I’m bringing out some old favorites from the archives as I work back into full speed with a new little one.  And why not bring back one with a little controversy?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Perhaps you’ve read about the baby in Canada, named Storm.  This infant is getting a great deal of media attention as the “genderless” baby because his/her parents have chosen not to reveal the baby’s sex.  They say they want their child to be raised without gender stereotypes and constraints.

Here’s the thing.  The baby isn’t “genderless”.  The baby has a gender and that gender is — like it or not — a part of that child’s identity.  I’m not just talking about identity in a general sense, but in the very real sense of emotional and mental health and wellness.  And while I would agree that stereotypes painted with broad strokes are not healthy for a child’s development, neither is having an alternative “neither” identity.

I didn’t really start this post in an effort to argue about this particular family’s decision , but rather to discuss where reading about “Storm” took my train of thought next.

In the fields of early childhood education and child development, there has been great discussion on how to properly address gender issues.  In an effort to treat children equally and create an androgynous classroom (inclusive of both genders), I fear that some of us have begun to build an unhealthy “genderless” approach to teaching.  That’s an important distinction, between being “androgynous” and being “genderless”.

Now, let me stop here to clarify.  I believe in equal rights and equal opportunities for men and women.  I think boys should be able to play with dolls, and girls should get to swing hammers.  In elementary school, whenever a teacher would ask for some “strong boys” to help move a table, I would be the precocious one with my hand in the air, pointedly asking, “How about a strong girl?”

I grew up with brothers who taught be to throw a spiral and step into a punch.  I’ve worked as a river guide for the Boy Scouts, a landscaping crew boss (with all men), and shingled half our roof while my husband was out of town.  You could say I kind of get a kick out of shaking up arbitrary stereotypes.

But gender is more than stereotypes.  The fact that there are two genders is a function of a genetic difference and those genes do in fact play a role in development.  Just as one example,  did you realize there is a difference between the structure of a female retina and a male retina?  That means that when we say that men and women just don’t see things the same way, it may not be just a figure of speech!

According to scientific research, the male retina is geared more toward motion perception while the strength of the female retina is focusing on the center of the field of vision.  Perhaps this is why, in a study of newborn infants, boys were more likely to focus their gaze on the movements of a mobile while the girls were more likely to zero in on a smiling human face.

And vision is not the only developmental aspect found to be biologically influenced by that pesky Y chromosome.  Research bears out the fact that boys and girls as groups differ in matters of hearing, language development, and neural processing.

The two genders differ across many social, behavioral, and economic factors as well.

I was listening to the radio the other day as I was running errands and ended up sitting in my garage for a good five minutes to hear the rest of an interview with Tom Mortenson.  As a researcher, Mortenson is probably most famous for compiling the “Boys Project Statistics”.  Each startling statistic is laid out in a comparative framework.  So, for example, for every 100 girls expelled from public elementary and secondary school, 335 boys are expelled.  For every 100 girls diagnosed with a learning disability, 276 boys are diagnosed with a learning disability.  For every 100 girls diagnosed with an emotional disturbance, 324 boys are diagnosed with an emotional disturbance.

These kinds of differences are likely the function of many complicated and compounded factors.  But one factor that Mortenson spoke to in the interview was the incongruity of the way boys are wired and way schools are run.  As Mortenson said, while girls seem to have a “higher tolerance” for the traditional sit-and-focus, stand-and-deliver style of education, in order for boys to engage in learning, something has to blow up, or catch on fire, or be built.  (This makes sense if you go back to that infant attention study, by the way.)

Mortenson’s main claim was that while he is all about gender equality, there is certainly such a thing as gender difference and there is something about that difference that is manifesting itself in many negative ways, particularly in the way boys are responding to education and many other aspects of society.

When we ignore gender differences we aren’t being more “PC” or more progressive, it just makes us more ignorant and less effective in our roles as teachers of children.

Now I’m not suggesting that we segregate boys and girls in the classroom, or assume these generalized findings apply to every boy and girl we teach.  Obviously there is great variation within each group to consider, as my own experience would testify.  But I think we have to be honest about the fact that boys and girls differ, and that those differences matter.  We have to learn about how and why boys and girls tend to respond differently and benefit from different approaches and then find ways to incorporate these different approaches into a truly androgynous– not genderless– learning environment.

So what are your thoughts?  Have I hit a nerve?  How do you view and address gender in your early learning environments?

Interesting Resources:

Tom Mortenson, Boys Project Statistics (“For Every 100 Girls…”)

Richard Whitmire, Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That’s Leaving Them Behindand Blog Resource Page via Education Week (Links to loads of fascinating resources!)

Leonard Sax, MD PhD, Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men

Ali Carr-Chellman, TED Talk: Gaming to Re-Engage Boys in Learning

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