Sunday, November 15, 2009

All boy?

Before I became a parent, I thought few people in my educational and social cohort would have firm ideas about the inherent nature of boys and girls. After all, we’re generally progressive and at least moderately worldly. We’ve heard of the role of society upon our choices and lives, haven’t we? We know that cultures differ around the world and have changed over time, haven’t we? Sadly, I can add this to my list of illusions that have been shattered by the arrival of a child*.

It amazes me how many people I know confidently attribute any number of behaviours to a child’s gender. I’ve been told many times by friends, family and strangers that my son is “all boy”. Presumably this is because he’s a high energy kid who’s very active and loves trucks and cars. Classic boy, right? But…he’s also fascinated by babies and tries to comfort his preschool friends when they’re upset. Wait a minute…that doesn’t reduce his boy rating to 85%, does it? I trust our readers can guess which toys his relatives buy him.

I think there are two key components to this. The first is people’s tendency to see what they expect. Facts that contradict what they “know” to be true are frequently ignored or rationalized away. There is a classic experiment when a video of a crying infant (in gender-neutral clothing) was shown to volunteers. When identified as female, people described the infant as upset or scared. When the same infant was identified as male, people described its behaviour as angry. This feeds into the second component – people also behave differently towards boys and girls, right from day one.

Think about it. Even when you think that you’re treating baby boys and girls equally, the odds that you aren’t. People praise girls and boys for different types of behaviour from birth. You may argue that you’d give your daughter a truck or your son a doll … if that’s what they REALLY wanted. Sure, maybe you would. But did you set the bar that high before buying your child a gender-typical toy? Or did you buy it without being asked and encourage them to play with it.

Now, I have to do the typical bending over backwards to say that of course I’m not saying that boys and girls (or men and women) are exactly the same. My point is, in our culture, how would you possibly know?
*Illusion #37


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