Friday, November 26, 2010

"Meticulously organizing her nail polish bottles"

To get this out of the way: parents should not go around writing about their children on the Internet. This is not going to be the point of this post, but it bears repeating.

"I don't care if anybody thinks I am hyper-parenting or helicopter parenting or wasting my money. I really could not care less what anybody thinks," explains Liza Mundy, (who cares so little what others think of her choices that she's putting them on display in a post in a widely-read publication with a comments section, and) whose son is getting one of those homework helpers. The boy, let's be clear, is an academic rockstar, or would be if he wasn't held back by nasty teachers with their sneaky attempts to teach students their own damn organizational skills through what not-so-perceptive parents perceive as busy work. "He's got a great and truly sophisticated mind, but he's 12, for God's sake, and his organizational skills are nascent." And I'm sure, when he was a baby, he was the cutest baby of them all. Again, parents should not go around writing about their children on the Internet. But I digress - not what I'm getting at here.

The school assignments might seem over-the-top to Mundy, but they are obviously doable. For her daughter - and now it will become clear why this post is tagged "gender studies" - "maintaining a tidy binder is as easy as meticulously organizing her nail polish bottles." Mundy then spells this out, referring, it seems, to anecdotal evidence culled from other blog posts and the NYT fake-trend article that started the discussion: "what is the commonality of the children who sometimes lose track of test and homework due dates? The commonality is that they are boys."

No! The "commonality" we're looking at here is that girls are expected to be organized and tidy. (See also: the capacity of girls with Aspergers or just run-of-the-mill social awkwardness to compensate from a young age and appear friendly and social regardless of what's going on in their brains. See also: too-brilliant-to-bathe.) There's no 'she's a genius who can't manage to put worksheets into a folder' out for upper-middle-class girls, but there sure is for their male equivalents. It is not natural for girls to keep binders organized. Girls - even messy, scatterbrained ones - keep track of when assignments are due because there's no chance they will get labeled brilliant but constrained by middle-school expectations.

But boys! "The problem is not the homework helpers; the problem is the homework itself, and a system that requires young children to master complex, if banal and often pointlessly difficult, systems, at an age where they should be out in the yard playing with sticks or watching birds migrate." A commenter responds, "Why do so many in the less-homework movement perpetuate this outrageously naive notion of childhood activity? Try playing video games and trolling the internet." Yes, that.

But back to Mundy: "I wonder why boys are dropping out of high school and failing to attend college at the rate of girls? When they are young men, I have no doubt, they will master systems of an intricacy we can't imagine. At this age, they need a break." Who are "we"? This being Slate's women's blog, are "we" women? Is the idea that today's educational system encourages aptitude at being organized and nice (the best a girl can aspire to), while if boys suck at contemporary childhood, men are made for better things? While girls who excelled at arranging nail polish bottles grow up to get big-girl manicures, boys who couldn't be bothered to use a three-whole punch are waging war, staying late at Goldman Sachs, or otherwise being awesome.

Honestly, I'm not sure any one article has ever hurled me as far towards the cultural left as this not-even-ostensibly-conservative one managed to do.


Britta said...

I feel like Double X and Salon must be purposely designed to turn people into raving populists and feminists. I think in part it's the blithe obliviousness with which these mothers write--of COURSE my (male) child is a genius who needs tutors and homework helpers up the wazoo--how else could any boy get into Harvard? I think the idea of the perceived naturalness that any child's precocity actually rests on the support of a paid army of staff brings out my worst self righteousness (e.g. "some of us relied on intelligence instead of tutors"), but that attitude can be just as repellent as the opposite.

I know people in real life who fall into this parenting demographic, and they are no where near as unself-aware or obnoxious or pretentious as they come off to be in these articles.

My least favorite recent Double X post was the "think of the poor moms who can't afford to hire tutors, and how dumb and disadvantaged their children must be." Something about the idea that a woman presumably in her late 30s/40s would have just considered inequality was irritating, plus the idea that any child without a tutor/stay at home mom must be being raised by an unemployed crack addict.

