Gendered Dogs

I think you all probably know by now that I am very conscious about gender in almost every aspect of my life. I mean, I am the type of teacher that prefers to call a group of students “y’all” because I don’t want to say “you guys.” I’ve taught my students about gender differences in the way they are treated at school and out in the world. This year, I’ve also taught about vitctim-blaming, gaslighting, and how we market toys to kids. I think my gender-conscious resume is pretty well stocked.

One of my students was using an article titled “The Trouble with Bright Girls” by Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. In it, it states that we as a society treat our bright girls differently than we do our boys:

Researchers have uncovered the reason for this difference in how difficulty is interpreted, and it is simply this: more often than not, bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.

How do girls and boys develop these different views? Most likely, it has to do with the kinds of feedback we get from parents and teachers as young children. Girls, who develop self-control earlier and are better able to follow instructions, are often praised for their “goodness.” When we do well in school, we are told that we are “so smart,” “so clever, ” or ” such a good student.” This kind of praise implies that traits like smartness, cleverness, and goodness are qualities you either have or you don’t.

Boys, on the other hand, are a handful. Just trying to get boys to sit still and pay attention is a real challenge for any parent or teacher. As a result, boys are given a lot more feedback that emphasizes effort (e.g., “If you would just pay attention you could learn this,” “If you would just try a little harder you could get it right.”) The net result: when learning something new is truly difficult, girls take it as sign that they aren’t “good” and “smart”, and boys take it as a sign to pay attention and try harder.

I find that this is probably very true of my students. They have been treated so differently – and continue to be throughout high school. As a result, it is much more likely that I see a girl completely give up and never turn it around, but I see boys fluctuate between good work and bad work all the time.

Now, this is anecdotal and not researched evidence, but that doesn’t matter because my students are not what made this article interesting to me. What made it interesting is how it made me think about how Tim and I treat our dogs.

Our first “born,” Penny, is an incredibly bright terrier mix. She is a wonderful, loyal dog who is full of energy and needs constant mental stimulus. I’m also almost positive that she understands literally every word I say to her, so when she doesn’t do what we want her to do, we are almost positive that she is willfully disobeying. She is definitely our “bright girl.”

Her younger “brother,” Bailey, is a lazy, cuddly beagle. He is perfectly happy sitting in an entirely different room than the pack, either staring wistfully out the window (and occasionally howling at passersby) or sleeping on his favorite blanket. His laziness sometimes comes off as unintelligence because he doesn’t ever quite get what we’re asking him to do. In these instances, instead of the expression of overt defiance that Penny gives us, Bailey’s expression looks more like, “Huh?”

With Penny, we often treat her as if she either gets a command or she doesn’t. If she does, she’s a “good girl.” If she doesn’t, we get a little frustrated. With Bailey, we often treat him as if the effort is the thing we are looking for. If we tell him to come to us and he makes it halfway, we praise the initial decision to follow the command, not necessarily the follow-through.

Now, you could argue that we do this because our dogs are so incredibly different and, therefore, require different training. Terriers are inherently very smart and quick to learn. Beagles, on the other hand, are notoriously low-energy. It’s possible that, if Penny were a male and Bailey were a female, we would still be treating them as we do now because of our breed, but what if we are treating them differently because this is the way we have been socialized to treat boys and girls?

I’ll never know the answer to this question, but it does make me think about how we will one day raise our child. Will we inadvertently treat him or her differently based on his or her gender, or will we be able to overcome that and encourage effort and success regardless of gender?

Only time will tell, but it definitely is food for thought.


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