Saturday, March 07, 2009

Gender and nature vs. nurture

Back in college, one of the more fascinating chapters in our hopelessly outdated Psychology text book was the one about whether nature trumped nurture in shaping personalities. We read about cross-sectional studies and longitudinal studies on identical twins, fraternal twins and plain old siblings to pinpoint which factors influenced how kids turned out. The cross-sectional studies picked relevant subjects (i.e., children) at a point in time while the longitudinal ones followed the same subjects over a period of years.

Exceptions abound, of course, but do girls naturally gravitate towards dolls and kitchen play sets or do we, as a society, subtly influence their preferences by plying them with the toys we think girls will/should like? Are boys hardwired to like trucks and cricket (or baseball) and motor car racing and science and math or do we expose them to these activities because they're boys?

Now that I am the mother of a son and a daughter, I'm observing my own little experiment take shape. Every day provides ample data to test either hypothesis - is it nature over nurture or is it nurture over nature?

Just the fact that they are two different people accounts for a lot of differences to begin with. Those of you with children of the same gender could attest to this too, I'm sure. Although I never fail to be amazed by it - how can children of the same two people be so different from each other?

But of late, I've been watching D, my two and a half year old daughter, doing things that I cannot attribute to anything other than gender. We have not bought her dolls, we have not bought her cooking sets. We don't buy her overly frilly clothes.

First, there's the need to comfort all manner of objects around the house. The huge wall mirror in the dining room is sad. Why? Because he's missing his mommy mirror and wants to see his mommy. So she goes and stands next to the mirror and pats it in an attempt to make it feel better. A few minutes later, "He's feeling better, mommy! I made him feel all better!" It's the same story with her blankie, her Clifford toy, a book. They're all missing their mommies and feeling sad.

Then there's the babying. She has a toy walk-along dog that one day I found her putting baby lotion on. She squeezed little bits on to her palm and smeared it all over the toy. Then she laid him on her lap and tried to pat him to sleep. With a lullaby.

When she's trying to make me feel better, she's fully involved, unlike my son who feels terrible and awkward at the same time. I can see him wishing I'd feel better already. D, on the other hand, acts like she's found her calling. She sidles up to me, holds my hand, says "awwww, feel better, Mommy," and proceeds to ask me how I'm feeling in a gentle voice. And she's a great - and constant - assessor of facial expressions. She wants to know if I'm sad, angry, happy, feeling better, all from looking at my face. And goes off in a huff and sulks, "You're angry. I don't like you anymore." My son just says, "Mom, stop being angry with me," fully meaning it and expecting me to stop being angry that minute.

I haven't started applying more make up since D was born nor do I spend any more time grooming myself, but she's fascinated by every little detail. She must apply chap stick before heading out (I have to remind my son every single time and sometimes do it by force); she stands patiently while I apply baby lotion; she loves hair clips and walks around with hair bands for bracelets; she loves my bangles and will play with them for hours; the look of absolute delight on her face when I wear traditional Indian clothes is to die for; she gravitates towards frocks (one day after she put on a pant and a turtleneck - the hallmark of a winter wardrobe - she looked at herself in the mirror and declared, "I look like a man. I want my frock."); she's partial to soft material; she loves her flowery shoes; I can tell she cannot wait for the day she can start using eye-liner and perfume and deodorant spray (she stands next to me and lifts her arm and pretend sprays into her armpit, in unison with me); she has strong opinions on what she'd like to wear on any particular day, taking her time to assess the possibilities and finally picking one.

My son, on the other hand, will wear the clothes in the topmost layer of his drawer. If he puts something back into his drawer after using it for a short while one day, the next day he appears in the same set of clothes.

As you might have guessed, I am gravitating towards the opinion that nature trumps nurture. But we're not complaining. My husband is the eldest of four brothers and I was not too much into make up and dressing up when I was young, so it is delightful as it is fascinating for both of us to watch D. We're not in any hurry to nurture her natural instincts out of her any time soon. Very likely never.

