Boys, girls and the extended order?

There are two kids’ games that are very gendered not so much in their gendered content as we understand the genders, but in their appeal to boys and girls. The first I observed in my daughter when she was in early primary school. It’s routines that involve the mutual clapping of hands accompanied by rhythms and rhymes of various kinds. Boys play this game a bit but they’re heart is rarely in it. For girls it seems all the rage for about a year or two around grade two or three in primary school and then a year or so later it’s pretty much all over.

I’ve actually been reminded of this by my 10 year old son who has, in the space of about six months become consumed with the equivalent male primary school craze trading – trading cards that is. Mainly footy cards. And there are some fancy chips – like the chips in a casino – which are decked out with footy players and which it is therefore desirable to amass whole sets of. Girls don’t do this much, just like boys don’t play clapping games much.

It’s intriguing that boys’ behaviour is so stereotypically proto-economic. Of course they’re growing up in a very commercialised environment, and the firms that market cards to them are trying to hook them any way they can. Then again, I’m sure they’ve done what they can to ‘hook’ girls, and they don’t seem too interested. Anyway, it leads me to wonder if the male gender has some kind of natural affinity with that part of our nature which Adam Smith described as one of the central things that lies behind our humanity and behind the evolution of markets or as he put it ‘commercial society’.

Regular readers of this blog have been introduced both by me and Don Arthur to Hayek’s distinction between the ‘natural’ and the ‘extended’ orders, an interesting idea that is worth pondering. The natural order is the world of ‘natural morals’ particularly within the family but also within the community (with community being understood in an historical and/or prehistorical sense of a relatively intimate group of people who live together in either a small village or a tribe and who accordingly number around 150 people or less. That is a community of people, all or almost all of whom are personally known to each other.

The extended order is the order (and in particular the ethical order) that emerges when trade extends contact between communities and ultimately across the globe. The ethics of this order are different in important ways that facilitate the development of the distinctive ethical systems that facilitate the growth of markets – ethical systems which are at some tension with the ‘natural order’. They involve a range of values that are necessary to underpin trade, in which for instance ‘fairness’ is seen more as safeguarded by people sticking to procedural expectations (for instance of keeping promises) rather than of sharing what one has.

I’m not quite sure where to ‘place’ the clapping games in the gender and ideological landscape, but, perhaps because I came to this question through this lens of the natural and extended order, I reach, perhaps unimaginatively, for cliches like women nurturing relationships. The other idea I have is a more trivial one. I think boys don’t much like these clapping games because they involve playing in a bracketed kind of way – with one’s hands while otherwise standing still and in a steady relationship with the other party. Boys likedon’t like standing or sitting still. Perhaps they do like clapping games, but it turns out that within about five claps, one has kicked the other, or run away or otherwise subverted the clapping game into something more physically hyperactive.

Now without suggesting that all this is completely determined by genes – as if every human culture has little girls clapping hands and little boys trading cards or other trinkets (then again it wouldn’t surprise me to find culturally relevant analogues in a lot of societies) it seems to me fanciful to think that genetics isn’t playing a fairly big part here. My son stalks the house bouncing balls, kicking imaginary goals and simply being unable to sit still. My daughter, not lacking in energy now or when she was his age, expresses it in quite different ways. Of course this is a poor sample, but the patterns seem quite consistent in the playground, and in the houses of other families although no doubt there are girls who do ‘boy’ things and vice versa.

None of this makes me think that women are unsuited to markets. It’s pretty obviously not the case. The evidence is that they take to them rather well. Rather the contrary, in a large market, the simple trading that consumes my son is probably less important than the relationship building, networking and social problem solving that women look like they’re better suited to.

So it will be interesting to watch as this big experiment that is the history of humanity slowly rolls on . . . I wonder where the genders will be in twenty five or fifty years. Something tells me that at least in the playground things will be pretty similar to the way they are today.

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David Rubie
David Rubie
13 years ago

It’s amusing to see the same games of your youth showing up in slightly modified form on the playground – for us the footy cards came with bubble gum, not chips.

However, I there are some similarities in footy cards and the clapping game / skipping songs. Both are collections of different sorts – the girls collection doesn’t involve anything physical just a good memory, but they like to collect the rhymes all the same. Boys don’t tend to play it for long as some kids turn it into a contest of strength and there is a strong tendency for boys to disassociate themselves from “girls” games like skipping anyway – there’s always one kid whose boofhead father says “that’s for poofters” without explaining what a poofter is.

Pavlov's Cat
13 years ago

I think the socialisation into gender roles starts so early that it’s impossible to tell, by the time kids are this old, whether it was nature or nurture what done it. Parental and other adult approval and disapproval for certain behaviours start getting signalled when kids can’t even talk yet. With the usual proviso that anecdote is not an argument (but surely giving an example is a legitimate part of an argument?), I started observing these things more carefully after the day that a friend of my sister’s brought her two-year-old grandson to visit my mother and the kid rampaged around screaming, throwing things and destroying my mother’s garden while his grandmother looked on fondly and crooned ‘Oh, he’s such a boy.’

So, is that a chicken or an egg? Whatever it is, multiply it by a few billion, and of course you’ll get most ten-year-old boys wanting to tear around crashing into things; they’ve been getting positive reinforcement for it from birth, just as most girls have for being gentle and sociable.

David Rubie
David Rubie
13 years ago

Pavlov’s Cat wrote:

So, is that a chicken or an egg?

You can see it being played out from birth – boys and girls get treated very differently as babies as you pointed out. Who hasn’t made the ultimate social faux pas (mistaking a baby boy for a girl) despite them being identical when bundled up in a pram? The horror!

I have tried (in a small way) to even things out in my all-girl household by occasionally buying an Action Man instead of a Barbie, but poor old Action Man is generally used as a prop, with his nasty gun carefully put away in a little toy drawer. For a bloke named “Action Man”, he never did see a lot of it.

So (back to the original post) – boys and girls are different (not news), but I don’t see that either of them put less stead into social networks and social problem solving, they’re just expressed in slightly different ways. I’m not even sure you could state “girls are better at it” just because their games are a little quieter. Girls in school grounds can be nasty creatures without raising a fist, although the effects are very similar.

13 years ago

I don’t know whether games are necessarily always gendered, they tend to come and go in fads. When I first arrived at school, it was at the end of a period of playin with marbles; this fad was ended, I think, when it was banned by teachers for some reason. Skipping was always a popular game at school, but at one point – again, possibly as a result of a few PE classes focusing on skipping – everyone seemed to be performing skipping games; I didn’t see any real gender distinctions. There were other fads for trading cards; the perennial favourite, AFL football, and so on. Gender distinctions weren’t always that important – it was more the personality of people playing these games that was important.