Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pink Brains and Blue Brains

As I'm not-so-patiently awaiting the arrival of my second son, I've been enjoying reading Lise Eliot's Pink Brain, Blue Brain, subtitled "How small differences grow into troublesome gaps and what we can do about it."

Eliot, a neuroscientist and mom of three (1 girl, 2 boys), examines the existing knowledge about children's brain development and gender differences. Are boys and girls different because of nature or nurture?

It will probably surprise no one that the answer is both, though often not in ways people enamored with explaining everything in what she refers to as the "Fred and Wilma scenario" (men used to hunt so they did this! women gathered so they did this!) mean.

First, differences between boys and girls as a whole are often quite small -- much smaller than differences between individual boys and individual girls. One of the most interesting, innate ones is that boys are born slightly bigger than girls, and mature slightly slower in the womb. Of babies born quite prematurely (say, at 24 weeks gestation) girls are a lot more likely to survive than boys, because, for whatever reason, they are about a week more mature. Because boys are bigger, birth is a slightly more traumatic experience. Couple that trauma with greater immaturity, and baby boys tend to be fussier.

So people interact with lnfant boys and infant girls differently right from the beginning, with girls getting lots of eye contact and cooing, and boys getting less because screaming babies just aren't that much fun to deal with. Is it possible that girls' vaunted social skills may arise out of just such differences?

For all modern parents try to raise their children in gender neutral patterns, we still have very set ideas of what is "good" for little boys and girls. When people in experiments are led to believe that baby girls are baby boys (and vice versa; researchers dress them as such or refer to them by incorrect but gendered names such as "Marie") the little girls are far more likely to be referred to as aggressive and independent (with corresponding more "little girl" attributes for the boys) than if people think the girls are girls.

We tend to notice events that fit with gender identities. Parents laugh about their sons turning dolls into guns, or little girls giving trucks a bath, but here's the thing: Jasper has given his trucks a bath, I just tend not to think about it much one way or the other. He likes to push his own stroller and he fought to play with a toy vacuum cleaner at a little girls' house recently. But I've never bought him a doll or a toy stroller or toy vacuum cleaner or toy kitchen even though, when we hauled out some tools the other day and he seemed fascinated, I mused that I should get him a toy tool box.

While toddler playtime is one thing, the magnification of small differences has much more profound consequences once children reach school age. Eliot notes that little boys are slightly better at understanding spatial relationships than little girls. But this is not an insurmountable difference; girls who spend as little as 10 hours playing certain video games can close parts of the gap, and in some cases Chinese girls who have to learn the intensely geometric Mandarin characters seem to do better on spatial reasoning than American boys. As Eliot writes, much of learning skills is like getting to Carnegie Hall: "practice, practice, practice." Small differences become large when little girls don't play with blocks or video games, and when little boys aren't given ways to get around their occasional difficulty with penmanship (so they learn to dislike writing and hence don't work at it).

I find it all very fascinating -- both from the perspective of trying to raise my sons and from what the various research into brain differences says about society. There is some evidence that little girls are becoming more open to playing with boy toys and doing "boy things" which makes sense as women have more paths open to them. On the other hand, boys are still being raised largely as boys -- we worry more about boys being sissies than girls being aggressive go-getters. Eliot also points out that a big problem with brain research is that studies that show gender differences tend to get the headlines. So, when one study seems to show that women do better on spatial reasoning when they are menstruating (and hence have less estrogen coursing through their blood), this gets trumpeted in the popular press with headlines like "Hormones make men and women better and worse at math!" Then, of course, when follow-up studies fail to replicate this result, there are no headlines.

I'm curious about gender differences parents who read this blog perceive in their sons and daughters, and if there are times you've caught yourself in stereotypical thinking. Are there specific ways you try to shore up what might be small differences in original abilities? (e.g. making sure girls play with blocks, or letting boys dictate stories they're having trouble writing?)

Perhaps here's a gender difference: I've written about this topic in the past but, when I started reading Pink Brain, Blue Brain, I didn't even think to check the index for my name. I'm not exactly self-effacing, but still. Imagine my surprise when I found myself quoted on page 248! The quote was from a USA Today piece about why girls are far more likely to go into, say, "Bio-statistics" than "statistics." Both are math-based, but put "bio" in front of it and it's perceived as being helpful to humanity. I wrote that math needed a Stephen Jay Gould explaining how helpful math is to the world, and engineering needed a Sylvia Earle doing likewise. I still do think that's true -- science and math are not nerdy disciplines for people who like to work alone, but that's still, too often, the perception.


The Princess Mom said...

I don't know about mathematics at higher levels, but Danica McKellar has been doing a great deal to support middle school girls' interest in mathematics and pursuing higher math in high school. I think she's a great role model for girls who may want to follow the higher math pathway but are getting the societal message that it's more feminine to be interested in gems than geometry.

My mother (a SAHM turned social worker) was fierce about my sisters and I not following gender roles, to the point that I was afraid to tell her I wanted to teach instead of go to law school. Now she has three adult daughters--a teacher, a nurse and a SAHM. Kids end up doing what they want to do, no matter what kind of toys you buy them.

Katharine Beals said...

--science and math are not nerdy disciplines for people who like to work alone, but that's still, too often, the perception.

When it comes to math, I'd say it's actually the other way around. More and more educators are claiming that mathematicians mostly work in groups, and then requiring children to do this in the classroom. I know many mathematicians, and most of them spend most of their time working alone.

As part of my book research, I've interviewed many young math buffs, most of whom hate being required to work in groups.

Many of them are quite nerdy--and proud of it! But their needs are being very poorly served by today's classrooms.

Gifted Universe said...

I am very interested in the topic of gender and giftedness. Nature/nurture - both I expect but the I do think there's a difference. I am wondering if you have read Susan Pinker's Sexual Paradox: Extreme Men, Gifted Women and Real Gender Gap which explore the different choices men and women make in their careers?

atxteacher said...

I'm the mom of a 2 y.o. boy. Having a mom in a leadership role in the fire service, I've been quite gender conscious a long time. My husband is a stay at home dad.

We use gender neutral language (firefighter, police officer, postal worker, children's day out instead of mother's day out). My son has a vacuum cleaner, a kitchen, and a shopping cart to go with his toys and blocks.

Knowing that boys' language development is reported to be different than girls, we talk with him a lot. We repeat what he says in complete sentences; we read books; we sing songs; we describe what he's doing. He's quite the talker, too. Is that just him or because of our efforts?

He seems much more physical than girls in our play group. We certainly enable and encourage his physicality. Would we do that if he were a girl? I hope so, but I wonder.

Anonymous said...

My son has always been very articulate. We worked hard at not gender-stereotyping him. He did occasionally give a doll a bath, or feed his stuffed bear, and was thrilled when I got him a girl doll he liked--a black doll with long braids and beads in her hair. Most of the time, though, he played with his dolls and stuffed animals the same way he played with his superhero action figures. They battled.

When he was a baby, my husband and I informed my mom that we were not getting Ben toy guns. She laughed. We never did get him toy guns, but that didn't stop him from using whatever came to hand.

The day I let him hold his new, big-boy underpants on the way to the cash register and looked down to find that the Scooby-Doo underpants and the Buzz Lightyear underpants were having a battle, I gave up. :-)