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First Person: The trouble with girls

Feminist progress and all that aside, our society still prizes the son

Saturday, January 20, 2001

By Sandra Collins

I was sitting in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Discovery Room on a recent Saturday afternoon, watching 9- and 10-year olds - mostly girls, by chance - check out different animal pelts, tree bark and snake skins. I overhead one mom say to her friend, "I'll take 10 of my sons to one of my daughters."

  Sandra Collins is a writer living in Ben Avon ( 

"Oh, I agree," said her weary friend, the mother of three daughters. "My girls had Christmas lists a mile long. Ask a boy and he says, 'Oh, I don't need anything.' "

They agreed: Girls require more effort and far more patience to raise than boys, who would gladly raise themselves.

Girls enter puberty earlier. Their brains develop complex thought patterns and greater negotiation skills at a time when boys are still coming into their own. Girls are intricate creatures; the fact that they have these skills requires greater expertise on the part of their parents.

Exhausted parents on another busy Saturday are owning up to an understandable fatigue: They simply don't have it to give to strong, independent young women. They require too much of us. They tire us out with their endless questions, their complicated needs and longings. Better to have young boys, who run outside and play with the abandon that doesn't ask more of us than "just five more minutes?" and "Is my uniform clean?"

Then the Discovery Room moms moved to discussing future adulthood. One mom, cuddling her infant daughter, said, "My girl will leave but my boys will stay. They'll take care of me while my girls go elsewhere and get married."

Well, God bless her, but that sure isn't my observation. Usually it is the daughters who take the elderly parents to their doctor's appointments, who fight with the insurance companies, who shovel the snowy driveways of their parents and take them to church. It is the daughters who choose to buy a house near their parents and the daughters who tend to the graves. I don't know what level of care this mom was referring to when she said her "boys would take care of her," but my sense is that she should cover her bet with her daughter, too.

Which raises something else I've experienced: the quest for the boy child. I knew a family growing up with seven daughters who understood that after the first daughter, the rest were only the parents' attempts to have a boy. I grew up with girls who desperately tried to succeed at softball or basketball as an attempt to approximate the boy they weren't. I don't know too many boys who did the same - took cooking or sewing to try and fill the void of a girl in their parent's lives.

Despite three decades of the women's movement, despite our sophisticated protestations to the contrary, our society still prizes the son, the boy who will "carry on our name." Friends proudly show us pictures of their sons - "Now I've got a boy to play ball with."

Even during the remarkable re-debut of Mario Lemieux, the man who saved hockey for Pittsburgh, we were treated to endless footage of his 4-year-old son, Austin, the impetus for Lemieux's return. Austin's sisters (what are their names?) were rarely glimpsed and mentioned even less.

A child - any child - is a wonderful thing, a gift and a blessing to behold from the moment it enters our lives, screaming and covered in goo. We hold in our arms the culmination of biology and love, the merging of two lives into one, a miracle. Yet, as Charles Darwin and others have proved, what this child represents is the genetic material of two people, an inheritance of hair color and height, not values or sense or memories. Memories are things acquired through individual experience of the joys and terrors of this world. But, those tenacious social values persist, showing how little we have escaped the tug of ancient cultural ties that defy Darwinian explanations.

Perhaps Lamarck was right. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a competitor in evolutionary theory with Darwin, claimed that we could inherit traits through sheer effort - the giraffe has a long neck because it learned to get to the tall fruit and then passed on that trait to its young.

The Darwinians denounced that theory, claiming that learned behaviors are acquired, not inherited. Hating other ethnic groups or preferring Chinese food are things obtained culturally, not blindly passed on to us through the gene pool.

Yet, as I consider how we value the masculine and our overwhelming preference for sons, I sometimes wonder.

Moms, loving, caring, thoughtful moms, can say and think things in a 21st century "Discovery Room" - things that defy Darwinian ideas and place us amongst the most primal of groups. We may be the culmination of our biology, but that biology hasn't really come that far, has it?

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