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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Gender Games

If you had asked me before I had children, "what are the essential characteristics of boys and girls?" I would have laughed at you and told you that girls and boys don't have "essential characteristics."Apart from the obvious differences in biology, I would have said, everything that differentiates girls and boys is learned. Being boy means have male reproductive parts; being "boyish" or "masculine" means learning what our culture thinks those words mean and performing accordingly. Ditto for the difference between girl and "girlish" or "feminine."

I swore that if I ever had a son, I would teach him well, and he would not grow up to think that the only way to move through the world was via aggression, competition, and an insistence on hierarchies where male trumps female and power = right.

I swore that if I ever had a daughter, she would grow up learning that any physical activity she desired was open to her -- not just ballet or gymnastics, but basketball, soccer or track. That she would not think that the only way to move through the world was with demure grace and a self-denying impulse never to speak her mind.

Then, I had children.

And the lovely first-born, the boy, despite being read to constantly, handed paints and art supplies (which he adored) and nurtured in non-competitive physical games, turned his creative impulses to biting his french toast into the shape of a gun at the age of two. Because, of course, we didn't have weapon-shaped toys in the house, and I discouraged the formation of legos into guns -- but really (and there is something genius about a two-year-old figuring this out), am I going to take away his breakfast because it happens to end up vaguely shaped like a gun? What if he picks up that oblong shape, narrower at one end, points it at me, and gleefully shouts "pew, pew, pew, pew, pew!" -- will I take it away then?

These are the tests a boy puts a mother through. And they are nearly enough to make a mother who was once convinced that gender is wholly learned think that perhaps there are some innate ways in which gender differences are hard-wired into us.

And then the lovely second-born, a girl, despite being jogged with in a jogging stroller, hiked with in a backpack, and nurtured to see that women can love athletics and the feeling of wind in their hair, turned her own physical desires wholly towards ballet. Soccer was uninteresting, biking was too fast and required constant application of the brakes, and hiking made her tired. But ballet? At four, she can pay rapt attention for a whole class period to the teacher, undistracted even by her friends' goofing around, practice plies with delight at home, rise up onto her toes and dance at every strain of music she hears everywhere.

Granted, the boy is exceedingly empathetic in ways that make me proud, and the girl, stubborn as the day is long, does not hesitate to speak her mind. So I think that I have in some measure done my job in combatting them falling unthinkingly into the gender stereotypes that I find most damaging.

But the more I watch them grow, the more I am convinced that certain parts of our conception of gender difference really do have roots deep within us and not within anything our culture tells us about what it means to be masculine or feminine.

This has been brought home to me most strikingly lately around the subject of games.  Growing up, my sisters and I loved games -- Mousetrap, Monopoly, Connect Four, card games of all kinds -- you name it. I learned Backgammon in elementary school, and I remember my father teaching me chess. My grandmother and sisters and I played endless hands of Uno, and I have fond memories of the smooth cold marbles in shiny colors that filled our Chinese Checkers set.

My children love games too, no small surprise, since their father also grew up playing lots of games with his brother.

But here's the thing: it is suddenly obvious to me that the way my husband and his brother played games was completely different from the way my sisters and I played...and in both cases, I am pretty sure that there were no adults doing anything to shape or influence that play.  Take Monopoly, for instance. It was not until this summer (and yes, I am forty years old) that I realized that the best strategy for bankrupting opponents is to wait to buy houses until they are one roll away from your stretch of property, and then to load up the spots where they are most likely to land (seven is the most common number to come up in a roll of two dice, so put your houses seven spots from where they are sitting). Why did I not know this before? Because my sisters and I, while wanting to win, never thought about this game in terms of strategy. We loaned each other money. We had a "pot" in the middle where all the taxes and fees went, and when you landed on Free Parking, you got to claim the pot. It was only this summer that I learned that that pot was not part of the rules. Basically, without even knowing it, my sisters and I made the game more cooperative, while my husband's impulse with his brother was to make it as cutthroat as possible.

Cutthroat may seem like a harsh word. But I remember HATING to play games like Risk or Monopoly with mixed groups of friends in college because the boys always "took things so seriously," were "mean" or "vicious" about wanting to win, seemed purposefully to seek out ways to do damage to their opponents. In essence, I had somehow intuited as a girl growing up that the most satisfying way to win a game was to know that you'd made every effort to be "fair" while playing, and yet you'd still come out on top.

The boys I knew had grown up thinking that "fair" meant taking advantage of every advantage that could be gleaned according to the rules of the game. In Backgammon, for example, this means stacking up your pieces in your opponent's starting corner of the board, so that once you knock out one of her pieces, there is no roll she can make that will land her back on the board. Then you can calmly and gleefully roll over and over again until all of your pieces are set up for an easy win. This is also a strategy I did now know until this summer.

Why am I learning all these new gaming tips all of a sudden? Because my husband is playing games with my son, and he is teaching him strategy. I think this is great in a lot of ways. First, although Son is only 6, Husband doesn't throw the game to let him win. Sure, he will coach him along with, "Are you sure you want to make that move?" and he will show him strategic options, but if Son makes a bad move, Husband will bankrupt him or put him in Checkmate or make it impossible for him to move his game piece forward. He doesn't gloat about beating a child, but he doesn't coddle him either -- and I wholeheartedly support the notion that it's good for kids to learn how to lose gracefully as well as how to win strategically.

