Totally Unscientific Thoughts on Gender

imagesI’m afraid some of what I’m about to say will sound ignorant or offensive but I’m going to write this anyway.  I have two little kids at home and I’m afraid they are showing me how gender can dictate behavior, preferences, and development.  But this is an idea I loathe.  The belief that one gender is “naturally” better at something than the other has been used to excuse lots of bad behavior and to limit people’s growth in so many ways.  Before I had kids I imagined the differences between little boys and girls to be small, and if present they’d be the result of big people telling them they should like trucks vs. babies, etc.  I thought they’d at least need puberty, hormones, and years of conditioning to make them think “like a girl” or “like a boy.”
Now, I only have a sample size of two, but this is not what I’m seeing.  For example when our son was born we bought him what I consider pretty gender-neutral toys.  You know, stuffed animals, wooden blocks, Duplos, balls, that kind of thing.  But as soon as he could talk he wanted to know about cars.  As a 2 year old he’d walk down the sidewalk with me and be able to name the make of every car parked on the street.  And as he’s grown, he’s really liked traditional boy toys like cars, airplanes, and tanks in addition to his beloved stuffed animals.

The first time it hit me that he and boys his age were different from the girls in some intrinsic way was when my daughter was born and I wheeled her stroller into his preschool class of 3 and 4 year olds.  The girls literally flocked to the stroller, standing in a circle around us, excited to see the baby.  The boys in the room didn’t seem to notice I was there.  This happened many times.  Now that my daughter is 2, she always points excitedly when she sees a baby (although she has zero interest in dolls).  My son never did that.  By the same token, I don’t think my daughter has noticed anything about cars other than that they come in different colors.

Then, this Sunday when we were talking on Skype with my parents my daughter quietly rummaged though the storage room and brought out paper bowls, plastic cutlery, and cups.  She arranged them in a circle, a complete place setting for each invisible guest, and announced she had made a picnic.  We were all delighted, and my mom commented that I really had an all-boy boy and an all-girl girl.  Me???  The feminist who hates gender stereotypes?

I know I may be setting a far more gendered example for my kids than I realize.  For example I do all the cooking at home, and my daughter has no doubt noticed this.  But on the other hand she spends plenty of time with her dad so I don’t know why she’d necessarily model my behavior any more than his.  Come to think of it, she does model his behavior all the time, at least in her interest in electronic devices.  (He can’t wait to show her how to write her own code.)  Anyway, I think my kids’ interests in vehicles and picnic-making come from their own intrinsic selves, not from the behaviors we model or our stated expectations.  Nothing was ever stopping my son from setting up pretend picnics, but he’s never done it.

On the other hand, how hard-wired can any of this really be, anyway?  Obviously in human evolution there were no planes, trains, and automobiles for male humans to enjoy and adapt to.  What is so appealing about things with engines and wheels, anyway?  Are they proxies for game animals?  And why do some girls love them and others don’t?  Why do some little girls love babies and others don’t?  While the only kids in my son’s class to flock to the stroller were girls, it certainly wasn’t every single girl in the room.  Some of them didn’t care about the baby any more than the boys did.  Human personalities are endlessly varied.  And any time you have a trait that’s on average correlated with another, or rather any time you have an average anything, that means there are tails on both sides of the curve.  Pick a person out of a bag and there’s no telling where that person fits on the curve.  You only have probability, not predictability, when it comes to guessing whether different traits will correlate with a person’s gender.


My last question is why any of this should matter when it comes to religious teachings.  We’re told over and over to overcome the natural man or woman.  We have plenty of natural tendencies that require taming or training to become more and more like our Heavenly Parents.  So why should religion let biology be its guide in making prescriptions about gender roles?  Shouldn’t we all learn to nurture?  Shouldn’t we all be able to manage the responsibility of being a provider?  Aren’t godly characteristics things both genders should equally strive for?  I’m having a hard time thinking of a godly characteristic that’s gender-specific, which tells me when it comes to the important stuff gender is irrelevant.

Anyway, what is my point?  My point is that in my unscientific study of little kids I have known, I have noticed some patterns.  Some things that are more true of the girls than of the boys and vice versa.  My other point is that this isn’t a very useful observation.  Because when you meet someone, you can’t assume you know anything about them because you know their gender.  Not their interests, talents, sexuality, strengths, or anything else.  Correlation is not causation, as the saying goes.


