Thursday, May 29, 2014

Book review: Parenting beyond pink and blue

Subtitled How to raise your kids free of gender stereotypes, by Christia Spears Brown, PhD

This book caught my eye at the library and I snapped it up.  (Along with 12 other books ... I can read them all in two weeks, right?)  I am very interested in this topic, because I am constantly hearing "what boys are like" and my boys just aren't like that, especially Marko.  I worry a lot about people trying to make him feel bad for being sensitive and shy.

Well, it's a fascinating read.  First the author goes into the many, many places where gender stereotypes affect children.  It isn't just the obvious stuff, like people who tell your kids "girls don't like trucks" or who give them only gendered toys.  She explains that simply our constant use of the words "boy" and "girl" give kids the impression that our gender is the most important thing about us, and the way that teachers and parents segregate kids into groups of boys and girls emphasizes this.  The adults don't have to tell the kids what the girls or boys are supposed to be like -- children make up rules about what girls and boys are like on the slightest evidence!  It's part of our innate drive to categorize.  So children would say "boys are noisy" but also "girls like broccoli."  If they knew one girl who liked broccoli and one boy who didn't, it must be a gender trait.

I remember doing this as a kid!  I announced to my mother once that a certain girl I knew "didn't look like a boy."  I thought she must be a boy anyway because she had brown hair, and in our family the boy has brown hair and the girl has blond hair.  Two data points, and I had made a rule!  The book describes several studies where kids did the same, listing toys as "only for girls" or "only for boys" based on having seen one boy or girl playing with them, or based on the color of the box.  By kindergarten age, boys refused to play with anything they thought was associated with girls, and vice versa.  Boys and girls strove to fit in to their appropriate stereotypes as part of their natural social instincts.  And groups of boys and girls become more adamantly fixed in their gender stereotypes the more they play together.

We humans all love to categorize things, and once we've put something into a category, we're reluctant to change our opinion of it -- even if the evidence is against us.  The author tells of all kinds of studies where both adults and children focused in on information that confirmed stereotypes while ignoring or forgetting information that didn't.  That explains how people look at Marko running and say "What a typical boy!" and don't notice a thing when he then sits down singing to himself for the next hour.  It's confirmation bias; people notice what they expected to find and sift out other information.
The author also discusses unconscious ways adults make assumptions about their children and treat them differently.  For instance, parents talk about numbers three times as much with boy toddlers as with girls, and not nearly as much about feelings.  Boys have fewer words addressed to them altogether.  Even newborns get held differently -- based not on their actual gender, but based on what gender the adult test subject was told the newborn was!

With all that, it's clear that a great number of gender differences are socialized -- even those that begin at pretty young ages.  But the book goes on to talk about which gender differences do and do not actually exist in children.  Some do appear to exist, though we can't be certain that they are innate.  However, a lot more supposed differences don't actually hold up in a statistical study.  78% of those studied showed no difference at all.  And even those that do show a difference, show a relatively small effect size.  What this means is that even if the average boy is more aggressive than the average girl, it's only by a tiny bit.  The average boy might be more aggressive than 50 out of 100 boys .... and more aggressive than 52 out of 100 girls.  But in your average grade-school class, odds are good that the boys and girls you have fall along a bell curve from most to least aggressive, and that you wouldn't see more boys on the top of the scale than the bottom unless you had a very large class.

Now adults are different, both because they have had more years of socialization and because they have more sex hormones going through their bodies.  Children, I was surprised to learn, don't actually have much difference between their hormones.  There are surges in sex hormones at certain developmental stages (particularly prenatally), but on an average day, a boy and a girl have roughly equal levels of testosterone and other hormones.  I didn't know that!

Many of the "differences" we hear about are not really proven at all.  For instance, we all "know" that women have a larger corpus callosum, right?  And that is supposed to mean we are better at multitasking.  That study was published in the early 80's and everyone believes it -- but in fact, the study size was tiny (13 people) and no one has ever been able to replicate it.  Subsequent studies showed that men and women had corpus callosums that were the same size.  Neurologists still can't tell a male from a female brain on a scan of any kind.  And the famous "men are better at math" thing?  Not true at all!  Men usually think they are good at math while women are more likely to think they are bad at it, but they tend to score about the same.

