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Kids, gender, and the stories that we tell about our lives

Here is an interesting column from The Forward by the "East Village Mamele" (a.k.a. Marjorie Ingall) about her two girls and their gendered differences. It is a lovely, well-written, balanced piece.

I think about gender, gendered expectations, and childhood a lot. I was never a very girly girl. Sure, I had a My Little Pony and dolls, but I don't remember a horse phase, a princess phase, or ever hosting a tea party for my dolls. I think I've always liked purple somewhat, but have a mild aversion to pink and a strong aversion to ruffles and lace and poofery in general. Yellow was my favorite color for a long time. I also wasn't a tomboy, though.

I spent my time making clothing for my dolls (using old socks, scraps of fabric, a needle and thread), building with Lego and other blocks, building terrariums in the backyard (complete with transplanted weeds and potato bugs from under the paving stones), and, as soon as I could, writing.

I got a chemistry set for Chanukah one year, and I had fun doing experiments with my father using it.

I liked to draw maps of places real and imaginary. I once planned an addition to our cramped house by imagining that we could raise the roof and add an extra floor. I drew an architectural diagram of the new space. It was very exciting--I even decorated it. At some point, I started writing a novel that took place in the future, and the protagonist lived on the extra floor that I added to our house.

I liked origami and making paper snowflakes and painting my sneakers with fabric paints. I was a very crafty kid.

Shapes and patterns interested me. I liked making hexaflexagons and Möbius strips (and then cutting the Möbius strips in half). I pity the child who grows up without hexaflexagons and Möbius strips. I also liked jigsaw puzzles.

I liked playing at the playground and don't ever remember being afraid of heights or climbing things. My siblings and I sometimes ran a "store" in one particular jungle gym and made my father buy our imaginary goods. I liked playing on the swings. I didn't like the slides because the metal ones were hot in the summer and cold in the winter, and the plastic ones that later replaced them produced a lot of static electricity whenever it was dry out.

My older sister and I made up an imaginary language, the rules of which were far too complicated for the language to be very practical.

I liked to make charts, graphs, tables, and lists--a lot. I think that I made one of my earliest tables when I was about five or maybe six years old. I made a table listing everyone in my family and their age. My parents were in their early 30s. When I was sick, I would chart the progression of my fever and watch it spike in the evening. I did the same for my brother once, when he was sick. They were proper graphs, too, not distorted. I took my temperature every few hours when I was awake and added a data point to the graph.

I learned how to crochet but never made anything but squares or rectangles.

When I was five, my two best friends and I had a very involved imaginary game involving a dragon and a magic flower. There might have been other things, too, but I only remember the dragon and the magic flower. Oh--maybe there was also a buried treasure? I think that, somewhere, I have a map that I drew of the physical landscape of this game.

When there were berries on the bushes outside our house I used to pick them to make special potions. I don't remember what the potions did, though.

I played with Barbie with my friends. I didn't have Ken, or even a real Barbie doll (I had a knock-off), but friends did.

I liked to make jewelry and hair clips. I had tiny boxes of findings and beads and acrylic paint everywhere.

I conducted psychological experiments of my own devising. I went around with a list of words and asked various family members to say the first thing that came to mind when they heard the word. I also conducted more free-flowing interviews of various relatives. I think I was about nine when I did this. I wonder if it was irritating or endearing.

I made Purim costumes for my siblings out of paper grocery bags, paper plates, paint, yarn, glue, and whatever else I could dig up. I never minded getting dirty--either with real dirt or with paint, charcoal, chalk, glue, etc.

I was afraid of bugs.

I liked to go exploring in the woods behind our house. I don't think I minded bugs outside nearly as much as I minded them (and still do) inside.

I liked to draw, especially with colored pencils.

I never had an imaginary friend, but my doll, Rachel, was a pretty good companion for a few years.

I never learned how to jump rope, and hated playing anything involving a ball, so I spent most of my recesses reading a book on the side of the playground during elementary school. In early elementary school I sometimes played freeze tag. I also hop-scotched, and think I wasn't half bad at it.

So, was I girly because I played with dolls, was very into crafts, and hated sports? Or was I un-girly (masculine?) because I liked to draw maps, make charts and graphs, and play outside in the dirt? As Ms. Ingall writes:
Guess what? Life’s more nuanced than either of those positions. When you have two girls, you figure out fast that you can’t generalize too much about girls, or about your own role in their personhood. Most girls are in the middle of the bell curve of girliness, just as most humans are in the middle of the bell curve of everything....I think when parents talk about how girly or how tough their daughters are, they’re really creating the narratives they want to tell and ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit their hypotheses. I was tickled at the differences between toddler Josie and me, so I focused on them. But in reality, she has always been, like most kids, a mix of tough and tender. Research tends to indicate that a few outliers skew results on how boys and girls differ — there are a few boys who are super-aggressive, but for the most part, boys and girls are in a big kinda-sorta-sometimes-semi-aggressive pack.
I am very interested in the creation of narratives and the role that the stories that we tell about ourselves--or about our children--play in shaping gender identity and gendered expectations. Did I decide that I was not that girly because someone told me that? Was it because I did not see the things that I enjoyed doing reflected in television commercials? Did I decide that I was bad at math because someone told me that I was bad at math, or because I thought that came with the double-x chromosomes? Why do I insist on telling people that I am a bad cook and that I hate to cook? Is it even true, or I am trying to resist gender-based stereotypes? (I actually think that I like to cook, but hate to organize meals, hate to cook under pressure, and would pick reading or writing over cooking any day.)

