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Books on Kids - Jumping Off the Nature-Nurture Teeter-Totter
by Johan Aitken

In The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together, Eleanor E. Maccoby has done the meticulous research her students, colleagues, and general readers have come to expect of her. The book cum textbook contains the introduction, chapter summaries and commentary, overview, extensive notes, and bibliography that give it both the flavour and substance of intellectual respectability. The treatise proving that J. M. Barrie was "spot on" about Peter Pan and Wendy should advance undergraduate and mainstream understanding of the segregation of the sexes between early childhood and early adolescence, and their commingling in later adolescence and through adult life in social pursuits, the workplace, long-term commitments, and parenting.

One of the most compelling aspects of Maccoby's thesis is that socialization is not "all"-although she is far from being a biological determinist. Maccoby does not advocate a repeat of the teeter-totter of nature/nurture; she finds fewer hard-and-fast rules and more persistent tendencies. She argues that "children would probably separate into same-sex groups during spontaneous play regardless of the efforts their parents and teachers might make to create a unisex environment, and further, that the separation of the sexes in childhood has consequences that cannot be ignored." These "consequences" as played out in all spheres of adult interaction are the fascinating and novel connections made by Maccoby.

There are both surface infelicities and profound concerns, however, that must be pointed out. Is any reader so innocent that he or she should be subjected to such banalities as the "onset of puberty brings with it a strong increase in interest in the other sex"? And on the same page, "Young people [also] rely on the scripts provided by TV and films for clues as to what is acceptable and expected." Apparently, "young people" no longer read; yet the Sweet Valley High series, cleverly marketed, has sold more copies that any other book in English save the King James version of the Bible. The series is read, almost exclusively, by girls and young women in North America and presumably affects and infects its impressionable readers who are searching for scripts as surely as they are searching for dreams in proportions not dissimilar from TV and film.

Language such as "hair-do" is dated, and clichés about young men seeking sex and women "lasting and exclusive relationships" seem hackneyed in a text overtly intent on suspending final judgments and following the findings of research rather than the dictates of the researcher. While the book has much to recommend it and it is likely for worthy reasons to be adopted in courses on child development and sexuality, it has, perhaps to its ultimate detriment, tried to please those who adopt texts and put them on required lists. How else can one explain-or explain away-the absence of discussion on homosexuality and same-sex sexual attraction and commitment? There are two short references to homophobia and three sentences on homosexuality-three of the more clinical and abstract sentences in a book often exhibiting lively prose as well as deference for research and careful referencing. "A substantial number of people experiment with same-sex sexuality at some point in their lives, and a small minority settle into a life-long pattern of homosexuality." Maccoby, having sidelined a significant number of people, feels free to talk about the "vast majority" in a manner which could give offense to neither the Bible belles nor the Moral Majority. And, throughout, with her combination of scholarship, care, and concern, the reader is convinced that Maccoby knows better. She isn't just talking about the orientation begun in childhood in the genes-and acted out in maturity-that may be the most important one to understand and defend as the new century lurches to be born.

Another point of disappointment comes at the end of the text in anecdote and apologia when Maccoby sounds defensive, declaring her sympathy with a young man who may feel, most inaccurately, that the speaker/author might be anti-male. The oft-told tale of woman-as-researcher/writer "taking it all back" if her work might offend, exclude, bewilder or upset men is woven once again, and the many positive moments for women in what purports to be a text of "social science" are diminished.

There is much to admire, however, in this serious and generally sensible book. The author examines biology, socialization, and cognition as the three "major components of the explanatory web". She deconstructs power relationships in many of their complications and contradictions. She acknowledges that, while giving the nod to history and physical geography, she is writing primarily within an American context. Finally, her credo resulting from her intensive research and expressed in her own voice is cause in itself to read the book in its entirety, and to harbour modest hope: "I believe that the strengths of the two sexes can be brought into integration within a framework that involves some degree of differentiation of function while being at the same time equitable." 

Johan L. Aitken is a professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the Ontario Institute For Studies in Education, University of Toronto.


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