But why does any of it matter?  Why shouldn't children sort themselves into groups?  Well, because humans are incredibly adaptable.  We are born with millions of connections in our brains.  The ones we don't use, wither and disappear.  So if a child grows up encouraged only to play certain games and do certain things, those skills and hobbies they don't use will become more difficult for them -- even if they were born with aptitude for those things!  So a girl who is always steered away from sports, or who just never plays because her girl friends don't want to and the boys won't let her join in, will never have the skills at sports she might have had.  There's an opportunity to develop large motor skills and physical fitness, gone.  For boys (in my opinion) it's even worse: their stereotypes include being rebellious, not into "school stuff," and bad at sitting still .... so their desire to conform to what is expected of them ends up crippling them at school achievement, and therefore limits their future job prospects.  Worse still, being discouraged from showing emotion and talking about feelings will cripple their ability to form healthy relationships for a lifetime.

Still, it's hard to know what to do with all this information.  The author warns that you only have your kids till they start preschool, and then they'll be picking up any number of influences from other kids and teachers.  When kids run in big groups, like at school, it's easier for them to self-segregate and then reinforce gender stereotypes among each other.  Girls who liked trucks and baseball will find themselves among a group of girls who all like pink and princesses -- or who have all decided that that's what they like -- and that will affect them no matter what you do.  She suggests counteracting all that with your own influence, reminding them that they should do what they like and that the stereotypes they repeat are false, but she also says you can't fight it altogether. 

It certainly makes me happy not to have any plan to send my kids to school.  I was raised without a whole lot of gender stereotypes.  Sure, I knew what other girls were into, but I played with anyone I could find, and I wasn't picky about what games we played.  My mom says, though, that my brother and I played together a lot more before we went to public school.  Once we went to school, my brother started saying things like "I don't play with girls, girls are silly" and I was much too concerned with trying to set up a playdate with a friend from school to spend as much time with my brother as I used to.  Maybe my kids' limited social life is a blessing -- they never pick friends based on gender.  (I wish they had a few more friends altogether, but that's not something I can fix right now.)

And I can see that in some ways it's a blessing that I've had two boys.  I never could compare them by gender; I've had to look at them as individuals and see their differences as what they are -- unique.  If Michael had been a girl, I would have said, "That's why she's so affectionate."  And if Marko had been a girl, I would have said, "That's why she's so emotional."  As it is, I realize they are just themselves.  And if this new baby is a girl, I am likely to find that she is no more different from the other two than they are from each other.

A couple of caveats about the book.  Despite a great deal of the book being dedicated to school, ADHD is never mentioned and autism is only mentioned once.  I'd love to hear her reasoning as to why these two disorders are so overwhelmingly more common among boys.  Would she suggest that they are overdiagnosed in boys and underdiagnosed in girls because we see in each gender what we expect to see?  Or would she agree that they are more common in boys and in that case might be underdiagnosed due to our assumption that it's normal for boys to be incapable of sitting still or late to learn to talk?

The other issue I have is how adamantly opposed she is to single-sex schooling.  I agree, after her arguments, that boys and girls don't need different teaching methods.  Individual kids do, but learning types aren't split along gender lines.  However, she also assumes that single-sex schools will tend to emphasize gender differences, just as happens in crowds of boys and girls on the same schoolyard, and I just don't think that's true.  My brother and I both went to single-sex high schools, and both of us flourished academically.  (If I didn't flourish in other ways, it wasn't due to the lack of boys!)  And my experience, like the experience of many others who went to single-sex schools, is that it's an environment which makes you not think about gender.  It just isn't something that comes up.  In high school, when kids are increasingly locked into gender roles and at the same time very distracted with the opposite sex, it is very nice to find a place where gender is a non-issue.  Everyone's a girl anyway.  So we weren't trying to impress the boys (far too many girls try to look dumb to impress boys) or to distinguish ourselves from them.  Some of us were sporty, some were intellectual, some were kind of ditzy, but no one had that over-blown girlyness that some high school girls have.

I think the best set-up any kid can have is a small, multi-age, co-ed group of a couple familiar families.  Since it's small, there's no separating into boys vs. girls, or big kids vs. little kids -- at least not all the time.  But if you're going to put kids in school, for high school at least, I think single-sex is very likely better.