It reminds me of a teacher training session I went to at an unnamed university in the south side of Chicago, where we were informed that children with household incomes of less than $70,000 were receiving full tuition scholarships. After reporting that fact, the woman felt compelled to add, "but many of these children are still very bright and capable of making contributions to the class." The implication being that anyone not in the top fifth percentile of household income should scarcely be expected to be literate.

Withywindle said...

Umm ... how precisely is the cultural right to blame for this?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


There's no delicate way for parents who ostensibly believe in social mobility to advocate for their own at times not-so-sharp children. So the 'underneath it all, he's brilliant' approach allows even well-off, well-educated parents to claim some external unfairness is preventing their children from valedictorianness.

I'm never convinced that tutoring/prep courses make that much of a difference - what's the prepping and what's the fact of wealthy parents who care about education? In my own experience, all the "helicopter" trend has done is made it assumed that anyone with upper-middle-class parents had tutors and took prep-courses growing up. Meanwhile, I think I if anything benefitted from not having these, so it feels ridiculous to point out that I didn't, as though not having had them constitutes a disadvantage.


A comment from you appeared in my email but not here. It was interesting and I'd like to respond...


I'm not sure where if anywhere Mundy sits on the political spectrum, but the girls-and-nail-polish, boys-and-nature-play view of gender, the idea that girls are naturally able to follow instructions (as opposed to socialized into realizing that for girls, there's no noble alternative) and that boys (from good families, at least) are all budding Einsteins, was enough to have me burning metaphorical brassieres. So, without being representative of the right, the post pushed me to the left.

Miss Self-Important said...

Um, yes, can you please put that back up? I don't know where it went, and that was attempt #2, so I lost the will to re-type that all.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, I was looking for your permission!

Below is MSI. Next comment will be me responding.

It seems from all this writing that the people who use homework helpers are also on the cultural left (see also: highly-credentialed parents with disappointing children who coincidentally start believing in "multiple intelligences"), so you might actually want to set out in some third direction instead of joining them.

There was a lot of research on gender bias like this in schools in the 1980s, which generally concluded that bias was rampant. Teachers gave boys more attention in class because they were unruly while girls were docile, they reinforced stereotypes like girls are good at reading while boys are good at math, praised girls for being pretty and boys for being clever, etc. Nonetheless, despite the crippling disadvantage of classroom neglect and low expectations, women have still managed to outperform men educationally in all respects except the highest levels of science.

It appears that, whether innate or conditioned, the ability to organize worksheets and nail polishes actually contributes a lot more to academic and career success than forgetting homework to go play with sticks. So if organizational skills are not natural (and I always thought my love of color-coding was natural, but who knows?), then schools are actually doing girls a big favor by inculcating these skills, and the world would not be better if, in the name of gender equality, they stopped expecting this of them. And, as Mundy demonstrates by her apparent need to hire a homework helper in the first place, schools actually do expect the same of boys, and that is basically good, regardless of Mundy's particular complaints on behalf of her stick-loving son.

Your complaint on behalf of the messy girl geniuses seems misplaced. No one's brilliance is eroded or suppressed by the acquisition of organization skills. The fact that, "Girls - even messy, scatterbrained ones - keep track of when assignments are due because there's no chance they will get labeled brilliant but constrained by middle-school expectations" is, on average, a good thing. As with most boys whose parents entertain this delusion, such a label would probably be inaccurate for most girls who earn it just by being messy and idealized by their parents.

Is the real enemy here the people who refuse to recognize messy girl geniuses, or the people who think that disparities in male/female academic achievement demonstrates that the school culture is too feminine? I think the latter are your real targets. These people denigrate supposedly feminine traits like being socially agreeable, organized, helpful, and rule-abiding in favor of what seem to be basically caveman traits like aggression, distractibility, pleasure-seeking, and violence on the grounds that schools that try to suppress these traits is the cause of male underachievement.