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8 Responses

  1. Becca says:

    I called to my then 2 yr old to find out what she was doing. “Playing cars,” was her answer. I smugly congratulated myself on the enriching, gender-neutral atmosphere I had created, until I went into the room where she was.

    Each car was tenderly wrapped in pajamas, and she was singing them to sleep.

    But then again, one of my boys spent his entire second year in a Cinderella dress! I appreciate your point that there are generalities, but each kid is on their own spectrum.

  2. Melody says:

    What a fantastic post. Well done. And good for you for courageously stepping into the gender tornado by writing this. Genetics matter. Chromosomes matter. Hormones matter. Spiritual gender? also maybe? matters.

    [I also like what Becca said and completely agree.]

    I intended to be an egalitarian and gender-neutral parent. I bought robin egg, yellow, mint green clothing before my first child was born. She was a girl. I packed away all those neutral colors and swaddled her in pink. All things pink. Even her blessing dress was pink. There was no stopping me.

    All three of my now-grown kids manifest what I saw as distinctly gender-specific traits very early in childhood. They, like the rest of us, land in their own unique spot on the gender spectrum. I’m grateful they made it through the storms of childhood without massive gender/identity crisis. God bless those who don’t have it so easy.

  3. Alisa says:

    An interesting Freakinomics podcast showed how toddler and preschool aged children experience heightened gender sensitivity more than any other age group. Even when parents are gender neutral, if the children have socialized at church or with friends, seen other kids at play, seen TV, seen movies, interacted with cousins, or watched their own siblings or parents interact with each other and the environment, they will feel those gender differences like they’re on steroids. This program even addressed how the super-heightened gender awareness of this age group puzzled and worried their progressive parents. On the other hand, when anthropologists when to a section in Asia where is was a matriarchal society and one that was deemed to be the least oppressive to women, they found that girls in that society were willing to take significantly higher risks than girls worldwide as well as their peers. Turns out that whatever gender they display reflect their culture’s view, so when the culture says women are income earners, investors, and risk-takers, their girls will show this to the extreme.

    Interesting stuff. Freakinomics podcast: . And the risk-taking study around the world:

  4. charlene says:

    I would say that for any given characteristic, girls and boys belong to two different bell curves (or whatever distribution it happens to be) with different averages. For example, when I was a Nursery leader, I would notice that in general the girls would tend to be lower-energy and less rambunctious than the boys, but a particular girl might be more rambunctious than all of the boys, or a particular boy might be quieter than many of the girls. I don’t think it is at all non-feminist or silly to understand that the distributions might be different, as long as we don’t make the error of thinking that this dictates any one person.

    That point about religion not making biology be its guide is a great one, and I had never thought about it that way before.

  5. Caroline says:

    Thanks for these insights, Emily U. In many ways my children, like yours, fall into stereotypical gendered behavior, despite the fact that I didn’t steer them to that. But like Alisa, I tend to credit the massive amount of socialization they receive from other environments to that behavior. Though I know that more and more science has seemed to indicate in recent years that hormones do matter, so I may have to shift some of my thinking on this at some point.

    At any rate, I like your final insights: “Because when you meet someone, you can’t assume you know anything about them because you know their gender. Not their interests, talents, sexuality, strengths, or anything else. Correlation is not causation, as the saying goes.”

    Amen. Just because certain behaviors tend to correlate with one gender shouldn’t, in my opinion, lead to gendered prescriptions about how all men and women should live their lives as men or women. I think the Church would be far better off if leaders left behind gendered behavior prescriptions and focused more on all of us being disciples of Christ and children of Heavenly Parents, equal in power, glory, strengths, and abilities.

  6. Rachel says:

    I have wondered some of those same questions regarding Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, and believe that neither has a monopoly on characteristics such as charity, gentleness, or strength.

    Similarly, Christ has all good characteristics, regardless of whether they are typically deemed of as masculine or feminine, and that is my goal.

  7. Ziff says:

    Well said, Emily U. I particularly like this point:

    So why should religion let biology be its guide in making prescriptions about gender roles?

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