Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Nature Or Nurture

As a new parent, I was convinced that my daughter would grow up to be a sports playing, hammer wielding tomboy. After all, I was playing the role of stay-at-home-parent in our family, and I just assumed that my male influence would make it so. We didn't exactly try to raise her in a non-gender specific way, but mom was the one heading off to the office, while dad handled childcare, cooking and cleaning. Not only that but we both preferred her in short hair and overalls, and for the first couple years of her life, whenever she was out with me, everyone just assumed she was a little boy, a mistake I didn't always correct. If anyone was raising a child outside the cultural expectations for a little girl, it was us.

I was pretty smug when she expressed a fondness for The Who (a band I've always considered particularly masculine), knew the name of certain baseball players, or left the toilet seat up. I'd grown up in an academic and cultural era in which most of us believed in the power of nurture over nature, the idea that things like gender-specific behaviors and preferences were largely conveyed to children by society rather than genes. By the time I was a parent, however, the pendulum was swinging back the other way. There were now studies and articles arguing that gender-linked behaviors are almost entirely a matter of biology, a case that was bolstered, it seemed, by my own daughter, before she was 3, telling me, "You don't know about girls. Girls wear crowns." She then proceeded to wear a crown almost every day until she hit kindergarten, augmenting with pink and purple and tutus and just about every typically girlie thing one can imagine.

Bethe Almeras, the wonderful Grass Stain Guru asked me (and a few other folks) yesterday to comment on an Associated Press article about Egalia, a Stockholm preschool that seeks to teach children in as gender neutral a way as possible. I read the article on my phone while sitting in a restaurant awaiting the rest of our overwhelmingly female summer program board to assemble for dinner and drinks.

My initial reaction was to chuckle about the first sentence:

At the "Egalia" preschool, staff avoid using works like "him" or "her" and address the 33 kids as "friends" rather than girls and boys.

I chuckled not because I don't admire the effort, because I do. I still believe that the truth about nature versus nurture lies somewhere in between, and that my own efforts at gender-neutral parenting have borne fruit as my child enters her teenage years; definitely female, but not always stereotypically so. I chuckled because it struck me as the kind of thing I would have tried when I was a brand new teacher, discovered it was like trying to push water uphill, then abandoned it in the interest of choosing a battle I could actually win.

According to the article, however, breaking down gender roles is a core mission in the national curriculum for Swedish preschools. I also know that in Sweden, schools (like the rest of Scandinavia) are expected to adhere to the goals of their national curriculum, but are given the freedom to seek to achieve those goals in the way the teachers and administrators in that school see fit. And the fact that there is a "long waiting list" to get into the school tells me that there are a lot of parents eager to take part in the experiment.

Do I think that Egalia will succeed in creating a generation of children entirely free from their stereotypical gender roles? No. But do I expect that this approach will in both overt and subtle ways influence individual children in their attitudes about themselves and others when it comes to gender? Quite possibly, especially since the entire learning community, from teachers and administrators to parents, seem to be on board. It's an educational experiment, and if you've read here for long, you'll know that I think that's what education ought to be every day: a collaborative experiment between children and the adults in their lives.

I don't, however, encourage you to click through to this AP story if you want to learn more about Egalia.  The writer has chosen to infuse it with much of her own bias: everything from putting the name "Egalia" in quotes (as if it's not a real proper noun -- you would never see "Bank of America" in quotes), to tossing out charged terms like "liberal," "radical," and "engineering equality." The writer clearly wants readers to find the whole idea ridiculous. Not only that, but there is very little about the rest of Egalia's curriculum beyond the silly-sounding idea of avoiding gender specific pronouns and a long diversion into how they try to create an environment that is tolerant of "gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people" (something that is not unique to Egalia, but rather true of all Swedish schools). At the same time there are lots of quotes from critics, including from a University of a California Davis psychologist who had never heard of Egalia or any school like it before the reporter called him. The writer even goes out of her way to find an unrelated, ridiculous-sounding state-funded postdoctoral study to drop into the story.

I still believe that the Egalia experiment will result in much pushing of water uphill, but I also think it's a worthy experiment. One preschool will in no way undo the influence of biology or the rest of society, but it will be interesting to see what it can do.

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Nikoli said...

Kinda depends on what you're using to push that water uphill. ;) Use a squeegie. An interesting experiment indeed. One I'd love for my son to be a part of, but not one I think I could wrap my own actions around well enough.

Happy Hour...Somewhere said...

It seems like it should be a worthy experiment but how would you tell if it was doing more harm than good? I don't understand why the lack of a gender is something worth pursuing. There just seems something creepy about the government mandating a policy like this.

It always seemed a worthy cause to have fewer kids in a classroom but that is not necessarily true and perhaps money and time could be better spent elsewhere.

balmeras said...

Great post, Tom -- and I am right there with you. Thanks for running with the article. I think it's a really great topic to roll around with as educators, parents and society in general.