In general, I am very interested in the narratives that we choose to tell about ourselves. When helping my grandfather record his personal history before he passed away, and when I helped an 80+ year old man edit his autobiography, and I was fascinated by both the stories that they chose to tell about themselves and the stories that they omitted. For every story that we tell about ourselves--I am bad at math--there is another story that we don't tell--I loved making graphs and tables from an early age. I find it fascinating to think about the stories that I am drawn to tell and the stories that I shy away from.

We are really the ones who decide what it important, worthwhile, and valuable in our lives. We do so by how we talk about ourselves in general, as well as the specific stories that we tell about our past and present. This is entirely irrespective of the circumstances into which we are born and the tragedies that befall some of us throughout our lives.

The people who only talk about happy things irritate me because it seems to me that, by doing so, they ignore the unhappy parts of their lives. The unhappy parts of my life are important to me, because I think I learned the most from them. Also, I feel like leaving them out of my life narrative constitutes some sort of cover up and makes it more difficult for other people to include their own "hard parts" in their life narratives.

Likewise, though, the people who only talk about unhappy things also irritate me, because I don't believe that, aside from those suffering from depression or other mental illnesses, it is possible to experience a joyless existence. If you feel that your existence is joyless (and it may very well be), it's because you're depressed. If you are not depressed, you will find moments of joy to celebrate amidst the hardship. Even if that joy comes in the form of a pint of ice cream or a sunny day or conversation overheard on the subway.

The end of this post sounds irritatingly moralizing to me. I think this is only because I am trying to convince myself that these thoughts are true. As I was writing this post, I kept thinking, "I was such an interesting, creative, playful child!" And, "Why am I not like that now?" and "Why don't the stories that I tell about my more recent past sound like that?" Part of it, of course, is that a lot of the things that I do now are boring--paying bills, doing laundry, house cleaning. But part of it may be that I need to tell myself more stories from when I was a cool, creative person so that I can reinvigorate that cool, creative person who still lives somewhere inside me.

Anyone wanna build a terrarium?

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great post -- brought back a flood of childhood memories (i loved graph paper! i drew architectural plans of dream homes replete with secret passages and hidden tunnels!)...and i suspect that you're so right; we can make ourselves happier as adults by carefully choosing the narratives we focus on.

but i also remember the INTENSITY of childhood. daily life didn't seem so creative and glorious then -- all the interpersonal dramas and scary things were there then too.
Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the compliment, mamele!

Childhood was intense, and, you're right, it hardly seemed creative and glorious at the time. See "Embracing the Nerd Within" for more on this theme. (Also, for the worst things about being in fourth grade, see "Chai (18) Years of Journaling.")

I guess I would like to be an adult (more freedom, more control, fewer fears) and still get to do the things that I enjoyed doing as a child--because now, those activities or their grown-up analogs would feel creative and glorious, I think.
I don't know if liking graphs, tables, charts and maps is a masculine thing or not. But I feel sure that, in your case, it is influenced by your genes, and not necessarily the ones on your X-chromosomes. The notebooks I kept when I was a kid (from around 7 to 12) are full of such things, whether based on the real world or on worlds I invented. And my mother told me that her father (who died before I was born) was also very fond of maps, and I suppose graphs, tables and charts too, since he was a mechanical engineer.

It was my mother who introduced me to Mobius strips, maybe when I was about 6, and hexaflexagons, when I was about 10, and we got the first collection of Martin Gardner's "Mathematical Games" columns out of the library. (When Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in 1965, I had already heard of him, not for his work in quantum electrodynamics, but for inventing hexaflexagons when he was a grad student.) But it was my father who bought me a copy of Burrington's book of mathematical tables and charts when I was a little older, maybe 12 or 13, and a more advanced book of that type by Abramowitz and Stegun when I was 15 or 16, both very useful books that I still use, though he always claimed not to be very good at math. And of course you also could have gotten a dose of those genes from your maternal grandfather, who was also a mechanical engineer.

I am convinced that you were good at math when you were very young. When you were 4, you asked me "What makes 13?" and rejected "6 + 7" when I offered that. You either wanted to know what half of 13 was (noticing that 6 + 6 was 12, and 7 + 7 was 14, skipping 13), or you wanted to know what two numbers multiplied together made 13. In either case, a pretty sophisticated question for a 4 year old. It was a mystery to me why you developed math phobia when you were a little older.
The intensity that you mention manifests most for me in this feeling I have that I perceived time units as stretching for longer as a kid than I perceive them now. 15 minutes seemed like a long time - plenty of time for a full game of whatever it was we were playing at recess, complete with choosing teams and a brief deliberation on house rules. The time between leaving the table at Shabbos lunch and being called back for bentching was plenty of time for a full board game, or at least a couple of chapters of whatever I was reading. A lazy Sunday afternoon could easily contain the design and several sketched revisions of a decent sized imaginary continent, complete with national borders and the naming of terrain features of interest, both natural and constructed. Part of the excitement of summer vacation was its nearly imaginable longness. A full year was forever.

Now, time seems to fly by.

I have this vague theory that it has something to do with the ratio of the amount of time in question to the number of those units of time that a person has experienced in their lifetime. The shorter the time period, the more experienced a person is with it, the shorter the time period is perceived. So for me, anything under a day has undergone a severe compression in the way I perceive it, a week to a year seem noticeable shorter, and 5 years still seems like a relatively long time.

Anyone else feel this way?

Perhaps, having less of a context in which to place our time, we were more present as children, or maybe it was just having less consciousness and responsibility for play-interrupting events on the schedule like dinner or bedtime. Whatever the case, that feeling of open-ended time and endless possibility is what I miss the most from my childhood.
making up languages is fun :-)
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