The argument against these people though isn't really that they're sexist, which doesn't really get at the issue of boys doing badly in school, since gender neutral education doesn't seem to be working all that well either. It seems that the better point is that schools have always taught feminine virtues, even before women started attending them en masse, only in the absence of women they were called "middle class virtues" and they were inculcated in resistant boys not only through the curriculum but through the additional application of the pedagogical practice of beating. This practice has--if we are to judge by historical results--been shown to be very effective with boys. It is both cheaper and easier to re-introduce this practice than to overhaul the entire school system so that it encourages boys in their natural tendencies toward aggression and disorder. It's also cheaper than homework helpers, I might add.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


We agree more than you're suggesting - I don't want to see a female too-brilliant-to-bathe epidemic. I think it's for the best that girls with poor social skills learn to fake it, that girls who think they're too smart for third grade do their homework anyway. On average, it's more beneficial to more children to be forced into competence than to be an overindulged child eccentric.

The sexism angle is, boys like Mundy's son grow up believing they're brilliant and often enough end up convincing teachers they should get As for late work, and end up doing surprisingly well in life. That kind of confidence works wonders. The that-guy type might seem insufferable, but is rarely unemployable, and will in some fields get ahead in part on the basis of, if he's that unconcerned with practicality, he must be talented. (Less so since the professionalization of various fields, such as academia.) Meanwhile, for the girls who are, in fact, brilliant but with messy binders (or, a grown-up version, brilliant but unkempt and unwilling to do anything about their unibrows), there's no leeway. I can't think of too many parents of girls who felt they were or ought to be raising scraggily geniuses. Ideally, as I see it, boys would be granted less indulgence in this area, girls somewhat more.

If the answer is beatings rather than homework helpers... my high school Italian teacher used this method, but only on boys, and this was the 2000-2001 school year, so not ancient history. Wonder how many also had tutors, or if the cane was enough?

As for a third way... I get how those who hire homework helpers are coastal-elites or whatever, but I'm not sure Mundy's complaint in particular was coming in any meaningful sense from the left. She seems unconcerned with giving her child advantages poorer children lack (and not that left-wing parents don't do this, but they tend to at least present themselves as ambivalent). Despite centuries of male domination of just about everything, she's disturbed by the fact that we could soon be facing a world in which the women are the bosses. Then there's the ambiguous remark about the brilliant concepts grown men are able to grapple with, that "we" will never understand. Any argument that begins with the premise that a stereotypically male (again, those sticks), objectively privileged or at least middle-class white (presumably, given the mother's photo) child is oppressed by today's educational system belongs on Fox, not NPR. (It's in Slate, presumably, because it's contrarian, and because of newspaper parent companies.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Tutors are old news--they teach you academic content, right? Beatings are not a good substitute for that. Homework helpers are specifically disciplinarians turned cuddly bunnies. But how did it work out for your Italian teacher?

It's not really clear from this article that messy girls aren't given leeway. They might be expected to be neater and cleaner and whatever else, but we don't know that they're punished disproportionately when they're not. Mundy assumes that girls are naturally organized in part because her own is, but she has never been tested by a messy daughter. Judging by her indulgence towards her son, she's a really big fan of her own children, and would find some similarly crazy way (ahem, homework helper) to justify any non-super-achiever behavior coming from her daughter. I was never disproportionately punished for having messy handwriting back when handwriting was an actual graded subject at which girls were expected to excel. I got the same indifferent grades as boys with messy handwriting, and then by high school, everyone regained their sanity and forgot about handwriting altogether.

I'm not sure what you'll find on the cultural left that is more to your liking on this question. The argument from the school gender bias crowd is that schools should be more gender neutral or pro-female because the real victims of American education are girls. Is that really true? Women apparently turn out ok even when they get less classroom attention, and the problem seems to be some kind of on average failure of male education, but not one that will be remedied by more positive reinforcement for women.

Although I am a partisan of, um, beating, I am not so vengeful that I think it would actually be better if we reversed "centuries of male domination of just about everything" by raising several generations of useless or criminal men so that women can take their old spots in the halls of domination. That also has very bad effects for women, like rampant child abandonment. Men can be a great asset to a society if carefully managed.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The line between tutor and homework helper, depending on the age and organizational abilities of the student, can be slight-to-non-existent. The Italian teacher is sadly no longer with us, but I don't think he was ever disciplined. By the high school, that is.

