, would likely have earned the visitor a chilly reception.

13

Dem 08.20.04 at 9:54 pm

Well, as a adamant supporter of sexual equality, and parent of 4 kids who has observed hundreds of others over the years, I have one comment on gender stereotyping issue:

Yes, such stereotyping IS rife, and it has become more so in recent years. But there is a nature/nurture issue here too. A lot of people won’t want to hear this, but the reality is that Boys’ brains are hard-wired differently than Girls.

A few years back I read an article by a young feminist (self-identified) who was part of a group of young feminist moms who were determined NOT to enforce gender stereotypes. All types of toys and dress for all of their children. But, she and her friends came to realize that they just couldn’t force the girls to play with toys the way the boys did. The one girl who slept with a truck treated it like most kids do a teddy bear — she never moved it on the ground to watch the wheels go, and looked at her mom like she was crazy when her mom suggested it.

I’ve seen the same thing. My mother bought a doll-and-stroller for our oldest two, a boy and a girl, then 1 and 3. My daughter immediately picked up the doll and hugged it. My son turn the stroller over and spinned the wheels.

My oldest daughter got every boy toy there was. They were mostly unused for my son when he hit that age. She consistently picked pink toys at the toy store when given a choice.

When we have a mixed group of young kids over I take out the bin of Chevron toy cars. They have faces and personalities, so all kids love them. But, inevitably, the boys race or collect them and the girls play-act with them.

14

Dem 08.20.04 at 10:03 pm

Also: the first questions I ask when I hear about a new baby are: Gender and Name. Name is usually a good conversation starter. Gender can also be, if the parents had previous children.

Like, what else are you going to ask? I’m not particularly interested in delivery details (experience 4 of my own, thanks), nor in the weight/length/eye color/Apgar score.

15

Cranky Observer 08.20.04 at 10:59 pm

I guess you haven’t taken on too many aunt-ly duties yet. Your chances of being soaked with baby pee, and the direction from which such an event might come, are considerably different with a boy than a girl. Something you need to know before picking up that cute little bundle of fun ;-)

not-so-Cranky-when-playing-with-a-baby

16

Zizka 08.20.04 at 11:23 pm

My niece recently found out that her baby-to-be was a boy after several weeks thinking it was a girl. She already had beby clothes bought. She says she feels as if her little girl died but she got a little boy replacement.

She is very conservative and sex-roled, but also a National Guardsman (Guardsperson).

17

ken 08.20.04 at 11:49 pm

You seem to be assuming that gender is not “intrinsically” or biologically significant, that it’s merely a contingent social/cultural construction.

I don’t think that’s right.

I certainly wouldn’t deny that some, and maybe even most, gender based distinctions are infused with culture or that the significance of gender distinctions vary from culture to culture. But I don’t think one could make much of a case that’s it’s cultural construction “all the way down.” One really only has to watch little girls and boys play and learn and develop to start to be convinced that significant differences are there pretty much from the start.

Indeed, I think one of the best things to happen in recent years is that some cognitive and developmental psychologists have actually started to pay closer attention to differences in the way little boys and little girls learn and develop. Unfortunately, the schools haven’t quite gotten the message entirely. One consequence is that many very bright little boys struggle in educational environments much better suited to their female peers.

18

Neil 08.21.04 at 2:01 am

Dem,

Nature/nurture isn’t as easy to sort out as you think. You don’t reveal the natural propensities of a child by refraining from socializing it in certain ways. In fact, there is good reason to think that the nature/nurtue distinction is in principle inapplicable to individuals, because the ways of sorting them out require examing populations. In any case, socialization is pervasive; you can’t withdraw your child from society (unless you gve it to the wolves). Good example: your daughters’ preference for pink. If pink preference is hard wired into little girls, how come pink only became a ‘feminine’ color sometime between WWI and WWII?

19

Stephen Frug 08.21.04 at 3:16 am

It’s worth noting, along the lines of Dem’s comment, that gender is one of the few things that we don’t know about a baby — there’s just not that much to know. Which is not to say that gender is not important in how we relate to the world (and vice-versa), but that other things simply don’t come up.

