I was an only child. I went to an all boys high school. I had a girlfriend at summer camp each summer, but I really didn’t spend all that much time with the girls at summer camp. I went to an engineering school after high school. In those days there weren’t a lot of budding female engineers. So, when I got married a few years after college and began to get myself mentally ready to be a dad, I wasn’t even remotely ready to be the dad of a girl.
After a week or two of refusing to believe this had happened to me, I made my peace with it, but I had no idea what it meant. I didn’t know much about girls at all. I didn’t know what I should do, or what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to be very involved in child raising so I made a decision. I would simply not let sex matter much. I would raise a child. I would do whatever I might have done if that child had been a boy. I would not try to make her into a boy, but I wouldn’t try to make her into a girl either. I would raise a person.
My wife was not the girly-girl type, so she didn’t care when I decided that there would not be dresses, nail polish, or jewelry for my daughter. This was easier said than done. The only female with whom I had had a life long, deep relationship objected, and objected loudly. My mother was no girly-girl either. She was a tough and successful business woman who never met a situation she didn’t want to dominate. But she liked clothing and jewelry a lot, especially since she was in the jewelry business. When my mother appeared, Hana was to be put in a dress and that was that.
The reason I didn’t want Hana to wear dresses, apart from the fact that I thought that they looked stupid on an infant, was confirmed immediately at Hana’s “coming out” party. (By this I mean her coming to New York as a baby to meet the family for the first time. We lived in California.)
“Ooh, look at how beautiful she is.” “She is going to win all the boys.” “What a gorgeous dress.”
I was not planning on raising a sex object. I was raising a person who would be her own woman and not exist to hear how beautiful she was from whomever was trying to get something from her. I may not have understood girls, but boys I knew.
I stood firm. After New York, no more dresses. I wanted a rough and tumble child, not a girl who was worried about dirtying her dress.
Things went very well for a while. I loved Hana to death. I was almost over the girl issue. At Hana’s 2nd birthday party, there were two other girls present. There was an immediate leader and it wasn’t Hana. In fact, Hana was pretty much concerned with pleasing Miriam and imitating Miriam, a lot more than she cared about pleasing her parents. I noticed this behavior again on a regular basis when we moved next door to a girl named Annabee who was a year older than Hana. Hana, who by this time was toilet trained, became untoilet trained when she played with Annabee. Hana was also quite articulate by this time and she could pretty well explain that she was afraid to go to the bathroom when Annabee was around. She wanted to please Annabee and do whatever it was that Annabee was doing and who knew what would happen if time was taken out for the bathroom?
After about a year of this, and the realization that the stuff Hana was learning from Annabee was stuff it would have been just as well for her not to learn, my wife and I decided to eliminate Annabee from our lives. But this did not eliminate the problem.
What was the problem?
It was becoming clear to me that Hana was easily influenced by other girls who were more dominant that she. Hana was concerned with what they thought about her and wanted desperately to please them.
This became much clearer when she entered school. In fact, Hana went from being a lively, happy, verbally brilliant child to being miserable and anxious most of the time. When she thought about school what she thought about was not what she was learning at school but about her relationships with the other girls at the school. This manifested itself as who was being mean to her in the 3rd grade and then to worrying about what jeans she was wearing in the 6th grade, and then to learning to be the right level of enthusiastic on the softball team in high school.
She was so miserable at school that I decided, when she was 8, to take her out of school for a week or so and take her with me while I lectured in England. After work I took her on castle tours. She loved the trip (as well as subsequent trips – she says now that these were the best parts of her childhood).
But, on that first trip, all she could talk about was what one girl or the other was doing to her, or thinking about her, or planning. I pointed out that there were castles to be seen and that she needed to learn to be where she was and that where she was was England. But she was clearly being tortured.
All this was a long time ago. Hana has grown up into exactly the woman I had hoped she would be. She is female and behaves accordingly, but femaleness does not dominate her life. She likes jewelry and she wears dresses when appropriate. (She won that right when she was 8. My mother declared victory.) But, most of all, she became a person, which is what I was hoping for.
But all of this is just preamble. The real story starts now.
I was visiting Hana, who as I write this is the mother of an almost 3 year old boy and has another one on the way. She also runs a successful software consulting business and is, at the same time, a published author, which was always her real goal. So she is doing fine, and this is not about her.
