Bytes and Bows: Girls Will Be Girls


In our quest to raise the proper turn-of-the-century daughter, my wife and I enrolled our daughter Chelsea in the Computermania symposium at Wilde Lake High School at River Hill last week.

We liked the idea of a program encouraging girls to consider careers in math and science, with an emphasis on computers. The parents of 200 other girls felt the same way.

Typical of my generation, we fancy ourselves on the cutting edge of society's changing gender roles, teaching our daughters to be more independent and our sons to be more nurturing.

What a satisfying feeling to see 200 little girls clad in identical pink T-shirts waiting to discuss exciting fields in areas once considered the purview of males.

When Chelsea emerged from the half-day session, she gave an assessment that showed just how impressed she was: "It was okay."

It reminded me that, a few weeks ago, all Chelsea wanted us to do was enroll her in a dance class that her best friend, Kristen, is in.

She and Kristen love dance. In fact, I call them the Project Princesses because, between all the arts and crafts and games they enjoy, they go from project to project to project.

They even put on elaborate productions, a la Broadway (although, as spectators, my wife and I encourage liberal editing).

My son, Justin, on the other hand, is less inclined to participate in this sort of creative play. He's much more likely to plop himself in front of the television for hours of thumb-numbing play on the Sega Genesis. And with a miniature basketball net and Nerf Ball, he's turned our dining room into the site of the Columbia NBA Basketball Playoffs. He'd have us arrested for child abuse before he would let us enroll him in a dance class.

And so, I am hearby admitting my failures. Try as I have to encourage my kids to reach beyond the stereotypes of their genders, some things remain stubbornly the same. We have not come that long a way, baby.

I've revealed my own biases on more than a few occassions. From day one, my wife and I have talked about the absolute importance of emphasizing Chelsea's brains over her looks.

But nothing can make me gush with pride quicker than my little girl in a dress and patent-leather shoes. And when our dog recently decided to take a nip out of Chelsea's lip, the idea that her beautiful face might be permanently scarred nearly put me in Sheppard Pratt.

Of course, society as a whole doesn't seem to share my shame when the old ways reveal themselves.

TV remains the worst offender. From music videos to commercials for children's toys, kids are bombarded with messages about sex roles that run counter to attempts to expand young people's horizons.

I'm not sure whether we're just swimming against the tide.

A number of surveys in recent years have focused on an apparent bias in the classroom, with teachers favoring boys over girls. And researchers suggest that the way kids are treated in these early years says a lot about what fields they go into.

But other researchers have challenged these findings, pointing out that boys get more attention in school because they're apt to exhibit more negative behavior, and girls are more likely to enroll in college despite getting lower grades in high school.

And then there is the old nature-versus-nurture bugaboo.

All I know is that my son's more apt to be cited for giggling in class, while my daughter gets accolades for being cooperative and well-behaved. Luckily, they're both excellent students.

In the end, I hope we can say we all did our best to make a difference. We've certainly tried to give our kids plenty of options, and that's probably more important than pigeon-holing them for life.

My kids need look no further than home for non-traditional role models.

Dad works mostly out of the house, does all the cooking and is a casual sports fan. Mom works away from the home, brings work home at night and has stock in ESPN.

Justin wants to be president. But Chelsea wants to be a veterinarian.

When she was two, we dolled her up for Easter and she promptly took a pair of scissors and cut the dress to shreds. We must have been having some effect.

To this day, the very mention of a Barbie doll causes her to mimic retching noises.

I guess that's progress of a sort.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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