book review: The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls

Oh, people, why did I only randomly–and recently–happen across sociologist Emily W. Kane’s 2012 book The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls? It’s awesome, and well worth reading, and it should be getting more press in feminist parenting circles.

So look. The Gender Trap is an excellent exploration of how parents push–and push back against–gender norms for their children.

Kane interviewed 42 parents who have at least one preschool-aged child, mostly folks living in central and southern Maine. The book categorizes and analyzes this interview data, using a big body of scholarly research to place the conversations in larger contexts. There are chapters on groups Kane has labeled Naturalizers, Cultivators, Refiners, Innovators, and Resisters–categories based on whether parents see gender as mostly innate or mostly socially constructed, whether parents mostly try to reinforce or resist the rather forceful gendering of mainstream culture, and the degree to which parents worry about the social costs of gender atypical behaviors.

Because the book is based on in-depth interviews, there are loads of great quotations and “characters,” if you will, to keep things engaging. Kane’s approach offers a nuanced picture of how a smallish but diverse group of parents understand their own parenting when it comes to gender. And it actually includes fathers–indeed, about as many as mothers! Let us rejoice, people, for a book about parenting takes father’s experiences and influence as seriously as mothers’ for once. Refreshing indeed, and also illuminating.

Another of the book’s great strengths is Kane’s mix of progressive passion and scholarly discipline. She exudes empathy and respect for the people she’s interviewed, even those who (she admits) would totally disagree with her interpretations and her goals. Even the ones whose responses flipped me out so much that I kept poking poor Eric and making him read them instead of his own book. Ahem.

Another is its sustained attention to how gender happens at multiple levels–the individual (what I do and what I want), the interactional (how others react to and act around me), and the institutional (the structures that constrain and produce our lives: economic, political, legal, educational, and so on). In other words, little Susie really does want to wear a pink princess dress, but her desire is shaped by the way adults and other children interact with her, and her learned emphasis on “pretty” ties into larger societal structures and patterns in troubling ways. Similarly, although The Gender Trap is about gender, Kane is careful to keep race, class, sexual orientation, and other dynamics at play in her analysis: which means she keeps track of the fact that different parents experience different pressures.

Oh, and bonus points for a super-thorough bibliography that’s absolutely bursting with books and articles I want to read!

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 15 May 2013 at 2:51 PM | Permalink

    This sounds great. I’ve been discussing this with my fiance, recently… How does one successfully raise gender neutral children, especially with the grace and savvy required in a world where family and friends might scoff at such worries. I’m wondering if this book, or any other out there, would provide a “how to” for new parents. What do you think?

    • Molly
      Posted 16 May 2013 at 11:45 AM | Permalink

      It’s not a how-to sort of book, but I still think the many individual stories/examples across the range of parenting approaches would be helpful in the thought process you’re describing. (As would various blogs you probably already read.) If there’s a book that does just what you mention–a contextually-smart how-to for gender-neutral parenting in a gender-obsessed world–I don’t know about it. Of course, I’m in the middle of writing a feminist parenting guide … but the whole thing doesn’t exist quite yet!

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