While visiting her recently, I volunteered to take my grandson Milo to the park. Milo immediately started interacting with toys and kids in a way that made it clear that there was no role for me. So I sat and watched. What caught my eye was the mothers. They stood around and chatted with each other -- clearly they were all regulars. They were talking about their kids, no surprise, but what they were saying was indeed a surprise to me. They were saying more or less, that they were rotten mothers and that their kids weren’t so good either. Men don’t talk like that. I continued to listen.
I began to realize that what was going on was a continuation of what I had seen when Hana was growing up. Instead of competing about whether they had the right jacket on, they were now competing about who was the worst mother. Something was really wrong here so I asked Hana about it later. She said she witnessed this kind of behavior at every play group she attended with Milo as well.
I had, as a grown up male, frequently witnessed women competing with each on all kinds of things, the size of their ring, and the brand name on their pocket book, who had the latest fashion item on, and so on. I knew that women continued to undercut each other as they had done as children, but in more subtle ways. But I hadn’t realized they also competed in how bad they are at really important things.
What is going on here? Carol Dweck (professor of developmental psychology at Columbia) once said to me that little boys hit each other when they are angry but little girls undermine each other’s relationships. Indeed that was what Hana was concerned with when I took her on trips, I now realized. She didn’t know if her relationships in school would still be there when she got home. She loved the trips, at least in part, because they were a respite from the relationship breaking and mending that was going on at home.
I happen to be writing this on a boat in Greece, where various people come and go. And, I have noticed the same thing here. When there are more than two women on board, alliances form and the woman who is left out sulks while complaining of the bad things the others are saying about her. This happened so quickly each time various friends of the owner of the boat arrived, that I was really shocked by it.
But really it is the same thing, different place and time, that Hana feared while in school.
So now I come to thesis of this piece. I do not believe that girls should go to school. Here is why:
Girls are interested in relationships in a way that little boys are not. There is much evidence to support this. The reason is obvious. In a hunter gatherer society, women had to work together in ways that men did not. Establishing good relationships was probably the hallmark of success for females in primitive societies. This may be true today as well, but the instinct is very destructive in a society where men and women are equals.
Women are their own worst enemies in this regard. While Hana was busy thinking who did and didn’t like her, school was going on. Hana was not thinking about school or schoolwork, or learning. She was focused on the other kids. School was not about learning for her. Indeed, Hana tried very hard to not be the best in school, something she was surely capable of, because she would stand out and that would ruin her relationships.
She never did well in school, not badly, but not well. In fact, I made a point of putting her in a tougher high school program figuring that if she was going to be mediocre she could be mediocre in a better school. This is exactly what happened.
The same thing happened in college. There again, she was way much more concerned with what her friends were doing and who she liked and who liked her than she was with learning what school had to offer. Add boys into the picture and you get a girl who would prioritize the importance of what is being taught in class near the bottom of any list of concerns and priorities in school.
Of course, some girls do succeed in school by the standard measures, but those who do are often lonely and miserable because they have stood out in that way. They have chosen to be good students and have failed at relationships. Do some girls succeed at both? I am sure they do. But, that is really not the point. Even those who succeed at school are unhappy.
Girls have a way of making each other unhappy. This tendency comes naturally, but the school experience exacerbates it. If women lived in a society of their own, perhaps this wouldn’t matter as much. But all this undercutting and self-deprecation does not help them succeed in a society where half the participants behave differently.
The solution? Take girls out of school and put them into learning environments that are not inhabited by large numbers of children of the same age and same sex. A learning environment for girls should never include more than one other girl. The educational experience must be re-designed so that girls concentrate more on learning and less on relationships. Education needs to be divorced from socialization. Women are harmed by the idea that school is a place of socialization. No one has ever thought out coherently how that socialization should occur and what its goals are. Somehow we have just assumed it would happen properly but it clearly does not.
My experience with Hana has convinced me that school is a disastrous place to teach socialization. We need to re-design the system so that women can prosper in school and in life with less anxiety and more fun.
As I await the birth of my next grandchild I am again worried that it might be a girl. I feel confident in my own abilities to deal with her because I have grown and changed. But school and society have hardly changed at all.