Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

FAMILY MATTERS; Girls Don't like Dinosaurs: Exploring the Origins of Gender Preferences

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

FAMILY MATTERS; Girls Don't like Dinosaurs: Exploring the Origins of Gender Preferences

Article excerpt

Philosophers, scientists and laymen have long contemplated the differences between males and females--and so have my family and friends. In college, we sat around each other's kitchen tables weighing the relative influence of nature and nurture. Did gender differences derive mainly from the environment--from commercialism, patriarchy and traditional childrearing? Or from biology--the power of testosterone, hormones, differences in left and right hemispheres? Though we entertained both viewpoints, most of us clearly believed that environment held stronger sway, and we vowed to parent our own children differently. Our boys would be less aggressive. Our girls less fashion conscious.

So, when my son was still a baby, my husband and I bought him a nice, cuddly doll for bedtime. He discarded it quickly in favor of the comforting cold metal of cars, one clutched tightly in each hand. When he outgrew his favorite pajamas with the T-Rex's jaws gaping open to expose sharp, dangerous teeth, we offered his hand-me-downs to our daughter. She declined. (A neighbor boy was thrilled to get them.)

Not long afterward, my daughter joined our culture's gender conversation. It happened during a play date with a boy from her toddler program. Faced with a shelf full of toys, he gravitated immediately to the action figures and reptiles. My daughter, dismayed, announced gravely,

"Girls don't like dinosaurs. Boys do."

"Well, " I said, trying to salvage things. "Boys and girls can both like dinosaurs. Why don't you play with them, too?"

"No, I don't like them." Despite my efforts, he stuck to the dinosaurs and she to her dolls, and each ended up playing alone. I had to concede that my daughter had made her point.

I was astonished, partly because she was so young and partly because, despite all those hours I spent talking in my friends' kitchens, she was, well, so girlish. She liked anything pink, purple, shiny or glittery. She favored hearts, flowers and frills and wanted to be a ballerina or princess when she grew up.

I didn't think these preferences originated with me. Although I had played with dolls as a child, I had also delighted in wearing my brother's hand-me-downs and playing basketball and soccer. I doubted that the larger culture had yet had much influence over a child of her age. Clearly, I thought, nature was winning over nurture.

Still, when she started asking us for Barbie dolls two years later, my husband and I were caught unprepared. "No," was our obvious answer, for we had read about the damage such idealized images could create for adolescent girls. But try explaining that to a 4-year-old.

"Why not?" she would ask, "they are pretty and they have nice clothes. I'm tired of Legos and blocks. We need more girl toys." At our kitchen table that night, my husband and I were forced to take stock, admit our powerlessness and decide how much to support our children's obvious preferences.

"What exactly is wrong with Barbie?" we ventured to ask each other one day, our thoughts teetering from one side of the issue to the other.

"She is not a realistic role model," my husband said, but I could have said that, too.

"Neither is a Jedi knight," I said.

"We don't need to buy our daughter everything she wants," he said, and then vacillated. "If we don't take seriously what she wants, what does that say to her?"

"Barbie epitomizes the image that girls should be pretty, not smart," I said. "It's not the message we want her to get." "If she wants to be pretty," he said, "can't we still support her being smart as well? Maybe we are just embarrassed to allow Barbies in our house."

In the end, we had to concede that since children's play always includes trying on different roles and skills, we did not really expect our daughter to grow into Barbie any more than we thought our son would eventually become a Jedi knight if given a Star Wars toy. …

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