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Pink Brain, Blue Brain: What's Nature? What's Nurture?

Published on: December 22, 2009

Nine-month-old Caroline is in love. She has just spotted her first baby doll, and the connection is instantaneous and obvious. “We were at a friend’s house for dinner,” says Caroline’s mother, Mercer Island writer and editor Linda Rorem. “She literally fell in love. She was rolling on the floor with the doll, bouncing up and down with glee, and my friend said, ‘You need to get your girl some dolls!’ It hadn’t dawned on me that that was what she needed.”

Like many parents today, Rorem was trying to raise her baby girl in a home free of gender stereotypes. With three older boys, Rorem’s home was full of trucks and planes, Legos and blocks, and nary a dolly in sight. But the incident at dinner helped convince Rorem that boys and girls are just … different. “I think girls are definitely programmed to like pink,” Rorem says. “We did not create that.

“We had a house full of balls, and she never even saw them!”

Yep, girls will be girls, and boys will be boys – at least, that’s the prevailing wisdom. Girls are more verbal, more nurturing, better at multitasking. Boys? Rough and tumble, strong and aggressive – oh, and better at math. The last decade has seen a multitude of parenting books on the subject; books by luminary gender researchers like Michael Gurian (a ParentMap advisory board member), who guides parents and teachers in the best ways to help kids succeed despite the specific limitations of their gender.

But that type of thinking may be too limiting, according to Lise Eliot, Ph.D., a neurobiologist and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It, an immensely readable yet scholarly examination of decades of brain and gender research.

Her conclusion? Boys and girls are different at birth – but those differences are much smaller than you may think. It’s how babies are treated that sets them on the path toward more gender-typical behavior, magnifying those small differences until we become the monster-truck/chick-flick stereotypes of adulthood.

In other words, the old adage “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” needs an update: “Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota” – at least at birth. It’s where we go from there that matters.

‘Remarkably alike’
“Actually, there is little solid evidence of differences between baby boy and girl brains,” Eliot writes, and the differences that do exist are relatively minor. In fact, Eliot’s exhaustive research (her book includes a whopping 82 pages of notes and bibliography) turns up only two physical differences that have been reliably proven: Boys’ brains are larger than girls’, and girls’ brains finish growing about one to two years earlier than boys’. Some research suggests subtle differences in boys’ and girls’ sensory processing, language circuits and frontal-lobe development, but “overall,” Eliot says, “boys’ and girls’ brains are remarkably alike.”

Eliot blows holes in research that appears to prove otherwise, including a much-lauded study that found that the corpus callosum – the bundle of nerve fibers that connects the two sides of the brain – is larger in women than in men. That study, Eliot notes, was based on five female and nine male brains, and subsequent studies have been unable to replicate it. Other studies are discarded by Eliot for being unreliable, unreplicated or extrapolated from rodent research. When the dust settles, precious little research remains to support any argument that boy brains and girl brains are significantly different.

So what accounts for all the gender-specific preferences and behavior? The brain’s plasticity, says Eliot – meaning its ability to actually change its structure and function in response to life.

“The male-female differences that have the most impact – cognitive skills, such as speaking, reading, math and mechanical ability; and interpersonal skills, such as aggression, empathy, risk taking and competitiveness – are heavily shaped by learning,” Eliot writes. Though they germinate in those small initial differences, says Eliot, each of these traits is amplified by the experiences that the child is exposed to from birth.
Are girls really more empathetic – or are they just encouraged to show their feelings? Are boys really more aggressive, or are they just allowed to be more physical? Eliot’s research suggests it’s mostly the latter. Rather, subtle and persistent messages from parents, teachers, peers and the media all transmit to the child: Boys are this, and girls are that.

Unconscious messages
“I don’t think parents realize the extent to which they emphasize or reinforce certain kinds of gender behavior,” says Diane Stein, Ph.D., a Seattle child psychiatrist, and research seems to back her up.

In one classic study, babies were cross-dressed and given fake names (a baby girl became Jonathan, perhaps; a boy was called Maria). Adult subjects were deliberately misled about the babies’ genders and then asked to observe them. Baby girls were described as angry or distressed by adults who thought they were boys; the fake boys were seen as more joyful and interested.

Dozens of studies show adults treating baby boys and baby girls differently; choosing different toys for babies based on their presumed gender, interacting with them differently, even holding them differently. In one, moms were asked to estimate how steep a slope their 11-month-old would be willing to crawl down. Moms of boys got it right to within one degree; mothers of girls underestimated by nine degrees, even though there is no difference between the motor skills of baby boys and girls.

But even if you’re hyper aware of gender stereotypes – even if you buy dolls for your boys and take your girls to T-ball practice – can your parenting overcome the tide of subtle and persistent messages that are shaping our kids’ very brains?

