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.