Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Gendered Interests in Children

Anyone who has kids has at some point found themselves trapped in a conversation in which the other person pronounces, often with great insistence, that "Boys like..." or "Girls play with...".

I want to make a few observations about such statements and the phenomena that underly them. This includes an example from the life of L, my kid who will be six years old in a couple of months, that illustrates one way that such preferences get produced, as well as a few thoughts about how to relate to such phenomena.

The first observation is that in a lot of cases the supposed consistency of gendered patterns of preferences and interests among kids has as much to do with what adults do and don't see, do and don't admit as evidence, as with any tendencies that kids actually exhibit. I have found that L and his cousins are a good source of counter-examples to unsettle some of these narratives. L, who moves through the world as a boy, has two cousins of similar ages, Y and E, who move through the world as girls. E, for instance, is much more aggressive and assertive than L. And Y is just as interested in playing with vehicles as L. Yet despite these and other ways in which they do not conform to what some people might expect, I think it would be very easy for someone to take the three of them as proof of girls being inherently one way and boys inherently another, just by being (probably unconsciously) selective about which characteristics they compared. I think this happens a lot. I think much of the time when parents or grandparents or teachers conclude that gender stereotypes about children are supported by the behaviour of children they know, they are doing a lot of active work in how they see and interpret that behaviour to be able to understand it as supporting their conclusions, and often that work involves not seeing or somehow dismissing or actively reinterpreting certain behaviours.

That said, gendered tendencies to particular interests and preferences do exist in children. And they exist because they are created. The question is, how? There are lots of answers to that having to with all of the many ways in which norms are socially created and enforced on (and resisted by) every one of us. A million everyday situations and workings of power make it so -- details like what kids clothes are even available to buy, and the social punishment implied by a tsk on seeing a picture of a preschool boy holding a pink bag, and Disney princesses only becoming some little girl's passion after a year of immersion in the peer pressure cooker that is school, and countless others. But I just want to highlite one example. This is an example I had thought of before but never written about, and it came up in conversation a couple of weeks ago so I thought I would organize a post around it.

The Example

We lived in Los Angeles from the time L was 9 months until he was almost 2 years, and I was the stay-at-home in this period. At that age, a broken piece of plastic found on the playground can be a whole new world of fun and learning, but let me extract just two of the new interests that appeared fairly consistently in L later in our stay in LA: he liked trains and he liked flowers. Four years later, he remains obsessed with locomotives, while flowers -- well, he isn't beyond admiring them when they are drawn to his attention, or even spontaneously, but they don't occupy much space in his universe. Some of this may be about place, as West LA is flower-rich and train-poor (though play buddies and TV meant it was not wholly train-deficient) and Sudbury is flower-poor and train-rich. Some of it is about the ways in which capitalist social relations can co-create desires and the products to meet them, which are shaped by the fact there is just more for a kid to do with a model train than with a model flower. Though there are lots of ways to productize flowers that are about aesthetics.

Much more important were the ways that these nascent interests were taken up, mirrored back to him, and reinforced or discounted by the adults around him. For a kid that young, it is mostly parents who do the work of putting demonstrated preferences into narratives. We certainly did some deliberate work to avoid imposing gendered interests upon him. We made space for him to like flowers and affirmed that, just as we made space for him to like trains and affirmed that. Yet I would bet that even at the stage of composing narratives of L's life for far-off grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, there were subtle gendered elements in how we talked about those interests -- definitely not consciously denying one and elevating the other, but differences in framing and emphasis that we were not conscious of. Practices by said distant relatives of asking questions and of giving gifts soon made trains a signature L thing, while mention of flowers in descriptions of his antics was taken up as a transient cuteness and attributed little significance by hearers.

I'm not saying it is a perfect paired example, but I would argue that both subtle factors of framing by myself and sometimes less subtle choices around things like gift giving by extended family members would have been significantly different if L was a girl, even if the initial expressions of interest in trains and flowers were the same.

What Can/Should We Do?

I am an adult who exists in a relation of care with a child. Actually, I exist in relations of care with several children at least once in a while -- my nieces, friends' kids, etc. -- but it is only a live-in sort of deal with L. As such, how am I to understand and intervene in the processes of gendered socialization that produce such interests and preferences? (Since L is being socialized into masculinity, that is where my examples will focus.)

A preliminary point that I think always needs to be made in these discussions is that parents have a lot less power to shape their children than most people, including most parents, believe. I haven't worked it all out, and perhaps I'll make another post of it, but I think this has to do with the dominance of liberal frameworks organizing how parents understand their role, with the related emphasis on human beings as abstract, isolated agents. I think being a happy and effective parent means working to understand one's parenting in the context of a much different model of the social world, which recognizes that we do shape a particular part of our child's environment -- though one that progressively and inevitably shrinks with every passing year -- but that we do so in a larger and much more complicated context.

The real place to start, though, is to understand that gendered characteristics produced by socialization in the context of patriarchal social relations can usefully be divided into those that are a problem in and of themselves and those that are not. I should be clear that both matter in as much as they indicate the existence of the patriarchal social relations that produce them, and that cause so much pain and violence in so many lives. But only some of them -- things like those which give many boys the sense that they have a right to talk over girls, or that cut boys off from their emotions in important ways -- cause anguish. If a gendered characteristic causes anguish to the person who has it or causes that person to cause anguish to others, I would say that it matters for itself. However, there are other things which are produced in whole or in part by socialization under patriarchy, but in and of themselves they don't really matter very much. In this case I'm thinking about, say, liking flowers versus liking trains, or having blue as your favourite colour versus pink. The key, though, is that they don't matter in terms of their content, though if there are experiences of anguish that result in a kid arriving at a given position, that matters -- he reluctantly gives up a favourite lunch box because of teasing from classmates, say. As well, while it doesn't matter if any given boy prefers pink or blue, it does matter how he will react if another boy in his class proudly proclaims his like for pink.

