Teaching Gender Differentiation to Children

Women and men are born with biological differences. All fetuses are first formed as female. Starting at four weeks, fetuses with a Y chromosome are exposed to washes of chemicals called androgyns. Androgyn changes some aspects of the affected fetuses so that they will develop physically into boys, with varying degrees of psychological and physical differentiation from girls. This is sexual differentiation.

Each society has developed its own methods to handle the differences between girls and boys. Across the world, societies have designated a rainbow of different kinds of roles for women, men and people who don’t fit easily into gender roles. What may be part of a woman’s gender in one community could be part of a man’s gender in another, as babies aren’t born knowing how to chop firewood or sell goods in the marketplace. In one community, little girls are taught that selling goods is a “part” of being a woman. In another, little boys are taught that selling goods is a “part” of being a man. Societies often come to think of these more or less arbitrary designations as “natural”.

We in America have also developed different roles for men and women as a way to address sexual differentiation. Over time, we have come to regard certain tasks and behaviors as naturally female or male. We train our children to become habituated to these roles – to internalize them.

It is important to recognize that the way we gender children is arbitrary, and in American society, sometimes harmful.

The argument for why our gender rules harm women is well-known. In our past we saw such human rights abuses as enslavement to husbands, socially-sanctioned physical and sexual abuse, restricted civil rights and severely curtailed access to public life, including the ability to attend higher education or choose a career. These human rights abuses of the past were justified by a male chauvinist society that gave “naturalized” reasons for why this was “part” of being a woman.

Because of racism in society, women of different skin colors had different gender roles – even within one society, America’s, gender was not applied evenly across-board. Whereas white women were naturally delicate and weak, and therefore must be confined to light house work, black women were naturally strong and hearty, and therefore could work outside the home (in service to whites).

Today we can look at empirical data and still see sex-differentiated life outcomes among America’s population. The wage gap in men’s favor is well-documented. There is also over- and under-representation of men in certain career fields. Men are more likely to be CEOs or POTUS, but also to abuse women and children, and to go to jail. Women get the majority of college degrees, but are more likely to live in poverty and to be on welfare.

Americans must examine their reasons for teaching children certain behaviors based on their sex. In many ways, it is clear differentiated treatment is harmful. Boys are taught to use aggression to solve problems and to stifle emotion. Girls are taught not to excel and to put other’s needs before their own. Why? Is someone benefiting from behaviors such as these? Do we have evidence that our gender rules lead to greater happiness?

Certain aspects of both America’s genders are clearly harmful, yet other aspects are positive: women are taught to value relationships, communication and collaboration. Men are taught to value personal strength, independence and achievement. Why can’t we discard teaching children the negative gender-related characteristics? Why can’t every child learn clearly positive traits such as good communication and independence? If a woman can rely on herself instead of a man, if a man can communicate his emotions instead of resorting to violence, where is the harm? Yet society seems to recoil when a person of one sex assumes too many traits of the gender associated with the other sex. Why is that?

(c) idyllicmollusk 8/08


2 thoughts on “Teaching Gender Differentiation to Children

  1. Did you see this article about women earners in major cities? http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/03/nyregion/03women.html It at least shows that change is possible, even though the article states that across the whole country, there is still an earner gap for men and women.

    Also, as far as the genetic component of gender goes, the book “As Nature Made Him” is an integral part of the debate. Have you read it?

    That being said, cultural differences, like hand holding in SE Asian cultures between hetero men, are fascinating and much needed education in America.

  2. I tots read As Nature Made Him on your recommendation, I think. It shows convincingly that there is a biological component to gender presentation. I do not argue that there is no biological element in the differences between men and women. I am arguing that because gender is expressed differently in different cultures, and some aspects of American gender teachings are harmful to men and women, we as a society can choose not to teach the parts that are harmful, and not to restrict teaching of beneficial traits to only one gender. As far as individuals’ choices on their own gender presentations, I would never favor any kind of compulsory societal rules, spoken or not. I don’t believe women should be forced to be more masculine, but conversely, I don’t believe men should be forced to be masculine either.

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