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What's News For the Experts is Common Knowledge To Most


What's News For the Experts is Common Knowledge To Most

March 28, 2002
Urban PolicyOther

By now you might have heard that experts have recently discovered that girls are catty.

Why all the fuss - magazine articles, newspaper columns, film-at-11 reports - over an ancient sociological truth about as obscure as boys' locker rooms smell bad?

Good question, one whose answer tells us less about the moral condition of girls than about the changing fashions among child experts.

Not so long ago, everyone knew that children - boys and girls - were cruel, aggressive, Darwinian creatures who needed adults around to teach them self-restraint. William Golding's classic 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, a disturbing story of English private school students deserted on an island after an airplane crash, illustrated the point most dramatically.

It was common knowledge that, while girls didn't often resort to fisticuffs, they were prone to back-stabbing, manipulation and scheming, a fact known to everyone from William Thackeray, who created the infamous Becky Sharpe in the novel Vanity Fair to Charles Schultz, inventor of Charlie Brown's nemesis, Lucy.

But in the late 1960s, development experts began revising the commensense view of children's natural ethical state. This was partly because of the influence of the liberation movements of the time, partly to address changes in the family such as divorce and working mothers that made autonomous children a necessity.

Children were far more morally attuned than we had given them credit for, psychologists and psychiatrists announced.

Influential Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg derided attempts by parents, teachers or religious leaders to give moral lessons to children. Kids develop their ideas of good behavior, he said, by learning to reason on their own. Children had an instinctive "moral intelligence," the eminent Robert Coles put it.

Feminism also promoted this kids-know-best model. Feminists rejected the image of scheming and manipulative females as patriarchal stereotyping. Girls, often the meek victims of a male-dominated culture, didn't need self-restraint; they needed empowering.

The vision reached its zenith in the early 1990s through the theories of Kohlberg's one-time student, Carol Gilligan. She argued that, until preadolescence, girls were "creatures of wisdom and generosity." Then, she said, they suffer a dramatic loss of self-confidence upon hitting "the wall of Western culture," which forces them to submit to "the tyranny of nice and kind."

Her theory that girls were actually too nice for their own good took the country by storm, spawning an industry of books, curriculums, and social programs ranging from the best-selling Reviving Ophelia to a federal substance abuse initiative called GirlPower!

But after a dramatic rise in juvenile crime and bullying, a slew of suburban school shootings, and just the daily grind of adult-child warfare, this theory was bound to disappoint.

The experts' answer to juvenile incivility, according to typical literature from my daughter's middle school, is no longer empowerment, but "involvement by adults, firm limits to unacceptable behavior . . . and adults who act as authorities."

Brain imaging has lent support to this chastened position; scientists have proof that the adolescent's prefrontal cortex, which controls judgment and reason, is often asleep at the wheel, while the limbic system, where emotions like anger and fear originate, is in overdrive.

You might conclude from all this that what goes around, comes around. But you might also conclude that social science, including theories about moral development, are often more social than science and that our reliance on experts can sometimes cripple our capacity to grasp ordinary, commonsense truths. Girls are often mean and catty. But I'll bet you knew that already, didn't you?