My sense that messy girls are unlikely to be celebrated as geniuses comes from my experience in school, not from anything Mundy said about her own two children, of whom it's entirely plausible one happens to be neat, the other messy, although I wouldn't rule out socialization, particularly given the role of nail polish in the discussion. I'm thinking of how teachers responded to late work and the like. It wasn't that all boys got a break, but that there were always a select few male students who were deemed too brilliant to demean themselves through obedience. We can debate whether this benefitted those boys, but I don't think it would be that controversial to say no equivalent category exists for girls.

"I am not so vengeful that I think it would actually be better if we reversed "centuries of male domination of just about everything" by raising several generations of useless or criminal men so that women can take their old spots in the halls of domination."

That's a bit extreme. The economic downturn has apparently hit men harder, but I don't think the Apatow model of manhood will hold, or has ever really stuck. Bosses, professors, big-shots still tend to be male, because (for one) even in fields where women are in the majority, enough leave or go part-time to start families. To even get to equilibrium, there'd have to be more women than men going to college. It wasn't reason for panic when women didn't get educations basically at all - college classes that are 55% female are not cause for alarm.

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't think they're cause for alarm either, but I'm skeptical of this kind of accounting about how many women need to go to college to reach some kind of big-shot equilibrium with men. I think we'd agree that we shouldn't try to curtail female achievement in order to even things out for men, so why should we think in terms of some artificial achievement ceiling at which we might be satisfied that women have fully equalized themselves and also assuaged any fears that they're outpacing men too quickly? What good is socially engineering this kind of thing? Women excelling in school is good and we should try to encourage it, but men failing at life is bad and we should try to prevent it. If that failure at life is caused by failing at school, then it makes sense to address the life failure at its source. (Through beatings.)

Also, when women didn't go to college, they didn't instead commit crimes, abandon their families, or live in their parents' basements forever (well, attics sometimes...), so that might not be the best comparison. It's kind of like when the school-is-against-boys people talk about how academically successful men used to be...when schools were all-male.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"Women excelling in school is good and we should try to encourage it, but men failing at life is bad and we should try to prevent it."


"Also, when women didn't go to college, they didn't instead commit crimes, abandon their families, or live in their parents' basements forever (well, attics sometimes...), so that might not be the best comparison."

Not quite agreed here. For one, we're talking about men underperforming at school compared with women. A life of petty crime is really the lowest extreme of this set of men. And, unless we're comparing today's yuppies with the much-publicized contemporary segments of society where marriage is so highly valued that women end up raising kids alone, I'm not sure there's much of a connection between men going to college and their not walking out on their kids. Marriage used to be far more mandatory, college far less so.

As for living at home forever, clearly at a time when it was rare for a woman to go to college at all, the female basement-dwellers couldn't be distinguished from those who excelled at managing their dashing husbands' social calendars by level of education. If it's not fair to compare men today with women way back when, it's not much more so to compare those women with the women of today, who don't begin from the assumption that a husband will support them.

Britta said...

As a kid I fell much farther on the messy genius side of things. The reaction of teachers was generally mild exasperation/bemusement. The biggest problem for me was not remembering to do my homework, but forgetting to bring it to school. I remember some tense moments with forgotten field trip forms/school projects, but since I was an A+ student who turned 95% of things in on time, teachers were willing to believe me when I claimed I left my cell diorama on the kitchen table. I also took rules extremely seriously, so usually I viewed forgetting something as much more of a big deal than my teachers did. In 5th grade, on desk cleaning day, the teacher had me start cleaning about 15 minutes before everyone else in order to be finished at the same time. I remember one boy's mother say that she never would have expected me to have such a messy desk, though I don't know to what extent gender roles factored in to that.

My parents were actually much less accommodating with disorganization and messiness. They seemed to view it as a major character flaw. I have a vivid memory of forgetting my lunch in 1st grade (not a big deal, because they gave a sandwich lunch to anyone without a lunch), but I remember I just sobbed and sobbed through lunch, and refused to eat any of the sandwich provided. The teacher was so worried, she called my mother and asked if she could bring it to me. Even though my mother was actually going to by driving right by my school during lunch time, she refused, since she didn't want me to learn that if I forgot things and then cried people would bring them to me. Their general attitude was that if I suffered the consequences of being disorganized often enough, it would eventually motivate me to not be disorganized. I am still quite disorganized, but am a (mostly) competent adult, so I guess it kind of worked.

