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Jack Versus Jill

Today's gender wars often play out in the juvenile arena, with boys' and girls' advocates squaring off over stereotyping.

March 24, 2000|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Who suffers most from gender stereotyping, girls or boys?

For nearly a decade, the answer was commonly said to be girls. Widely publicized reports indicated they were victimized by gender stereotyping in the schools and that their self-esteem plummeted in the teenage years. But in the late 1990s, particularly after a spate of school shootings, a national cry went up: "What about boys?"

Some authors have noted that boys suffer from preconceptions that they are tough, "wild animals" or future princes exempt from responsibility. Others say they lag in reading skills and are outnumbered in the nation's colleges and universities.

Thursday, the girls' camp surfaced again. A poll released by the national youth development organization Girls Inc. says gender stereotypes still limit girls' "right to be themselves." The campaign urges girls to exert their right to self-expression, to take risks, accept their bodies and "prepare for interesting work and economic independence."

Social historian and author Barbara Dafoe Whitehead thinks something strange is going on: "It seems to me that a lot of people now are rummaging around, looking for evidence that girls are victims or that boys are victims. It probably has more to do with the grown-ups than the kids."

To say that one sex is having a dramatically worse time because the other sex is getting ahead is "silly," she said. The search for gender-based damage in children indicates mostly that the "gender wars are moving down the age scale."

In 1992, two famous reports by the American Assn. of University Women, along with Harvard psychologist Carol Gilligan, pointed out how schools and society "shortchanged" girls by paying more attention to boys. Concern centered on girls from low-income families who became pregnant. Then, Whitehead said, "[psychologist] Mary Pipher came along saying middle-class girls were suffering. Then there was a lag, then the school shootings. In the late '90s, we began to focus on horrendous acts committed by young boys.

"Now there is this upsurge of concern about boys--and the warfare about who has it worse."

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According to the Girls Inc. survey, 62% of the girls say gender stereotypes still "limit their right to be themselves." The majority say they feel expected to "be kind and caring," "dress the right way," and "spend a lot of their time on housework and taking care of younger siblings." Fifty-six percent say they are expected to "speak softly and not cause trouble."

In terms of opportunity, American girls are arguably the most fortunate in history, said philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers, a fellow at Washington's American Enterprise Institute and author of "The War Against Boys," to be released by Simon & Schuster in June. "I worry that too many people are giving them messages that they're losing when they're winning."

Due to the girls' movement and gender-equity legislation, more girls than ever are participating in sports, math and science, she said. They dominate high school debate and honor clubs. They are more than a year ahead of boys in reading.

It's boys who are now behind as a group, Sommers said. And where are the companion surveys about them? "Name a single advocacy group for boys," Sommers said. "There isn't one."

Partisan books, however, are piling up.

The girls' shelf includes: "Failing at Fairness" by Myra Sadker and David Sadker; "Reviving Ophelia" by Mary Pipher; and "Schoolgirls" by Peggy Orenstein.

The boys' includes: "Real Boys" by William S. Pollack; "Raising Cain" by Daniel J. Kindlon and Michael Thompson; and "A Fine Young Man" by Michael Gurian.

Boys suffer from stereotypes too, these authors say. Not only are boys punished more harshly, or excused from consequences of bad behavior, say Kindlon and Thompson, their innate restlessness makes them vulnerable to false diagnoses of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders.

"Civilizing young men is a challenge," Sommers said. "They're great risk takers. They have more potential for being aggressively antisocial. If you ignore boys, they have very unpleasant ways of being noticed."

*

Isabel Stewart, national executive director of Girls Inc., said she hears the question "What about the boys?" all the time. "We say we are working very hard because we know what works for girls. We hope somebody will pick up the ball and work with boys as well."

The partisan division is not always a false dichotomy, advocates said. Brain research indicates that at least a portion of differences in boys and girls is hard-wired; certainly they express some of their growing pains in different, and troublesome, ways.

"If we do our job for girls," said Stewart, "boys are going to benefit. Somebody's got to raise the issues of what's fair."

Sommers sees a larger problem in society's fascination with pathology. In fact, contrary to popular assumption, she said, 80% of children are developing normally without major problems. And while there is a need to balance the scales between girls' and boys' difficulties, ultimately, she acknowledged, "we should look at kids as individuals."

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