On the other hand, there are moments when I find my own childhood frustrations well up when we are playing family games, and the boys vs. girls teams we've set up suddenly make me feel like my loss is being lorded over. It isn't. But it feels like it is because I find myself hyper-sensitive about the mode of  play in which someone is gleefully watching someone else fail. If I learned anything as a child playing games, it was that you should only be happy on the inside when you win.

Now, you will say that my husband is teaching these things to my son, and so they are obviously not innate but learned.

But here's the thing: Son is taking to these lessons like a duck to water, whereas Daughter is drawn to much less competitive games. Furthermore, it's pretty clear to me that Husband has no conscious sense that this is somehow a "masculine" way to play. This is just how you play games: you play to win, and you glory in those wins. The fact that he and his brother sorted out these kinds of rules on their own as kids, while my sisters and I took an entirely different tack with the same games suggests to me that there is some grain of difference there in how we approach the concept of playing a game. For me, it is a fun past time whose satisfaction decreases if some people "feel bad" at the end of the game. For my husband, it is a fun past time whose very purpose is to determine the hierarchy of the moment. Winning can be reveled in because losing is only temporary, and tomorrow there will be a rematch. In short, winning or losing is about skill, luck and strategy, not about being "nice" or "mean."

Although I still struggle with this because for me winning or losing games always came with a visceral response that implied a kind of character judgment, I hope both of my children will learn to play the "male" way. It builds character, I think, to learn to lose gracefully in the face of someone who is so delighted to win -- and as long as the winner has a healthy sense that the next time around he/she may lose, I think it's good for everyone.

I am woman enough to admit that in this case, at least, I was wrong: there do seem to be ways that gendered characteristics are hard-wired.

I am also still feminist enough to hope that I can tweak that wiring a little bit. For now, I hope to teach my daughter to throw herself whole-heartedly into competition, and teach my son when it's the right moment to back down.

10 comments:

Mrs F with 4 said...

Welcome to my world of two girls and two boys! Actually, MT, I completely agree with you, on all counts. I just never managed to portray it quite so succinctly!

Lorna said...

This would be exactly why I don't play games with my husband. The NEED to win takes all the fun out of playing.

Marinka said...

I've had very much the same experience with my children and I sort of can't believe it. And yet, there it is.

MommyTime said...

Mrs F and Marinka: I'm glad to know it isn't only me! I do admit to some horror too, Marinka, at realizing that it's not all just constructed. (*pop* went that bubble) But it's also pretty fascinating.

Lorna: isn't it interesting that the game isn't "fun" for us unless the winning is more incidental, but it isn't "fun" for our husband's unless it is the only point? That is certainly a very gendered response in terms of thinking about masculine competition vs. feminine compromise, but it's still hard to admit that this is more than simply a conditioned response! (Also, it's why I haven't played Risk with any male person in 20 years.)

Molly said...

I think it depends, on the monopoly thing. My sister always cheated. But she was a fiesty one when she was little (she is still, but we know NEVER to let her be the banker when we play monopoly)

Oh and the weapon thing? My little brother was a HUGE fan of weapons. We didn't have guns but he had LOTS of other stuff.

He's like the sweetest 18 year old you'll ever meet. But when he was little? It was all about the "guyas" and their weapons. He used to make his little guyas (action figures) crash into each other, stage elaborate battles, etc.

Myself and my sister? Nope. More interested in dressing my American Girls.

MomZombie said...

You are not alone in lacking the cutthroat Monopoly skills. This is one game I will never play with my husband again. Ever. I don't have sons, so I can't compare gender. I have two girls. Even within the same gender, I see vast differences in their gaming skills. One daughter is lax, prone to inventing her own rules and challenging the established ones. The other plays within the rules to a fault but is so intense and strategic at four that I wonder where all this will lead when she is older.

LceeL said...

This, THIS is the reason I'd like to see more men and male influence in early schooling for children.

Because there IS a difference. Because it matters. Because there needs to be a balance.

Jessica {Team Rasler} said...

I think about this often, though so far I only have boys. Though the differences are interesting, and I'm pretty sure that there are definitely some hard-wired characteristics in general, so far they haven't played out in my family. My son loves trucks and trains, but he spends most of his time reading quietly or talking to me, much the way friends with girls say their kids are and not at all the way other boys whirlwind around my house on playdates. I wonder what his younger brother will be like in a few years...

I think it's nearly impossible to tell what is innate and what is learned. Maybe your son is like that because his father is like that and your daughter is like you, but it doesn't mean all boys and girls are hard-wired differently. Maybe they learn those things right away in day care and school or from friends who have older siblings. Or maybe it really starts with the genes.

I just don't know. But I do love that you're thinking about it and that you are embracing the balance that your husband and you provide as a couple. I think it's really important and your kids' lives are so much richer because of it.

Jennifer said...

Well, I think it depends, on the monopoly thing. My sister always cheated. But she was a fiesty one when she was little (she is still, but we know NEVER to let her be the banker when we play monopoly, thanx.

gigs from home said...

i have three children i agree with Mrs F with 4
i dont know what is 4
madam plz describe it breify and share with all of us

 

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