The Playground Principle

As kids, boys and girls stay apart. That has profound effects in adulthood.

May/June 1998

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The Playground Principle

Rod Searcey

The title of Eleanor Maccoby's new book -- The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together (Harvard University Press, 1998; $39.95) -- contains an intriguing paradox: Boys and girls spend much of childhood separated from the opposite sex, but most manage to form heterosexual unions as adults. By focussing on this seemingly obvious social truth, Maccoby traces the surprising and subtle ways that gender identity helps shape our lives in families, schools, relationships and the workplace.

From an early age -- as young as 2 or 3, according to Maccoby -- boys and girls show a preference for members of their own sex in play situations and start to avoid members of the opposite sex. This pattern persists on grade-school playgrounds and in cafeterias and corridors, peaking sometime between ages 8 and 11. "Oooo, too many girls," is the not uncommon reaction of a second-grade boy as he steers his lunch tray away from a table of young females.

Each sex has its own culture: Boys tend to be more "physical," competitive and confrontational, while girls gravitate toward more cooperative "role-taking" activities where compromise and negotiation are key.

Throughout the book, Maccoby, a Stanford professor emerita of psychology, draws on the research of other social scientists. But she herself is one of the foremost living authorities on sex differences. Her 1974 book, The Psychology of Sex Differences, influenced an entire generation of feminist scholars, who looked to her for validation, repudiation or elucidation of their own theories.

With this latest book, Maccoby continues her rigorous scholarship and adds discriminating appraisals of the work of other psychologists, sociologists and sociobiologists. But her longtime readers will be surprised by the book's somewhat different conclusion. Earlier in her career, she was convinced that there were few inherent differences between girls and boys; whatever differences did exist could – and should – be lessened by the efforts of families and a society in search of gender equality. Today, she seems to be less certain. She now acknowledges that a child's gender "matters greatly," and that early sex-segregated experiences have profound and lasting implications for adult heterosexuality, parenting and employment.

When teenagers begin to be attracted to one another, they have by no means disentangled themselves from the influence and values of their peer groups. For example, boys often enter relationships with the idea that casual sex does not have to lead to a long-term commitment and that "going steady" may allow for sex. Maccoby cites research showing that 45 percent of boys want intercourse at this stage of dating. Only 8 percent of girls do.

When young men and women begin to form close relationships with each other, the peer group becomes less important. But the strategies ingrained from childhood often fail miserably when it comes to the opposite sex. Men, for example, often find themselves frustrated when they can't employ the kind of confrontational tactics they are accustomed to using with other men and boys. And yet they have not developed the negotiating skills women have been honing since childhood.

Maccoby wisely points to issues beyond gender when she speaks about the power imbalance inherent in most young couples. Generally, she notes, it is "the person who is less in love" who has the most power. And she also notes that relationships do not remain static. Power issues often diminish for partners in enduring marriages.

One of the most interesting chapters looks at the interaction of the two sexes in the workplace. Here, too, Maccoby argues that people bring to work the attitudes and styles of interaction acquired in sex-segregated childhoods. Citing the research of Stanford School of Education Professor Myra Strober and others, Maccoby observes that gender segregation resurfaces in the workplace, both in the kind of work done and the level of advancement achieved. Male bonding, women's habitual avoidance of confrontation and the force of sexual attraction all enter into the gender-based hierarchy that often leaves women at a disadvantage at work.

Written in the sober language of a consummate social scientist, this book may not entice those who want their information in a more sensational form. Nor will it satisfy those looking for a more optimistic picture of the progress we have made toward a gender-neutral society. Maccoby concludes that gender differences linger throughout life in numerous arenas – often where they are not in the best interest of men or women. And she seems to suggest that these differences are inevitable and more tenacious than we wanted to believe in the hopeful heyday of the feminist '70s.

Marilyn Yalom is a senior scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and the author most recently of A History of the Breast (Knopf, 1997; Ballantine paperback, 1998).

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