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Vive La Difference

by Erin Chianese

In her community college English class, my sixteen-year-old found herself with a lone opposing view concerning gender. The class was discussing a suggested controversial topic: the question of the military draft to include women. All my daughter’s classmates were in favor while she disagreed. In her words, "Women just aren’t made to take it." She thought the idea to be abhorrent to women at an innate level. She began to write her essay on this at home, searching the Internet for the required documentation to back up her opinion. After searching for two hours, she located not one single article written against the draft for women. We were both puzzled as to why not. Was it politically incorrect to voice this opinion?

A clear trend has emerged that men and women are equal in all things. We baby-boomer parents grew up with the feminist movement in full swing; we have taught our children with the acute awareness that men and women should be equal. The feminist movement strongly advocated that both sexes should receive equal opportunities and pay, and have equal civil rights and liberties. But in practice, our culture has mistaken equality for sameness of the sexes and has not acknowledged and honored our genders’ differences. The equality trend appears to be a detached belief in ourselves, a dissociation of who we are personally as male or female, and who the opposite sex is.

Wendy Shallit wrote on just this subject in her excellent eye-opening book, "A Return to Modesty--Discovering the Lost Virtue." She writes that men are "raised to believe that women are exactly like men in every possible way. They don’t mean to be crude or insulting; they just don’t understand that women are different from them." She says about women: "Encouraged to act immodestly, a woman exposes her vulnerability and she then becomes, in fact, the weaker sex."

I was surprised and appalled to understand what Shallit was talking about when I watched a farewell video my daughter and her girlfriend filmed at their high school arts camp last summer. In the video, boys said farewell to the girls by first sexually rating the girls, then grunting a guffaw and turning away. The girls said farewell using very foul language. The comments from the boys were something that in my own teen years the boys would only have spouted among themselves in a locker room. But here they were speaking them aloud to girls as if it was normal conversation, as if the girls could relate to them in a buddy-buddy sort of way. In my day too, the girls who swore a lot were the tough and troubled crowd, not the majority of girls like it is today.

This behavior exudes confusion. Boys are confused as to the inherent personality and constitution of girls. Because the girls are not shunning the boys’ behavior, the boys continue it. Girls are confused into thinking that being the buddy of a boy must mean using bad language and going along with what is important on a surface level to the boys. This is such prevalent behavior that both boys and girls see it as normal. Wendy Shallit in her book and Mary Pipher in "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" state that many girls are extremely uncomfortable with the relationships they have with boys. Both authors say that the ways that boys treat girls can lead to many psychological problems in the teenage girls including drug addiction, anorexia and depression.

It is clear at age four that boys and girls are different. They start to separate at this age, gravitating to same-sex playmates. My girls began to wear frou-frou dresses every day, playing mainly "house" and "tea party." My nephew’s chosen games were "dinosaur wars" and "pirates." Even if his mother forbade him toy guns, he would aim a stick or spoon, shouting, "Bang!" Modern parents have tried to encourage nurturing in boys and achievement in girls with other types of toys. But giving teddy bears and cookbooks to little boys, Legos and pink Power Rangers to little girls has not changed what little boys and girls are made of.

One of my daughters was in karate for several years. She did not want to test for her purple belt because in this next level she would have to spar. I snuck into the master’s office to talk with him about her fears. His answer was that this is especially common among girls; they do not want to hurt others or be hurt. In fact, he said it was also fairly common among boys. However, boys cannot admit it. Boys have a harder time facing this in themselves and understanding it. Both boys and girls may equally feel fear, but gender rules dictate their behavior and coping mechanisms. The fact that there are now many girls taking karate alongside boys has not changed the rules.

The hypocrisy in our modern view on equality of the sexes is blatant when we note that our traditional view of male and female traits is still held. A girl who is considerate, quiet or gentle is endearing and appealing while a girl who is ambitious, vain or loud is not as appealing. It is the reverse in boys. A boy is judged differently to the point of being ridiculed if he chooses the, albeit physically demanding, study of becoming a ballet dancer over a baseball player. Boys and men may have a better understanding of being male in our patriarchal society but they have the special problem of social rigidity of their male boundaries. With so many women in the work force, the view of women has been slowly expanding. Perhaps the view of men has been slowly expanding also: the younger generation sympathizes with the unmotivated and catatonic male characters in the popular movies, "Garden State" and "Napoleon Dynamite." Time will tell if our view is truly shifting and where it is headed. But for now the following has not changed at all. Girls give away their power when they buy into a prescribed body type and belittle their own, when they act happy without feeling so, and when they hide their intelligence around boys. Boys maintain their power by acting tough or proud. They might choose to fool or hide their own ignorance or shortcomings, which in reality compromises their own integrity. These differing expectations of the genders are accepted notions about traits and behaviors that the equality issue has not changed or addressed.