A good contrast is what we ask when we hear someone has died. Then we usually know the gender (from the name, or the descriptor (“my grandfather”, or whatever), etc). Other than ‘how’, which we sometimes ask and sometimes not, it seems that the most asked question — the one that is the parallel for death of gender for birth — is how old the person was. (And just as we generally know the deceased’s gender, we always know a new-born baby’s age.)

Just a thought.

SF

20

q 08.21.04 at 7:13 am

_Our world is so gender-based that it is hard for people to think about a person without knowing the person’s gender._

Many rules and procedures are defined and written wih no regard to a person’s gender: I don’t think it is so hard at all. We just think of a generic-person who is genderless – just as the baby in the womb is genderless until it pops out and we try to think of something inoffensive to say about it.

Of course, in cases where a male baby is much preferred than a female baby, the question “Is it a boy or a girl?” takes on some very significant issues.

21

mara 08.21.04 at 8:47 am

I agree that “is it a boy or a girl?” is inocuous, and really one of the only questions available about a newborn, unless you want details of the birth (trust me, you don’t).

More telling are strangers comments a few years later, as little girls are showereed with, “aren’t you pretty?” and little boys with, “my, don’t you look strong.”

22

momo 08.21.04 at 11:30 am

Dem – the reality is that Boys’ brains are hard-wired differently than Girls

That’s a theory, not a “reality”. For every anecdote supporting that idea, there’s another supporting the opposite.

How can you tell which personal preferences are hard-wired based on gender, or on anything else for that matter?

By the time kids can physically play and interact with toys (and with one another), they have inevitably picked up, directly or indirectly, a lot of assumptions about how they should behave, and so many of those assumptions relate to their gender, so it’s impossible to tell if their preferences are just individual, instinctive, or influenced by expectations and cultural models (picked up from parents, school, tv, mates, anything surrounding the child), or a mix of both.

I don’t think there should be an ‘effort’ to ignore gender at all costs. I just think that individual identity comes before gender, so there shouldn’t be _any effort_ to influence a child’s preferences in that sense. You just try and provide them with things to stimulate their curiosity, regardless of gender. A person is a person before being female or male. If they don’t like playing with cars, they may just not like playing with cars.

Sexual differences exist. But I don’t believe that gender in its biological sense is the first and main thing that shapes entirely one’s way of thinking, especially as kids, when sexuality is still not as relevant to behaviour. In kids, it’s individual differences that stand out, and they trascend gender.

But, she and her friends came to realize that they just couldn’t force the girls to play with toys the way the boys did.

Just like you can’t force boys _not_ to play with “girl toys” if they want to.

I didn’t really notice big gender differences in tastes with the male kids I grew up with. I was not a tomboy strictly speaking, but I didn’t much like dolls either, except the Barbies because it was fun to dress them up, and it was fun also for the boys. When I was older and wasn’t playing with Barbies anymore, one of my male cousins asked me if he could have my Barbies, he wasn’t embarassed at all, he didn’t think there was anything strange about that. He loved playing football and doing all the more “typical” boy things. But he didn’t have a problem with barbies, because a) he personally liked them, and b) no one had told him it was wrong for a male to play with barbies. And before you ask, he’s grown up to be a totally average straight young male. He’s just always had an interest in clothes and fashion, to the point of vanity, so I guess the barbies appealed to that trait of his personality. Is vanity it an exclusively “female” trait? I don’t think so. Not in my experience.

I can’t think of a gender divide in those matters that’s so stark as to be called “hard-wired” really – in which sense, genetic? a gene influencing colour and toy preferences? I have a hard time picturing that.

The games we had access to as kids were mostly determined by the era and social environment we grew up in. We didn’t have a lot of toys and our parents certainly didn’t spend a lot on them. They didn’t even spend a lot of time with us because they all worked full time, so they didn’t supervise our playing. We did a lot of playing outdoors, football, volleyball, races, cycling, hunts, challenges, pranks etc. We made up a lot of role-playing games too, so I don’t see where the idea that role-playing is a mainly female thing came from, I’ve certainly never observed that. Indoor games were things like lego’s, card games, toy cars, monopoly, again, if there was a gender divide for those games too, I never noticed.

