The gendered hand

When we think about physical differences between women’s bodies and men’s bodies, we usually think of the more obvious parts. But I wonder if our hands, too, have a gender. 

Let me back up a minute. I am taking my daughter to a handwriting tutor over the summer. Schools have cut down on the amount of direct instruction in handwriting they do, because they are focusing more and more on cramming data in so kids can pass the standardized tests. When kids turn out to have difficulty writing their schoolwork, the fix is to teach them to type. I can’t accept that. Handwriting is important.

So I’ve learned a lot about hands. Every single hand has 29 bones, 34 muscles, and 48 nerves. Who knew? It’s a miracle that our bodies and minds ever figure out how to use our hands. So when a child is having difficulty with handwriting, and many do, we shouldn’t be surprised.

From conversations with occupational therapists, I’ve learned that one of the reasons kids are having such trouble with handwriting is that they just don’t get the time, space, or freedom to play the traditional childhood games that just sort of happened at least through the 1970s, when I was a kid. Jacks, marbles, pick-up-sticks . . . things like that. Many of these games strengthen the muscles needed for the thumb and index finger to pinch together, as they must do to hold a pencil in a tripod grasp.

Thinking about traditional childhood games made me nostalgic, and being nostalgic led me to the toy store to buy a cat’s cradle string. (I know, I know, you can just get a string . . . but it was a birthday present.) I had forgotten how to do it, so my mom and I spent about a half hour figuring out how to use it and then playing with it.

In the morning, WOW were my forearm muscles sore!!! Cat’s Cradle was a great workout. Maybe people should do it on their coffee breaks so they don’t get carpal tunnel. I wonder if it helped me develop good handwriting as a girl.

And then I got to thinking. In the 1970s, Cat’s Cradle was a girl’s game. And so were jacks. And sewing. And marbles. And pick-up-sticks. The boys were off riding Big Wheels and bicycles and climbing trees and doing large motor activities. (This is of course a generalization. I climbed my share of trees, believe me!) And the boys had messy handwriting.

And typing and secretarial work was women’s work. Funny how that happened, gendered play preparing girls and boys for gendered occupations. This is all old history, except . . . I suppose that I never thought it would impact something as basic as the functioning of our hands.

Perhaps there’s a lesson for the feminist movement as well. Maybe it’s time to bring back some of these girls’ games — but not just for girls. As we give more opportunities for gross motor play for girls, we should also be thinking about the fine motor play for girls.

Is it time to teach Cat’s Cradle to my son?

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