Update (October 12, 2009): Emily Bazelon reviews Lise Eliot's Pink Brain Blue Brain:

"Sex differences in the brain are sexy," Eliot writes. And so we tend to notice them everywhere. "But there's enormous danger," she says, in our exaggeration. It leads us to see gender, beginning at an early age, only in terms of what we expect to see, and to assume that sex differences are innate and immutable. We forget that the differences within each sex -- among girls and among boys -- are usually greater than the gaps between the two.


... Eliot's trump card is the brain's plasticity. Our brains are works in progress. They change based on experience, especially in early childhood. So a child's environment matters in terms of the skills and interests he or she develops. That doesn't mean pushing trucks on the 3-year-old girl who wants dolls -- we've all seen that experiment fail. But how about giving her a Lego set, sidewalk chalk or even a doll stroller, to encourage her to move around and think in spatial terms?


Sylvia K said...

Sujatha, really enjoyed your post this morning and could SO relate! I have two boys and two girls, the girls are the oldest. I still find it hard to believe that they all had the same parents because they are all so totally different from one another and have been from the beginning and still are. It's been fun reading about your two! Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

Haha I am the exact opposite of your daugther and always have been (or as long as I can remember anyway) - and my mum is quite 'girly'.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, yr little girl is so much like my daughter way back, really! And my son's so opposite, like he's totally into cars, all kinds...and is not too vocal. Really, the experiments u talk abt in this post're so easy to relate to. It was a pleasure:)

Kavi said...

Nature trumps nature ! That was wonderful. I guess children pick it up eloquently from their genes too !!

I quite like the last world. Never !


Choxbox said...

D sounds so cute!

i guess the environment for different sibs actually is very different. the parents and everything else might be the same but what about the absence/presence of an older sib?

Ugich Konitari said...

I think nature wins every time. Nurture is the fun part. And just think how boring it would be if all your children behaved the same way.

Having said that, I have known males. who are amazing in the way they take care of family; real nurturing types.

It takes all types. In the meanwhile, sit back and enjoy this growing -up-panorama that is unfolding in front of you.

Sujatha said...

Right now, D is mimicking your nurturing of her. Wait a little while till she hits the age of reason and watch her pick up on every thing her older brother does. That's what my daughter did too. She can sword fight like nobody's business, while setting up teddy bear schools and teaching them their math and ABCs.

Nino's Mum said...

:) totally understood that bit about two kids of the same set of parents turning out totally different. When my sis and I talk about our childhood and time with our folks, you'd think we're talking to two totally different set of parents.
Nino has this habit too, and sometimes it irritates the life out of me, perhaps because I see it as his insecurity. He always asks where the mother and father figures are: furniture, animals and even characters on tv - and they need not be young kids. He asks about adults living alone too.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Sylvia, thanks! Glad you liked it!

Chapati, waiting for your memoirs of a tomboy! :)

NM, Kavi, thanks!

Chox, Sujatha seems to say what you're thinking. Whether there are siblings in the mix does matter, looks like. I'm sure both C and D would be different people if not for each other.

Ugich, yup, totally can believe the boring part!

Sujatha, your daughter sounds like a delight! I can see what you're saying already - D plays will C's cars and anything else he happens to be playing with. But right now her girlie side is very strong too.

NM, yeah, I can't figure it out either - why D keeps talking about things missing their moms. But since she's been with me all the time until recently, I don't take it personally. Now you have the evidence to not take it personally either! :)

Sands said...

I see it very different at home. I sometimes wonder if it is first born versus second born rather than girl versus boy. My girl, the older one was never into dolls & make-up while the boy has always been big on boy toys & is extremely fashion conscious :)

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of something I read once. A woman was trying to raise her daughter by having her play with trucks and trains, she didn't want her to be too girly growing up..she then found her daughter putting the trucks to sleep later in the evening! I thought it was hilarious. My 3 yr old son actually likes nail polish and loves to cook, I think he will turn out to be a chef!

