Gender: Nature vs. Nurture, Round 1

December 9, 2014

If there is one thing that sociologists agree on it’s that people are products of their environment. After that, all bets are off. We definitely fall on the nurture side of the debate (although there is a growing wing of bio-sociologists that won’t rule out the nature side of social behavior). Gender is one of these topics that is socially constructed and not inherent.

Before you get your tighty whiteys in a wad, gender is not sex. Your sex is chromosomal and signified by your genitals. And even that is not an either/or situation as about 1 in 1000 births are intersexed. But gender is learned and it is learned different in different times and different places. Margaret Mead figured this out in the 1930s, looking at how gender on Pacific islands varied from Western culture. I figured this out moving from Georgia to Oregon. Monster Truck Masculinity is nowhere to be found in Portlandia.

So the issue is gender socialization (back to Barbie vs. GI Joe again). Sugar and spice and all things nice. Boys don’t cry, they sow their oats. The messages start as soon as the pink or blue bows go up on the mailbox. So can you raise a child in way that doesn’t define females as the “weaker sex” and all the psychosis that goes with that designation?

And let me say, I’ve got plenty of feminist friends who say their boys were just naturally more aggressive or their girls just gravitated away from trucks and towards princesses. I won’t rule out some genetic influence, but I’m not giving the good ship Nurture just yet.

Two thoughts for today.

First, these messages soak into a growing brain very early. Cozy is 15 weeks and 2 days old. Should I worry that she’s pretty in pink at this point? I know she sees it and associates it with comfort (that pink blanket is damn plush). But the real issue is how she gets feedback from the males and females in her tiny universe. (Let me say this discussion does not exclude same-sex parents. It actually invites them into the discussion.)

There’s a scene is Season 1 of Mad Men where old school guy Don Draper (idolized by many modern men) has made an appearance at home and is trying to find out what’s bothering his wife. His life is defined by his work (and his affairs) and home is just a place to recharge. Betty puts it very simply, “I need to know you are going to help raise these children.” It’s a powerful scene that reflects both that time in the early 1960s as well as so many modern families.

In this house our baby is learning that both parents are present. Both parents nurture, change diapers, feed hunger, and cuddle cries. It is not the job of one gender. “Hey, honey, the baby is crying! Can you do something?” Fans of Mad Men will know that, despite his swarthiness and alleged freedom, Don Draper is not a happy person. Being a stay-at-home dad makes me the anti-Don Draper. But I can still be pretty dashing. Besides, according to my wife, men with babies are sexy.

Secondly (and maybe most sociologically important), you can’t raise a kid in a vacuum. You could be the most radical Andrea Dworkin feminist, but your kid is gonna live in a world where other girls have Barbies and other boys have Xbox Call of Duty and your big gender socialization plan is FUBAR. Gendered messages are insidious. Yeah, cartoons are better these days (Shout out to Dora the Explora!) but there are still a thousand signals a day that girls need to be pretty first.

It’s not hopeless, but it does help to explain how gender can seem natural. “We never had any violence in our house but my son bit chunks off his toast until it looked like a handgun! WTF?” Gender culture will seep into your world no matter what you do. The challenge is to present a consistent counter-message. Girls are not their looks and boys are not their fists. The final result will be a compromise. Sorry.

Of course, it’s possible for little princesses to become CEOs and little warlords to become feminist activists. The problem is all the crap you gotta go through to make that transition. Why not get it right from the start?

This is all pie in the sky for me at this point. With my luck, Cozy will want to trade all her Dora gear in for a debutante ball and then marry a mid-level manager at Chic-fil-A just to spite me. I’m really going to be looking to my friends for clues on this one. What did you do when your daughter said she that when she grew up she wanted to be a Real Housewife of Atlanta? Time to find some blue baby clothes.

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8 thoughts on “Gender: Nature vs. Nurture, Round 1

  1. With two boys (6 and 8) running the roost, the testosterone level in our home is off the charts. Some days I dream of dressing our female dogs in tutu’s and having an impromptu tea party to try and level things out. But the scale in our home weighs heavy in trucks, shooting noises (pew, pew, pew), and actual chest beating with the Tarzan call. Other than an old Carol Burnett re-run, I can’t imagine where they have seen that. But there are spots along the way, where these two boys enter the kitchen, don an apron and create amazing treats and meals with me. There are also Monster High dolls to be found, and tiny plastic shopping bags that hold tiny plastic kittens and puppies. There are snowmen lovies and there is a nativity scene up year round in the room of my oldest. I encourage it all. And I pray a lot. In the end, I think it all comes out in the wash. You hang on to that pink blankie, and let her drive a monster truck over your head when the time comes. It’s all good.

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  2. You nailed it in the phrase ‘just to spite me’. It’s tough to have this convo without injecting the information regarding ‘differentiation’. Children go through the differentiation phase several times on their ‘upward spiral’ to adulthood and maturity. At about age 2, 7, 12ish and of course 15 (the most dramatic). My daughter’s father and I were determined to raise a punk rock, empowered, doc-martin wearing girl. When she became obsessed at age 11 with the world of beauty pageants, we made a decision to go along, support her, be there (holding our breath, rolling our eyes, cheering her on, opening our pocketbooks, and praying she would make it out alive, un-shallow and unscarred). Khahil Gilbran is right, our children are not ours, they are the arrows we shoot out into the world. And we are their safe place to land. Today our daughter is 16, and after a successful run in the pageant world, which brought new friends, travel, and a certain self-confidence, she is a singer in a rock band, wearing leather boots and running things. She is her own person, and we love watching her life and personality unfold !

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  3. I thought gender was mostly through nurture until I observed my own young toddler daughter, who did not own a doll, had not started school yet, and never played with a doll (as in, she was still in my protective non-gender role cocoon), see a doll at a store, put it in the doll stroller, wheel it around, pick it up, put if over her shoulder and burp it. My understanding of gender was blown away. Because I knew that I had not been raising her as a “girl”, yet she still had this innate sense of nurturing. Now, repeatedly, in my enlightened liberal Marin world, I see the very young boys smash things and obsess over cars, and the girls nurture everything. This is before they are really exposed to any socialization, I’m talking 1-2 year olds. It really is amazing, this experience as a parent.

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