This was pretty cool moment for us. Our research on sexual harassment in schools was mentioned on CBS Evening News by Katie Couric. I just found the clip, even though it is a couple of years old.
I am always complaining about the lack of gender equality. It irritates me that I have to go into the boys’ aisles to find a tool set for my Maya or Grace. But, I find that this new trend toward gender equality is even more irritating. Now, not only can you buy Legos in pink and purple, but you can also buy a Nerf Gun in pink and purple.
I don’t think this is the kind of equality so many of us want. First, it is still a “Girl” toy, obvious to anyone with the color and models on the box. It still strongly signals to children that only girls should play with this toy (and conversely, that only boys should play with the other Nerf guns).
The toy may be the same, but the segregation remains.
Second, I just don’t want my kids (whether they be boys or girls) to play with guns. I know that makes me sound prudish, but guns are just not an okay toy in a Sandy Hook world. Guns ultimately kill people (even if you think people kill people, it is still people holding guns). Nowadays, those guns are often being wielded by children. Why should I want my daughter to play with a toy that simulates killing? I wouldn’t want my sons to do that. Regardless of people’s opinions about gun control, it seems this type of play and “fun” should be a shrinking trend, not a growing one.
Why don’t we see more “prosocial” toys cross the gender aisle? (God forbid we actually we get rid of the gender aisles). I would love to see dolls marketed to boys. Boys could definitely use more practice care-taking and being nurturing. Or make tool sets available in the girls’ section. I want my daughters to be competent with tools. These are important skills all children should develop. Firing a gun, less so.
This summer, I decided it was time to introduce Maya to some of my favorite books. There is probably no coincidence in the fact that I come from the South, was always drawn to books that deal with racial inequality in the South, and grew up to study race and gender stereotypes. So my favorite books seem to have a common theme, although that was never purposeful. But this recent group of readings has led to some difficult conversations that I just hope aren’t too depressing for a 9 year old.
First, we read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I loved that book as a kid. It is always interesting to re-read books you loved as a kid, as an adult. We are now reading To Kill a Mockingbird. That book may be a little too old for her, but we are wading into it anyway. Last night we watched the movie (one of the few times the movie is as good as the book). She is really into them.
One thing I noticed, in my adult-brain reread of these, is that both are told from the perspective of a girl. I obviously couldn’t articulate that as a kid, but I wonder how much that influenced me. It is a very different reading experience when you can more easily place yourself into the narrator’s shoes, and imagine what you would feel like if you were transported into that time and that place. Maya picked up on it. It definitely makes her more engaged. It makes me want to seek out more stories told from the perspective of a girl (beyond the Ramona Quimby and Judy Blume category). Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
These books have also forced me to talk about the ugliness of racial inequality. Kids at school are taught that Martin Luther King came, everyone marched to Washington, and then racism was gone forever. But I know that is not the case. It isn’t 1950, lunch counters don’t even exist anymore, but it still happens. (If you disagree, check this out). This is especially tough because her best friend is African American, and so anything negative has a very personal feel for her. I don’t even tell her about my own research which shows how biased teachers are in her own school district against the Latino kids in their classes. I did talk about the unfairness of bans on same-sex marriage (which she knows about from the court issues) and how I see the parallels between that and the taboos of interracial relationships in Mockingbird.
What my take home message ended up being: Don’t be sad about it, get mad. Get mad when you see people being treated unfairly. And then do something about it. The only way times have changed is when good people speak up (Atticus Finch included). It is definitely a challenge for me as a parent to talk about bad things in the world, past and present, and end on a message of hope and activism. I am a real ball of fun as a mom. The summer of social inequality. What every little kid dreams of!
Here is my talk I gave as part of a series at UK called “What’s New in Science.” It was geared toward middle and high school students and students, as well as parents. The punch line is that most of what we think are innate gender differences are really not. I decided my goal in life is to help people learn the difference between good science and crap.
A new study shows that marital conflict is a significant source of physiological stress for children. When kids witness their parents argue, their body’s stress response is affected (specifically, their parasympathetic nervous system). This makes it harder for them to pay attention, solve problems, and learn new information.
Take home message: Kids who witness their parents arguing are physically affected by the conflict. This limits their learning potential and cognitive abilities. This supports all of the other research showing how bad it is for kids to watch their parents fight.
My take: Too many parents say they are “staying together for the children.” More evidence that marital conflict is bad for kids. Based on research, divorce is much better than fighting parents. In other words, if you are divorced, don’t feel so bad. Staying married if you fought a lot was much worse for your kids’ emotional and intellectual life. If you are married, be aware that your arguments are affecting your kids. Save the skirmish for after bedtime. And maybe “being right” isn’t so important after all.
(in journal Child Development)
Pretty cool that the U.S. Secret Service is now headed by a woman, Julia A. Pierson, for the first time. She worked there for 30 years and worked her way up from the bottom. Not exactly a female-friendly job or culture, so it will be interesting to see how this leads to changes. Probably no more hooker visits while on trips, I am guessing.