If something is causing anguish or causing the causing of anguish, then the need to act has a different character, a greater urgency, but this post is about relating to those products of gendered socialization that don't particularly matter for themselves. I think there are three ways that we should relate to that category of instances: affirm what is, create openness and space, and cultivate critical consciousness.

Affirming what is means supporting (non-anguish causing) interests and preferences, regardless of how they relate to dominant gender norms. If he likes trains, that's fine. If he likes flowers, that's fine too. It is less about how you feel about the content of the preference than it is about affirming your relationship to the child in question, and affirming their right to form and express interests, to form and express self. Of course, it is important to keep in mind that practicing this sort of affirmation with respect to an interest or preference which already receives a great deal of social affirmation is a pretty different endeavour than when it runs counter to dominant expectations.

Creating openness and space is about consciously acting against the social pressures, not because we care particularly about the outcomes in these specific areas but because we recognize that patriarchal (and other oppressive) social relations are of a piece and we want to embody for our kids our desire for a world of justice and liberation in terms of gender and on every other axis. It is about showing them we know there are these pressures, and don't think there should be. It is about deliberately introducing counter-normative possibilities into your child's environment and life. It is about working through the ways in which your gut reactions -- moments of bodily tension, unthinking words, silent biases -- still act as enforcers of oppressive norms, on you and those around you. It is about exploring your own counter-normative interests, going down those alleys that somehow mysteriously got shut off in your own childhood, your own teenage years, your own adulthood. It is about, for children of all genders, affirming the value of the strong, transgressive feminine, which is so broadly despised in the dominant culture, as well as the vulnerable masculine.

Cultivating critical consciousness is a recognition that parenting is not about creating some embodied mimic of an abstract list that exists in our head, but rather about supporting active agents who are figuring out how to exist within-and-against oppressive social relations, just as we are constantly figuring out the same thing. This is not just relevant to the subject of this post, of course, but to all the thorny questions of raising kids in a messed up world. Talk about stuff. Talk about your own struggle, your own wounds. Talk about the media you watch and the situations you face to make all of this stuff visible. Talk about the pressures to like this, to dislike that, to be this, to avoid that. Talk in grounded ways about how patriarchal (and other oppressive) social relations limit and hurt almost everyone, but how they hurt some people a lot more than others and give unearned rewards to some. Through your own journey to develop critical consciousness and to act to create a better world, in everyday ways and in organized collective ways, model what it is to journey.

Relating this to the example at the centre of this post, it means that I should continue to be perfectly okay with L's train obsession. It is not one we need to do much work to affirm, given that it is perfectly consistent with dominant expectations of boys. Probably we could have done more to create space for less easily acceptable interests at the stage where his interest in trains was developing. And of course there is always more that can be done in the current moment to create openness and possibility and to cultivate critical consciousness.


SR said...

I think this could be the seeds of your next book project. :D

Arvind Gopu said...

Hi - first time reader here... got here from the second carnival of feminist parenting. Fantastic post!

This post felt like I had written it except I did not (obviously) ... Hey, I do not even have children yet, and my interactions with children is currently restricted to that with kids if friends or in the family. I think my spouse L will agree, and perhaps feels the same way (i.e she perhaps feels that she wrote this?) --ag

SR said...

Dear poster

I saw this on the reading list of one of my friends. As a scientist, I strongly believe that natural proclivities have valid biological reasons, and even more importantly, the manifestation of these proclivities, even if they are very gender skewed, is not something to be ashamed of.

That is, I believe that although there is enormous individual variability and context-dependent preferences, on the whole the number of girls interested in nurture-related games is more than boys and that this should surprise or alarm no one who knows anything about early adulthood mammalian behavior. I believe that having studied the biology of male and female of not just human but just about every other species, it would actually be quite abnormal and entirely inexplicable if the human mammal did not carry forward several of these gender-dependent proclivities.

Having said that, what I take great objection to is some specific types of characterisations that are encouraged that I believe are the harmful kind. Let me give you an example - if I have a boy (I don't have children) and the boy likes to take things apart, I will encourage it. However if he insists on playing destructive games that don't involve putting things back together, I will not encourage it.

Similarly, if my girl wants to play with making up a tiny house, that's fine. However I will not encourage her to think of herself as a princess who needs to be rescued. I know that you will probably be saying (good luck trying that!).

Society is not a blind mindless enterprise out to get our children. A significant part of societal behavior is simply a collective indication of who are.

I recently heard someone say "My girl is going through a phase where she doesnt like mommy. My boy as usual could'nt care less about other's feelings, which is how most boys are". The problem was that he said this with great pride, which I found disturbing.

That's the sort of harmful societal characterisation that I would reject. Just like with so many other things, I think that parents have the responsibility of teaching children how to take the good and natural part of the world and adjust to it, but let go of what is likely to harm their lives.

I guess in short what I want to say is boys and girls should take pride in who they are but should be taught that a discovery of a little girlishness in a boy or the other way around should not be cause for as much alarm as seems to be in some circles.