Will boys be boys?
We tried to dodge the stereotypes with our daughter, with little success. The Lincoln Logs were shoved aside. Instead, Barbie had a long reign, pouting in plastic splendor in her luxury jet, driving her convertible, changing in and out of sparkly ball gowns and borderline streetwalker attire. My daughter loved her.

My son loved her, too – loved to see how many thwacks! against the wall it took to pop her head off. This is the boy who once had his own baby doll, the child of a Montessori teacher, the younger brother who patiently permitted his fingernails to be painted a bright bubblegum pink.

What happened?

Seattle mom (and ParentMap senior sales rep) Laura Glass wonders the same thing. “With my daughter, from the very beginning, I set out to not purchase dolls,” says Glass. “There was no pink.”

Still, Glass’ daughter “always went to things that were pink. She always wanted to wear a tutu to the grocery store.”

In fact, ask any number of parents who tried to keep gender stereotypes at bay, and most will agree: It happens anyway. Once a gender identity is acquired at around age 3, those pink or blue barriers go up, and parents are left trying to maneuver around them. It gets harder as kids get older and more adamant about their preferences. So, should we just give up?

Stereotype threat
It seems that many parents have given up. Lately, the whole gender-neutral fad has fallen by the wayside, probably blown off the highway by that Air Hogs all-terrain R/C vehicle; one trip to Toys R Us could convince you that gender specificity isn’t such a bad thing. Two of the top toys this Christmas? Barbie Doll’d Up Nails B-Nails Digital Nail Printer and Bakugan Maxus Dragonoid (a battle toy).

Every kindergarten is a virtual sea of pink and camo, Thomas and Dora. The color pink itself has never been more in vogue; between Disney and Victoria’s Secret, more females of all ages are proudly sporting Pantone 224 than ever before. As Eliot puts it, “In today’s hypermarketed world, what niche is easier to exploit than male or female?”

Is that such a bad thing?

“To the extent that we limit anyone’s development, we lose creativity,” says Stein, who says that gender stereotypes in general are limiting. “For most kids, exposure to non-stereotypical things might open up new opportunities, new worlds, and allow a greater range of expression.”

And a brand-new study at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS) finds that those limits are translating straight into lowered expectations at school. “In this culture and many others, there is a gender stereotype that math is for boys,” says Dario Cvencek, Ph.D., a researcher at I-LABS. Of particular concern to Cvencek: how stereotypes play into a child’s “math self-concept.” “We have documented that these stereotypes do exist early on, and they do impact how kids think of themselves,” Cvencek says.

In other words, girls who believe the stereotype tend to perform poorly in math. Researchers call this phenomenon “stereotype threat.” It’s the self-fulfilling-prophecy part that bothers Cvencek and other experts – and the way gender stereotypes can be used to explain away behavior that could be addressed. Your child isn’t reading yet? Don’t worry, he’s a boy. She’s shy and passive? It’s OK, she’s a girl. Eliot and others say this kind of fatalistic thinking misses the point: Most girls really can do what most boys can do – and vice versa – it just may take extra work to override those deeply internalized messages.

What you can do
Even if you’ve already got a wheel-obsessed boy or Polly Pocket devotee underfoot – even if those gender stereotypes have already taken hold at your house – it’s not too late to try to regain the balance, and it’s worth doing, experts say. Examine your own stereotypes, then try to balance “boy traits” with “girl traits.” Have your boy color a picture of his favorite Hot Rod; help Barbie race that convertible in your own kitchen Le Mans.

Look for gender-neutral toys – especially toys that allow for open-ended play, says Stein, like clay, crayons or blocks. “A lot of gender-specific toys are meant to be played with in a certain way,” she says, like rescue heroes, princess toys and others that come complete with a story line, which limits creativity.

“Don’t be frightened, as many parents are, if a boy wants to play with a doll,” adds Stein. “The choice of a doll at age 2 or 3 is not likely to be a predestination of a gay identity.” Instead, the boy is probably role-playing, practicing nurturing, trying on the caregiver role for size. He may later take up thwacking that doll against a wall, or he may not; either way, he benefits from the experience.

Be aware of messages in media, says Cvencek. “Oftentimes on TV, scientists are presented to be males, wearing lab coats and horn-rimmed glasses. Diminishing exposure to stereotypical figures in media probably would help.”

Do not resign yourself to accepting limitations for your child based on gender. Try to see a learning challenge in relation to your child as an individual, not a member of a gender.

Above all, try to stay open-minded. “I think that by providing more of a smorgasbord of opportunities of experience, toys and books for my daughter, I opened her world from an earlier point,” says Glass.

“I was trying to show her that the world was broad and open for her from the very, very beginning.”

Kristen Russell Dobson is ParentMap’s managing editor and the mother of Kayleigh, 13, a fashion-loving tae kwon do brown belt, and Aidan, 10, a chef and basketball forward.

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