Wednesday, 20 February 2008

the x factor

I consider myself extremely lucky, as a woman, to have been raised in an era when it was possible to believe that a girl could do anything a boy could do. As a youngster I could pass off difference and disadvantage as socialisation, historical baggage or institutional bias.

And later, despite a growing body of evidence that life was not a gender neutral playing field, I found great solace in the stories psychoanalytic theory told about how such difference came to be. I liked it because it made a lot of sense to me, but I also liked it because it left open hope that difference could be overcome.

Without getting too waylaid into a discussion of feminist theory, and the difference between androgynous feminism (men and women could and should be the same) and a more liberal feminism (men and women are certainly different but could and should still be equally valued, with equal opportunities and choices), my point is that as a post feminist daughter I was never comfortable with discussions which centred on gross generalisations based on gender.

But competing with my ideological stance was a growing interest and belief in a science based paradigm. Perhaps the watershed was reading Matt Ridley's totally excellent Genome, or maybe it started before that, as my friends started having kids and the newspapers started reporting the exponentially interesting research findings about how people work. Clearly my placement on the nature vs nuture scale was vulnerable.

What Ridley's book did was make me realise that all those miles of genetic code we carry inside us did a range of jobs that went way beyond determining our eye colour, our propensity to disease or the tenor of our voice. We learn grammar from a gene (which incidentally switches off working at a certain point), we have a gene that makes us like cigarettes or not, we have genes that determine all sorts of things usually ascribed to behaviour that is learned.

Now given that we know this, and given that girls get two of the x kind of chromosome and boys get just one of the x and one of the itty bitty y, it stands to reason that girls and boys are not the same.

Lots can be said about the similarities of course - we share far more in the genetic material department than we differ - and lots can be said (as Ridley strongly and expertly does) about the way environment breathes life into genetic code to make it less a script for life than the stage on which a life is lived. And, of course, what is true in general is not always true in the particular.



The bottom line is that there are inherent differences between sexes that are innate, inscribed in our cells and utterly inescapable. So while I have gradually been inching down the line, seeing ever more nature in our lives and ever less nurture, I have retained a deep suspicion of generalising, categorising and most critically of limiting our understanding and expectation of people based on what nature has supposedly provided.

But you know what? Forget it.

As soon as Wil could crawl, he picked out a car from the toy box, put it on the ground and started driving it around. He even makes the brmm brmm noise. No mama, no dada, just brmm brmm. D spectulates that perhaps cars were made to make the noise they do because boys did what Wil does even before motor cars were invented. Cars and balls. One end of the house to the other. No obstacle too great.

When Amy declared at the age of 2 or so that she would no longer wear jeans or pants because that was what boys wore, and the colour blue was henceforth banned from her life, I felt that environment could not fully explain her conviction. It is true she had a bit of contact with other kids, and some of them belonged to the all things pink brigade, but given the utter lack of reinforcement she got from any of her significant role models, there seemed to be something more to it.

As a baby and small child she had a very gender neutral wardrobe to match her gender neutral toys (and very non girly mother). But when I took her to buy shoes she would pick out stilettos for me and pink plastic glitter for her, plead with me to wear a skirt, refuse anything but pink, paint lovehearts on every surface. That had to be more than a few kids at childcare whispering in her ear, surely? When I bought her a new rash vest just this summer (pink, hello kitty) to wear with her pink love heart and rainbow surf hat, her pink crocs and her flowery white and blue boardshorts she still had to ask why I was dressing her like a boy (it was the blue that did it).

What I see growing in Wil now is a set of characteristics so different from Amy, so completely stereotypically boy, that nurture barely rates a mention on my radar any more. I know he's still young, but somehow that makes his declared hand all the more convincing.

Using only the volume and channel changing buttons on the front of the TV he has managed to reprogram the TV into Chinese (twice) and totally delete channel 2. Amy regularly claims to be bamboozled by doing up her own zips.

