Sunday, June 29, 2003

Nature or Nurture?

In Gina's anti-Barbie diatribe, she asks "Are we born drag queens, or do we learn it?" In other words, are girls and women genetically programmed to love frills and frippery or are do they develop those tastes through socialization?

I am profoundly irritated by parents who make coy remarks about how obvious it is that gender differences are innate because little Brandon was "all boy" from day one or Caitlin has always been "a little princess." These parents inevitably insist that they did nothing to socialize their children that way, but nonetheless their children exhibit markedly gendered behavior. My question is how is it possible to raise a child in our culture without constantly exposing him or her to stereotypical ideas about men and women? Unless you avoid all media, make your own toys and clothes, and raise your child in complete isolation from all other adults and children, he or she will be surrounded by culturally approved ideas about masculinity and femininity. Even if such extreme measures were possible, you'd still have to contend with your own deeply ingrained ideas about gender roles. In the face of such an insidious and pervasive meme, how can we untangle how much of masculinity or femininity is inherent and how much is learned?

My reading and my experience with children (and adults) suggests that there probably are some cognitive differences between males and females, but it is very unclear what exactly those differences are, and how wide the gaps between the sexes are. What seems most likely is that there are differences in the ways men and women think, but that there is a wide range of "normal" for each sex, and a great deal of overlap. This is obviously true of most physical differences, such as strength and height - most men are taller than most women, but the tallest woman is quite a bit taller than the shortest man. Perhaps women are more likely to be verbal and less likely to be spatial, but certainly there are many men who are more verbal than many women.

So most likely the behavior differences between boys and girls (and men and women) are a combination of nature and nurture, and we'll probably never know exactly how much influence each one has. It seems to me that it doesn't matter much anyway. Children are neither blank slates waiting to be encoded nor preprogrammed robots. They come into this world with many tendencies and inclinations - parents and teachers are then obliged to direct these traits into socially acceptable behavior while also helping to develop the qualities that make the child uniquely him or herself. In some cases these qualities may conform to societal expectations more than we're comfortable with, in others they may be at odds with what our culture considers "normal." In either situation, the must important gift we can give our children is to accept them and love them for who they are. In addition, we can also encourage them not to limit themselves to traditional definitions of "masculine" and "feminine," but to mix and match to suit their own tastes - the girl who wears only dresses and loves to play princess can also hit homeruns, and the girl who refuses to wear dresses and loves to play kickball may also enjoy ballet class. Our culture wants to divide certain traits, toys, clothes and behaviors into two neat camps and force us all to choose one or the other, but this is a false dichotomy which only serves to reinforce traditional gender roles (a "tomboy" is escaping the girly role assigned to her by adopting a "masculine" role, but she isn't necessarily questioning the validity of those roles). The really revolutionary thing is to recognize that these things aren't gendered at all.

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