I never even thought of a male-female divide in relation to games. I only though of a children-adult divide. Adults didn’t play with legos, we did. Girls, boys, we just had the feeling of belonging to the same club and doing things together and having secrets we kept from adults. We were all equally mesmerised by the first videogames and techno-gadgets and such. We loved the same tv shows and cartoons and music, we had the same heroes and idols. We even wore a lot of the same clothes. My mom had me wear a good deal of my older brother’s clothes when they no longer fit him. I wasn’t forced to wear them, I just picked the things I liked. It was practical.

I did get the conditioning and stereotyping later on, during puberty, because that’s where, on the one hand, sexual differences show more clearly, obviously, and on the other hand, social and cultural assumptions on gender become more overt. Parents (esp. the old-fashioned kind like mine were) freak out because you’re growing up and starting to be a sexual being, and so they try and somehow control that. But I didn’t get much of that before.

I do believe there is a lot more gender stereotyping for younger kids today, because there is a much more massive industry catering to them than just twenty years ago, and if you look at the advertising for toys, it’s so stereotyped because that’s the way they can best market those products. That’s where a lot of the so-called “hard-wiring” takes place. It’d be naive to ignore that.

23

eszter 08.21.04 at 11:57 am

Kevin, no one dared ask that question on this thread.;) The baby is a cute little one for sure.:) If I was writing in Hungarian I could go on and on about him without specifying his gender, but alas, English doesn’t allow for that luxury.

Dem, I have posted an update to this entry (see up on top of this page) in response to some of the points you raised. (And I guess some others on here have also nicely addressed your comments as well.)

Dairy queen’s point is well-taken. Yes, most people start gendering the baby the moment any information is available about its sex. My brother and sister-in-law didn’t have this information so no gendering could go on ahead of time.

Neil, thanks for that point. I have added a quote in my update that references information about the historically reversed role of pink and blue for children.

Mara, yup, I was trying to make a similar point when I said people ask about gender to know whether they should say the baby is beautiful versus handsome.

24

ken 08.21.04 at 2:42 pm

Again, there’s all sorts of evidence that makes it clear that at least some gender differences are partly biologically based. It isn’t social construction “all the way down.” Wouldn’t it be really odd if natural selection had designed biological gender into our genome, without it leaving any trace whatsoever on our psychologies, for example?

That’s not to say that biologically based gender differences are intrinsically large. Indeed, that’s part of the magic of culture. it can take small biological differences and ramify them into differneces that are hugely culturally significant. Of course, it can probably also do the opposite to some degree.

If that’s right, there can be cultural variability even if there is some degree of biological “fixity”. Culture and biology are often interactive.

Read Eleanor MacCoby’s The Two Sexes: Growing Apart, Coming Together for a very fair, systematic and nuanced integration of evidence from a variety of data fronts.

25

momo 08.21.04 at 8:05 pm

ken, “biologically based gender differences” are sexual differences. Sex and gender are not exactly the same thing, as is evident in dramatic ways when the two don’t match.

But apart from the intersex cases, physical sexual differences are clear, while gender differences are a whole lot more arbitrary matter because they do involve many social and cultural assumptions.

Knowing whether a baby is a boy or a girl is just natural curiosity, but it is interesting to see how much can be projected on to that definition so early on, precisely because we have yet no manifestation of that individual’s own identity.

It is not a matter of denying biology, it’s just a matter of not reducing everything to biology and talking of “hardwiring” about colour or toy preferences. The human brain and the human psychology are far more complex than what can be reduced to a male/female distinction. All sorts of traits of character – to take a conventional generalisation, extroversion vs. introversion – are present across genders, yet sometimes people talk of those traits like they were gendered themselves, even when there is no basis at all for that idea. The same goes for tastes, preferences, attitudes, interests, skills, etc., those things are neutral and can combine in a million ways, because the ultimate distinction is not female or male, but one person to another. That’s obvious, but when we interpret gender as a set of fixed expectations about certain behaviours, we tend to overlook all that, in ways that we don’t even realise. Especially with kids.

26

Eric Rasmusen 08.21.04 at 8:09 pm

This post sounds like feminist paranoia to me.