I did notice in the farewell video that while referring to my daughter both boys and girls were less vulgar. The vulgarity was toned down, more hesitant and cautious. I interpreted this to mean she demanded some respect. I do not believe it made a difference that she was coming from the smaller homeschooled world and, so, is less in touch with their scene. Naivety would not stop the kids exhibiting their routine behavior. This suppressed vulgarity leads me to realize that we parents can successfully raise kids to demand respect and to respect others. We do not have to accept that our kids must put up with or act in a similar manner to socialize with others in our culture.

The first thing we must teach our children, as they learn about equality of the sexes, is the acknowledgment of male and female differences. This includes learning about the child’s own sex. Ask, "What does it mean to be female; to be male? What do you like or are proud about being a female or a male? What differences have you noticed about the opposite sex?" Adolescent identity crises begin developmentally as early as age ten. Continuous discussions on acknowledging differences will help kids understand themselves as well as others. A very nice boy, a friend of my fourteen-year-old daughter, told her he was confused; he felt different around her and her girlfriend; he did not understand why because they were friends. But he need not be confused. He is feeling and acting naturally and should feel this way.

From acknowledgement comes acceptance and then respect, which leads to appropriate behavior. A new round of discussions can be enriched with questions like, "How should you treat others of the opposite sex? What are your boundaries and where do you think the boundaries of those of the opposite sex are?" Teaching respectful behavior is easy with centuries of rules to dip into. Good old-fashioned manners and etiquette can teach a lot of this. Parents can teach boys to open a door for a woman, give a seat on a bus to a woman, and stand up from a seat when a woman enters the room. Girls do not have to obey or accept a boy’s every word but they can respond politely while remaining firm. Cotillion classes teach boys and girls respectful etiquette using dance as a vehicle. My fourteen-year-old takes salsa dance lessons. Her class stresses respect for the partner. Her teacher handed out rules in the first class meeting: take a breath mint, bring a towel for perspiration, the man must lead and the woman must wait to be led, the man’s hand is to touch the woman’s shoulder blade not the waist, and the woman must not criticize the man.

Because our culture bombards us with support of the sameness view, we, as parents, must weed out what we feel is a negative view of the genders. This can be very difficult when the cultural influence is so subtly pervasive. But homeschoolers have a record of existing outside or on the fringe of our society. Our family finds it easy and necessary to turn off prime time television. There are other choices that do not have to seem as drastic, strict, or forbidding to some teenagers. Engaging together in activities that teens enjoy can help them distinguish what the negative influence is. For example, listening to the kids’ radio station in the car together can lead to a critical look at the disc jockey’s comments or a pop song’s lyrics.

The crux of the matter is maintaining the value of respect. We must encourage our kids to hold onto it. I have watched one of my daughters easily fall under the spell of her new friends who are in the greater culture of school, parties and junk food. Each week an opportunity presents itself for us to discuss self-respect, differences, personal boundaries, compassion and respect for others. These discussions give my daughter a chance to analyze a situation away from it. Sometimes she is uncomfortable with the behavior of others as well as her own when she is around them and she can safely voice her concerns or confusion to me. This gives her a chance to be attuned to her own responses, perceptions and feelings.

I am glad that my daughter attempted to express her own view in English class. The fact that it was a class with so many different ages and backgrounds and the view of the sexes was so narrow is disturbing. But the class discussion revealed a modern trend of thinking that my daughter did ponder critically. She was able to trust her own opinions. She realized that even if the majority thinks something is right, it is not necessarily so.

I am especially glad she is comfortable with her own sense of her gender, being a female. Honoring ourselves, for simply who we are, is not a given in our complicated modern lives. Dealing with identity and with the opposite sex in our culture today is a huge challenge for our teenagers. The more self-respect and respect for others they have, the more they will demand in return, preserving their own boundaries and their understanding of the social world. E.C.