Nature: 1, Nurture: 1

Mmmm yep. Things are just a tad different with the boychild. Pictured above: the only way we can now manage to change his diapers without him corkscrewing himself into the neighboring county, and/or giving one of us a nervous breakdown (either diaper-er, or diaper-ee).

I’m an unreconstructed, dyed-in-the-wool social constructionist, which is to say that if human behavior were explained away with a scissors-paper-rock game, to me nurture is the scissors, which cuts nature which is the paper. The rock stands in for The Fates. Our kids are my 24hr/day laboratory, in which the social construction of gender identity dukes it out with the biological determination of it, all before my very eyes. And as The Fates would have it, if early observations bear out, I find I’ve got me two pitch-perfect gender conformists: a taciturn, meditative, bookworm for a daughter, and a future Cirque du Soleil strongman/contortionist for a son. Sugar and spice and everything nice on the one hand, snips and snails on the other. Okay so maybe it’s not that extreme, and thank heavens it’s all early yet. But still. Would it really have been too hard for it to go the other way around? Was that really asking too much?


I brandish my fist at the unfeeling, capricious gods! Or smile and nod, thanking them for the well-deserved object lesson. To the extent that nature is at work here, at least I can console myself with the fact that the chips didn’t fall in an utterly cliché pattern. That is, the girlchild got her quiet, contemplative nature from our donor chum (she’s a lot of him, plus estrogen), and the boychild got his gonzo-buff nature from the beloved (he’s a lot of her, plus testosterone).

I think I’ll call it a draw.

13 thoughts on “Nature: 1, Nurture: 1”

  1. Yeah… I used to think nurture was everything, too. Then I had kids, and they pretty much obliterated that theory. The funny thing is, we have a child that is my mother incarnate. The way she looks (built like a russian wrestler), what she likes to eat (meat, fat), her easy way with people, all her abilities – and my daughter hasn’t spent any time with my mother, really.
    And I am SO different from my mother, I am very much like my father. Introverted, carb-loving, tall and skinny. I’m forced to conclude that my daughter got an almost complete set of my mothers genes through me, but somehow, they never expressed themselves in me. Well, go figure. It’s just very educational and interesting to watch.
    And then there’s the one son, who seems to have picked the best possible combination out of mine and my husbands gene pool. My skinny body, his fathers elegant headshape and good skin and hair, our best scolastic abilities etc.
    It’s endless fun to watch your kids grow up, isn’t it?

  2. Truth is, we’ll never know exactly what is nature and what nurture. How could we? The way I feel is that nurture is the bit we can influence and the right thing to do is make sure I do the best that I can to be open-minded about who my kids are and will be.

  3. Sadly, my lab confirms these results as well. I hope you can bear with a verbose story…

    From the moment my son could crawl, he started batting a soccer ball around the house. At two, he stood beneath a regulation basketball hoop and shot until he made it. He is loud, impulsive and athletic. People always say, “He’s all boy” and I grit my teeth.

    The other day, my two year old daughter and I were swimming at the local YWCA. She kept grabbing this big ball, climbing to the top of the slide, sending the ball down and then sliding down herself. I was thrilled because this was the most engaged she had ever been with a ball and I started thinking that maybe she would defy all stereotypes and be as athletic as her brother. Then, I noticed that she was talking at the top of the slide. I got closer and saw her holding the ball to her chest and patting it with one hand. I got closer still and heard her saying, “It’s o.k. baby…it’s o.k.sweetie…you will be just fine.” She then sent the ball down the slide, looked at me and said, “Mama, she is having a hard day”. I was stunned so stunned that I nearly drowned.

    I have recognized clear differences between our son and daughter. The challenge for me has become recognizing that there may be some things hardwired in kids but to not allow that recognition inform the way I interact with my children. I have to honor each child as they are and accept that I may not have the little fairy boy I imagined…I may not have the tomboy that I imagined. It’s my job to help them become their own person…whoever that may be.