I think back to my own childhood. My mother tried to make me a "pink girl" and a doll girl, but I was having none of it. I was in the creek, in the mud, building forts and talking to animals.

She really struggled with me not being a traditional girl, and later, a non-traditional woman. I think for her generation, she really saw independence and drive as non-feminine.

I will say, as an adult, I have fallen somewhere in the middle. I still am the girl in the creek, but I do enjoy things that sparkle, hair products and chic lit.

Hugs- Bethe @balmeras

Teacher Tom said...

@HHS . . . Oh, the goal isn't "lack of gender," it's about eliminating gender bias based on stereotypes, something I wholeheartedly support.

As for government "mandating" things, every single nation on earth with better educational outcomes than ours sets national educational goals. Since Sweden is a democracy, it's "the people" setting these goals through their representatives. "The government" is how we do things together, so I see nothing creepy about it.

As for your class size comment, there is only one study (the one Bill Gates has been citing) that seems to indicate that large classes don't matter, compared to thousands done over decades that show that large class sizes hurt teachers' ability to teach and students' ability to learn. Yet, sadly, we've never spent money trying to reduce class size.

kristin said...

Hi Tom,
Thank you for this post. When my first daughter was born, I tried to raise her in as gender neutral a way as I could. Maybe I was naive but I started from the get go. Her nursery was green, if Grandma bought her a doll, mommy bought her a dump truck. She wore pants and t-shirts and never got "dolled up." One day she came home and announced that she would only wear socks with ruffles. The next week she told me she would only wear dresses. The next week she told me she wanted a pink bedroom. What followed was the longest girliest period I have every seen. With my second daughter, I abandoned the idea. I figured girls were just girls and who was I to fight it. This one turned out to be the biggest tom boy you have ever seen. I guess my point is that I had it wrong both times. I guess people are just people. The best we can do as parents and teachers is to allow them to be who they are, even if it's a little girly:)

Males in Early Childhood said...

I can relate with you on this on so many levels Tom. My teenage daughter was the typical girly girl in many respects until she was about 7. Now she appears so ungirlish in lots of ways, but the core of her personality remains feminine, although she would be at pains to deny it. I have always strove to avoid gender stereotyping children & encourage exploration of non-typical experiences. Afterall, look at us & our roles in a female dominated domain. If we can't lead the way in this then who can? If children are provided with opportunities to engage in a range of experiences that enable them to explore their identity & sense of self then they are quite likely to turn out just fine. As an individual who is not constrained by cultural expectations or societal norms.

ps: I couldn't read that article & many of the comments without commenting myself, so I'm expecting to be lambasted. Bring it on I say.

pamela wallberg said...

You should try googling "storm" - a child in canada supposedly being raised genderless.....

A great text (I am rereading it and loving it) is the Nurture Assumption by Judith Harris - pretty much talking about how social groups and community will undermine everything a parent, and even genetics, can do. It's pretty interesting stuff...

Happy Hour...Somewhere said...

If a child chooses to act in biased gender stereotypical way is that considered a failure? What is considered a success? That was my question to you which you failed to answer or address. I still do not understand the premise of WHY this is a worthy experiment to be imposed. I have 2 daughters, so perhaps I am the wrong one to ask, but one is definitely girly and one was a messy wild woman who played with dinosaurs and wanted nothing to do with dolls. I did not tell my wild woman she was wrong or that she behaved incorrectly but she is most definitely a “girl” at age 21. Is that what they are trying to do, make sure parents do not tell their children their behavior is wrong if it is not stereotypical? If so, I think they are going about it in a most heavy handed and arrogant manner. Many a strident prissy woman who wants pageant girls ends up with a child who wants nothing to do with that and many a strident feminist wants their child to save the world and not play with dolls and that does not happen either. Our children are definitely who they are even at very young ages….sometimes it takes until they are grown up to see it.

And just because Sweden is a republic does not mean that the state is right to impose social experiments with the force of the state to back them up. It is creepy, you just happen to agree with this particular experiment. “Breaking down gender roles is a core mission in the national curriculum for Swedish preschools.” To me, it is as creepy as imposing gender roles as a core mission statement.

Males in Early Childhood said...

hh...s - you didn't actually ask that question first time around. Go back & read through. It's not there, although you may have intended to. Of course how children behave & present themselves change, but this policy is not mandating the production of gender neutral individuals. It is providing opportinites for them to explore & learn without the constraints of social norms. It seems that you did a wondeful job raising your girls, but many children are not offered such opportunities & hence grow up reinforcing the stereotypes.

I especially like how they use a gender non-specific word to refer to visitor before their arrival so that children & adults are free to draw their own conclusions about the people they are discussing.

Christine Natale said...

There is a huge difference between stereotype and archetype. I have been addressing this in my recent articles at www.thewonderofchildhood.com. The new one for July is "Who Are You Calling a Princess?" My focus is on fairy tales and their meaning.