Thursday, September 22, 2005

Why Gender Matters

I just finished a terrific, layman-friendly, immensely thought-provoking book, Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, by Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. In a nutshell, Sax argues that gender differences are more biological (starting in the brain, hard-wired) than social, and that the recent "gender-neutral" teaching and parenting vogue has been disasterous for both boys and girls.

In general, I agree. And Sax has hard science in the form of experiment after experiment, not faddish claims, to back him up. Sax is a vehement promoter of same-sex education. I was ambivalent about mandatory same-sex schooling before reading this book, but I think Sax sold me. In terms of social development, self-esteem, pregnancy rates, and academics, the evidence suggests that same-sex schools truly are the best for our nation's children.

I don't agree with everything Sax says. Some of my empirical observations of early childhood development in my four years as a Pre-K teacher contradict some of Sax's claims. For example, Sax says that girls hear, not just different frequencies, but better than boys from a young age. Girls think men shout and boys find soft-spoken elementary teachers boring. I have seen a bit of evidence of the latter (boys listen to men much more frequently). But if the former is true, why do so many 4-6 year old girls shriek and talk in such a piercing, squeaking manner? I also think that Sax underestimates certain social pressures, such as the pressure on boys to look good (Sax says boys take drugs for the thrill of danger, but most steroid-takers do it for one reason only: to improve their looks). Finally, Sax gets a bit preachy at the end when he starts talking about co-ed vs. same-sex education; his argument to historicity (humans have always, in nearly every culture, offered their children the opportunity for same-sex learning experiences, so the modern idea of co-ed learning is backward) is flawed. After all, humans have always, in nearly every culture, until recently endorsed slavery as well. Sax should stick to psychological and biological research in his arguments.

Disagreements aside (and who besides semi-literate Dittoheads would want to read a book whose every word they agree with?), this book is a must for all teachers. Personally, I think that it's practically a disgrace that the only academic role models a boy sees until he's about 13, aside from coaches and maybe a science teacher or two, are females. The plain fact is: boys don't want to be women. When a well-intentioned woman teacher asks a boy to behave, she's basically saying, "be like me and these well-behaved little girls," so why would he want to? When the only teachers they see are women, is it really any wonder that statistically boys are in the bottom half academically and they grow up thinking school is for girls?

The book also offers some back-to-basics parenting advice which boils down to: the parent is in charge. There's been too much asking and offering on the part of parents to their kids and not enough telling. Parents basically know what is better for their kids than kids do. Make them do it. Reasonable enough, if tempered with the knowledge of the difference between an authoritative style of parenting vs. an authoritarian one (after Diana Baumrind).

In my opinion, every teacher and parent should read this book and be aware of the science behind its arguments.

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