Girls in sparkly, pink dresses. Boys crazy about anything with wheels. Gender differences are everywhere. It’s difficult not to see those differences and then attribute them to something that is hardwired at birth, but neuroscience shows that there is very little difference between boys’ and girls’ brains.
Host Jessica Rolph welcomes Dr. Lise Eliot to this episode. She is a professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps — and What We Can Do About It. Lise and Jessica explore ways we, as parents, can help break down damaging gender stereotypes.
[1:12] How do boys’ and girls’ brains differ?
[3:22] How should we think about gender stereotypes? Why is it important to avoid them?
[4:30] Lise talks about the trends she has noticed in parenting both genders.
[5:53] Do mothers talk more to preschool-aged daughters than sons?
[9:17] Lise talks about how to raise children who can fully express themselves by not discouraging what could be considered gender-inappropriate play.
[11:23] What should parents do about a relative or caregiver who is showing disapproval of their boy’s interest in princesses and “girl stuff”? How can parents explain their philosophy to that person?
[13:11] Toddlers are naturally interested in categorizing; what is the reason for that?
[15:27] Lise talks about dressing our boys and girls.
[17:23 ] Jessica shares her takeaways from the conversation with Lise.
Mentioned in this episode:
Gender Identity Development
Are Boy and Girl Brains Different?
Jessica: So can you walk me through, how boy and girl brains differ?
Lise: Well, the data say they don’t differ. There’s been a lot of studies of infant brain imaging, and nobody’s been able to pin down any decisive differences between boys and girls, except for the fact that boys’ brains are larger than girls’ brains, just like men’s brains are larger than women’s brains. The brain is basically proportional to body size and we see this even at birth when boy babies are about a half-pound heavier than girls and all the organs are scaled up. So there’s no evidence that differences in brain size contribute in any way to differences in abilities, so we don’t think that’s of any significance at all. But when you actually look at individual structures within the brain, nobody’s been able to nail down features that are decisively male or female. So, of course, men and women are different, boys and girls are different, and the question is where does that come from? And the subtitle of my book sort of tells it all, “How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps”. My view is that there may be very subtle differences between boys and girls from prenatal times, but that basically learning and experience weigh much more heavily in what we end up being good at, what we end up enjoying, how we identify, the careers we end up in, our interpersonal interaction styles, and the way we express emotions. I think most of that is learned and the contribution of innate factors is relatively small.
Jessica: Fascinating. So how should we think about gender stereotypes? Why is it important to avoid them?
Lise: Well, obviously, if a lot of differences between boys and girls is a function of learning and experience, then if we treat them differently, they’re going to end up differently. And a lot of people think that’s just fine. I mean that’s the basis of the gender roles that we have been living with for millennia. Pretty much every culture on earth has roles for males and roles for females and the training process essentially begins at birth. But in today’s world, we are looking for true gender equality, we’re looking for equality of opportunity, despite gender, and the only way to really achieve that is to break down those walls that say boys are supposed to play with certain things, or boys are supposed to be tough and strong, and girls can express their emotions, but they’re not to be too assertive or aggressive. And so, if we can give children the full rainbow of opportunities from the beginning, then we have a greater opportunity of maximizing their individual potential, maximizing the world’s creative output, and also creating greater equality.
Are Boys and Girls Treated Differently Based on Gender Stereotypes?
Jessica: Some of your research papers talked about how parents encourage more physical risk-taking in sons than in daughters and that mothers generally talk more to preschool-aged daughters than sons. Can you tell me a little bit more about the things that you’ve noticed in parenting both genders?
Lise: Yeah. The physical risk-taking is pretty clear cut. Studies out in the playground find that parents will caution their daughters more than their sons if they’re climbing too high on the play structure. They encourage sons to play outside more than daughters, they take boys to the park more than they take girls to the park. So there’s a general encouragement of physical risk-taking for boys that girls just don’t get as much of. Of course, it’s changed a lot over the generations, since girls have more opportunities in sport, but nonetheless, even today, we’re more cautious with our daughters. And it’s really reflected if you go to the emergency room with a child who fell and has a cut on his or her face. If it’s a boy, “Oh, that’s okay, it’ll build character.” If it’s a girl, they immediately call in the plastic surgeon and there’s this great fear about what this is gonna do to her appearance, because of course, despite parents’ claims and greatest desires that they want their daughters to be smart and strong, physical beauty is still the number one attribute that we judge women on. Of all ages, and of course, even our daughters over our sons.
How Does Unequal Gender Treatment Affect Long Term Development?