Last week he hit his head really really hard on five consecutive days. He looked like an escapee from a new years eve party in Glasgow. Amy had a very good sense of her physical limits as s child and major hurts were very rare.

He throws himself at people and things with a total disregard for the consequences. He regularly injures us as well as himself. The other day in the time I had my back turned to get a spoon from the drawer he had climbed out and fallen from his highchair and was hanging upside down by one foot.

He is obsessed (not just interested in, but utterly consumed by) mechanical things, electrical things, hinges, catches, buttons, phones, computers and vehicles. When denied the remote he melts into a puddle of screams. Amy was easily placated with a $2 plastic mobile phone and an old remote from some long gone piece of equipment.

He is really straightforward. No agendas, no confusion, no mixed messages. I don't always like his behaviour but I can pretty much always understand what he's doing and why. I nearly lost my mind trying to work Amy out. She remains a very complex creature who regularly surprises and confuses me.

He has no idea why anyone would want to interfere with what he wants, feels no need to try and communicate and simply resolves all situations physically. He is genuinely mystified for example if I get cross when he bites my nipple - he wants more milk, why wouldn't he bite? Amy will happily negotiate for a better deal, apologise regularly and has a sense of shame about breaking rules.

He looks really good in navy blue. Who would have thought any child of mine would be getting around in navy (with a sister in pink)?

And he's not a particularly energetic kid, Amy certainly takes out the award for the party hard animal, but he is intensely physical in a way that Amy never has been.

So I'm starting to think now about what the future holds for us, not just about his personality and how we'll get along, but about how different it is going to be to try and manage the problems and life choices that come with that boy thing. What I will do when he starts getting big enough that those physical challenges are beyond me, how I will stimulate and amuse him, how I will cope with a troupe of his mates coming over for play dates.

And it's not that I'm daunted or scared, it's just that I am slowly realising that just as Amy's dolly wrapping, fairy princess loving, frilled up life kind of took me by surprise, so is hearing myself saying (so often) that he is such a boy. I am glad, really glad, that my kids are so different and that mothering Wil won't just be the evening reprise of the matinee.


kate said...

Having had a son who is 'such a boy', my brother and his wife had a daughter, a daughter my sister inlaw has been longing for for such a long time. A daughter to dress in pink, to put ribbons in the hair of, to take shopping, to be 'such a girl'.

She learned to crawl and headed straight for the tractor. She will not be distracted, she wants only the toys with the wheels. I hope she has the capacity to make some girly consessions for her mother in future, because if she flat out refuses to wear pink (or all dresses, like I did) her mother will be very upset.

The take home message for all of us is 'don't go thinking you get to decide what sort of kids you're going to have'.

Jo said...

Great post!

Sometimes I too am shocked by how different my two babes are - Daisy didn't take long to pick up a dolly and hug her close making soothing noises - Angus never did that.

It happens in so many different ways, and I celebrate the differences. I am grateful that I was able to have a boy and a girl... and that each child is such an individual too.

sueeeus said...

This is SO spot on (wrt my little guy): "He has no idea why anyone would want to interfere with what he wants, feels no need to try and communicate and simply resolves all situations physically."

!You are not alone!

flamehair said...

It's so funny that you should post this right now as I was only saying to my Mum the other day how often I say "He's such a boy!" in reference to my son. My now 3 y/o daughter is still, quiet, introspective and nurturing and I had gotten used to that. My son is 7 months old, started to crawl a month ago and has systematically torn the house apart since then. If there is a button he will push it, if there is a tall object he will attempt to scale it. Everything I learnt with Daisy is irrelevant to this force of nature and I now find myself scrambling to keep up with Felix, when I assumed I would be coasting along with my armoury of parental knowledge.

sooz said...

Oh yeah flamehair, I forgot to say the reach up, the pull off the table, the throw it away (watch those plates smash!) thing. My daughter was no walk in the park - certainly not the feminine shy retiring type, but she was not this total destruction machine either. For all her boisterousness she was never the slightest interested in cars and after a couple of goes pulling things off the shelves she gave it up. Wil could pull every book, every CD and every dish off every shelf 1000 times and still not tire of it.

