One mother made violently turbid waves a couple of months ago by telling the world that she didn’t want her preschooler being taught to “be a gentleman”, i.e. let the little girls use the bathroom first. She argues that gentlemanly manners are the vestiges of a strict system of gender roles that we are trying to shed.
And she got shredded.
“How could any mother not want her son to be a gentleman?” “What’s wrong with a little selfless consideration for women?” “Find something real to worry about!” And those were just the genteel comments.
I have to admit, I cringed my way through the article because I love gentlemanly manners. My mother brought my brother up to open every single door, every single time. His wife of over a decade still waits in the car until he comes around to open her door. I had a surreal experience going away to college and kind of standing in front of doors thinking, “Why isn’t this thing opening?”
And yet, I couldn’t help but agree with some of the mom’s logic: gender roles, even the sweet innocuous kind, reinforce the legitimacy of other gender roles, even the abusive, patently unfair kind.
The article made me think of two findings featured by Freakonomics: First, when parents are charged a small fine for picking up their kids from school, tardiness actually increases. The thinking is that people are more willing to commit small infractions if they feel they can square it away with a little fee. I wonder if the same logic goes on unconsciously with gender roles. Are we willing to dismiss a woman’s opinion so long as we still hold the door open for her? Do we justify paying women 82 cents on the dollar year after year in part because at least some men still walk on the traffic side of the street?
The other phenomenon is that a culture’s gender roles have a powerful effect on how people view themselves, and their willingness to take risks and compete. In the very strictly patriarchal Masai tribe in Africa, women are acutely risk/competition-averse, while in the matriarchal Khasi tribe in India (where women own property, preside over the household, and make the economic and social decisions) women are almost twice as likely to take risks and compete as the men in the tribe.
But that isn’t the reason I thought of the study. One of the anecdotal findings of the economist who did the research is really what stopped me in my tracks. As an economist, Uri Gneezy likes to quantify everything, so he gives the cultures he studies a rating of “niceness” from 1-10. He said that the niceness of the Khasi tribe was so far off his chart that he couldn’t even give it a number. The Khasi tribe is a culture of honesty, honor, friendliness and kindness unlike anything he’d seen before. And the women are wearing the pants.
So to all those who foretold civility’s doom if we take the “gentleman” out of the boys, not so fast. What exactly are we trying to preserve here? The gentlemanly manners of the Mad Men generation? Maybe if we move beyond the gender role system that diminishes women’s participation in decision making, we’ll actually progress toward a kinder, nicer society.
So will I teach my boys to open doors? I don’t know! Now I have to think about it. I always assumed I would. Honestly, I would be perfectly content if they turned out just like my husband. He doesn’t open doors, or walk on the traffic side of the street, or always let ladies go first, but he treats me with respect, and generally shares decision making power with me equally in the home.
I think I’ll teach all my kids to open doors for me, though. Then when they go off to college I’ll be thinking “Why isn’t this thing opening?” again.
Now what do you think? Are you teaching your boys to be gentlemen an d your girls to be ladies—or princesses? Could you achieve the same results by teaching them all ungendered “good manners”? And most importantly, how do we get some of that Khasi niceness up in here?