Anonymous said...

Sands: That is exactly the same as my brother and I!

Sujatha: I'll write some childhood stories soon!

Anonymous said...

My "informed" opinion - it's a bit of both! :-) My daughter (the younger one) hates girly clothes and is happiest in jeans/shorts/loose t-shirts. Hates dressing up - but when convinced to do so (like for Navarathri or a wedding), wants to do so fully, with all appropriate accessories. Son doesn't particularly care about daily clothes (the top layer thing works for ALL males!), but actually likes dressing up in Indian clothes for functions. The neighbourhood boys seem to wind up playing some ball-game anytime they get together (we have many kids in the neighbourhood) - daughter joins them when she feels like, or plays something else like bubbles.

Both of them have their favourite stuffed toys that they nurture, but they HATE actual human-shaped dolls.

Son has started cooking; daughter is waiting to turn 8 to do so as well. (my rule, as we have a gas cooktop and I don't want her turning it on until 8 - an arbitrary age I set :-))

She loves art/painting - he adores math and science and will read non-fiction given half a chance. She prefers realistic fiction (i.e. no fairies/talking animals etc.) He is sports obsessed, and will watch/try to plau ANY sport, even golf! She hates most sports and does ice-skating because she enjoys the movement over the ice.

So - who knows? :-)


Slurryoffagrape said...

I loved this on nurture v nature…….. I’m often called sexist at work, which is social services (in Britain), looking after people with learning difficulties in residential care. I work mainly with women, and joke around with them a lot, often playing the seventies sexist male at my own expense. However, I do hold the view that, generally speaking, men and women are very different, and are naturally drawn to, and are good at, different things in life. If I take over, or offer to take over any heavy, or awkward tasks, I’m being sexist…….. it seems hard for a lot of women to understand how difficult it is for me to stand by and watch a woman risk injury, while I stand by and watch. It’s my male instinct at work, and it used to be called chivalrous, not sexist.

I have worked very closely with women for some 36 years now, in the caring field, after doing my general nurse training back in the early seventies at 18. In all that time, I have seen very little to change the views that my generation was brought up with, in the respect that males and females are different. What I have seen is this corrosive drive for “equality” to try and force us into shapes we were never designed to be. I do understand that equality was lacking in the way women were valued, and their freedoms restricted, but feel strongly that in levelling the playing field, we have long since lost our way in recognising and valuing our differences.

‘Different’ has been identified with ‘unequal’. You can be different AND equal at the same time, in as much as an averaging out of different roles, equates to equality in the long run. What was wrong was that women were not regarded as of equal value in society…….. THAT was where equality was needed.

As a man, I have witnessed the feminisation of men in the name of “Equality” in order to force us to absorb the traditional roles of women……… many of which we are inherently not suited to by nature. Male roles are considered unfashionable, and even the appearance of men, and what is considered as characteristically male, has been feminised hugely ………… body hair is considered repulsive nowadays for instance. It isn’t especially unusual for a young man these days to spend more time on his appearance than a woman. And, yes, I have heard it all before about “why not” etc.

I feel this forced rush for equality has resulted in males having less of the traditional respects for women. Men are less likely to protect women, and have not been brought up to do so because the new equal woman is just as capable of defending herself thanks very much. Sorry, but you’re not, and now you have a situation where you fear men, rather than feel protected by us. Back when I was young, there were all sorts of jokes about how a woman in distress, with a car broken down for instance, would hitch up a skirt to show a leg, and some man would pull up, puff up his chest, and fix the car for her. In actual fact, that scenario was pretty much a reality to varying degrees of skirt hitching. All a woman had to do was stand by a car with it’s bonnet (hood) up, and hey, presto…….. a knight in a charger would pull up within minutes. (In Britain, anyway) No one even comes close to risking that nowadays do they? Women don’t feel safe unless they have a mobile phone to call for help, and feel very vulnerable whilst waiting for help to arrive. Yu expect to be attacked, and raped, not protected any more, and that saddens me greatly as a man who would lay his life down to protect a woman.