Kate said...

I have two boys, so not qualified to comment about girls. But I recall being at a wedding in my second pregnancy when I was harangued by a completley strange man (perhps strange in more than the unknown to me sense!) because My oldest son showed no inclination towards anything but building, tools, and trucks - despite(as I pointed) out to him ample exposure to more "feminine" toys!
BTW I am a regular lurker on your blog - love to check in with you every few days!

Jodie said...

Oh yes. Miss jem had a train and she played with it- taking people shopping or to the zoo or grandams - lots of talking on the platform and explaining of the family dynamics.
Connor played with the train - by creating train crashes ! Same age !

And as for the troupe of mates....invest in a big tent !

kirsten said...

oh, yeah. i am hearing you! whilst my boy is not a stereotypical "boy" in many ways, my daughter is not a stereotypical "girl" in many ways [yet], they are so utterly and totally different and much of that is gender related/connected.
amazing to watch.
challenging to parent.
[and the twist every knob, pull every handle, press every button, open every door and drawer, switch every light, obsession nearly caused meltdown in every european country we travelled to in 2004... no earth leakage over there. still getting over it!]

CK said...


You're so right. There are differences between us all and yet we are so similar. I have three boys and they are so different from each other. I can see so many characteristics that they have inherited. The you get a glimpse of something unique inside of them. It's all wonderful and hope we can guide them safely into their own lives.


kate said...

I'm living in fear that my 14 month old is going to pull the bookshelves down on himself. I decided he can pull all the books off the shelves so long as it distracts him from climbing up them.

My Mum says it's paying me back for all the trees I climbed. I didn't quite finish the point earlier, because although it's really important not to decided what your kid is, or what they should be and impose it regardless of evidence, it's also really really really hard to resist.

As for gender, well I know they start acting differently very early, but they're also treated differently from birth. Even by those of us who are trying really really really hard not to. Some research I saw a few years ago found that from birth boys are handled differently from girls, and are spoken to differently. I don't think we can know what difference nature makes until we raise kids without culture, which is impossible.

red_swirl said...

I'm still not convinced about the gender thing, a good 80% of your description of Wil fits my youngest daughter. The other daughter has a different, but not girly personality: she is very social, proof positive personality can't be inherited!!!

I still think we see the same behaviours in both genders, but tend to describe them differently - my 2.5 year old runs up & down the corridor, almost ramming the toy stroller into the wall: is that mothering, or boisterous running? She likes to carry bags 'round the house, very female ... but I hate bags, it's her Dad who won't leave home without one. And so on...maybe if I had a boy I'd believe you?

Saha said...

Yep. I used to be totally convinced that it was all socialization...until I had children. My daughter is not a girly girl, she likes to wear jeans and hooded tops and will not, and I mean, WILL NOT wear dresses or even skirts. She hates frills and anything too "pretty". But she is nothing like my boys! At one my first son was out hunting birds in the back yard. Both my sons are little men in every possible way and they were so long before they were old enough to pick up on social cues, it really is fascinating.

flapple said...

I read this interesting post on Evolution 101 about the female orgasm. The basic thrust of the argument is that there has been lots of feminist and social discussion of the female orgasm, but it comes down to evo-devo (evolution and development - how we develop in the womb, you know the stuff about us having tails and gils early in our development). Apparently the female bits and male bits develop from the same material, material that has a primary function of producing the male orgasms for reproductive purposes, the same bits get used for the female and as a result that also include some of the orgasmic functionality, although that is not their purpose. The same process, in reverse, end up with males having non-functioning nipple.

The point being that males and females do go though a different development, with millions of years of evolutionary driven differences, it is not surprising that this in going to manifest itself in all kinds of funny ways with children.

Remember at least we are not a species where one sex is twice as large as the other, or the female eats the males head off. So I think we have got off pretty lightly with the truck thing.


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