Clean environment called key to child development

April 02, 1995|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Harvard professor Robert Kegan believes that the air children breathe and the earth their lives are rooted in will determine how well they blossom into adults.

And it is the job of parents and teachers to see that the air and earth are not tinged with prejudice and programming, he told more than 300 people attending yesterday's session of "Gender in a Coed World: Issues for Schools and Families" at Park School.

As a developmental psychologist, author and parent, Dr. Kegan said in his address that he is interested not only "in what helps people grow up but also what helps people grow down."

To branch out in life and flourish, he said, youngsters must "have a rich soil to anchor themselves in and draw from" and a psychological air free of the beliefs that people of a certain race, sex, size or talent are valued more than others.

"We want girls to be socialized. We just don't want them to be socialized into a world that is demeaning," he said. "We must change the psychological air that our adolescents breathe."

The first conference of its kind for the Brooklandville school attracted about 700 teachers, parents and students from around the country to the three-day program. Dozens of workshops focused on issues such as mathematics and gender, adolescent health problems, nonstereotyped children's books and "differences between women and men engineers in the workplace."

Sociologist Michael S. Kimmel focused in his workshop on issues for men and women in the 1990s -- issues such as AIDS, sexual attraction, parental leave, date rape and housework. An author and professor at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, Dr. Kimmel said men stand to benefit from supporting "women's issues," which are really parents' issues.

He also espoused "quantity time" for men who say they want to become nurturing fathers. Unlike the fanfare of quality time, "quantity time," he said, "is putting in the hours, the unheralded, unrewarded work. The utter 'routineness' is what nurture is all about."

Like other speakers, Dr. Kimmel and Dr. Kegan focused more on similarities than differences. Dr. Kegan, in fact, spent most of his address stressing how boys and girls go through the same TC developmental stages and exhibit similar behaviors during those stages.

From about age 7 to 10, for instance, children begin to take a more concrete approach to life, he said, and to develop more stable interests.

What the specific interests are doesn't matter as long as they are safe and allow children to be in charge, to learn skills and to show their stuff, said Dr. Kegan, author of "In Over Our Heads, The Mental Demands of Modern Life," published last year.

"A passion for people is precious," though often undervalued by society, Dr. Kegan said. He pointed out that preadolescent and adolescent girls often concentrate on "likability," while boys of the same age may be more apt to focus on physical or mental ability. Adults often put a higher value on the male interests, causing young women to turn against themselves, he said.

For conference participant Donna Gwyer, the interest difference real, but unrelated to gender.

She said the conference has given her "some ideas to take back to my daughters' school. It's validated what my impression has been -- that the noisy boys get the attention."

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