Anyway, I would definitely recommend Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, either if you already want to raise your kids without gender stereotypes, or if you're not convinced that gender stereotypes are a bad thing.  The author does an excellent job referencing scientific studies, developmental science, etc.  She is also balanced -- she isn't interested in proving gender is just a construct (she admits there are differences) or in making sure kids don't pick up any stereotypes (she promises they definitely will no matter what you do).  It's more a matter of trying not to let those stereotypes limit your children's interests and opportunities.  And I'm all for that.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Seven quick prog rock tracks

Recently I confessed that I never share my favorite music with people.  I have such unusual taste, especially for someone my age, that I always assume people will think I'm weird.  But it's time to be brave and throw out a few of my favorites.  All progressive rock this time, which is what I grew up with.


I have tried and tried, but I can't pin down my favorite band.  Sometimes I feel like The Moody Blues, and sometimes I feel like Rush.  It's certainly one of those two.

Rush is a Canadian band, flourishing late 70's to present (they are still touring and making new music) which is characterized by amazing lyrics.  Yeah, the music is awesome too; I love their sound, but the lyrics (all written by the drummer, Neil Peart) are incredibly poetic and insightful.

This song is, according to my interpretation, about being highly sensitive ("all my nerves are naked wires, tender to the touch").  At any rate, when I hear the song I know exactly what he is talking about -- and yet, if you don't know what he's talking about, it's almost impossible to describe.  Have you ever been doing something unrelated and then had a memory so vivid, it's like you were reliving a moment from a long time ago?  It comes with not just the images, but all the same emotions of that other time.

Oh, shoot, I told you I can't describe it.  If the song doesn't hit a nerve, it's probably something that's never happened to you!


This is just about the saddest song I know.  I sang it over and over as a kid just to make myself sad.

Through autumn's golden gown we used to kick our way,
You always loved this time of year.
Those fallen leaves lie undisturbed now,
'Cause you're not here.

Gah.  Still works.  Sniff.

(Ugh, YouTube/Blogger are teaming up to be an enormous pill and not letting me embed it; you have to go to YouTube to watch it. Forever Autumn, by Asia.)

The Alan Parson's Project's first album was based off the works of Edgar Alan Poe.  This kind of tells you something about prog rock and the subjects it likes to treat.  Romance?  Maybe once in awhile.  Literature?  Absolutely.  Also philosophy and politics, when it suits them.

This song is creepy as heck, but that's not why I like it.  I like the intertwining vocals and the synthesizers.


Another Alan Parsons one.  I said once that this song was about religion, and my dad said "No, it's about faith."  But I still think I was right -- religion, defined (as it was by my religion teacher) as the attitudes of a person seeking relationship with God -- is exactly what this song is about.

And those who came at first to scoff remained behind to pray.


Another lovesick one.  My brother and I used to rewind this one over and over, just because the first ten seconds are so awesome.  For best results, set the volume to max.


Rush again.  This song was my anthem the summer before I left for college: "When I leave I don't know what I'm hoping to find, and when I leave I don't know what I'm leaving behind."


Oh, fine, more Rush. It's okay to admit they're my current favorite. I'd give you some Yes, but we all know you're not going to listen to a 25-minute track just on my say-so. (Tales From Topographic Oceans is my favorite.) The video is pretty dated, but I really like it anyway. It doesn't come with lyrics, so if you can't make them out (Rush lends itself to misheard lyrics) you can read the lyrics here because they are awesome per usual.

More quick takes at Conversion Diary.

Friday, May 16, 2014

7 qt: the 12-day week


I forgot quick takes last week, because I forgot it was Friday.  And the reason I forgot it was Friday is because it wasn't really a Friday for me .... John worked the whole weekend through.  So, we are now wrapping up 12 straight days of work for him, including two days where he worked late!

It's what he had to do to save up some time off for his brother's wedding.  It's the only downside of his new job -- he doesn't have all the time off he saved up for it at his last job.  We were going to take a whole week and drive out there together.  Now, he's working ahead to earn a few days, and he's going to have to fly to make it there and back in time.  And that means it'll be just him, because we can't afford to fly us all.


I'm disappointed because I love visiting John's family, I like weddings, and the kids love being doted on by their many aunties.  But on the other hand, not having to drive 20 hours and stay in hotels with kids is kind of a plus.

The other downside is that John won't be here for my birthday.  I'm thinking of having a party for myself.  I know it's not the thing, but I would love to invite some girls over and eat cake.  I have learned my lesson from the last two birthdays and am NOT making a cake for just our family.  That always ends in too much cake eating for me.  I wish I had more willpower where cake is concerned.


