Can you think of any male role models in preschools?" my wife asked.
I had caught bits of "Kindergarten Cop" on television the night before while baby Judith decided whether to sleep, eat, teethe or bewail the rate of entropy in the universe.
Neither of us could come up with any better names on the spot; Mr. Rogers and the male characters on "Sesame Street" don't really count. Maybe I'm not the person to look for role models, though, because the phrase sets my teeth on edge.
When they talk about fiction, people who go on about "role models" flatten the wonderful complexities of human nature into neat, didactic little bromides. In life, they seem to think that you can respect, and learn from, only someone as nearly as possible like yourself. (If having a teacher of the "wrong" sex or race is so fatal, who were the role models for the girls who battered their way into Poly, the Ivy League or the service academies?) Still, my daughters will need to learn about life from someone besides their parents, and who will that be? It's a question I can't ignore.
Martha's question sprang from an article in Parenting magazine we'd just seen, perhaps three years after it came out. (If you have a child -- especially more than one -- you won't laugh.) A writer named Ann Banks charged that preschools and elementary schools penalize boys for being loud, rambunctious, physical -- that is, the way people think boys just are.
"Boys are often regarded as virtually a criminal element in nursery school and kindergarten," she wrote. ". . . [T]he prevailing attitude seems to be that rambunctiousness is subversive and inherently inimical to learning. Teachers of young children seem to believe that children with temperaments like my daughter's [whom Ms. Banks earlier described as calm and tractable] ought to be the norm. They plan their curricula around such children -- usually girls. And the kids who don't fit the profile -- usually boys -- are labeled 'difficult,' or even, in modern parlance, as suffering from an 'attention deficit disorder.' "
Garry Trudeau gets this point egregiously backward in a recent sequence of comic strips, showing the Doonesburys' pre-school daughter passed over time after time as her teacher asks boys for answers. He seems to have taken his cue from the much-discussed study by the American Association of University Women that accused the school system of shortchanging women and girls, but our own experience as parents of daughters, and much anecdotal evidence, convince us that Ms. Banks is right.
And as parents of daughters, we take the issue Ms. Banks raises seriously. At 4 1/2 , Abigail likes to wear dresses and makeup, while being also as loud, rambunctious and physical as any boy, and we wouldn't have it any other way. Neither, obviously, would Ms. Banks, who notes that "properly channeled, [boys'] unpopular 'boy' traits of aggression and willingness to challenge the world come in handy later in life."
I suspect that most people -- other than those feminists whose ideal is for both sexes to become "feminine" -- would agree with Ms. Banks, and I have English usage to back me up. The word tomboy -- ascribing "male" characteristics to girls -- can be neutral or even complimentary, as anyone knows who's used it. But every word used to ascribe "female" characteristics to boys is a slur.
Why would teachers harbor such a prejudice? Ms. Banks thinks she knows: "The world does not do too well by those people, overwhelmingly female, who go into the field of early childhood education. It is no secret that preschool teachers are an underpaid and underappreciated lot. It would be remarkable if they didn't harbor subconscious resentment toward those little roughnecks in their care: boys who holler and are unable to sit still for two minutes, but who nevertheless, merely by virtue of their gender, will grow up to earn one dollar for every 62 cents the average grown-up girl takes home."
If Ms. Banks is right, teachers might also be overcompensating for the rest of the world, where a common complaint is that strong female characters for children to watch are as rare as strong male ones are in preschool. The New York Times observed last year that all but a few children's television characters are boys, doing traditional boyish things, something the writer Katha Pollitt called "The Smurfette Factor."
Questioned by the Times' Bill Carter, the television executives explained that girls would watch shows with dominant boys, while boys would not watch shows with a dominant girl. (Abby loves the video of "Anne of Green Gables." Her girl friends will watch it with her; her boy friends won't.) Is this social pressure or some form of biological hard-wiring? I have my suspicions, but no proof.
One of those suspicions is that the reason for children's preferences in entertainment might be linked somehow to the pay gap. Perhaps boys are channeled, either by society or their own inner turbulence, into occupations which, making different demands than those made on girls, promise different rewards. Ms. Banks' "boy" traits are welcome in "boy" occupations, many of which praise teamwork and killer instincts even if nobody in the shop was ever a serviceman or an athlete. Those "boy" occupations carry more direct economic benefits than "girl" ones like teaching do, but going into education, especially that of young children, is a sign that you cared about things other than money and power anyway.
The trouble is, going into education is also a sign, in many Americans' eyes, of diminished intellectual curiosity, and perhaps of diminished intelligence as well. Judith Rossner sums up the reputation schools of education have always had in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," in which her heroine, in college in New York in 1960, learns that elementary education majors are known for asking, whenever the teacher makes an interesting digression, "Is this going to be on the test?"
Whether this contempt is due to prejudice against women, who dominated teaching and similar occupations when few others were open to them, or an even deeper prejudice against pedagogues and people who believed that pedagogy could be raised to a science, is not clear. But it helps explain the dearth of men doing the work.
Pay and respect for teachers, ironically, needn't have anything to do with our ideas of sex equity. In "Defenders of the Faith," Samuel Heilman notes that Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews, who take elaborate pains to keep the sexes apart at every stage of life, pay the teachers of their youngest boys the same as the heads of their religious schools, more than elementary school teachers. Mr. Heilman's evidence isn't quite complete: He wasn't allowed into the girls' schools, whose mere existence is a dangerous innovation for some of the sects he was observing. But the pay scale recognizes the importance of the first stage of the intense indoctrination the ultra-Orthodox life requires, and perhaps something more. Mr. Heilman quotes a wall poster warning the outside world away from the community's children: "Hands Off Our Messiahs!"
Arnold Schwarzenegger, or his writers, supplied a commentary of his own in "Kindergarten Cop." The undercover policeman he plays, driven to distraction by the moppets he has to supervise, reverts to the only role he knows, barking Marine-type parade-ground orders at the kids -- and molding them, in a couple of minutes' screen time, into a tight little company whose members happily chant "Reading, Writing, 'Rithmetic!" in cadence as they march along and carry out fire drills properly for what the movie makes clear is the first time.
Played straight instead of for laughs, it would have been a prima facie picture of child abuse. But in its way, it hints at something important.
Mr. Schwarzenegger's character is unabashedly male, a deliberate self-caricature of something so desperately lacking in our poorest areas that several predominantly black school districts have considered starting all-boy schools where pupils could see men doing constructive things. My daughters live worlds away from the nightmares those boys and their families face every day, but that male presence is something they can use too.
No child should be taught that the world can get along with only one sex, or that gender counts for nothing; the disillusion will come, and it will be cruel. But no child should be taught, either, that gender, or any other accident of birth, is more important than intelligence and character.
When my daughters are old enough to admire someone's accomplishments, and perhaps to try to imitate them, I want them to notice what Amelia Earhart must have noticed in the first men who flew, and Elizabeth Blackwell must have noticed in the doctors of her day: the deeds, not the gender.
Betty Boothroyd, the ex-chorus girl who just capped more than 40 years in Britain's Labor Party by becoming the first female speaker of the House of Commons, put the essential point only slightly differently when she urged her fellow members of Parliament: "Elect me for what I am, not for what I was born."