Subtitled How to raise your kids free of gender stereotypes, by Christia Spears Brown, PhD
This book caught my eye at the library and I snapped it up. (Along with 12 other books ... I can read them all in two weeks, right?) I am very interested in this topic, because I am constantly hearing "what boys are like" and my boys just aren't like that, especially Marko. I worry a lot about people trying to make him feel bad for being sensitive and shy.
Well, it's a fascinating read. First the author goes into the many, many places where gender stereotypes affect children. It isn't just the obvious stuff, like people who tell your kids "girls don't like trucks" or who give them only gendered toys. She explains that simply our constant use of the words "boy" and "girl" give kids the impression that our gender is the most important thing about us, and the way that teachers and parents segregate kids into groups of boys and girls emphasizes this. The adults don't have to tell the kids what the girls or boys are supposed to be like -- children make up rules about what girls and boys are like on the slightest evidence! It's part of our innate drive to categorize. So children would say "boys are noisy" but also "girls like broccoli." If they knew one girl who liked broccoli and one boy who didn't, it must be a gender trait.
I remember doing this as a kid! I announced to my mother once that a certain girl I knew "didn't look like a boy." I thought she must be a boy anyway because she had brown hair, and in our family the boy has brown hair and the girl has blond hair. Two data points, and I had made a rule! The book describes several studies where kids did the same, listing toys as "only for girls" or "only for boys" based on having seen one boy or girl playing with them, or based on the color of the box. By kindergarten age, boys refused to play with anything they thought was associated with girls, and vice versa. Boys and girls strove to fit in to their appropriate stereotypes as part of their natural social instincts. And groups of boys and girls become more adamantly fixed in their gender stereotypes the more they play together.
We humans all love to categorize things, and once we've put
something into a category, we're reluctant to change our opinion of it
-- even if the evidence is against us. The author tells of all kinds of
studies where both adults and children focused in on information that
confirmed stereotypes while ignoring or forgetting information that
didn't. That explains how people look at Marko running and say "What a
typical boy!" and don't notice a thing when he then sits down singing to
himself for the next hour. It's confirmation bias; people notice what
they expected to find and sift out other information.
The author also discusses unconscious ways adults make assumptions about their children and treat them differently. For instance, parents talk about numbers three times as much with boy toddlers as with girls, and not nearly as much about feelings. Boys have fewer words addressed to them altogether. Even newborns get held differently -- based not on their actual gender, but based on what gender the adult test subject was told the newborn was!
With all that, it's clear that a great number of gender differences are socialized -- even those that begin at pretty young ages. But the book goes on to talk about which gender differences do and do not actually exist in children. Some do appear to exist, though we can't be certain that they are innate. However, a lot more supposed differences don't actually hold up in a statistical study. 78% of those studied showed no difference at all. And even those that do show a difference, show a relatively small effect size. What this means is that even if the average boy is more aggressive than the average girl, it's only by a tiny bit. The average boy might be more aggressive than 50 out of 100 boys .... and more aggressive than 52 out of 100 girls. But in your average grade-school class, odds are good that the boys and girls you have fall along a bell curve from most to least aggressive, and that you wouldn't see more boys on the top of the scale than the bottom unless you had a very large class.
Now adults are different, both because they have had more years of socialization and because they have more sex hormones going through their bodies. Children, I was surprised to learn, don't actually have much difference between their hormones. There are surges in sex hormones at certain developmental stages (particularly prenatally), but on an average day, a boy and a girl have roughly equal levels of testosterone and other hormones. I didn't know that!
Many of the "differences" we hear about are not really proven at all. For instance, we all "know" that women have a larger corpus callosum, right? And that is supposed to mean we are better at multitasking. That study was published in the early 80's and everyone believes it -- but in fact, the study size was tiny (13 people) and no one has ever been able to replicate it. Subsequent studies showed that men and women had corpus callosums that were the same size. Neurologists still can't tell a male from a female brain on a scan of any kind. And the famous "men are better at math" thing? Not true at all! Men usually think they are good at math while women are more likely to think they are bad at it, but they tend to score about the same.