For the past couple months, I've had this weird rash on the inside edges of a couple of my fingers.  It's just a few teeny tiny bumps, which turned out to be blisters.  I stopped wearing my rings, but that made no difference.  Recently it started spreading, itching, and getting much worse.  In fact, it reminded me of how my hands used to get all swollen and blistered from time to time when I was a kid.  That was utter misery.  The first time I could trace it to some hand lotion, but other times I couldn't figure out why just my hands had this rash when there hadn't been anything I'd put on my hands and not the rest of me.  The swelling and itching was the worst; I could barely bend my fingers and had to take benadryl to sleep at night.  I got a prescription cream from the doctor that didn't help.  It was only when my grandma put some witch hazel on my hands that the swelling and itching started to get better.

Well, it occurred to me that now I have the internet, like I didn't back then, and I looked it up.  Turns out it's called dyshidrotic eczema, or pompholyx.  (I can't decide which is more fun to say!)  Now, that's about all the useful information I discovered, because it can be caused by almost anything and there's no real cure.  I did find that it can be caused by an allergic reaction anywhere in the body -- even hay fever -- even though the blisters are only on the hands or feet.  I found that some people have it all the time, and felt quite thankful to have such a mild case.  And it did mention witch hazel, which I started putting on.

Sure enough, it cleared up in a few days.  And thank goodness, because those blisters were itchy and painful!  To say nothing of how miserable it was to do the dishes.


We have had alternating very hot, sunny weather and pouring rain.  I remember now this always happens this time of year.  That's when the garden shoots up while I'm not paying attention, and the weeds gain ground because it's either too hot to do anything or too pouring to be outside.  I'm trying to keep up on it better this time.  My tomato plants have BUDS on them, squeeee!  And the sweet potato plants are looking great, despite the fact that Michael yanked them up the day after I planted them and I had to stick them back in.  I've picked little bits of spinach and lettuce, and should be pulling radishes soon.  Amazing!


I have suddenly passed from the "occasional wiggles" stage of baby kicking and gotten (quite without warning, because I'm not even that big yet) to the "protruding limbs" stage.  A foot or elbow pokes out and has to be poked back in, only to reappear somewhere else.  It's crazy weird.  But kind of cool too ... makes me remember that there actually is somebody in there.


Oh, it's been so long since I've posted, I have all sorts of good news!

Good news #1: Michael is night weaned.  I used this method, more or less.  The advantage of it is that you are training your child to go to sleep in his bed rather than just substituting the nursing crutch for some other crutch, like rocking.  I was terrified to do it because Marko woke up exactly the same amount after he was weaned, but it took an hour to get him back to sleep instead of five minutes.  But Michael, after a few nights of whining "I want to nur-us, I want to nur-us," over and over again, started sleeping better than he had before.  It helped when I told him he could nurse when morning came, and if he was very fussy I whispered in his ear for awhile, just random comforting things, to get him to stop whining long enough to go to sleep.  Once we had phased nursing out altogether, he started going to sleep in five minutes just by me lying down with him, without having to nurse.  (Considering that he used to sometimes be up for half an hour nursing and kicking me, this is a huge improvement.)  And then he started .... WAKING LESS!  He usually gives me about six hours, sometimes even EIGHT, without waking at all.  Sometimes I hear him stir and put himself back to sleep.  It's nothing less than a miracle to me.

At five or so, when the light is shining in the window, I let him get in bed with me and nurse if he wants to.  Though I am thinking about phasing that out too, considering I don't actually want to get up for the day at five.  It's just that I'm afraid that with the light and the birds singing, he might not go back to sleep at all if I don't nurse him.  Even with nursing, he woke up at 4:45 this morning and never went back to sleep.  Ugh.  But he has a cold, so that's his excuse, I guess.

This has led to the conclusion that my depression and irritability is mostly just exhaustion, because the week we were working on night weaning, I wanted to crawl under a rock and DIE, and now I feel like a new person.  I am frequently even patient with the kids!


Good news #2: Marko has finally had about enough clinginess, which is likewise delightful.  I have been able to talk him into going into his room by himself to listen to music and play with legoes for an hour or two most days.  It's delightful for him, because he's an introvert and his clinginess was keeping him from getting any quiet time.  And it's delightful for me, because I get a BREAK!  I can lavish as much attention as I want on Michael without him getting jealous, and sometimes I can even have no one needing me at all!

Michael, though, hates it.  He's always asking if Marko is done yet or if he can go into the bedroom.  Reminds me of me .... my brother always wanted to be alone, and I always wanted company.  For the first time, I'm thinking maybe it's good for them all to have a third kid in the family.  That way Marko can seek solitude if he wants it and the other two can entertain each other.

