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He’s All Boy

When Simon was about six weeks old, he went to the Whitworths for Thanksgiving. Friends of theirs, upon seeing Simon for the first time, looked at me and declared, “He’s all boy, you know.”

I smiled in agreement, even though my baby was only six weeks old and had a wardrobe that was mostly gender neutral. (I could write volumes on how horrified I am by the ubiquitous stereotyping of gender roles as evidenced by baby clothes, but that’s a different blog entry/rant.) Why, I wondered, does my infant look boyish to me? And what are the long-term ramifications of my identifying him as a boy at such an early age?

A vast body of literature argues for and against inborn biological differences between boys and girls beyond obvious sexual differences relating to strength, size, and reproductive roles. Are boys more physically adventurous than girls because of the Y chromosome or because of how their parents play with them and expect them to act? Are girls more cooperative by nature because they are XX, or because such behavior wins them the most praise? Science has a hard time researching questions like this; after all, you cannot do a double-blind study on gender attitudes and identity.

In this nature vs. nurture debate, I come down firmly in the squishy middle. It seems obvious to me that not all gender differences can be chalked up to environmental conditioning. Whether it’s the difference in language acquisition between boys and girls or the effects of testosterone on behavior, I believe that some cultural assumptions about gender and behavior have a biological basis. And yet…

And yet how great would these differences be–how much equalization would occur–if our expectations and treatment of both genders were the same? Boys tend to develop language skills slower than girls, but they eventually catch up. Girls develop spacial reasoning later than boys and tend to not catch up. Is that because we don’t give our girls building toys? Or is this an example of an inborn difference in ability? The debate roars on.

Biological differences aside, I am convinced that a huge amount of gender identity comes from modeling. Given that, I can honestly say that I don’t want Simon to be “all boy” in the common American sense. It’s fine if he’s physical and rambunctious. I’ll encourage him if he’s into building toys and sports. But I’d also like him to have a sensitive and artistic side. I want him to be nurturing and thoughtful. I want him to have good language skills. It’s great if he’s strong, but I also hope he’ll have a measure of grace.

Much of this, of course, is up to Simon himself. My job isn’t to make Simon who I want him to be (tempting though that might be); it is to work with his instincts and affinities to guide him towards his best self. Still, it seems that Matt and I do have the responsibility to model more moderate and flexible gender typing, and I wonder how well we can deliver on this?

We may consider ourselves pretty enlightened, but we fall into pretty predictable gender patterns ourselves. I enjoy cooking and knitting. I do most of the laundry and cleaning. I work part-time to give myself more time with Simon. I am a clothes horse. I listen to a lot of female country, folk, and bluegrass singers. Matt, on the other hand, enjoys bass playing and dickering on his computer. He’s a disaster in the kitchen and avoids cleaning whenever possible. He works full time and is the family’s primary bread-winner. He hates shopping. He listens to a lot of punked out rock and pop.

So where do we intersect or defy expectations? After quite a bit of thinking, I have come up with the following: We are both unathletic, and we both read too much.

That’s it. Together we offer a gender-neutral portrait of nerd-dom. Not exactly what I had in mind. Poor Simon.

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