Monday, January 24, 2011

The Great Gender Divide

When my first child was born I was extremely careful not to gender stereotype her.  In all honesty, I went overboard.  I was even nervous about referring to her as a girl, in case she should ever want to undergo testosterone hormone therapy and transform from Elana to Elan.  Every toy I bought was carefully considered, passing over the pink and purple baby dolls for primary colored balls and blocks.  I brought home cars, trucks, and trains.  Her wardrobe was a rainbow of colors, with emphasis on greens and browns, and only the occasional rose colored t-shirt or fuchsia leggings.  When seeing Elana in blue jeans and a long sleeved green t-shirt, strangers would marvel at her cuteness then ask the age of my son.  "He's almost one," I would reply, proud to defy typecasting (while secretly worried that she looked too masculine).

Then she turned two.  The automobiles and blocks became buried in the toy chest beneath the baby dolls, stuffed animals, and tutus.  She began to request books that had female central characters, eager to point out that the main girl on each page was named "Elana".  And, she began to choose her own clothing.

It began with a pink sleeveless dress from Target.  She picked it out herself.  The dress was nothing fancy, just cotton with a white flower on the front, and seemed fairly comfortable (yet, slightly inappropriate for the cool San Francisco summers). However, it must have contained something magical that only a toddler can detect, because she wore that very dress every day for two and a half months; only agreeing to take it off at night to be washed with the day's laundry.  After realizing that she had the power of choice, she began to wear only pink (preferably light pink) dresses and pants, absolutely no t-shirts.  Other colors were only tolerated if they were accompanying the pink central theme of the outfit.

With daughter #2, I didn't fight exposing her to traditional gender clothing and toys.  Although I did offer her cars and balls, I also let her wear more pink and purple.  Maisy was exposed very early to the enchanted land of Disney princesses, Barbies, and body glitter.   She already owns one sweater with Ariel embroidered on the front, and two pairs of pajamas with various other Disney characters.  Now, with Maisy just three months shy of turning two, she is beginning to relate to the female characters in books, shows a strong preference for dolls versus trucks, and has a highly developed penchant toward the color "pulpul" (purple).

Elana, who will be four in a few weeks, has worn a dress (or the occasional tutu) all but three days in the past two years.  She favors long, fancy dresses, over the more casual play ones I attempt to sway her towards, and is enthralled by all things make-up. 
So, I ask, where did I go wrong?  I am raising my children in the most gender diverse city in the nation, living in an historically lesbian neighborhood with queer and "gender-fluid" babysitters, yet my girls are still obsessed with all things princess.  What happened?

According to many child psychologists nature happened. Since the wide spread usage of MRI's and PET scans, researchers have found more than 100 differences between the male and female brains, in areas from sight (girl babies can better perceive pattern, texture, and color), to smell (females have a higher defined sense of smell), and to touch (the most sensitive baby boy is less sensitive than the least sensitive girl).  Brain scans have also shown that the section of the brain, the ventral prefrontal cortex, which helps in the recognition of emotions and relationships, is larger in women than men.

Physically, males tend to be larger, not only in body size, but brain size too.  Even though boys and girls, in general, start crawling and walking at the same time, boys move around much more (wiggling, jittering, and running up and down the halls), and are more likely than their female counterparts to end up in the emergency room.  (This might also be due to boys expressing fear, and less of it, at a later age than girls.  Boys tend to disregard the warnings of their parents, while tend girls to obey their mothers when they holler "Sally, do not climb to the top of that rock wall and dangle your torso off the ledge!")

Girl infants reach verbal milestones earlier than boys.  Not just their first words, but also eye contact and understanding.  By 16 months of age the average girl has as many as 100 words in her repertoire, while the 16-month old boy only has about 30.  Even as infants girls are better listeners. They are more likely to become engaged in your facial expressions and maintain eye contact while talking.

However, the differences between the sexes increase as we age.  As much as nature pre-programs babies towards a certain sex, socialization definitely adds to the differences.

In 1975 Phyllis Katz conducted her famous "Baby X" study.  In her study, adult participants were introduced to 3-month-old Baby X, who they were told was either a girl or a boy.  When they were handed "Mary", the adults cuddled her, spoke softly and gave her dolls.  When handed "Johnny", they were more playful and offered him footballs.