  4. Not sure I am totally qualified to answer as both my children are boys. That won’t stop me from commenting!

    I do think there is some nature involved. But I also think nurture plays a huge role. Not to mention social gender norms. Our oldest 3.5, yes can be a physical, ball throwing, jumping from tall heights type of kid, but he is the same kid who can be found in the sandbox making a pie out of sand, or sitting for long periods of time perusing books. His toddler obsession was animals, not trucks or trains or planes. However, I guess he doesn’t spend lots of time nurturing a baby, although he would try to breastfeed his stuffed monkey from time to time, or enjoy coloring as I see lots of his female classmates–this is slowly becoming more interesting to him.

    So, maybe it’s just that I don’t want to admit it yet. . .

  5. I couldn’t agree more, Vikki. (Verbose? Verbose? Did you say verbose? Strap yourself in for a ride on the Verbosamobile!) That’s my job: trot in front of each kid, clearing impediments out from in front of them, redirecting them from yawning precipices and what have you. But that’s it. Help them become whatever it is that they are, or clearly thrive at becoming. The most I can be is a role model for kindness and respect.

    Much to my chagrin, my every day presence as gender traitor, female division, has not inspired the girlchild to prefer to eschew dresses, like I did, or prefer crawling around on her hands and knees making engine sounds as she motors her Hot Wheels collection through the dirt, like I did. Who knew that not every girl wouldn’t necessarily become a Tomboy, given the chance? I thought that was the free zone — Switzerland — between the war-torn dominions of boy and girl. Could be maybe it was just my free zone (and yours).

    AllieG, I appreciate the reminder that it is true that nurture is the part we do have a hand in. This is where, if I might indulge a bit of partisan sentiment, the lesbian mums shine. Sociologist Judith Stacey did a study with USC colleague Timothy Biblarz, of the gender roles/identities of kids of lesbian and gay parents (don’t know whether they included bi or trans parents). Their study “How Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?” was published in the American Sociological Review in 2001 (Vol. 66, April: pp 159-183;USC news coverage of it here; whole PDF of it, courtesy JSTOR, here). While “sons tend to be more conforming in gender roles,” still they found that:

    For example, boys raised by lesbians appear to be less aggressive and more nurturing than boys raised in heterosexual families. Daughters of lesbians are more likely to aspire to become doctors, lawyers, engineers and astronauts.

    In addition, heterosexual mothers tend to encourage sons to participate in historically “masculine” games and activities – such as Little League – and daughters in more “feminine” pursuits – such as ballet. In contrast, lesbian mothers had no such interest – their preferences for their children’s play were gender neutral.

    But it’s not as if all LGBT parents are totally fine with gender-variant kids, either. In this thoughtful commentary in the Advocate online, therapist Arlene Istar Lev finds plenty of discomfort and worry. Though it’s complicated: “We are torn between encouraging our children to be themselves and protecting them from a judgmental world. “

  6. You know, when Sassa was smaller than she is currently, she was “all boy”. Seriously, all about balls, all about trucks, all about her train set, all about gymnastics and rough housing and climbing and running and jumping and dogs and messes. She would have nothing to do with stuffed animals or dolls.

    Then she got a bit older and started interacting more with the other girls at her daycare and suddenly she became very interested in babies. She even turned her giant plastic pleisiosaur into a baby, carrying it around and asking us to change its diaper. The gender non-conformist within me takes comfort in the fact that she makes her babies do things like jump off the couch or do summersaults off the counter…

    I think there’s nature and then there’s experimentation and play leading to self-determination. And the point of nurture is to make sure that such experimentation and play is encouraged and not penalized.

  7. Whoa! I love this topic…
    First, a sad warning for the future (being a year or so ahead of you on the small boy front): the diapering gets worse. Much worse. I can now, literally, diaper him while we are BOTH on the run. The only real problem is when my nose (which is not particularly good at smelling) does not recognize a poopy diaper PRIOR to unraveling it. Alas.