Jessica: It’s so sobering to hear that. It’s really, there’s so much that we do that we’re not necessarily conscious of. Can you talk to me more about how mothers talk more to preschool-aged daughters than sons?
Gender Bias in Education
Lise: Right. We know that girls’ language skills develop more rapidly than boys. That is an international finding. Girls talk a tiny bit earlier than boys, so hopefully, parents aren’t expecting any big differences between their sons and their daughters, because the difference on average worldwide is about one month. So a 14-month old girl’s vocabulary is about equivalent to a 15-month-old boy’s vocabulary. So pretty undetectable at the individual level and insignificant at the clinical level, which means, there’s no difference in cut-off of what child needs speech therapy if it’s a boy or a girl. If there was a really dramatic difference, we would have different thresholds and there’s not. Nonetheless, this universal difference in girls and boys, and so you see it in the size of children’s vocabulary, you see it in early reading skills, like phonological awareness, recognizing your letter sounds. And we see it in reading and writing tests in elementary school, in middle school, in high school.
In fact, those differences just grow larger, and larger, and larger. The female advantage in reading, and especially, the female advantage in writing. Boy, that is really troublesome considering our young men’s writing skills compared to young women. So where does this come from? Well, again, I come back to my thesis, “Small differences grow into troublesome gaps.” We know that language is acquired through learning. I only speak English fluently and that’s the only language I’ve ever been immersed in fluently. Yes, I took French for six years, but never had the opportunity to speak it for social reasons, and so I’m not fluent in it. And so, the fact that there are average differences between boys and girls reflects the amount of language that they use and are exposed to. So mothers do speak somewhat more to their girls than boys, it’s not a huge difference, but when you add it up over 18 years of child-rearing, it’s a considerable difference in experience.
And certainly, girl play, which is often more in pairs and at close distance, will provoke more language than more physical energetic play that boys tend to. So there are all sorts of sources for this difference, but it’s important to be mindful of. And so take an extra effort to speak to your sons, to try to trigger conversations, and especially to read to them, because we also see an international difference in the amount of time parents spend reading to their daughters, which is more than the amount they spend reading to their sons.
Jessica: So interesting. And I think that if we’re just conscious of these patterns and behavior, that we can change them. I think it’s about bringing the subconscious to the conscious. So making sure that we’re being thoughtful about reading to our sons and talking to our sons a lot.
How Can Parents Eliminate Gender Bias?
I also think about your research that talks about how parents discourage gender inappropriate play, especially for boys. Showing too much interest in their sister’s doll collection. Can you tell me more about how we can be the best parents we can be in terms of creating children that are their full selves and not discouraging or getting worried about gender inappropriate play?
Lise: Yeah, that’s a great question. This is another area where researchers have looked for differences in the way parents treat sons and daughters because the social science dogma said that all gender differences are a function of parental treatment. We now know that’s not really the case. Parents do treat sons and daughters differently but not by massive amounts. A lot of the difference just has to do with one’s children self-identify as boy or girl. There’s a lot of cues as to what is appropriate behavior, whether it’s coming from the parents, or the preschool, or Disney, or whatever. But with regard, the one way in which parents really dramatically differ in the way they treat sons and daughters is the encouragement of so-called gender-appropriate play.
And even though we’ve gotten more, I don’t wanna say tolerant, we’ve gotten more expansive in the things that we wanna see our daughters play with, so baby dolls are wonderful, and Legos are wonderful, and sports are wonderful for our daughters, parents, and especially fathers, tend to flinch when they see their sons showing interest in Barbies, or pink and sparkly and dress up. And the boys, of course, generally pick up on that, and so they quickly learn to dislike pink, and frilly, and so on. Except that, some kids really, really, in fact, most children, all children like pink, and sparkly, and purple, they’re just beautiful, beautiful things. But girls learn that’s okay, and boys learn that’s wrong, and except for the boys, they hear that too much, and maybe they especially like pink and sparkly, and that’s where we get to some issues of gender confusion and where this discouraging of so-called gender inappropriate play is really violating what is fundamentally a non-binary stage of development.
Remove Gender Labels
Jessica: So what should we do about, let’s say it’s a grandparent, or somebody in our life, that is showing disapproval for our toddler boy’s interest in princesses and “girl stuff”? How can we explain our philosophy to that person?