Sure enough, Michael likes the idea of another baby, whereas Marko will scream his head off if it's mentioned.  This puts kind of a damper on midwife appointments.  He does like the midwife, though.  He and Michael play midwife as soon as she's gone.

Well, that's about it for the week.  How was yours?

More quick takes at Conversion Diary as always.

Friday, May 2, 2014

7 quick takes


Last night I went to a political dinner.  Everything that is NOT up my alley: leave kids with babysitter, get dressed up, wear makeup, meet strangers, talk politics with people I might not already agree with.

However, I ended up having a pretty good time.  For every man who wanted to talk strategy and speechwriting, there usually was a very nice wife who could talk about other things.  (Shak Hill's wife was very nice, and so were Mark Berg's and Mike Webert's wives and several not famous but very pleasant other ladies.)  So it wasn't all one topic for three hours.  I sometimes think I get along better with men because they are so direct, but in all honesty, if it's a room full of total strangers, I prefer talking to women.  They are always looking for common ground with you and not looking to argue.  I appreciate that.


The reason I went to this, the reason it was a Big Huge Deal, was because John was officially announcing his candidacy.  Which means I can now tell you: he is running for our local town council.


Everyone's main question to me was some variation on, "How did he convince you to agree to it?"  I guess many of these political men are held back from running because their wives won't agree to it.  You really can't run for office without your spouse's support -- it's too demanding and a candidate's spouse can't really stay out of the limelight, much as they might prefer to.

My answer was always some variation of, "Well, I wasn't keen on it, but then I thought, I'd like a nice town to live in and somebody's gotta do the work!"

I have been discouraging John from getting too involved in politics for a long time.  I have my doubts as to its effectiveness in actually changing anything, because both getting elected and passing anything once you get there involves so much compromise that your own values are pretty much unrecognizable in the final product.  And corruption is so rampant that an honest man never seems to go far.

But John believes change is possible, and if he's wrong there's no hope for this country.  I'd rather believe his optimism than my pessimism.  If there's a chance he's right, I have to let him try.

Anyway, on the local level one person can make a lot more of a difference.  There are small things, non-partisan things like money mismanagement and taxes and electric bills, that really just need a smart, principled person who knows how to negotiate with the other members of the council and the other levels of government.  That's something I know John can do.

Already the campaign takes him away from home on evenings and weekends much more than I'd like.  But that sacrificing is my way of giving back.  I do little enough for anyone else in the world, the least I can do is free up John to do something for our town.

And that's the long answer.


The kids were NOT good for the babysitter.  Apparently Michael could fall asleep, but not stay asleep to get put in his bed.  And that ruckus kept Marko up.  It sounded awful and the poor woman earned her money for sure.

BUT, after that Michael slept pretty well!  He woke up at about one a.m. because he'd rolled out of bed, but he fell asleep in my arms on the way back to our room.  So I rocked him a bit and laid him down on his bed in our room.  He woke up another time and just fell back to sleep with some shushing and patting and putting his blanket back on.  And then at five or so he crawled into bed and I just went ahead and nursed him.  Birds were singing, I figured it wasn't "night" anymore but "morning lie-in."

So, a night with no nursing! WIN!


Marko, though, woke up a little after five and didn't go back to sleep.  And that's after going to sleep at nine.  I foresee today will be a bit cranky.  However, it is gorgeous today, the rain of earlier in the week is quite gone, so I think we will go to the park.


My tomato plants all turned a little yellow after being transplanted, so I gave them some nitrogen.  (Let's not talk about where I get the nitrogen.  It's organic though.)  Then they turned purple!  Purple on the undersides of the leaves and on all the new growth.  A little googling told me that tomatoes can't uptake phosphorus very well when it's too cold ..... i.e. yes, my overeagerness to plant them is hurting them after all, despite the lack of frost.  Oh well.  I'll cover them up at night with milk cartons and see if that helps.  Anyone know any convenient sources of phosphorus that I might have around the house?


Um ..... let's just leave you with a poem about May.  I memorized this in boarding school for Mother's Day.  I was given 24 hours to learn the whole thing, and I actually did, but as I recollect my delivery was atrocious.  However, you can rap it.  Try it.

May is Mary's month, and I
Muse on that, and wonder why.
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season.

Read the rest here.

More quick takes are here.
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