Overtime, girls learn to be polite, while boys learn to be honest.  Campbell Leaper, of the University of California, and ABC News conducted a casual lemonade study wherein they used salt instead of sugar to make the juice.  After tasting the drink, boys gave frank answers, such as "Blech!  This tastes terrible."  The girls, on the other hand, answered politely: "Mmm.  Thank you, this is delicious."

The blunt assertiveness of males and the over-politeness of females can become detriments later in life- both socially and in the work force.  So, as any overly self conscious and involved parent asks: Can we do anything to alleviate this?  Child development specialist Susan Witt offers these tips:
  • Allow your girls to struggle- don't jump right in and give help at the first sign of trouble.  This encourages them to take risks, as well as instills self confidence.
  • Give your daughters choices and allow them to make decisions.  Girls who know how to form opinions about their own wardrobe, food, and toys are more likely assert herself later in life.
  • Encourage politeness in boys- that means manners and proper social behavior.  Have the same social expectations for a son as you would have for a daughter.
Yet, still I struggle when having a playdate with friends with boys and watching the boys carefully piece together puzzles and build intricate raceways for their match-box cars.   However, study after study have found that boys are biologically drawn to mechanical motion versus human motion.  Given the option, boys would rather watch a car driving past than two people dancing.  Naturally boys choose more scientific toys that allow the child to discover how things work, while girls choose toys that mimic social interactions.
(Photo courtesy of Amanda Dixon Leung)
The importance of crossing the gender toy stereotypes is evident.  Research has found that children who play with a variety of toys may be more successful later in life.  If children are limited to only their gender specific toys, girls especially may not develop important mechanical and mathematical skills that can be learned through blocks and cars.

Dr. Stevanne Auerbach, a child psychologist, maintains that parents need not worry if their preschool age daughter is only interested in baby dolls and princesses, or if their son has a one-track mind for trucks; the crucial part is that they are presented with different choices and not limited to their traditional gender based toys.  Access to a variety of play can be found in settings outside the home- daycare, preschool, and friend's houses. 

So, I guess that I won't be so concerned that my own little imps would rather play Toddlers and Tiaras than soccer.  Yesterday Ted gave each daughter one of his practice tennis balls, which were half pink!  They were each very excited and eager to bounce them around the house for the first five minutes.  However, when that novelty wore off, Maisy tried to feed her ball milk in a pretend bottle, and Elana just handed it to me and said, "I don't need this anymore."


  1. I find that if the playroom is well-stocked with legos and trains, eventually they do get played with. (Even if it's just for a short break from the tea-parties and dolls.) And as a bonus, when boys come over they're excited about the playroom too.

  2. I have two boys and they are both obsessed with swords, battles, tying knots, plugging and unplugging things, &c&c&c Soren takes a pink blabla girl doll (Delphi) to school for his nap (he picked her out), but in terms of what they like to *do* most of the games involve building or destroying things and/or imagining a very long quest with enemies to be defeated.

  3. I still cringe a little when I see little boys put on dresses at preschool!!!

  4. Interesting research - particularly the lemonade test! And I also had some learning to do on the "nature versus nurture" question. We gave our then 2.5 year old son a baby doll when his sister was born and she "gave him" a Lamborghini model car. He took one look at the doll and tossed it aside but he STILL plays with that car on an almost daily basis, some 18 months later.

  5. As a mother of both, I am constantly amazed at the differences between the two. Don't get me wrong, Will has occasionally wanted to put on a dress. I think it would be strange if he didn't considering his major role model puts on at least 5 different dresses per day. But they are wired so differently. It is so ingrained and present from birth. My husband has been the one who has got the biggest shock. He thought girls became girly girls because their Moms made them this way. Watching the evolution of his now nearly 4yr old girl has changed his mind on that one. Will wants to kick balls, roll on the ground in the dirt, break stuff, wrestle. This just happens, I don't do any of these things and I am with him 24/7!! Take this for example, Dad and Will playing soccer in the hallway, Molly joins in, grabs the ball and says it is a baby egg and we have to hold it and rock it, protecting it until it is ready to hatch into a beautiful baby! SOCCER OVER!!!

  6. "boys are biologically drawn to mechanical motion versus human motion. "
    my son gives cars, excavators, cranes, trucks and other machines human intentions. He says things like the truck wants to bring dirt over there. When asked to clean his toys he transforms into a forklift who will bring the toys were they belong.
    It is very strange because it is all day long, but very useful to make him do things I just have to ask the excavator inside him to perform the job and that usually does the trick.