As a comment above said:


Like, what else are you going to ask? I’m not particularly interested in delivery details (experience 4 of my own, thanks), nor in the weight/length/eye color/Apgar score.

Of course, people usually *do* ask for weight and length, something I’ve always thought a bit peculiar, since nobody is really interested. Is it because these are fundamental to our identity, and we want to start training the baby to be a proper Fat Person or Tall Person from birth? No– it is because babies are all pretty much alike, but it’s polite to inquire about *something*.

The one really important question is “Any birth defects?”, and one can’t politely ask that one.

27

Dave Reilly 08.22.04 at 2:09 am

Most people ask several questions right off the bat after hearing that a new baby has bounced into the world. All of them are intended to show interest and to find out how mom and baby are doing. Boy or girl? How many pounds? When did she or he arrive? They’re trying to form a picture in their minds of the baby and the event. They’re trying to be sympathetic. And they’re trying, tactfully, to find out if mother and child are healthy.

Only a hyper-intellectual and somewhat solipsistic new parent/aunt/uncle/friend of baby would fret over her/his/its own ideological hobby horses instead of just answering a few direct and well intentioned questions.

28

Flora 08.22.04 at 6:58 am

I’m reminded of the song “It’s only a weewee,” some of which go something like this:

The day that you’re born
To find out what you’ll be
We look in your pants and
We check where you pee
That’s how we find out
What in life you will do:
Be a girl soft and pink, or
a boy tough and blue

But . . . .
It’s only a wee-wee
So what’s the big deal?
It’s only a wee-wee
So what’s all the fuss?
It’s only a wee-wee
And everyone’s got one;
There’s much better
Things to discuss!

Joan Roughgarden, author of Evolution’s Rainbow, would argue that the problem with question of “is it a boy or a girl” is that it presumes that those are the only two options.

29

anon for once 08.22.04 at 8:40 am

We have a prammed up baby in our community which is officially fathered by one man but rumour suggests may come from another (based on a long, complicated history).

If you meet one of these men with the aforementioned pram-meister, I defy you not to flick your eyes from face to face, repeatedly.

There can be more interesting issues than gender.

30

momo 08.22.04 at 9:13 am

gee, here come the really intelligent contributions:

“This post sounds like feminist paranoia to me.”

Really? cause that phrase itself sounds like anti-feminist paranoia. Hmm. I wonder which claim is closer to reality.

“Only a hyper-intellectual and somewhat solipsistic new parent/aunt/uncle/friend of baby would fret over her/his/its own ideological hobby horses instead of just answering a few direct and well intentioned questions.”

I must have missed the bit where Eszter was “fretting” and not even replying to the boy or girl questions at all, and instead proceeded to shower the askers with the kind of discussion that goes on on this weblog.

But I guess the annoying thing must be starting a discussion on gender at all. Cos that’s totally unheard of!

If you don’t like “hyper intellectuals” and “ideological hobby horses”, you can always go back to reading the tabloids.

31

Ophelia Benson 08.22.04 at 5:45 pm

Yeah, really, ‘hyper-intellectual,’ ain’t that great? Like there’s something wrong with that, and there’s so much of it around.

32

eszter 08.22.04 at 8:56 pm

As you can imagine, it was shocking, absolutely shocking to see those kinds of comments on this thread. I mean, what kind of feminist viewpoint ever receives reactions like that?! I guess next time I’ll have to think twice before posting a gender-related entry, ’cause, you know, it’s so embarrassing to be called a feminist anything.

33

pw 08.22.04 at 9:10 pm

That bit about the reversal of pink versus blue in the baby-clothing business triggered — the political is personal, after all — a thought about the not-entirely dissimilar reversal in the assignment of parties to “red states” vs “blue states.” Both seem to have occurred for no obvious reason, and both have been vigorously retconned into the only possible way things could ever have been. (Just think what this will mean in another 20 years when some whippersnapper tells some old conservatives about having been a red-diaper baby…)

There has been some progress, however: 25 years ago, no one would have said that that boys and girls were dressed alike in the 19th century; instead the line was that male toddlers were dressed and coiffed as girls.

