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Science Concludes Boys and Girls are Different … When We Tell Them They Are

raising boys, raising girls

Soon he'll learn he's a boy and that being a boy comes with narrowly defined boy fun.

An interesting article over at Slate hits the highlights of a study that basically concludes: when adults say boys and girls are different, children believe them and it affects their actions. That’s not exactly earth-shattering news, but it bears repeating again and again especially when people are still writing defensive justifications for espousing sexism like this one by insisting that the rest of us need to accept the fact that all boys and girls are different and need things like separate book lists and the chance play according to their gender-driven desires (braiding hair for girls, crashing cars for boys).

Let’s tackle the study first and return to the defense.

A researcher from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign gave 144 4- to 7-year-olds the task of matching pictures of 3-D blocks from different angles with their identical pair. As some of the kids were cruising along with the task, he came in and mentioned that “boys are good at this.”  The kids then did a more difficult round of these tests and scores dropped almost 13 percent for kids — both boys and girls — who were given the gender prompt.

Another group of kids was told during the task that a specific child was good at the task. Their scores stayed about the same. A third group of kids was left alone and their scores fell just under three percent.

The test supports what psychologists call “entity theories,” where beliefs about our innate qualities can influence performance. Kids who are told they are good at something figure effort isn’t needed. Those who are told they can’t, won’t.

In other words, when we believe things like “boys and girls are different!” and we insist, as Devon Corneal/lawyer-mom does over at Huffington Post that those of us who question her sexism are just being political, we are instigating a self-fulfilling prophecy and actually changing behaviors.

Corneal writes:

If traits are innate and biological, then I say we should accept them. For one, doing so will save us from the exhaustion of trying to change things that can’t be changed. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a parent say that from the moment their son came out of the womb, he wanted to play with cars, no matter how many other toys were put in front of him. Ditto for girls and pink princesses. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s a problem is if that’s all our children are allowed to play with because we’ve precluded them from exploring other options or aren’t willing to challenge nefarious stereotypes. Our job as parents isn’t to hide our heads in the sand about gender differences. We should recognize that differences exist and then support and nurture our children’s choices to be who they want to be — and who they feel comfortable being.

What Corneal doesn’t get is that the innate and biological differences in girls and boys has nothing to do with cars and princesses any more than it has to do with spatial relations tasks or aptitude in math or interest in braiding hair or a fondness of pink. As the study shows, these “differences” aren’t so much innate as subtly insisted upon — by a researcher saying “boys are good at this” or mothers handing down pink and blue summer reading lists.

There’s too much science out there for me to really buy the idea of “boy energy” and “verbal girls.” Plus I’m witness to my own petrie dish experiment with my daughters and son here at home (not that I consider my single experience enough to issue blanket generalizations as, ahem, others do).

Given psychological room, girls are as crass and fart-focused and physical as their boy counterparts. And male children can get into babies and pink and doing their aunt’s hair as much as any girl. At least until adults come in and mess it up.

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