But why does any of it matter? Why shouldn't children sort themselves into groups? Well, because humans are incredibly adaptable. We are born with millions of connections in our brains. The ones we don't use, wither and disappear. So if a child grows up encouraged only to play certain games and do certain things, those skills and hobbies they don't use will become more difficult for them -- even if they were born with aptitude for those things! So a girl who is always steered away from sports, or who just never plays because her girl friends don't want to and the boys won't let her join in, will never have the skills at sports she might have had. There's an opportunity to develop large motor skills and physical fitness, gone. For boys (in my opinion) it's even worse: their stereotypes include being rebellious, not into "school stuff," and bad at sitting still .... so their desire to conform to what is expected of them ends up crippling them at school achievement, and therefore limits their future job prospects. Worse still, being discouraged from showing emotion and talking about feelings will cripple their ability to form healthy relationships for a lifetime.
Still, it's hard to know what to do with all this information. The author warns that you only have your kids till they start preschool, and then they'll be picking up any number of influences from other kids and teachers. When kids run in big groups, like at school, it's easier for them to self-segregate and then reinforce gender stereotypes among each other. Girls who liked trucks and baseball will find themselves among a group of girls who all like pink and princesses -- or who have all decided that that's what they like -- and that will affect them no matter what you do. She suggests counteracting all that with your own influence, reminding them that they should do what they like and that the stereotypes they repeat are false, but she also says you can't fight it altogether.
It certainly makes me happy not to have any plan to send my kids to school. I was raised without a whole lot of gender stereotypes. Sure, I knew what other girls were into, but I played with anyone I could find, and I wasn't picky about what games we played. My mom says, though, that my brother and I played together a lot more before we went to public school. Once we went to school, my brother started saying things like "I don't play with girls, girls are silly" and I was much too concerned with trying to set up a playdate with a friend from school to spend as much time with my brother as I used to. Maybe my kids' limited social life is a blessing -- they never pick friends based on gender. (I wish they had a few more friends altogether, but that's not something I can fix right now.)
And I can see that in some ways it's a blessing that I've had two boys. I never could compare them by gender; I've had to look at them as individuals and see their differences as what they are -- unique. If Michael had been a girl, I would have said, "That's why she's so affectionate." And if Marko had been a girl, I would have said, "That's why she's so emotional." As it is, I realize they are just themselves. And if this new baby is a girl, I am likely to find that she is no more different from the other two than they are from each other.
A couple of caveats about the book. Despite a great deal of the book being dedicated to school, ADHD is never mentioned and autism is only mentioned once. I'd love to hear her reasoning as to why these two disorders are so overwhelmingly more common among boys. Would she suggest that they are overdiagnosed in boys and underdiagnosed in girls because we see in each gender what we expect to see? Or would she agree that they are more common in boys and in that case might be underdiagnosed due to our assumption that it's normal for boys to be incapable of sitting still or late to learn to talk?
The other issue I have is how adamantly opposed she is to single-sex schooling. I agree, after her arguments, that boys and girls don't need different teaching methods. Individual kids do, but learning types aren't split along gender lines. However, she also assumes that single-sex schools will tend to emphasize gender differences, just as happens in crowds of boys and girls on the same schoolyard, and I just don't think that's true. My brother and I both went to single-sex high schools, and both of us flourished academically. (If I didn't flourish in other ways, it wasn't due to the lack of boys!) And my experience, like the experience of many others who went to single-sex schools, is that it's an environment which makes you not think about gender. It just isn't something that comes up. In high school, when kids are increasingly locked into gender roles and at the same time very distracted with the opposite sex, it is very nice to find a place where gender is a non-issue. Everyone's a girl anyway. So we weren't trying to impress the boys (far too many girls try to look dumb to impress boys) or to distinguish ourselves from them. Some of us were sporty, some were intellectual, some were kind of ditzy, but no one had that over-blown girlyness that some high school girls have.
I think the best set-up any kid can have is a small, multi-age, co-ed group of a couple familiar families. Since it's small, there's no separating into boys vs. girls, or big kids vs. little kids -- at least not all the time. But if you're going to put kids in school, for high school at least, I think single-sex is very likely better.
Anyway, I would definitely recommend Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue, either if you already want to raise your kids without gender stereotypes, or if you're not convinced that gender stereotypes are a bad thing. The author does an excellent job referencing scientific studies, developmental science, etc. She is also balanced -- she isn't interested in proving gender is just a construct (she admits there are differences) or in making sure kids don't pick up any stereotypes (she promises they definitely will no matter what you do). It's more a matter of trying not to let those stereotypes limit your children's interests and opportunities. And I'm all for that.