H3 Removing gender labels
Lise: Well, the first thing to say is there is no such thing as a girl toy or a boy toy. Toys are for fun and for learning, and everybody wants to have fun, and to learn, and to explore. That’s how children’s brains grow, is through exploration. So, honestly, what in the world can be dangerous about Barbies or dress up? Boys will learn fine motor skills, they’ll appreciate beauty and get to play pretend. I think the important point is to encourage exploration, to remove these labels. There’s a movement for young people, or people of all ages really, to challenge the pronouns, the his and her, and he and she, because they appreciate the limitations and the assumptions. And I think if we do the same thing for everything with a gender label, whether it is toys, or clothes, or lunch boxes that come in pink or blue, they’re not serving our children, they are just creating boxes that limit their potential.
And imagine if we did the same thing for children from different religious groups, or children from different ethnic groups, if we label their items in different colors and said, “This Jewish child can’t play with this Christian toy,” we’d be shocked, and outraged, and appalled, and I really think that in the interest of future harmony and equality, we need to do the same thing for gender labels on toys.
Help Your Kids Categorize Without Presence of Gender Roles
Jessica: And did you say earlier that toddlers were naturally interested in categorizing? Because I do find that my kids often are trying to say at a young age, “Oh, that’s… ” They try to understand the world and they do put things in categories, and that does include what they think is a boy thing and a girl thing. Can you help explain that?
Lise: Sure. Yeah, children figure out gender at a very early age. It’s probably the first social category they get. They know about big and little people, but gender is their first way of sorting humans into groups. And that’s kind of the project of cognitive development, is categorization. When we learn words, we’re categorizing objects into a single label, like dog. When you think of the different ways a dog can look.
And similarly, they’re categorizing people by gender and then extending it to the rest of their universe, toys, clothes. They’re trying to understand, “Who am I, and where do I fit into this social world?” That’s all very natural and inevitable, and I doubt we’re going to get away from these gender labels for a very long time, but we need to kind of soften the margins between them, and help children appreciate that these gender labels are flexible. The idea that football is only for boys. Well, I don’t know. I played football in sixth grade and I can tell you that was a very long time ago, I loved the sport, and it was kind of sad they didn’t have girls’ football back then.
And similarly, boys have always loved beautiful colors, dressing up, and role-playing. And frankly, most boys play mommy at some point. But the point is that we too easily put gender labels on everything in our society, and it really even extends to careers, for example. And when I say “nurse”, how many of our listeners are picturing a male? Unfortunately, still very few. When I say “leader”, how many are picturing a woman? Unfortunately, still very few. And that’s a problem. And given that children are sorting the social world from such a young age, the more we can help them overcome the limitations of our adult labels, I think the better for everybody.
Do Not Restrict Clothing Choice
Jessica: And so what do we think about dressing our boys and girls? Should we be concerned, or pause, before putting them in the pink frilly or the boy blue?
Lise: Well, children often develop these preferences for clothes once they figure out their gender category. I think it’s best not to restrict children, to let them wear what they want to wear. And that includes an awful lot of boys who like dresses, they’re kind of fun and you can spin around in them. And I think we do see more and more parents that are tolerant of their sons wearing dresses. And similarly, if you’re a strong feminist mom, and you’re flinching at your daughter’s pink and frilly phase, which is extremely common, just remind yourself, all of these are phases. Whether boy or girl, these are phases, and often some of the most girly-girl toddlers grow up to be some of the strongest most androgenic older teens and adults. So none of it is predictive of anything and the most important thing is that they have this “free to be me” childhood.
Jessica: I love that. To not get so wrapped up and worry about predicting the future. That this isn’t predictive, and that we’re trying to help our children just become their fullest, best selves. And by not putting them in a box, that’s the best way we can do it. Well, thank you so much for being with us. We’ve really taken in your words and I think we all have a fresh perspective on what might be some kind of subconscious biases that we bring to our parenting of our boys and our girls, and feel inspired to help support our children to become their full selves.
Lise: It was really nice talking to you, Jessica. And I think you have some wonderful suggestions of your own, so good luck with everything.
Jessica: Thank you.
3 Episode Takeaways for Parents
As a mother to 2 boys and a girl, that conversation gave me so many things to think about.
Avoid Labeling Any as “Girl” or “Boy” Emotions
Give your child license to play with toys of any sort, explore different roles through dressing up, and express their emotions freely — whether that be aggression, fear, or affection.
Be Sure to Be Just as Talkative With Both Genders
Girls generally have an advantage over boys in reading and writing by the time they start school. The fact that there are average differences between boys and girls reflects the amount of language that they are exposed to. One great way to expose your child to more words is to read regularly!
Don’t Put Your Child in a Box
If you’re flinching at your daughter’s pink and frilly phase, or your son’s interest in princess dress-up, both of which are common, just remind yourself, these are all phases. Exploring gender is a normal part of a child’s development.
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