Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Separate but Equal?

Last week I had lunch with a friend, the mother of three young boys.  She passed along to me a number of books that deal with shaping the moral, emotional, and mental lives of boys.  She also recommended another book, which addresses, among other things, the phenomenon of the "anomalous male," one whose interests in traditionally "feminine" pastimes cause him to bond with girls as a young boy; he then goes on to become ostracized once he reaches adolescence and those same girls find his friendship to be an albatross around their status-conscious necks. 


For the last two years, I have spent a fair amount of time considering how lucky I am to have boys.  As a kid, a sister of two brothers, and a teacher, I often felt that boys were easier somehow.  Less drama.  Less manipulation.  Less emotion.  I remember someone once telling me, "Boys play games while girls make rules."  And while that, like the rest of this paragraph, is a gross oversimplification, I got it.  It made sense to me based on my observation bias of boys being simple and girls being complex.

Well, apparently, I was wrong.  Apparently - get this - boys are complex, too!

And, according to some of these books, one of the solutions to helping boys - and girls - embrace and explore their complexity is single-sex education.

As a child, I was not interested in going to an all-girls' school.  I liked boys - both as friends and as more-than-friends.  I liked having them around - as playmates, as classmates, as teammates.  And in general, I start to get antsy when I hear talk of the inherent differences in the way males and females think, act, and feel.

But, the more I thought about it, the more I started to see some potential benefits to single-sex schooling.  Research suggests that, when activities and subjects are divorced from their traditional gender associations (e.g. boys are better than girls at math; girls are better than boys at art), students avoid "gender intensification," wherein boys act more like they think boys should act, and girls act more like they think girls should act.  Self-esteem also seems to be higher, especially for girls, in single-sex schools, according to this study.  From my own anecdotal evidence based on years of teaching teenagers, I think about the school hours lost by some students who see their own social status ebb and flow along with their romantic relationships.  If girls who like boys aren't around them for much of the day, might they see their position at school correlate more to their interests and accomplishments rather than to whom they are dating? 

Could it be that in our quest to equalize the sexes, we are missing the diversity within each gender?  Can separate really ever be equal?  Can unequal nevertheless be fair?

Are you the product of a single-sex education?  If so, what was your experience like?
Would you consider sending your child to a single-sex school?


  1. I am the product of a coed education. Personally, I loved going to school with boys, but the truth is I didn't know anything else. I am fascinated by this question, whether girls and boys thrive more in single-sex settings. My gut is that it probably comes down to the idiosyncrasies of the individual child and that blanket statements about such matters really can't be made. But maybe that is a cop-out? Maybe there is real empirical evidence that certain breeds of education are more beneficial. I don't know.

    I do think it is interesting that so many of us form preferences for paths we have walked ourselves...

  2. I definitely saw the benefits of single sex education, especially at such formative years of upper elementary and middle school. I owe a lot of my confidence to that experience. Of course as a public school teacher, my future children will go to public school!
    From the teacher perspective, I find girls easier to teach. In my class last year, there were more girls and it felt calmer. With an even split this year, the boys dominate and steal my energy. My female students keep me organized and stay much more on task.

  3. I have serious mixed feelings on this topic. It was discussed on a message board I frequent a while back and I still do not know what to think.

    I understand that separate can be more equal in the case of education. Unfortunately, I wonder how this prepares the child for "the real world" where this separation will not occur.

  4. I definitely have strong points of view on the boys vs girls thing, and on the various ways they are individually challenging and "easier." (-er being the key there).

    I went to an all-girls' school from the middle of 7th grade through 10th. Those 3.5 years were invaluable in forming the way I approach school and learning, and I am to this day very grateful for them.
    That said, I have both of my children in a coed school. And do not know quite how I will move them around going forward. It will obviously depend on them.
    But this is a fraught and heavy issue with no clear answers (in my opinion). Am glad to hear you chewing on it!

  5. I've heard a bit about this recently too. I don't know if I'll ever know what I think about it, but I definitely see the benefits of all boy/girl schools.

    We won't have that option where we're moving, so maybe that's what makes it more appealing to me...knowing we can't have it.

    I love what you said about realizing boys are also complex. It's true, and yet so easily forgotten. As the mom of two boys, I'm going to have to go take a peek at the books you've linked to...I love book recommendations. Thank you :)

  6. I went to an all girl's camp which did wonders for me in figuring out who I am. No pressure to "impress". We could just be. I formed friendships that are everlasting and true. I always felt like my camp friends knew me better than any other friends I made along the way. That being said, I am all for a coed education. I think there are valuable everyday lessons to be learned interacting with the opposite sex day in and day out. Lessons that will be harder to learn later in life if not exposed to them earlier on. I'm sure it makes a difference how many years your child goes to an all boy school but if it's the majority of the school years, I can't help but think they'd miss out on something.

    Again, a VERY interesting post Kristen!

  7. Good question. I don't have access to it in my area, but I'd certainly consider it. Girls get so ugly with one another about status/boys. I wonder if they'd be less beastly to each other if you took them out of the daily grind?

    You always make me think.

