Friday, January 22, 2010

Boys are not Girls

A young man I know quite well - we’ll call him Casey - is a very talented gymnast and diver. When he was five years old he started doing rudimentary back flips off his mother’s organ. When he turned six, he started taking tumbling classes and his teacher soon discovered his abilities. Within a year Casey could climb the gym rope (without using his legs or feet) faster than any of the other students (of any age). In subsequent years, Casey would learn all of the men’s gymnastic events well. As a young teenager, he competed successfully in several state competitions. During one eventful meet at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Casey placed first in the state on rings - probably the most difficult of all the events. He had a bright athletic future to look forward to.

About a year later, just as Casey was starting his sophomore year in high school, his family moved to North Carolina. It was there he learned that there was no longer a future in men’s gymnastics in America. Casey couldn’t find a single gym anywhere with a men’s (boys) gymnastics program in the major metropolitan area where he lived. He practiced alone for a few months and then, sadly, gave it up. The problem he had run up against was Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This (apparently appropriate) piece of legislation prohibits discrimination in any educational program receiving Federal financial assistance.

I understand if you’re confused by this. What do anti-discrimination laws have to do with men’s gymnastics, after all? Have men gymnasts been discriminating against minorities? Hardly. The problem comes down to something quite unexpected: misanthropic feminist activists and school budgets. It turns out that most schools have traditionally placed quite a bit more money into men’s sports than they have into women’s sports. This was a natural thing to do. Men’s sports have always had higher levels of participation and have drawn bigger crowds. Now this is all being interpreted as discrimination.

More damaging, however, is the attempt to use this difference in athletic participation as a tool in pushing forward a gender-neutralizing agenda. Men’s athletic programs should not be funded any more than women’s athletic programs these activists insist. If they are, lawsuits are threatened and institutions stand to lose all of their Federal grant money. Since nobody wants to give up their men’s football and basketball programs, other sports have to make up the difference. Men’s gymnastics is one of them.

For Casey this meant ending his gymnastics career many years before he wanted to. All was not lost, though. He joined his high school’s swim team and started diving. During both his junior and senior years he took first place in regional diving competitions. His training in gymnastics was serving him well - at least until he neared graduation. He then discovered that there was no use diving at the collegiate level. Title IX had taken away male scholarships for these events too. Casey’s future in competitive sports was over.

This is a sad story for those of us who know Casey. In fairness, I realize that similar sad stories must exist of frustrated women athletes who, prior to Title IX, were unable to fully develop their talents. The temptation is to ask for some kind of unbiased numerical comparison just to see how fair this whole thing really is.

Do women really want as many athletic scholarships as men do? I doubt it. It would seem much fairer to look at the total number of scholarships across disciplines (academic and athletic) if we’re really looking for equity. I am certainly not suggesting that we limit athletic opportunities for women who want them. But I am suggesting that we use better judgment in how we allocate resources.

Men are more physically competitive than women. This often turns out to be a problem for those men who haven’t learned how to express it appropriately. Most women, on the other hand, have a different perspective in potentially competitive situations because they are able to minimize confrontation. This has always been a feminine virtue. For men, virtue resides in mastering their competitive instincts not in pretending they don’t exist. Team sports, for instance, were originally promoted to help boys (and men) learn to channel their competitive instincts gallantly.

But this is not the main issue here. The bigger issue with the Title IX legislation is that we are letting gender-neutralizing advocates succeed in a campaign that is devastating boys. A big part of this campaign is the effort to minimize competitiveness.

There are very fundamental differences between men and women. This should be obvious. There are also important differences between boys and girls. And although most of these differences only become visible at puberty, differences at younger ages are also important. One of these differences that has been investigated quite a bit in recent years is Rough and Tumble (R&T) play.

