Because Then We Wouldn’t Be Playing Foosball – Thoughts on Gender Differences

In the 2 minutes each year in which I’m not working or with my family, my favorite thing to do is to play music with my band.  Since 1998, I’ve been writing music, singing, and playing guitar with 3 of my closest friends. If the rest of the world felt the same way about our music as we do, we’d be superstars by now. Even though all of us believe quite firmly and sensibly that we’re the next necessary step in the evolution of rock and roll, Flail Like Ed has not made it big….YET. Collectively, we’re 4 middle aged, suburban, professional dads who get together 2 or 3 times per month and try to convince ourselves that we’re still in our 20’s.  It keeps us sane. Or somewhere in the neighborhood.

We practice at my friend Al’s house. Our friend Kevin used to rent a room upstairs and when we finished jamming, Kevin would come down and join us for some foosball. Kevin and my wife get along really well and when I got home each week, we’d have a dialogue that was frighteningly consistent. Here’s how it went:

Sarah: How was band practice?

Me: Great!

Sarah: How are the boys?

Me: Everyone’s good.

Sarah: Did you see Kevin?

Me: Yup.

Sarah: How’s he doing?

Me: Good, I guess.

Sarah: What do you mean, “I guess?” Didn’t you talk?

Me: A little. Mostly we just played foosball

Sarah: Why didn’t you talk?

Me:  Because if we were talking, then we wouldn’t be playing foosball.

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Foosball has been a big part of band night for a long time. This is our latest group portrait.

This dialogue occurred to me earlier this week after I read about a study posted by The Odd Bird, one of my favorite bloggers, on her Facebook page. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA, used a type of brain imaging called diffusion tensor imaging to examine the differences in neural connections among men and women. The authors found that women’s brains contained many more connections between the left and right hemispheres than men’s brains do. The connections in men’s brains were predominantly within the same hemisphere. The authors concluded that women’s brains were wired specifically for social skills and memory while men’s brains seem tailored for connections between perception and coordination. I’ve spoken to a few people about the study and got a bunch of reactions along the lines of “Well, duh….” To me, it’s a compelling study because it suggests that stereotypical personality differences between men and women stem from more than just socialization or environmental factors. They’re also partially rooted in distinct neurological differences.

So on a personal level, it’s not surprising that I choose to spend my free time on an activity that emphasizes the link between perception and coordination (playing guitar in a band) while one of my wife’s regular social outlets involves conversation and social connection (taking part in a book group).

The authors found that up until early adolescence, there weren’t that many differences in the connectivity patterns between boys and girls. Between the ages of 14-17, subjects’ brains start developing those differentiated connections. This came as a surprise to me based on some of the differences I’ve seen in my work.

At Academy MetroWest, we use cooperative, non-competitive physical activity as a means of helping kids improve the way they view themselves and interact with others. One of my favorite games we play is Tiger Pit. In it, we place a big crash pad a foot or two away from a wall. We position it so it’s standing on its long end so the top end is about 5 feet off the ground. A group of 6 kids or so starts off between the mat and the wall. Their goal is to get the entire group over the mat without knocking it over. It’s an open-ended task and there are a million different ways to go about solving the problem. Before I set the kids loose to start working on it, I usually do a bit of prep work with them. I tell them that there are lots of different ways to play this game and they need to make sure that everyone has a chance to voice their ideas. I emphasize that the challenge is not just getting one person over the mat – it’s getting everyone over. This usually requires a plan aimed at helping the kids who aren’t great at climbing.

When I’m doing this activity with a group of boys, it doesn’t seem to matter how much I prep them and make suggestions. Their initial approach never varies. They ignore my advice, blow each other off, fling themselves at the mat, and let the chips fall where they may. They get a little frustrated and in a series of successive approximations, they eventually solve the problem through trial and error.

CallieTigerPit

Academy MetroWest counselor extraordinaire, Callie Ernst, in the Tiger Pit. In the game, there would be 5 or 6 kids all trying to get up and over the mat.

The last time I played this game with a group of girls was a couple of years ago with a very cohesive bunch of 13 year olds. To say that they took my suggestions to heart is a vast understatement. Once I finished my instructions, I let them go and they all sat down in the pit and started talking about it. And talking about it. And talking about it. They worked on finding a way of attacking the problem that was efficient and practical but they were also diligent in making sure that no one’s feelings got hurt. It was pretty impressive stuff but if I hadn’t stepped in to get them to stop planning and put their ideas into practice, I think they’d still be there today.

In thinking about the study, it became a little clearer to me just how hard it must be for girls who don’t have the level of social cognition or awareness that most of their peers do. Boys also have a social maze to navigate but many of them find it just as easy to make friends through mutual participation in an activity as they do through the more abstract means of conversation. For quirky girls, the differences between them and their peers can be very stark. Even the most rudimentary conversations require a certain level of processing speed, reciprocity, and social  sophistication that many quirky kids – boys or girls – don’t have. Particularly as girls approach adolescence, the social world can be brutal for kids who don’t fit in neatly with their peers. It’s one more reason for all of us to be more tuned in to the needs of this chronically under identified and under served population.

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