34

vivian 08.23.04 at 2:36 am

Aargh. I always tried not to ask the “boy or girl?” question until much later, mostly to convey real interest by asking a non-automatic question. Oddly enough, people really appreciate it when one thinks of something slightly more original, or connected to the friendship – “blue eyes like daddy?” or “tall like mommy?” or even “have you seen them yet?” when it’s news from an aunt or uncle.

This afternoon a close friend called to say that his child had been born and the words “boy or girl” were out of my mouth before I knew it. Aargh. Power of suggestion, no doubt, since I read this thread yesterday, but should I blame the feminists or their (ahem) clever critic above?

35

eszter 08.23.04 at 6:08 am

Vivian, that’s funny.:) No doubt the influence of this thread, of course.;) I like those more personalized comments. And if speaking English (or a myriad of other languages), the answer to the gender question will likely reveal itself in the conversation anyway.

36

Detached Observer 08.23.04 at 7:16 am

“This post sounds like feminist paranoia to me. “

There was little of either feminism or paranoia in the original post, which was simply a reflection on the nature of sex differences. Your comment reveals more about your tendency to find feminist paranoia everywhere you look rather than about the topic at hand.

37

Dem 08.23.04 at 6:59 pm

One comment I got was:

“Nature/nurture isn’t as easy to sort out as you think.”

I don’t think that. I was responding to the implication that gender stereotyping (“environment”/”nurture”) is the primary cause of gender differences in child behavior. My point was that both environment and genetics play a role, and I agree it’s very hard to separate the two.

I appreciate the comment about “pink” only recently being a girl’s color. Apparently that fits on the “environment” side of the equation.

However, my larger point about the nature/nurture discussion, outside the confines of the gender roles issue, is simply that genetics plays a major, major role. Not the long ago psychologists tended to blame mothers (not fathers, interestingly) for their children’s autism. Now we know better. As a parent of 4, and having talked to other parents of large families, I can tell you that every child is significantly different from birth. And while one cannot say “all girls this” and “all boys that”, there are differences between genders that show up in aggregate as tendencies.

38

Dem 08.23.04 at 7:11 pm

BTW, momo you write:

“I just think that individual identity comes before gender, so there shouldn’t be any effort to influence a child’s preferences in that sense. You just try and provide them with things to stimulate their curiosity, regardless of gender.”

We’re in total agreement, and I’m sorry if you thought otherwise from my post. All our children are encouraged to try all activities. And they often cross “gender-stereotyped” lines in doing so.

I’ve also seen what peer-pressure can do to kids. Our son played mostly with girls, based on availability, until kindergarten. At that point his tastes radically changed based on peer pressure. I was sad to see that. He had some real potential talent in ballet but wouldn’t be caught dead in that class now. I tried to explain that when he got to dating age those skills would make him very popular, but it didn’t convince him. :)

We take lots of steps to get the gender biases out of their environment as much as we can. For example, when reading to the pre-school age kids I intentionally make half of the gender-neutral characters in the kids books girls (for most books, except recent ones, the characters are predominantly male).

My acknowledgement of the role genetics plays in gender behavior is more academic than practical.

39

ken 08.23.04 at 7:55 pm

Dem:

Look at what you said here:

I’ve also seen what peer-pressure can do to kids. Our son played mostly with girls, based on availability, until kindergarten. At that point his tastes radically changed based on peer pressure. I was sad to see that. He had some real potential talent in ballet but wouldn’t be caught dead in that class now. I tried to explain that when he got to dating age those skills would make him very popular, but it didn’t convince him. :)

There’s a slogan gaining currency among some developmental psychologists, at least those of an evolutionary bent. “Parents don’t socialize children; children do.”

Think of creolization of languages arising from pidgins in a single generation — it’s all the work of the kids.

Now ask yourself what does it mean that it’s often the children themselves that enforce some gender distinctions or other? It turns out, for example, that boys are especially vigilant gender-police and that girls are more tolerant.

Why is that so? I don’t think it’s something that adults “socialize” children into doing.

I wouldn’t say it’s biology all the way down. But I do think genetically instiled by natural selection “coordination strategies” have more to do with it than many would allow. males and females have to coordinate with each other, females have to coordinate with other females, and males have to coordinate with other males.

there’s sort of three simultaneous problems that have to be solved. I bet if you did a little evolutionary gaming on these, it would come out that there are going to be some gender distinctions or other on most if not all evolutionarily stable strategies and almost no such strategies in which there isn’t any gender segregation.