Consider for a moment the research of Vivian Paley, a former kindergarten teacher in Chicago (Sommers, 2000). Vivian observed her young students in many settings and often noted the differences between boys and girls. When they would enter the “tumbling room” the boys would run and climb the entire time they are in the room, or until they “fall down dead” to rest momentarily. The girls, after several minutes of arranging one another’s shoes, concentrate on somersaults. Then they stretch out on the mats and watch the boys. When the girls are left alone in the tumbling room, they run and climb for a while and then lose interest, moving to other activities like painting and playing with dolls. Boys, she noticed, when left on their own never lost interest in tumbling.

Rough and tumble play also occurs in other animals. One of nature’s more endearing scenes is the unexpected discovery of baby animals tumbling around in mock combat with their siblings. We understand intuitively that they are having “fun”. In the last few generations we have also learned from researchers that this behavior helps prepare the young for more serious and life sustaining activities later in life. A wolf pup needs to know how to grapple with a sibling before it can bring down a deer. This also makes intuitive sense.

In recent years, however, it has become fashionable to limit the play time of children - especially the R&T play of boys. Some schools have eliminated playgrounds altogether. The underlying argument for this is that rough play in boys leads to aggressive and criminal behavior in men. Aggressive men, so the reasoning goes, must learn their delinquent behavior somewhere. Since we know that boys are more physically active than girls, it seems logical that an excess of activity, if not corrected, will lead to crime.

The trouble with this reasoning is that it is based on guesswork. In reality boys, just like puppies, learn how to be true to their natures by wrestling with each other. Researchers are learning that it is the boy left out of physical games that is the one more likely to develop behavioral (including criminal) problems later on.

Pam Jarvis (at Leeds Metropolitan University) wrote that R&T play “forms the basis for male socialization, in that boys who successfully engage in mock-fighting… are creating neuronal pathways that will later be developed in rule-based sporting activities and language-based competition, while those who are unable to group concepts of play fighting in early childhood are at risk of becoming less socially successful, more aggressive adolescents.”

Gender activists, on the other hand, argue that these play differences are not natural - that parents are responsible for teaching their children to behave this way. If this is how boys and girls act, it is because boys are picking up discriminatory habits from their fathers. Girls should be, according to this reasoning, just as active as boys, all things being equal.

One has to wonder what closet these activists have been living in. Did they never go outside during recess when they were young? I don’t mean to imply that rough boys don’t grow up to be criminals. A few of them do. I do mean that if we deny boys a healthy active place to grow up, we’ll be creating bigger problems than we thought we were solving. A typical healthy boy is a competitive boy. A typical healthy girl is noticeably less competitive. This is part of the natural order of things. If we ignore this – or worse, if we legislate policies based on this ignorance – we will certainly come to regret it.

We wouldn’t, for example, agree to give air conditioners to Eskimos because we give them to Navajos. Such “fairness” may be equitable in one sense but hardly fair in any meaningful sense. In contrast, we do give library cards to all kinds of people regardless of any differences among them. The poor are benefited just as the rich are. It comes as no surprise that because of this equality, libraries have been one of the most effective government-funded programs ever implemented.

So what kind of legislation is Title IX then? On the surface it looks like it might be fair. In reality it has turned out to be much less so. Policies that go against nature will never be truly fair. The reason things have gotten to this point is something that should concern us all a great deal: special interest groups have become much more effective interpreters of our laws than have people with common sense. In fact special interest groups have tried to force equality where it doesn't exist - against nature.

This is bad news for American boys, who are being steered (even manipulated), into a gender-less society and asked to fare however they can. Those of us who care about boys and girls need to be aware of this and take every opportunity we can to encourage young men to get involved with boy-friendly programs such as Boy Scouts, competitive sports, church groups, etc. - even as we encourage girls to be involved in girl-friendly programs of their own. We also need to better prepare ourselves legally against the special interest groups who are out to diminish boys. As odd as it might seem, we need to affirm the obvious fact that boys are not girls.

Works Cited

Jarvis, Pam. 2006. “Rough and Tumble” Play: Lessons in Life. Evolutionary Psychology 4:330-346.

Sommers, Christina. 2000. The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming our Young Men. Simon & Schuster, New York and London.

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