Should we care about our children's gender?

Next in my book/manuscript on parenthood comes a chapter on gender.  I'm at the thinking and reading stage here, not writing yet.  The question so far is "what is the question?"  At this point it's a bit hazy and clunky.  Roughly: (a) is there a difference between boys and girls that runs deep (what does that mean?) and (b) does that difference (if it exists) make it reasonable to prefer having a boy or prefer having a girl and (c) is it good for children for parents to prefer a sex and then teach and cultivate sex/gender differences? 

"Running deep" could mean so many things. It's not necessarily a matter of innateness.  Eye color is innate, but being brown-eyed is not a deep or central fact about a person. Nobody has a major hankering for a brown-eyed child.  We're not going to guide children through life with acute consciousness of who has which eye color.  Sex/gender could be partly innate, and not terribly deep or central. 

To say sex/gender is deep and central is to say it's an important part of identity--but identity in a certain juicy sense.  Gender does clearly pertain to identity in a dry and minimal sense.  Or at least sex does.  If I'd been born genetically male, I would have been a different person--since I would have had to have come from a different sperm. But that's true of eye color too.  If I'd been born blue-eyed, I'd have had to come from a different sperm or egg or both.  The important question is whether your sex/gender is a big part of "who you are" (as people like to say). 

As things stand in all societies, yes, but is that an imposition as opposed to a reality?  We used to have this idea that anyone over 30 is no longer young--surely an imposition!  There are still a lot of imposed age-roles and they can be quite confining.  Is the male vs. female distinction just as much of an imposition? Or is it more basic.  Interestingly, it wouldn't have to be innate at all to be basic.  It's pretty basic to me that I'm an American, but obviously not innate.  It's basic that I'm a citizen of the US, not a foreign visitor, but not innate.  Gender could be like that--totally a matter of history and happenstance, but nevertheless important. Before figuring out what parents should think and do about gender, I have to make up my mind about the "metaphysics" of gender. 

As you can see, I have no Views yet, which is a lovely position to be in.  There are two worse positions to be in:  (a)  Having Views and knowing how you want to defend them, so repeating yourself over and over again.  Ugh!  (b)  Having Views and trying to defend them, possibly to the point of confabulating (making up reasons that are not really your reasons for holding your Views).  To have a clear question in mind, but no View!  That is fun.

Next on my reading list--After Identity: Rethinking Race, Sex, and Gender, by Georgia Warnke. Coming in a UPS truck very soon, and hopefully enlightening.


Wayne said...

Another way to think about this is to take the social context that we live in, into consideration. I don't see why we shouldn't, since we take all sorts of social contexts into consideration when we raise children (education, being a prime example).

What I mean is this: As a parent of a boy, I'll have to engage in certain kinds of activities. For example I'm more likely to engage in sports. I'm not denying that girls play sports, or that I wouldn't encourage a girl to play sports, but I'm just taking statistics into consideration (I haven't conceived the child yet, so these are the only considerations I have to work with.)

Some of these likelihoods are purely social, others may be engendered, and more likely they're all influenced by both. But if they all have an influence from biology, and I have some sort of say over whether or not I have a boy or a girl, then it seems to me that when deciding on the gender of a baby, I should choose, especially if I have some disabilities that might prevent me from being an active participant in sports (just an example).

On another note... your brown-eyed example... It may be that people don't have a hankering for a brown-eyed child, but if parents were given a choice, then we would likely have preferences. If it would cost me nothing to get a brown-eyed baby, but cost me $1000 to get a girl, and on top of that I could choose what eye color she had, then I'd likely choose.

Jean Kazez said...

It does seem like some ways we raise children are purely a question of social conformity--and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. For example, you have to train your kid not to use swear words, because people find it disturbing to hear little kids using them. We have ideas about what is age-appropriate behavior. Perhaps some gender training is like that. Up to a point, that kind of thing seems benign. Boys need to know only girls wear skirts, girls need to know only boys smoke pipes. Well, when they're adults. The sports example is more troubling--since I think both sexes run into trouble from the thought that sports are more boyish. Lots of boys don't want to play sports, so the boys-sports link makes them feel like they're not good at being boys. There's a common perception that female athletes are less feminine, so their success at sports comes at a cost. So--gendered social norms seem sometimes benign, sometimes not.

Wayne said...

That's really observant.... I'm not particularly athletic (an intellectual not athletic?!) and sometimes I feel a little de-masculated because of it. So could I have lived a happier life if my parents insisted that I participated in sports? Should they have forced me to? I might be better off if they had. Just musing.