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laura 08.23.04 at 8:33 pm

Sometimes other concerns trump gender: when my (white) second cousin had a baby whose father was black, THAT information made its way through the family at the speed of light. To this day I’m not entirely sure whether it’s a girl or a boy — apparently all we needed to know was that it was black.

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Tom 08.23.04 at 10:29 pm

“My god, peter, you know some dull babies. Babies round here have interests in classical music, victorian literature, high fashion, and obscure european movies from the sixties.

At least, that’s what their parents tell me.”

Parenting as a competitive sport! The most boring event in the Olympics.

Bugger that, and all the “I’m not working to let the kid watch TV till they’re 4-1/2”. If Sesame Street shuts them up long enough for me to make coffee, wash and zap their breakfast in the microwave without them having a crying fit because they’ve been left alone for 0.25 seconds, then Big Bird is the Man (or avian).

Mind you, I’ve been accused of poncy baby-grooming because I use a recording of 13th century troubadour music by Sequentia when putting the sprog to sleep. No pounciness intended, but it’s just that music is the most effective (hard-core techno works well too, but the wife hates it).

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momo 08.24.04 at 10:20 am

dem: thanks for the reply, I had indeed slightly misunderstood your views, sorry about that. And about your son giving up ballet. Maybe it’d have worked if you’d pictured fame and financial success as advantages, instead of dating? :)

Just a couple more thoughts:

…while one cannot say “all girls this” and “all boys that”, there are differences between genders that show up in aggregate as tendencies.

Yes, but, the way _we_ choose to aggregate those tendencies are girlish or boyish is based on a lot of assumptions, habits, traditions, etc. so it’s a lot harder to distinguish the nature/nurture elements. In other words, I just don’t think there’s any indisputably and unequivocally “male” vs. “female” social behaviours that are encoded in the genes of one gender or another.

genetics plays a major, major role. Not the long ago psychologists tended to blame mothers (not fathers, interestingly) for their children’s autism. Now we know better.

True, but it’s the opposite case, in a way. Autism is a specific syndrome, caused by a neurological dysfunction. People thought it was psychological because its manifestations are at the level of behaviour and there was just not enough research into it as there is today. Sexual differences are not a dysfunction and have always been know to be physical first and foremost, but the way we associate certain behaviours to a certain sex is mostly arbitrary, and I don’t think any research has shown certain behaviours to be “typical” of a gender or another in such an exclusive, fixed way as the link between autism and behaviour x, say.

With gender, the “now we know better” most often applies in the opposite direction – now we know a lot of the things we assumed in the past were biologically hardwired into one sex or the other are often the product of social and cultural factors, or just unfounded assumptions. Say, the idea that women tend to be more monogamous than men because as child-bearers they tend to prefer a stable partner to raise children with. There’s an opposite theory saying that women actually tend to be more promiscuous because, as child-bearers, a bigger choice of partners ensures a better genetic selection for your offspring. But before asking why, who decides _if_ women are, as a tendency, more monogamous or promiscuous? There’s definitely evidence of both! In modern societies, women’s sexual behaviour is no longer limited by child-bearing. Hasn’t the pill had more of an impact on that than any possible biological factor, or atavic patterns of behaviour that supposedly still act on our brains? And what could be more related to gender than sexual behaviour, yet, that’s precisely the area that has been most transformed by cultural changes. So who knows what else we assume about gender is also just our own projection and would be changed by different circumstances.

I do agree genetics strongly shapes individual traits, but the environment that surrounds us is very relevant to how we learn to manifest those traits according to certain expectations, certainly more relevant than supposed hunter-gatherer patterns from prehistoric ages.

I really don’t think about any of this stuff when it comes to dealing with kids, though. I just think of childhood as a neutral place itself, it’s with puberty that the mess of pressures and expectations and assumptions can become too heavy.

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Jmote 08.24.04 at 3:09 pm

Only two questions need to be asked:
1) Is everyone healthy (mother and baby)?
2) What’s the name?