A new study in Journal of Family Issues highlights another way gender stereotypes screw us up. The researchers were looking at what predicted happy marriages (in straight couples). It seems having a wife who is happy with the marriage makes everyone happier. That old saying “happy wife, happy life” seems to be true for men. But what makes wives happier? Having husbands who does chores with them, side-by-side. Liking cleaning the kitchen together, one rinses the dishes off and one loads the dishwasher kind of thing. Also, even more important than doing chores together, is having a husband who spends quality time with the kids. Things like reading a bedtime book or talking to them about their day.
It seems that doing those activities that are often relegated to women (housework and childcare) is the best way for men to have happier marriages. Plus, they get a clean house and close relationships with their kids to boot. A pretty good argument for ditching the idea of “women’s work”.
Softball season for Maya ends tomorrow. Tomorrow night, they play their “Championship Game.” Really, she is in a learning league where the goal is to help kids improve their softball skills. In other words, the really good players are there, but few in number. This is a good fit for Maya, as the poor girl was thrown into the shallow end of the athletic gene pool. But she has fun and I think it is important to play something. The importance of athletics for girls, even a non-athletic girl, has been reinforced lately in the news. The reason for the news stories: the 40th anniversary of Title IX.
Times have changed so much since Title IX was passed in 1972. Back then, about the time I was born, phones were barbarically attached to the wall by a cord. Gas station attendants waited by your car window while you told them to “Fill it up, unleaded.” Our massive console television, with the 2 knobs that got 5 channels (the 3 networks plus PBS and the local UHF channel) took up an entire wall of our wood paneled living room. Computers were something you might see at work but never imagined holding on your lap while sitting on your couch. And, only 7 percent of all high school athletes were girls. That has changed tenfold in 40 years. Girls now make up 41 percent of high school athletes.
It isn’t just a numbers thing. Even the cultural thinking about girls in sports has changed in 40 years. Back then, only hardcore athletic girls played sports (and were presumed to be lesbians). About this time, a 55-year-old former tennis player, Bobby Riggs, was so convinced that only men were really athletes that he challenged the top female tennis player in the world to a match. Luckily, Billie Jean King kicked his ass, a victory that meant far more than the prize money she won. Our own research shows this cultural shift. When my graduate student, Jenna (who happens to be Maya’s softball coach), asked middle school kids to describe a popular girl, a lot of kids, both boys and girls, described a girl who is good at sports. That would not have happened even 15 years ago.
Things aren’t perfect yet. Twenty percent of the public does not support Title IX. They think it “takes away” from the “real sports,” like football and basketball. And, the most popular female athletes are the ones who happen to be attractive and who like to pose in their underwear on mens‘ magazine covers.
But regardless of how far girls in sports have come, and how far they still have to go, playing sports is simply good for girls. When they play sports, they are less likely to drink, smoke, be depressed or anxious, get pregnant, or think poorly about their bodies. Think this doesn’t relate to your kids?
Keep in mind that recent studies show that 12 percent of 10- and 11-year old girls want to be thinner, 27 percent of 11- to 16-year old girls have drunk so much that they have been sick or out of control, and more than 35 percent of 16- to 21-year old girls admit to having unprotected sex. Playing sports reduces these numbers.
No one really knows why sports are so good for girls. Maybe it is focusing on their bodies being strong and powerful (rather than skinny and simply something for boys to ogle) that helps girls feel empowered, maybe it is relying on teammates that helps girls feel part of something bigger than themselves, maybe it is having a group of adults literally and figuratively cheering them on that boosts their self-esteem. Whatever the reason, sports are good for all girls, not just the athletic ones. So thanks to the 40 years of girls who played sports even when it wasn’t cool. And even though my girl likes to play in the dirt instead of watch for pop flies, and has been hit by a pitch more than once this season, she will always play something, whatever something she finds the most fun, regardless of the scoreboard.
Sometimes Nike commercials are really great. They just ran an inspiring commercial about the power of marching to your own drum.
(Some of these blogs come out of season because I am transferring from my old website)
The week before college starts in the fall, hundreds of women vie for the coveted spots in a sorority. During this week, I begin to feel like Jane Goodall. Groups of college women all dressed alike walk around campus in herds. The same dress, the same shoes, the same hair. Some are better than others at navigating the high heels, but I think I would have an easier time distinguishing a group of chimps. The craziest type of individuality any of them showed was picking a different color purse.
I must admit, I never did any of this as a college student. I went to a small school that (I think) had one sorority. But I have lots of students who are in sororities, so I understand the social value of the organization. I don’t judge the sorority. I just think this stuff i crazy. At Kentucky, the girls also dress identically for football games. Same blue, black, and white dress and same brown boots. What is difficult to understand is the extreme conformity. They all work so hard to look like the other girls. It must be exhausting. They drank some powerful Kool-Aid.
Social psychology has taught us about the irony of individuals and groups. We desperately want to fit in, but at the same time, we desperately want to be perceived as unique. That’s a tough line to walk.
Considering how much women at this age are objectified, it is particularly disturbing to see conformity beat out individuality so strongly. It isn’t even a close match. It is clearly much better to fit an ideal image of a sorority girl than be thought of as an actual individualized person. I know this isn’t the message I want 19 year old girls to leave with. Just doing something because your friends are doing it is particularly dangerous in a college atmosphere of alcohol binge drinking and unprotected sex.
So, bring on the girls in the non-matching dress, the comfortable shoes, and the curly hair. Because I want to celebrate the girls who say, “Take me as I am or don’t take me at all!”