The Difference Between Boys and Girls? None. Huh?

pink-brain-blue-brainLast week, when Heather Turgeon summarized for Babble Lisa Eliot’s new book on sex differences, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, she gave us this take-away which I’d love to print on a T-shirt and give to every parent, grandparent, toy-maker and teacher:

When it comes to abilities and personality traits, there is way more variation within each sex than there is between the sexes. And the overlap is huge, meaning lots of boys are more verbal than girls and lots of girls are more active than boys.

But your girl is so verbal? Your boy is so active? He loves trucks. She loves dolls. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus! And anyway, the science backs this up.

Um, not so fast.

Over at Double X today, Emily Bazelon interviews the author, a professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science. The two talk about, among other things, the science of gender difference studies. It turns out, for example, a second look at the conclusions of studies showing that physical brain differences are what make women better multi-taskers and more empathetic, found that actually there were no physical differences.

More studies on how men and women process language concluded that there aren’t any significant differences between men and women, yet an earlier study that found the opposite continues to be what the general public believes.

So is everyone just making this truck and doll stuff up? No, girls do by and large gravitate toward the dolls and boys to the truck. But what Eliot can’t conclude is that it’s an innate difference. Instead, she says gender segregation — peers! — drive many of these choices.

You know, if a boy has a choice of coloring or going to the block corner, chances are he’ll go to the block corner. Especially when he sees the other boys going over there, because gender segregation is a powerful force. And very quickly we end up in a zone where kids are only practicing what they’re already good at.

So much time in the block corner means he’s developing his spatial skills (same with so much time playing catch, video games, with trucks, etc.) And girls and those dolls? They’re talking. Care-taking. Being dainty and lovely. They’re developing … all together now … verbal skills and empathy.

One thing parents can do to counteract these forces, Eliot says, (I’m paraphrasing) is to guide girls into more block-playing activities (by taking away — for awhile — the princess dresses and Barbies) and make more eye contact with infant boys. There’s nothing in a girl’s brain that makes playing with blocks difficult or boring. There’s nothing inherently unempathetic in boys.

And also with respect to boys and parents’ attitudes, she’s got this to say:

I’ve also found that the reception I get from men and women is somewhat different. Women are more open to the idea of plasticity in gender roles and men, straight men, are less. The undercurrent of this whole topic is homophobia. … That’s why girls have so much more leeway in their behavior, while boys are painted into a pretty narrow corner. It’s the fear of the pink blanket, that it will turn a boy gay. That drives a lot of parenting.

For almost five years I’ve had two daughters and though we’ve owned Lego’s and Duplo’s (their father’s favorite toys as a kid. Me and my sister? We had none.), it’s not until I bought the pink and purple ones that come with instructions to make a pony cart and vegetable garden that my 4-year-old sat down to build stuff with them. Likewise, it’s the cottage/townhouse/beach house pack of Lego’s that got my 8-year-old into them. She wouldn’t be bothered with the construction-worker themed one that we owned for years.

I had been quietly panicking about our lack of interest in Lego’s and blocks and that sort of thing — and also watching my 4-year-old go off the deep-end with princesses — when it occurred to me to buy these “girl-themed” Lego’s just to get them playing with that stuff. Plus, it turns out if you sit down and do this with them instead of making dinner or checking email, well, then it’s social. And girls being girls, it’s suddenly building and talking and empathizing and care-taking. What multi-taskers, these girls!

As for that stuffed giraffe I’ve been wanting to get my girl’s baby brother, I’ll pick it up today. Earl, you will empathize … you will! (For what it’s worth, his favorite binky is pink.)

So what’s the take-away from Bazelon’s interview with Eliot? The girl/boy differences are behavioral, not innate and, therefore, malleable.

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