Sunday, August 31, 2014

“DUMBING DOWN” INTO AN IMAGE TRAP

Last week my daughter shared an interesting insight with me.  She told me that she had observed that many girls in the higher secondary section of her school ( in the 11th and 12th standards) had a tendency to act “dumber” than what they actually were!  They would constantly defer to some of the boys, asking them to explain some concepts (not necessarily academic) and then exclaim wide eyed “ Wow!! Thanks! You know so much!”. According to her, some of the girls who indulged in such behavior were themselves pretty smart and well informed. But they behaved like they were having trouble understanding their lessons and preparing for their exams. They apparently staged “Oscar winning performances”      (you know… expressions of surprise, happiness and disbelief )when  they topped a test !!  

I was surprised that girls should indulge in such behavior? I mean, we have heard of people trying to act smarter than they really are but why the reverse?  My teenager says it is to “get along with the boys” which translated means “be non threatening to the male ego”!

I tried to put myself in the shoes of a teenage boy to understand this.  Would I not prefer to have friends (boys and girls) who were my intellectual equals? But then among equals there is always the possibility of being snubbed every now and then by someone who knew more about something.  Would  it hurt me more if this snub came from a girl? Would I be willing to open myself to learning something more from this person who may be better informed about something?

The answer to some of the questions was difficult.  Yes being snubbed by a classmate for not knowing something might hurt but I think for many boys it would probably hurt more if this classmate were a girl!!! The extent to which I might be open to accepting knowledge from a girl would depend on my confidence in my masculinity!!

Teenage is a difficult period.  Psychologist Eric Erikson in his theory on stages  of psychosocial development says this is the period where an individual searches for his/her identity.  Identity is something very complex. Intertwined  within it are many facets of which an important one is the social construction of  gender. What are  acceptable as masculine/ feminine traits in  our peer group? 
 
In our society boys are expected to be “cool and confident” with an attitude of nonchalance with regard to things. It is sort of expected of them to forget to submit assignments on time or study for tests. Some of them may exhibit greater physical aggression than others but that is supposed to be “okay”.   In terms of behavior,  one expects them to excel at sports, be clued in on technology and be math wizards! Logic is supposed to be their strength. 

Girls on the other hand are expected to be “sweet and friendly” , obedient ,following the rules, being  talkative ( or gossipy) with a tendency to get “scared” at everything( creepy crawlies, exams, darkness … you name it!!).  They are also expected to possess artistic capabilities and be helpless with anything that requires application of logic! Exhibiting aggression of any form is totally unacceptable.  You are supposed to smile and get your way with things. Teachers also expect them to be on time with assignment submissions. They are perceived to be constantly “mugging up” for exams , with their noses buried into text books as result of which they score higher marks despite not being so “intelligent” - or so the boys would like to believe.  

It is not easy to zero in the source of these images. I don’t think any parent consciously encourages boys or girls to pick  them up but they certainly do this and this is nurtured in the peer group. 

As teens get into these image traps, they find anything that is different difficult to accept. In a society where even adults have to often conform to gender stereotypes, it is very difficult for a teen to accept these contradictions. 

A girl who is argumentative for example, constantly questioning them about things or laughing at their ignorance about certain things is a difficult blow to the male ego. Much of how they deal with this would depend on how strong their inner confidence is. How easily can I as an individual rise above my sense of “real or perceived humiliation” at being snubbed by a girl depends on how  I  as a boy deal with it. While some boys might deal with it better than others it looks like many do not. Girls probably sense this and try to hide behind that “dumbed down” image to appear  non threatening to the boys. It could be an exercise at self preservation to escape psychological bullying by a boy whose ego might be hurt or it could just be tactic to appear charming to the opposite sex!

Whatever it is, as parents we need to realize that there are very complex set of issues that play out inside a teenage mind. And how I as a teen deal with it depends on how open are my parents with respect to my being non conforming to gender stereotypes? While many urban educated parents in our country today are open to the fact that their children have different talents which are not necessarily related to their gender there are still limits in terms of how different is a different that I as a parent might accept in my child? While I might encourage my son to take up performing arts, would I be okay if my son wants to learn Bharatanatyam  instead of the violin or guitar?

In terms of interaction between boys and girls, a lot of it is modeled on what they observe at home- essentially on how their parents relate to each other. If boys see their mother exhibiting “helplessness” with certain tasks or see them speak to their husbands in a certain way then they expect it of all the females. Many women think a happy marriage comes out of giving their husbands a good “ego massage”! Some men see through it while many do not. But if women see it working in their favor they would definitely refine the art so that men do not “see through it” . The teenage girls are just beginning to experiment with something that they have probably observed. 

High school is a difficult time for children  these days. There is a lot of pressure on them. On one hand are the parental expectations to deal with, academic performance to achieve and on the other hand is the peer pressure that forces you to be something that you might actually not be. Much of what a teen ultimately grows up into depends on how they deal with this which again  depends on the support that we as parents are able to provide to them. Ultimately, it is they who have to etch out their identities. We can only guide them in this process!  


( The word "Dumb" has ability connotations. I do not like to hear it or use it. But this is the terminology that is often used by teens to describe anything these days. As a parent I would like to discourage its use but peer pressure probably wins out here. I am therefore going to let it pass because there are  other  important peer issues that my child needs to fight. If she wins them this word is likely to disappear from her vocabulary)

1 comment:

SG said...

I think it is one approach to get a good "catch". In USA, girls go crazy over foreign accent. Therefore, many guys speak with a fake British or French accent. (They cannot do Indian accent because their skin color and facial structure will tell the real truth.)

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