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Dem 08.24.04 at 4:48 pm

Thanks for the discussion, people. I’ve learned some and will spend more time reading on this topic.

Ken: your comments about children socializing other children make sense. I’ve seen this a lot. For example, my kids on their own accord invented the concept of “girl colors” and “boy colors” and segregated toys that way. We stepped in to explain that any kid can play with any color.

Something that factors into this is that the kids themselves are very interested in sex differences … fascinated in fact … starting at bath time.

momo: I respect your viewpoint. I don’t claim to have the absolute answer, and acknowledge that the majority, perhaps vast majority of gender-based behavior differences in children are environmentally based. Before I had kids I, like you, thought that ALL such differences were due to environmental factors.

What I’ve seen, though, indicates that there are different tendencies from very, very early age. I’ve read some research to indicate that boy’s brains are different at birth. Where this comes out is not in absolutes but degrees. Such as the fascination with spinning wheels or magnets (more pronounced in boys), or the tendency to engage in or initiate role-playing games (more pronounced in girls).

The thing to keep in mind is that every child is very, very different in terms of the things that fascinate them, even if they share the same parents. The variation is so wide that you can’t make any assumptions about an individual girl or boy.

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momo 08.24.04 at 6:02 pm

dem: I have kids too, what I’m saying is from personal experience and observation, not preconceived notions or political theories. I’m largely ignorant of gender theories, really. I cheated my way through that part in college :]

Anyway, I don’t think we are disagreeing that much here, actually, we’re saying the same thing, just with a different emphasis, and maybe a few misunderstandings.

What I’m saying is not really “ALL such differences are due to environmental factors” – all I’m saying is, we don’t know for sure a) _which_ behavioural differences can be categorised in general tendencies associated with gender and _how_, according to which criteria (other than arbitrary social, cultural, personal beliefs, as with the colour themes), and b) which if any of those differences are indisputably and unequivocally due to hard-coded biological factors and genetics present only in one gender or the other.

There’s a lot of theories on how the brain works in terms of behaviour, and which traits can be characterised as more present in females or males, but each theory has an opposite one as it’s still all very much an open debate, and it’s still about tendencies, not absolute hardwiring. Tendencies are a very arbitary thing to define in themselves.

Basically I don’t believe it’s possible to isolate a _behavioural_ trait that is absolutely exclusive to one sex, or even just overwhelmingly predominant in one sex, because of biological, genetic factors alone. I have never even heard of any research that has come to a definitive conclusion like that.

The thing to keep in mind is that every child is very, very different in terms of the things that fascinate them, even if they share the same parents. The variation is so wide that you can’t make any assumptions about an individual girl or boy.

Exactly. My interest is more in the individual differences. That is why I don’t believe in reducing the complexity of any human behaviour to biological essentialism, it’s disproven by reality, by the existence of individuality, of unique character traits and combinations – and, on the other hand by constant examples of the force of culture (and economics, and religion, and politics, etc.) in shaping the way we manifest those traits as individuals. Gender is too vast a category to account for all that, indeed.

(You mention the theory about the tendency to role-play. Maybe there can be some truth to it, I don’t know, I can think of many instances from experience and observation that seem to contradict that. Lots of boys like role-playing, and not just in videogames. And as far as I know, every baby loves things that spin. Maybe the tendencies were examined in older children? In that case, again, same problem, how do you isolate nature from nurture.)

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Dem 08.24.04 at 7:02 pm

momo: thanks for the follow-up.

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eszter 08.25.04 at 7:45 am

There is one more point I wanted to make on this thread that hasn’t come up too much yet. The issue isn’t necessarily the nature vs nurture question (although it is certainly relevant regarding the issues raised). The issue is that gender takes on quite a central role in organizing most societies. Things are very often discussed in terms of boys vs girls, male vs female. But in fact, within group differences are almost always larger than across group differences between the genders. We could group people according to all sorts of other criteria (and we certainly do some of that) and could classify people by other characteristics (e.g. tall or short, blue eyes or brown, good vision vs needs glasses to see clearly, attached vs free earlobes), but gender plays a more salient role in defining people’s identities than most other characteristics. That was part of the point I was trying to make by telling the little anecdote about babies.

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