Book Smarts Lacking On Gender Equality

By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

"The Daring Book for Girls" and "The Dangerous Book for Boys" -- companion volumes teaching old-fashioned games, skills and lore -- are flying out of bookstores, purchased by parents who no doubt worry that their children spend too much time playing video games and watching YouTube.

There's something reassuring, if retro, about a book that encourages girls to learn double Dutch jump rope and boys to build a go-cart. Too many kids think fun happens in nanoseconds in front of a computer rather than over long afternoons outside after school, that learning means working a calculator rather than studying the stars. These authors are onto something, even if it's little more than prompting moms and dads to tell their kids stories about childhoods long ago and far away.

But the books also serve as a reminder that we still haven't figured out what gender equality means or how to prepare kids to live it in the world they will assume. "Dangerous" limits boys to tasks, ideas and ways of being associated with boyhood, neglecting knowledge about girlhood that would serve them well as men working and raising children alongside women. "Daring," on the other hand, urges girls to learn both female and male skills and lore -- a good thing for advancement into what is still a man's world, but dangerously close to an endorsement of the Superwoman idea.

"Dangerous" -- its cover a brilliant red -- champions activities such as making a bow and arrow, reading about great battles and, of all things, "hunting and cooking a rabbit."

"If you kill something, you have to eat it," write British authors Conn and Hal Iggulden. You can almost see the brothers Iggulden beating their chests as the spit turns slowly over an open fire.

The turquoise "Daring," written by Americans Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz, challenges girls to learn how to change a tire, build a handlebar scooter and weave a daisy chain.

This pattern is repeated in each book's reading list. Boys are asked only to read about other boys in tales such as Kipling's "Kim" and Golding's "Lord of the Flies." But girls are introduced to Stevenson's "Treasure Island" and Robinson Crusoe as well as "Island of the Blue Dolphin" (whose heroine is described as a "girl Robinson Crusoe").

Shouldn't the menu be the same for both? If girls are encouraged to read about the Wright Brothers, shouldn't boys be exposed to Jacqueline Cochran, who holds more distance and speed records than any pilot, male or female?

Certainly, boys can make it through life without knowing how to put their hair up with a pencil. But the world they're inheriting is changing quickly along with the assumption that boys rule. More women than men now graduate from college, and women outnumber men in most graduate schools. The percentage of female corporate officers is growing, and business schools are promoting the more feminine style of "collaborative leadership" rather than "command and control." A woman has a good chance of becoming the next president of the United States, and even if she doesn't, politics will never look the same.

Young men are going to have to share the goodies that the world offers. The smart ones will figure out early how women can enhance, rather than limit, their ambitions. They will be able to avoid more successfully dominating behavior that makes men vulnerable to heart disease, among other things. Understanding something about what makes girls tick and how to get along with girls -- before they take the SATs -- will better prepare them for college and life beyond.

As for girls: They have never had so many opportunities, and some of them find that exhilarating. But for others, opportunity to choose has become pressure to choose it all, and catching up to or surpassing boys more important than figuring out what they really want to do. According to national surveys, young women take more electives in school than boys, spend more time on homework and extracurricular activities, and are doing more of all of that than did young women 20 years ago.

They also are ending up -- in increasing numbers -- in the offices of psychologists and physicians to be treated for stress, depression, substance abuse and severe sports injuries. While they may be learning many new skills, constructing a well-balanced life may not be one of them.

If there is a way out of these dilemmas, neither "Daring" nor "Dangerous" tells us what it is. How do we help boys learn to live easily, even thrive, in an environment less constricted by gender? How do we help girls understand the difference between the confidence that says "I can do anything" and the lack of confidence that says "I must do everything"?

Artifacts of the past can be loads of fun, but we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that knowing the difference between a shooter marble and a peewee, or Marco Polo and water polo, will necessarily help our kids understand how to be a woman or a man.

That hard work is ours. ¿

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