  8. What an interesting question. Are these schools expensive?

    I am not opposed to sending my children to single-sex programs. I think their individual temperaments would dictate whether they were successful or not.

  9. I am a big fan of single-sex education, especially during the middle/high school years. I begged my parents to "let" (meaning "pay") for a private women's college education. I think I knew myself pretty well. I wanted less distraction. I was insecure about my intelligence and I wanted less pressure. I loved math but I had been told more than once that girls don't do math. So, I majored in English instead. (later to get a major in Math but not until much later). I would have been more likely to follow my true path had I shed the expectations others had of me based on my gender.

  10. Interesting topic, but I still say that kids turn out just fine, being all lumped in together. While it might work well for some but not others. That is because not everyone is the same, and therefore some require a wider pallet to learn from.

  11. I am really interested in the point made by several of you, and most recently by SoccerMOM: kids are all different, so will we really ever find any one all-purpose solution, whether it be the standard co-ed model or the single-sex model?

  12. As SoccerMOM said - kids are different. And the single sex issue, in education, is largely a woman's issue.

    And single sex education will remain a necessity for some women, for some time, because women remain at a disadvantage in our society.

    I have sons. They have gone through co-ed public schools. City schools. I've been very engaged in their education, from the beginning, which I made a priority, even while working in the corporate world. Which, incidentally, gradually derailed my corporate career. Something that happens to an involved parent. My guess is that would happen to an equally involved father, but I have no data on that.

    Ironic though - a woman who attempts to balance both, to do both - pursue a career with all her cmpetence and qualifications while putting the same energy (or more) into family will ultimately have to choose. I'm sure there are exceptions. I expect there are few.

    Even more ironic - I attended public, co-ed schools, and went on to an all women's college. That experience was exceptional, and life altering. It was there that I learned the strength of my own voice. It was there that I saw other young women step up in all ways, and gradually, we were unafraid to do so. It was about forming a sort of courage - as a woman in a man's world (and it still is a man's world) that I didn't even know I was lacking.

    I wil continue to fight for that college to remain single sex. The education was superb, and the intrinsic benefits more important than I knew. And the only reason I attended as I chose among colleges that accepted me was because they gave me the largest scholarship. Go figure.

    My sons will do well. But daughters are a different story. Mothers of daughters need to be aware that supporting the (young) woman's voice - especially as things sexual and social begin to enter the picture - is critically important.

    Is all-female education for a year, or 4 years, or 6 years the answer? It depends on the child. But the need, the need for it as an option, is certainly there.

  13. My mother went to an all girls school and she is the most forward thinking, confident, no bullshit, elegant woman I know. I on the other hand was tortured by boys in Jr. High which really did a number on my self esteem. Dunno. Maybe you are right. I agree with you, boys are incredibly delicate creatures. I'm not sure about the all boys thing though. Sometimes all that testastarone needs a good checking.

  14. I really love this post. More educators need to ask these provocative questions of themselves and our educational objectives. I'm not sure if single-sex education is the answer, but I am sure that the willingness of some to thoughtfully discuss the issue, the research, and the reality will move the issue forward. Thanks so much for generating this most interesting line of comments.

  15. While I was in school, I would have been so opposed to single sex schools, but it's funny how things change when you're on the opposite side! I don't think that we will, but we wouldn't count it out completely, which I'm shocked to see myself type.
    I've always felt lucky to have a boy, but my one boy can be more complex and hormonal than me and my mother combined ;)

  16. I am very intrigued by the idea of separate-gender schools, but there aren't any nearby me so at this point my internal debate is purely academic :) But while I do think both boys and girls are complex, I think they are complex in different ways, and that an educational style tailored to their unique needs is best. Plus, who needs the distraction of the opposite sex, and what they might be thinking of you, when you're trying to study and learn?

    I'm not sure why the idea that boys and girls can be different is so controversial. Obviously, we are biologically different, right? So why not psychologically? Chemicals affect personality traits, emotions, etc. To say "all boys are X" would be a generalization, but that doesn't mean that certain traits can't be more typically male or female.

  17. I agree that boys can be very fragile - although I wish I had known that back when I was growing up and all those mean boys used to bug me. I could have picked on them if I'd known how fragile they were! And what's even more annoying is that I always feel like half my parenting is done by clairvoyance - I have to read my son's mind to figure out what's going on. My daughter just yells.

  18. My husband and his brother attended an all-male high school and their sister attended an all-female high school. Say what you want about any of the three of them, but there is no denying that there is an untouchable inner core of confidence (arrogance?) that is foreign to me. I think it comes from never having to deal with the negative opposite-sex interactions that are unavoidable in coed schools.

  19. I attended a co-ed school but my husband attended an all boys Catholic high school. I loved my co-ed education and he loved his all-boys education. There's no easy answer, right?

    I taught at a co-ed high school and saw the different dynamics at work. This may sound silly but if co-ed school had uniforms, not just suggested dress codes and not plaid jumpers, but a standard pant and shirt, many of the co-ed distractions in education would cease immediatley.

    I don't have evidence to support that, just a gut feel from being a teacher.


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