Sunday, January 10, 2010

Boys and Girls

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a Reggio Emilia roundtable at my daughter's school. This is a monthly event put on by the New Jersey Educators Exploring the Practice of Reggio Emilia and is held at a different location each month. They also organize trips to Italy to visit the schools where it all began - I'll add that to my To-Do list.

Anyway, yesterday's discussion was about how to manage long-term projects in the classroom, and one of the issues that came up was that of how boys and girls tend to segregate themselves at the younger ages, and how they tend to do things differently from each other. This is something that has become increasingly interesting to me as my kids have become older and I am seeing the differences between my son and daughter emerge. I'm sure many of the differences between them are particular to them as individuals, but there are also some highly stereotypical gender differences that are appearing and becoming stronger. My daughter is all about pink and sparkles and drama, and my son is obsessed with trucks and sports. Now, I am in no way a pink sparkles person, and while my husband is definitely a sports guy, cars and machines are of no interest to him whatsoever, so whatever proclivities my kids are showing in these areas are their own.

One of Bess' teachers used the opportunity to express her concern over the boys' attraction to guns, and her uncertainty about how to handle it. In striving for a child-led learning environment, she wondered, what do you do if the children want to do a project that the teacher does not want to do? Again, as a humane educator, this is something that is very interesting to me and something that I am asked about often - at nearly every talk I give, I am asked "Humane Parenting, blah blah blah - what do I do about my son's need to turn sticks, blocks, and slices of bread into a lethal weapon?" The ubiquity of the question, both in my reading and in my personal experience, leads me to this conclusion: boys' attraction to gun play is archetypal, and it is gender-specific. It is a way of dealing with questions of gender identity, of power and weakness, and of persuasion.

I know this may sound strange coming from a militant feminist such as myself, but I am going to say it anyway. Boys and girls are different from each other. That's not to say that some boys don't do things that we typically consider feminine, and certainly not to say that girls can't do or be anything they want to. However, it is the height of hubris to think that millennia of natural selection, which designed female humans to serve different functions than male humans in terms of the survival of the species, no longer apply to humans. We may consider ourselves to be the most evolved of all animals, but we're still animals.

Female humans are designed to nurture new and growing life. Male humans are designed, from a physical, psychological, and social perspective, to do something different. They are better equipped to hunt game (a woman with a sometimes noisy and often cumbersome infant tied to her breast or a tantruming toddler hanging on her leg is not likely to have much success sneaking up on a gazelle) and to do other physical tasks. While some modern societies are increasingly expecting men to do some of the nurturing, and many of the physical tasks that used to be required for our species' survival are becoming obsolete, that does not necessarily change the way we are wired.

War is not inevitable, and I am in no way advocating violence as an acceptable conflict resolution strategy. I am a hard-core pacifist all the way. However, I do believe that it is inevitable - healthy, even - that young boys will be driven to explore their physicality and to express some of their aggressive feelings in a more physical way than many girls do, for whatever reason (biological, social, whatever - I don't pretend to know the answer to that one). I believe that by teaching our sons about the realities of violence, and giving them safe and constructive outlets for their curiosity about violence, we will raise them to be more kind, compassionate, and nurturing men.

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