Thursday, April 17, 2008

"It's a Guy Thing"

In the years I spent working in education, I worked with literally hundreds of children. I've worked with children with autism, children with fetal alcohol syndrome, sotos syndrome, brain damage... Kids with behavioural problems (a bulemic five-year-girl, a boy the same age with oppositional defiance disorder). Boys with ADD. Girls in recovery from sexual abuse... and boys in recovery from sexual abuse.

I've worked with toddlers, with pre-school children. I worked in a kindergarten, and I did my practicum for college at the grade 1 level. And I've worked with kids 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 years old.

The point is, I've had experience with a wide range of children. There is a tendency to judge a woman my age who doesn't have kids of their own, to assume I don't like kids, or to think that I'm incapable of handling them. And for those that don't know my background and just take me at face value (woman in 30's with no child) they think I might be able to handle a girl, but that I'd be out of my depth with a boy.

Really, I've heard it all at one point or another. The point of mentioning that is only to make it clear that people make assumptions on multiple levels about other people. If someone's fat they must overeat, not that they have a medical condition or that they put their back out and gained weight during the inactive period. If someone's skinny they must be fit - often not true either.

One thing I have learned from working with kids is that boys and girls, in general, are wired differently. Playing to percentages, in any given afternoon with preschool children, there's a fair chance a boy will go streaking through the room. I'm not saying it's a daily thing, but once every few weeks fits with some of my past experience. I used to aid a child with special needs in a preschool environment, and the boys in her group loved to run naked.

But I never once saw a girl do the same thing, in all the months I was there.

Put out different toys, and you know which ones are going to appeal to the girls, and which ones will appeal more to the boys. Some will appeal to both, and there are always exceptions... but we are wired differently.

I'll confess that every time I see some jerk in a truck (common around here) who thinks the rules of the road don't apply, who doesn't stop at stop signs (they seem to be optional in this village) and revs the engine to make a lot of noise as they blaze by going 80 in a 30 zone (the whole village is a 30 zone) I just figure they're compensating for what we might call their natural shortcomings.

Fair? Unfair? It is kind of sexist of me, but then we have situations like the bad crash in Calgary last week, single vehicle, two men in their 20s killed when thrown from the vehicle, speed and alcohol factors in the crash... Closed a whole road for several hours, it was that bad. Too many guys who think they're on their personal racetrack, getting scraped off the sidewalk later. It's tragic. (And playing to percentages again, how many women do we see doing this?)

The question is whether or not we'll rise to become more than our gender.

You see, as a child I may have been a tomboy, but I wasn't really sporty. I learned sports later. I'd still say now that I'm not terribly sports-oriented, but I had one job years ago where I ran with a pack of boys, 9-12 years of age, and they liked high energy stuff. None of the other staff (all female) wanted to deal with these boys...

So I took them under my wing. We played floor hockey and soccer. Dodgeball and played with scooters. We went sledding and skating. In the few hours in the afternoon that we had to do activities, I burned more calories than I could consume just keeping up with them.

Where's all this going? What's the point? My boyfriend sent me a link to a great article today, about a father who was determined to be more than his gender, and learn to do his daughter's hair. Now, it's funny, because my boyfriend has been basically a single dad for some time, and he definitely hasn't mastered the art of doing his daughter's hair...

But like the author of this article, he strives to be more than just the traditional dad to both of his children. I love the fact that the kids play with their toys in his bedroom in the morning, and leave their stuff scattered around on the floor. I have a photo of him with shamrock garland wrapped around his hair, courtesy of his daughter, in preparation for St. Patrick's Day. That speaks to me of the level of comfort that they have with their dad, and that's a great thing.

And for those of us who play the percentages and make assumptions, next time we see a man out with his children on the weekend, that might not just be dad's day out. More and more dads are assuming the full-time, or an equal share of, the parenting role and the winners are their kids, because in an ideal situation, kids will have a strong relationship with both parents.


Clair D. said...

Nice post. That's so cool that you took on the group of boys to play with.

I have to admit that in the altnerative high school where I work, I like my class of all guys (a fluke in enrollment!) to any of my other day classes. Becuase they are so different.

And nosy, personal questions and/ or judgements suck like a Hoover. Whether or not you have/will have children is no body's damn business. IMNHO

Sandra Ruttan said...

You know Clair, you're right about the child question. I put it in perspective, because some years ago, a friend of mine had a child who died. People would actually ask if they were going to have another child. The audacity and inappropriateness of some people is astounding.

One of the things I like about all boys is that (particularly at that age) you aren't getting the moody/petty thing girls can do. Or the catty/bitchy thing either. I honestly don't know now if I could handle a group of all girls, if they were above age 8.

When I was with that group of boys one of the other things we did was built an indoor fort. It was great for me - I did all kinds of things I'd never done before.

Lyman Feero said...

Thanks for the nod to the stay at home Dads. I don't know how many times I've been asked when out with my kids, "Day off from work?"

Anonymous said...

So true, and brave of you for saying it. Somehow the fear of being sexist has turned into a fear of appreciating the natural abilities that people of some genders may be more likely to have. (How do you like that soft phrasing?) I think that people of both genders have great potential, but if they are not naturally drawn toward a particular area, then they are less likely to excel in it, since interest often leads us to learn more about something, thus leading to more success with it.

As for being judged for not having children, when I met my husband's mother, I was teaching English. I had taught grades 6-12 and a number of subjects. We were discussing the difficulties of raising children. I said that I would like to think that being a teacher has helped me be at least a little more prepared for parenthood. She said, rather forcefully, that until you've had children you know nothing about raising kids. To this day, I still think she was wrong. Maybe I'll find out otherwise when I myself am a parent, but I still think I will have a little more insider information than many first-time parents.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I love how delicately you put that Caryn. In truth, I'm jealous of how just the tone of a man's voice prompts a different response from children. They have that natural advantage... the tone carries weight and seriousness.

I agree with you. I can only say from the perspective of getting to know my boyfriend's children, and I guess going through the process of becoming a stepmom to them. My background with kids helps me a lot. I understand the psychology of the situation, for one thing. I can depersonalize their musings as they process this change in their life (well, not completely, but in part). You get asked some tough questions - will you and Daddy ever break up? Do you like my mommy's boyfriend? My experience with kids doesn't give me all the answers, but it enables me to be calm in those situations and give a reasoned answer that's age appropriate and keeps the personal judgments out. (I mean, the kids know mom and dad broke up, so you can't lie to them and say "no, of course we'll never break up". Working with kids enables you to say "at their age, they'll call me on it if I lie or if I'm wrong.") I'm also comfortable with admitting I'm wrong. I've dealt with enough kids over the years to know you don't lose respect when you own up to your mistakes, you gain it.

Plus, I know all kinds of things to do with kids their age - I have tons of games and toys and binders filled with craft project ideas. For St. Patrick's Day and Easter we made things together, and that's a great bonding thing. They enjoyed it, we got to do something constructive, and it's much better than forcing yourself on them by making them talk to you.

Honestly, of course you go through the whole thing of wanting the kids to like you and hoping you'll get along, but my background let me take a deep breath and relax a bit. I know there will be ups and downs - that's natural. But I've also processed discipline policies from the pov of experience and I have some sense of what works and what doesn't and why, and where my boundaries are. So I feel I have a huge advantage over someone without my background. Maybe it isn't the same thing as parenting 24/7 - okay, it isn't. But it's also not the same thing as not being a parent and never working with children. That career experience goes a long way to easing the adjustment to the parenting role, in my opinion.