Right Goal Wrong Approach

Time magazine (9/21) featured an essay by Kyl Myers, Ph.D. adapted from  her book, “Raising Them: Our Adventure in Gender Creative Parenting.”  The essay states, “the goal of gender-creative parenting is not to eliminate gender – the goal is to eliminate gender-based oppression, disparities and violence.”  No argument with the goal.  However, her (sorry Kyl for using a gender specific pronoun) approach is based on  her confusing gender equality with gender neutrality.  It appears that her concern for gender discrimination can only be eliminated by neutralizing inherent gender differences.  According to her philosophy as a parent she believes that we should wait for children to tell us if they are a boy or a girl.  I can just imagine a five year old boy telling his kindergarten teacher I have a penis but actually I am a girl.  Do I have to remind folks that boys are born with XY chromosomes and girls with XX chromosomes.  Genetics matter.  Besides the obvious anatomical differences men’s and women’s brains are different.   One big reason is that for much of their lifetimes women and men have different fuel additives running through their tanks: the sex-steroid hormones.  In female mammals, the primary additives are a few members of the set of molecules called estrogens, along with another molecule called progesterone; and in males, testosterone and a few look-alikes collectively deemed androgens. Importantly, males developing normally in utero get hit with a big mid-gestation surge of testosterone, permanently shaping not only their body parts and proportions but also their brains. The neuroscience literature shows that the human brain is a sex-typed organ with distinct anatomical differences in neural structures and accompanying physiological differences in function, says UC-Irvine professor of neurobiology and behavior Larry Cahill, PhD. Cahill who edited the 70-article January/February 2017 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research.

There continues to be considerable debate among researchers as to the role that biology has in shaping gender behavior.  The consensus is that social norms and biological factors both operate but the controversy lies in the degree that each factor shapes behavior.  Social norms are subject to change as the women’s rights movement and Title IX have aptly proven.   Biology is not fluid.  Yes, there are a small number of intersex individuals who are born with some degree of gender ambiguity and they should not be discriminated against.  However, the vast majority of children arrive as either distinctly male or female and that is not subject to choice.  

 For one thing, the animal-research findings resonates with sex-based differences ascribed to people. These findings continue to accrue. In a study of 34 rhesus monkeys, for example, males strongly preferred toys with wheels over plush toys, whereas females found plush toys likable. It would be tough to argue that the monkeys’ parents bought them sex-typed toys or that simian society encourages its male offspring to play more with trucks. A much more recent study established that boys and girls 9 to 17 months old — an age when children show few if any signs of recognizing either their own or other children’s sex — nonetheless show marked differences in their preference for stereotypically male versus stereotypically female toys.

Of course we should not tell children they can’t play with a particular toy because we ascribe a gender connotation to that object.  On the other hand I would strongly discourage my son who was born a non-ambiguous boy from wearing a dress to school.  Are we thwarting gender equality by telling a boy that certain types of clothing are gender specific in a particular culture?  The goal of gender equality is achieved when we appreciate the differences between males and females recognizing that both male and female characteristics are needed to ensure a healthy society.  

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