A main difference, I think, is not just organization but rather interest and aptitude for study. I would lose permission slips etc. unless they were stapled to my forehead, or occasionally do the wrong homework, but I would almost never "forget" to actually do my homework or about tests, etc. My guess is that if this is a regular problem, it is actually that the child is not academically inclined and they or the parents pretend like it's forgetfulness.

PG said...

I'm disorganized and was even more so as a kid (though I simultaneously enjoyed maintaining great order in small collections of things, including keeping Revlon nail polish bottles in numerical order), but it never occurred to me that my teachers were particularly distressed by my hellhole backpack and missing homework because I was a girl. To the extent my parents thought there was any bias, they assumed it was because my teachers expected me to be just like my older sister (who was every year's teacher's pet because she was a stereotypical people-pleasing eldest child), and the solution was to move me into a different school system where none of the teachers had met my sister.

If Mundy thinks her kid will just organically become organized, without having to suffer some blows in life for lack of organization, she's deluded about more than her kid's intelligence. I can say from experience that the longer a kid gets accommodation from parents and teachers*, the longer that kid/teen/young adult takes to become habituated to basic skills like:
- write down exactly what you're supposed to do, and by what point it needs to be done;
- maintain a calendar;
- update those with authority over you on how long-term projects are coming along;

I agree with Phoebe that a tendency to be troubled by the "feminization" of boys (where "feminization" seems to be equated with "acting like a civilized adult") is WAY more prevalent on and identified with the right than with the left. If someone wants a string-cite to National Review articles, I can provide it upon request.

* My parents saw no conflict in both driving to school to drop off my forgotten homework and doling out corporal punishment for the forgetfulness, so I'm skeptical of MSI's notion that beatings and indulgence can't coexist. My parents' philosophy was that in the short term they didn't want me to have my grade lowered for lack of putting the homework in my backpack, but in the long term a few whacks would help my memory for such things.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


What you describe doesn't sound like you were all that messy. If most of the time you were on top of stuff, and you decompensated if you weren't, teachers probably saw you as overall organized, no? I agree with you, though, that forgetfulness has different meanings depending what's forgotten.

The desk-cleaning thing has now reminded me of how in kindergarten I had a "box" - a taped-off area in which I was supposed to get changed for gym class, because I got so distracted, chatting with classmates, I think, that changing for gym took forever. Memories...

I also learned 'the hard way' not to leave stuff at home. If I ever have kids, this is the approach I'd take as well - nothing the kid forgets at a young age matters, so that's the age to learn that lesson, not when, for example, it's the day to hand in the essay portion of one's qualifying exam.


Thanks for backing me up on the left-right aspects of this. I wouldn't have thought that would be terribly controversial, but I guess the media-elite-helicopter-parent angle shook things up a bit.

Yes, yes, yes re: calendars. I was stunned to see that when I handed out a syllabus with assignment dates for the entire semester, some students still didn't consider something really assigned unless I also periodically reminded them, in class, of its existence. If you're the kind of student who had anxiety dreams about having forgotten the room or day of the Big Test, it's hard, as a teacher, to wrap your head around the mindset that would have a sheet of paper with when everything's due, with a copy available on the course website, and think, "eh."

Britta said...

I was more a "functioning disorganized person," on par with a functioning coke addict. Like, my bedroom was so messy that at times it would be impossible to see the floor, and I (still, though I try to be better about it) routinely lose important paperwork, but I manage to make it through life reasonably well.
I think the "functioning" element came about both through learning from my mistakes and a desire/effort on my part to be more organized. It doesn't come naturally, and it takes effort to even remember to close a cupboard door after I open it (I just forget about it), but I'm working on it.

In high school the school gave us a daily planner, and I made sure to write hw down in it and look at it every day. I still have a planner, but since I have less regular homework, sometimes I write things in but then forget to look at the planner. I do look at syllabi though if I have them and have a question about when a paper/assignment/test is.