There ought to be a word – something not quite the same as gratitude – for that tingling feeling inspired by a Ross Douthat column noting a tilt toward conservatism by people who by all accounts should be liberals, especially one that uses a fictional character from a novel by a New York literary darling to make its point. Because as Douthat helpfully confirms, things are more complicated for liberals than they might have thought, especially when it comes to raising daughters.
Don’t I know it! As the father of a girl and a parent whose adult social set overlaps with the un- and never-married, plus the divorced and remarried, plus the spouseless adoptive-parent, plus the same-sex unmarried with children, plus the mixed-race couple with dogs, not to mention the two-parent (one woman, one man) married, my own uncomfortable reckoning arises from contemplation of my daughter’s future happiness, and a young male – all right, a boy – named Dexter P.
This character, Dex to his friends, doesn’t technically exist; he’s a composite of several of the boys in my daughter’s fifth-grade class at her Brooklynite elementary school. But his type exists, in more or less the same form, wherever ten-year-olds congregate and socialize (in playground and lunch room) or pair off (as math and reading buddies). Not the worst kid, by any means: Dex is no bully, and he doesn’t wipe his nose on his sleeve as much as he did even last May. He’s attentive, after a fashion, and mildly artistic, judging from the cover of his report on westward expansion. But he can be a source of irritation, if not exactly misery, especially for the girls whose section of the coat closet he shares. He doesn’t mean to make them unhappy; he even seems to try to please them, in his way, which is the way of so many spirited young boys – swiping their pencils when they’re not looking, for instance, or falling out of his chair on purpose or fake-belching. Yet what he ends up doing, in spite of himself, is provoking their displeasure.
He does so by attempting to operate within an educational and cultural landscape in which biology hasn’t changed, yet expectations – and maybe even abilities? -- have been decoupled from gender. Dexter P. does what seems like the right thing: Round this number up to the nearest tenth, he might suggest to my daughter during an in-class session on decimals, even going so far as to helpfully if mistakenly erase her correct answer. Or he might snatch her saxophone case and start to haul it up the four flights to the classroom only to abandon it somewhere on the stairwell between the second and third floors because it’s too heavy for him. Indeed, these acts, well-intentioned as they are, seem to be the hidden taproots of the typical fifth-grade female’s academic and social angst, and one of the plausible explanations for her increased sullenness and a noticeable uptick in back-sass in the hours immediately after school.
One obvious solution to the Dexter P. problem is a culture that downplays the abilities of girls so that boys can continue to receive the attention and validation they want and need from them. To the extent that parents tend to see the next generation’s world through their children’s eyes, that’s an insight more immediately available through daughters than through sons – especially since girls retain the mysterious power to shape future-men. For example, must my daughter (or anyone’s) continue to outperform Dex in math? How will she ever graciously cede oversight of the household checking account – to say nothing of finding happiness in a household in the first place – if she persists in doing better on her assignments? Or, why can’t she switch to a lighter, more feminine instrument like flute or clarinet, thus giving Dexter P. the chance to realize the fruits of his chivalrous offer to carry her instrument up the stairs for her – and in the process allow him to re-establish, firmly, the behavioral norms inhering in the physical differences between male and female?
No matter what studies or Ross Douthat say about the likelihood of turning into a social conservative, now that I’ve begun to flirt with this insight—though I’ll admit a formal engagement may still be some ways off—I’ve tiptoed a little closer to a kind of moral traditionalism that dare not speak its name (cough! – male chauvinism – cough!). Next up: getting my wife and daughter out of Brooklyn, for their own good of course. Can’t wait for Douthat’s next column!