    Second: Geesch. I can’t believe the strength of gender. And I, too was (am?) a social constructionist on this topic. Problem is, there is no ceteris paribus in this experiment. We can’t stop everything else and observe. For example, even when we don’t mean to, I think that we inherently react positively to people who “fit” the gender stereotypes. So we may be subtly (possibly even inadvertently) encouraging their behavior even if we try try TRY to encourage them to expand these confining roles. So, maybe our Big (22 months now) hasn’t shown a preference for wearing dresses (yet) and playing with dolls (although he DOES like to push around a stroller . . . a stroller that is usually filled with trucks, but hey, he is nurturing SOMETHING isn’t he?) but maybe that’s not just due to a natural inclination, but to a combination of his natural inclinations and from the quite perceptible positive reactions he’s received from just about everyone (“Oh, he’s SO boy!!!”).

    And lastly, our doctor once said that we (as humans) tend to only see and react to things that are either very much aligned with the stereotypes and/or very much DISaligned with the stereotypes. So we SEE that Big is “all boy” when he kicks the soccer ball and gets excited about trucks. We don’t SEE that he is kicking off this dreaded haircoat of a genderbox when he focuses on a little board book in his car seat for 45 minutes of the ride.

    Our boy seems to be “all boy” but he sure does like “Pik!” (his word for pink).

  8. And nicely said, Chicory ~

    I think there’s nature and then there’s experimentation and play leading to self-determination. And the point of nurture is to make sure that such experimentation and play is encouraged and not penalized.

  9. I feel cheated. My child is most definitely a girl and wasn’t five months old before she turned diaper time into a hellish contest of wills and physical strengths. Maybe it means she’ll be a butch dyke? 😉

    Seriously, I’ve heard this from so many people that I don’t doubt it: our stereotypes of male and female have some basis in biological tendencies. But tendency is the word. I cringe when people say things like “She’s definitely a girl–so dainty!” (Yeah, she’s small and pink and has little tiny fingers. And white boy babies her age are different?) And worse, “I’ll have to remember to treat her like a girl,” and following up by holding her very still, talking to her quietly, handling her like she’s made of porcelain. Now, this is a baby who loves being tossed in the air. But how long would that last if everyone “treated her like a girl”?

  10. Well, gee, most of what I’d like to throw into this conversation has already been said. Mainly I’m in the “there are so hecka many environmental impacts on your kiddos that we just can’t know” camp. So I’ll lean on the side of the social constructivists. Though I will admit to being recently steeped in liberal arts college, I did also spend two years as a toddler room teacher.

    Anecdote Time:

    I wrote a research paper on transgender parents a couple years ago for a social psychology seminar. And I really was shocked at the extent to which everything I read stressed the very little difference between kids in those families and kids in heteronormative families. The attitude of the folks in the Advocate article really bums me out. It is very understandable, but I’d be psyched for gender atypical kids. Part of my personal feelings on the subject, being kidless myself, come from the two-mommed children I babysit. These two kids are delightfully androgynous. I’d say that they have pretty similar tendancies, boy and girl are both pretty aggressive and pretty bookish and pretty sensitive. It’s lucky to be in a home where gendered activities and play are value neutral. Or potentially one where gender atypical behavior is actually encouraged. The parents went along just fine when their daughter requested to go by “Andrew” for a few months last summer. In fact, they shared the news with me behind slightly delighted smiles.

    Ok, I’m going to stop because I feel an essay coming on. I’ll save it for my own paltry blog.

  11. Hey, LD. I’m a longtime (a year or so) lurker. Several posts have almost brought me out of the wordwork, and this one finally did. My kids are fifteen and thirteen and some things are most definitely nature, no doubt about it. But what has been most interesting to me is that they have evolved so significantly and radically over the years. The little girl that loved dresses and “hair pretties” is now a decided tomboy. And the young boy that loved sports and other aggressive pursuits is now much more bookish and intellectual. Go figure.

    The coolest thing for me, as one who loves them in any of their various incarnations, has been to sit back and enjoy the ride and give them plenty of space to experiment with who they are, something not all of us got when we were growing up. 🙂

    p.s. I adore your blog, and the family that you and your beloved are making.

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