Fathers worry about their sons because boys do stupid things. Fathers worry about their daughters for the same reason.
A couple of weekends ago our family went to a birthday party for one of Pip’s friends. It was held at the friend’s home and, as it was a rainy Sunday afternoon, everyone got boxed up inside. With fifteen or so seven and eight year olds bouncing around and only a few parents about to provide some minimal supervision, things got a bit chaotic.
In one of the rooms, the hosts, in an attempt to provide some direction, had laid out a bunch of different games for the kids to play. These were largely ignored at first in favor of building sculptures out of marshmallows, grapes, and toothpicks. However, as the party went along various kids began picking among the assembled options for things that interested them. At one point I looked in to see that two kids had set up a chess board on the floor and were attempting to play a game. One of the kids was definitely a less experienced chess player than the other – the latter was walking the former through the moves the various pieces could make with relative, though by no means perfect, accuracy.
About five minutes later I heard a great deal of ruckus coming from the same room. Peeking around the corner I witnessed two additional kids now crouched down beside the board basically yelling at the less experienced kid, competing with each other to tell this kid what they were doing wrong. One of the interloping observers even shouted something to the effect of,
“You might as well start over. You’re doing it all wrong.”
The less experienced kid definitely appeared overwhelmed and in shock from the hyperactive, sugar fueled onslaught of these two know-it-all observers.
As I watched all of this through the doorway, I felt caught in a state of hesitant uncertainty. First of all, none of the four kids around the board belonged to me. Second, it wasn’t a physically dangerous interaction. The house was quite loud, and the know-it-alls’ yelling was not in and of itself out of place. Third, the bullying effect of their actions was not apparent to any of the other three kids. They weren’t intentionally ganging up on the fourth. They were caught up in a competition between themselves that led them to gang up on the fourth. It would have been very easy to read the whole interaction as one of hyperactive silliness if I hadn’t seen the fear in the face of that fourth kid. It was this fear that finally prompted me to step in and ask the kids to calm down. They did to some extent, but the effect of their yelling had already been writ. A few moments after I turned away, the less experienced kid quietly pushed down all the pieces on the chessboard and left the room, bringing an end to the game.
This small drama has stayed in my mind the last couple of weeks for two reasons. First, it was a discomfiting reminder of how violence happens even in ‘safe’ situations. The kids around that chess board were smart, good kids from decent families. They were not looking to exact any kind of violence on someone. But, the chaos of the environment and the competition of the moment overwhelmed their consciousness of what actions are right and respectful and obliterated any awareness they may have possessed regarding the emotions of the person they were ostensibly trying to coach.
Second, there was a gender component to the equation. The less experienced kid in this episode was a girl. The other three were boys. And, they were belittling her over a game of chess, a game whose history skews toward masculine associations. I don’t know that this drama in itself represents anything in particular, but it seemed in alignment with a pattern common in many male-dominated arenas – the girl’s knowledge was deemed unfit, even when her playing partner set up the board wrong and was making his share of mistakes as well.
Both Wired magazine and the Washington Post published commentaries this week talking about how women in the technology sector are systematically overlooked by male supervisors, have their skills routinely questioned, and have their contributions to projects regularly downplayed. These patterns do not result from conscious misogynism. I imagine that there is a general discourse in the technology sector that women and men are equally good at coding, but that women have not tended to get in to the field to start with (I know this thinking was true in my engineering classes two decades ago). But there is a difference in saying the right thing, believing the right thing, and doing the right thing. The last of those three is the hardest to get to as it means not only being aware of the patterns but also reprogramming many of the social cues and unconscious responses that create those patterns. These unthought elements, the ones that pass by unnoticed in day-to-day interactions, the ones that get reproduced accidentally in the pressure of the moment, the ones that get reinscribed in a sugar-fueled competition over which boy is most right about a chess move, are the ones that continue to perpetuate the structural inequalities of the world into which we were born.
I’ve be thinking a lot about Polly since watching that chess game because while Polly wasn’t the girl on the other side of the board that day, one day she will be. I once imagined or hoped that wouldn’t be the case. I thought perhaps enough would change by the time she entered the adult world that she would be able to largely avoid the agony of such ridiculousness. Watching those eight-year old boys enact exactly that ridiculousness has quashed that hope, and I’m not sure what to do about it. I don’t know how Polly should respond to those boys lost in their own particular world. I don’t know how to prepare her to persevere through their stupidity. I’m not sure how to tell her what is to come.
In the face of all that uncertainty there is one hope to which I still cling: that when it is her turn to face it the idiocy – in whatever form it appears - she will enough knowledge and support around her to call it out for the ridiculousness it is.