Sorry……….. I ramble away too much for my own good! I hope you get what I’m getting at here.

In case some are wondering, me having become a nurse and all……….. yup, my job is definitely not suited to an alpha male……… I made a bad choice years ago, and took up nursing for three reasons when I was young and in hospital recovering from a bad motorcycle accident at sixteen.
The reasons?
1) I couldn’t wait to leave home, and nursing was an all-in-one package; work, independence, and accommodation, all in one…… I’m deaf in one ear, so joining the forces was out as an option.
2) It looked a cushy little number, which it did lying there as a patient!
3) An endless supply of chicks, which to a virginal, but seminally incontinent yoof, was some pull, believe me!

Oh, yes, I also fell head over heels in live with one of the nurses……. Anne Mathews. Went out with her for a good while too, after I got out of hospital……. me sixteen, and her a wiser nineteen. God, was that a sweet time.

Anyway……y’all might notice a complete absence of the vocational drive to ‘care for others’ as one of the driving reasons, eh? Still, I guess two out of three ain’t bad, is it? (It certainly wasn’t ‘cushy’!!!!)

I went ahead, ignoring advice of couple of people, namely my English tutor at college, and my Uncle Jack, to take a career which utilised my natural talents. I learned the skills inherent in women the hard way, and became quite a good nurse in the end. I also made the mistake of sticking at something that didn’t naturally suit me, to my mental detriment as things have turned out. I wish I knew what I know now, when I was young. (sigh)

If we really were all the same, after 36 years at the coalface I’d be as good at this job as a woman,………….. but I’m not. I don’t have a woman’s brain.

I rest my case. :o)
K. :o)

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ Sands, wow! That's food for thought.

@ Mallika, that's a hillarious story! And it's so cute your son loves to cook! :)

@ Chapati, yay! :)

@ K, thank you for sharing your experiences. Made for fascinating reading. I'm glad you said that different is not unequal and that there was/is unequality in the way women's work is valued. If the societal movement in the last couple of decades has gone on to show that women's work whether at home or outside is invaluable to their families and to society in general, then it has been worth it, in my opinion. There's no better way to understand a person than being in their shoes.

In my own life I do recognize that I'm good at certain things while my husband is good at others - they are purely on a personal level, not gender based. As long as we are able to recognize what a person is good at and encourage that person along those lines, particularly children, then that's ideal. Doesn't matter if it falls along the lines of traditional gender roles.

Sujatha Bagal said...

@ M, thanks for sharing your experiences with your kids. It is just so wonderful to read all these different perspectives. C loves cooking too and D loves soccer. But they are isolated incidents. And for me, the eye-opener has been just how different the two are. I do agree though - who knows!

DotThoughts said...

Hmm.. its nature, not gender, I think. My son is just like your daughter. Very emotionally tuned. So is my dad. Me, not so much.

Anonymous said...

Did you see Jon Stewart on David Letterman last week? He was talking about the same thing.

2 Brits, 2 Yanks, 2 Dogs said...

I relate to this post. sometimes I can't believe my kids come from the same parents. My daughter over the last 6 months has become so girly and now refuses to wear trousers. My son on the other hand is all boy. I remember the first time he picked up a car and started making engine noises he could hardly talk. It is amazing - I don't wear skirts or dresses and yet my daughter has chosen that route and it is not from friends either as her friends are "tom boys". My daughter is very empathetic whereas my son couldn't care less - so I agree with nature over nurture.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post and reference to nature/nurture. I’d be curious about what sociologists would think of my nature vs nurture story, from prison to poetry, so to speak.
Do most people believe that genes really drive behavior?