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April 30, 2012

Before I had kids, generalizations about women were one of my least favorite things in the world. Now that I have three sons, I might just hate generalizations about boys and girls even more.

I’m not denying that there is a link between sex and gender. I can’t claim that I think gender is entirely a societal construct when I’m not sexually attracted to women and I believe that women categorically find the Three Stooges tedious.

But when you attribute a child’s behavior to stereotypes about boys and girls, you are disregarding the effort your child made to do something you want or excusing unacceptable behavior. Your daughter brought you a glass of ice water when you were sick on the sofa? That’s awesome. Even the most nurturant person on the planet sometimes wants people to get their own water, but she assessed the situation and made an effort on your behalf. Not because girls are like that, but because she chose to be kind to you in that moment. Your son forgave a friend’s transgression? Maybe that’s not because boys don’t go for all that drama (do you think no man has ever held a grudge?). Maybe he was just looking at the big picture and realizing that one bad act isn’t a revelation of that person’s true self.

I am not going to be swayed by claims that you used to think the way I do, but now you have a son and a daughter and it turns out those gender stereotypes are true true true. Really? You have enough children to create statistically valid sample sizes, and you raised them in a magical gender-free bubble, and you have collected data untainted by confirmation bias? No, you don’t and you didn’t and you haven’t, so shut up.

Even if you do and did and had, you would only know what the statistical trend is for a group as a whole. That doesn’t help you deal with an individual child, assuming you want to treat that child as an individual, and not as just another representative of a group that is entirely at the mercy of a certain chromosomal make-up.

Once, as I was helping with a classroom science project, one of the other mothers announced, “We have to make sure to call on the girls.” Yes, we did, and we already had. But was she really worried that all the girls were going to be neglected when the rowdiest kid in the room was a girl? Had she not noticed that the quietest kid in the room was a boy? Our parenting philosophies may be born from general data, but the actual act of parenting happens in a series of anecdotes. Pay attention to your children and their friends. Don’t substitute your treasured theory for actual attentiveness to their needs.

This is what I expect from boys in school: I expect them to be able to sit and do classwork for a certain amount of time. And then I expect all the children, not just the boys, to be given a chance to go be physically active before they come back for more sitting. I expect boys to consider other people’s feelings. I expect them to do a little reading and produce legible handwriting. I expect them to be called on in class if they never raise their hands, and I expect them to give other people a chance to talk, and I expect their teachers to push back a little on their answers, to call their logic into question – in a helpful way, because teaching is not a blood sport – and I expect the same for all the kids in class. I expect them to better at some subjects than others, and I expect them to acquire basic competence in the subjects they find hard. I expect them to notice that everyone has areas of greater and lesser ability, and I expect them to notice, and keep noticing, that while some groups may have a trend toward greater or lesser abilities in a particular area, nobody has a lock on anything.

Grabbing “He’s a boy” or “She’s a girl” as your first explanation for a child’s behavior is sloppy and unhelpful. To quote Dumbledore, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Maybe my kids were just being boys when they decided to leap from sofa to chair and back again when they had some serious cabin fever. But at least one of them was willing to concede, after doing something that caused a serious THUMP, “I made a bad chooooooice!”

(When I was growing up, my brothers and my sister and I did our share of furniture-leaping, and I don’t recall any of us making that kind of thump. FWIW, we were Hufflepuffs.)

  1. April 30, 2012 8:51 pm

    Yes yes yes!!! Why is it so hard for people to understand that just because things may be generally true, they’re not Always True. There are a set of boy/girl twins in my family and my FIL loves loves loves to point out how their personalities confirm gender norms, despite their mom’s attempts to treat them equally (but as individuals). Funny how he fails to notice that my DD is in many ways more boyish than her boy cousin.

    signed, a female who might kind of laugh embarrassingly hard at the three stooges

    • April 30, 2012 8:58 pm

      I should clarify that it is my FIL who says they’re girly/boyish “despite” attempts otherwise – I of course think she did a fantastic job of raising two toddlers who are true to themselves. (not sure if that makes sense – I didn’t want it to sound like I think she failed somehow)

      • May 2, 2012 7:24 am

        No, I got it (but I am always happy to hear someone making sure that a comment isn’t read as criticism).

        I am very troubled by your love of the Three Stooges, but I am trying to take it as an opportunity to expand my thinking. Have you ever been to the Stoogeum?

  2. May 9, 2012 11:30 pm

    Ha! Yes, expand your thinking! Never heard of the Stoogeum. Perhaps I need to re-plan our next vacation 😉

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