Saturday, January 16, 2010

Puppy Dog Tails and Sugar: Why Gender Matters

Several friends recommended Leonard Sax's Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences to me in quick succession, so I put it on hold at my library. A few months later (apparently many friends are mentioning this book), it came home with me. I read it and then gave it to my eleven year old, who had been interested by all the questions I asked him, testing the book's various theories.

Sax thinks that modern society likes to pretend that males and females are the same, with the differences between the sexes dwarfed by variations within people altogether. He thinks this is wrong, and that pretending it is true serves both boys and girls ill. He is particularly interested in children, both because he was a family doctor and because childhood is when the differences are strongest.

The beginning chapters look at some of these differences, pointing out the different rates of development in both physical and mental maturity for boys and girls, and how little overlap there is between the two. He thinks vision and hearing are dramatically different, and posits that a huge contributor to lower male success in (especially elementary) school is the fact that boy hearing is much less acute than girl. A classroom voice that sounds respectful and calm to a girl will be almost inaudible to a boy. He also points out that eyeballs are very different between the sexes, with motion sensing rods denser in boys while color sensing cones predominate in girls.

Later chapters examine the different social structures boys and girls tend to establish, and how differently they react to problems or even just situations at school and with their peers. I found it all very interesting, although I wish I had more data for this claims about the physical differences. The evidence about the benefit of single sex schools seems powerful. I did find his description of male adolescence very depressing, and I'm really hoping that my sons do not become the horrible people he describes all boys as. I'd hate to think that trust, honor, and moral courage are female-only strengths. I'll have to hope that I did not train them out of all their female-oriented ways (he describes the outlier boys who do not become ravaging hoodlums, and gives advice on how to cure your sons so they can evolve into thugs).

This book gave me a lot to think about, especially when looking at schooling for my sons.


Charlotte said...

This sounds like interesting reading, in as much as I have two boys myself. I am already worried plenty about their adolescence, though...

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Very, very interesting. When my older son was in Kindergarten, I remember all the monthly awards, though given with all children in mind, were very girl-centric. You know, things like self control.

As a former teacher and mother of two boys, it's very clear boys and girls have different approaches to most things. And that is okay.

Kristen said...

Uh-oh. I'm heading into the first boy adolescence here already. Actually, given my kid (at least the older one), he might very well be one of the outliers. Just why is that so wrong? We have always said that his empathy and sensitivity were hard traits for him to possess as a child because of the mockability potential but that they'd be wonderful traits for him to possess as an adult. I gather that Sax diagrees?

teacherninja said...

Sorry, but Sax is wrong about single-gender schools. The data is pretty clear that they don't improve performance and while it might sound nice at first blush, it's basically segregation. It's better for our children to grow up around all the different kinds of people they'll be with when they're older, don't you think? Just a thought. Thanks for the interesting post.

Beth said...

It's not so much academic performance that interests me in single-sex schools, but the different social environment. The changes he talks about resonate with what I've heard from friends who went to single sex schools/colleges, and with my experience in mixed schools.

Segregation isn't a bad thing in itself. We heavily segregate by age in our schools today, which is generally a useful tool but does have some bad side-effects. School is vastly different from "real life" so I don't think saying that adulthood mixes the sexes is a good reason to do it in the classroom.

I would like to see more of the original data, especially on the different maturity rates for different things (auditory processing, mental development, etc.)

Beth said...

Kristen, his scariest section is when he talks about the "outlier" boys in high school, where apparently they are horribly teased and abused. His solution is to force most of their outlier (sensitive, gentle, kind, maybe even timid) ways out of them in early childhood.

But since the outlier boys he describes seem like wonderful people, I'd think a better solution would be to find a better place for them in adolescence. A single sex school might paradoxically be the best place for them, because there is less of a need to sharply define masculinity.