Thursday, May 29, 2014

Book review: Parenting beyond pink and blue

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.


Enbrethiliel said...


if you're not convinced that gender stereotypes are a bad thing

I guess it's for me, too, then. ;-)

It's too early for me to come up with my own "official" statement on the matter, but I know that I definitely will be reinforcing the belief that certain things are just "for girls" and certain other things are just "for boys." And among the former would be headcoverings in church. (I know you're not a huge fan of them, and I'm not trying to start a debate. This is just the only example I can think of right now.)

On the other hand, I wouldn't want a child of mine to think that he can't pursue an interest or an activity that he is genuinely interested in, if it's not actually closed to him. There are some stereotypes that are truly incidental, and they shouldn't serve as an unnatural cage.

Sheila said...

I imagine you'd include altar serving too, right?

Oddly, while I think the "gender differences are innate and carved in stone" argument is foolish (there are just too many people who don't fit), the "gender differences should be encouraged" argument is actually not exactly .... arguable. It's more of a question of what you want the world to look like.

Sometimes I think, "If women are just going to grow up to have baby after baby, why don't we condition them to be okay with that from day one?" I mean, Catholic women are pretty darn likely to be housewives, so why do we spend their whole first 18-22 years telling them they can be anything they want? Doesn't that just set us up for discontent?

But .... on the one hand, marriage and kids are not the only vocation; the world has room for plenty of Edith Steins and Catherine of Sienas. A play kitchen and a row of baby dolls wouldn't have prepared either of those women for their callings. And on the other, motherhood is an incredibly broad thing that can be done in so many different ways ..... all those afternoons of climbing trees and writing poems and drawing pictures all can inform the kind of mother I am. Perhaps it is narrowing womanhood and motherhood to pin so many cultural standards on it, like pink and bows and cooking and sewing.

My parents always told me I could be whatever I wanted and that I had talents I could use for anything. It was my brother who spent our whole childhood telling me I'd never be able to do the really cool stuff because I wasn't a boy. I shook that off as just him trying to make himself important, but when the grownup world *did* give him special privileges, I started to doubt. Boy scout camp (so unfair, when he doesn't even like the outdoors and I do), outings to my dad's Navy base (though I think it actual fact that was just because he was older), and yes, altar serving. I kind of wanted there to be some special wonderful thing that only girls could do, which the boys would BEG to be let into and not be allowed. But there never could be such a thing, because of how boys are.

Enbrethiliel said...


I really wasn't going to mention it, but since you asked directly . . . I wouldn't give a daughter permission to be an altar server.

I got the "You can be anything you want" line all the time growing up, too, and it definitely came from people who wanted the world to be a certain way--maybe because they themselves felt constrained by their circumstances and they projected that onto everybody else. Even those who might not have felt narrowed at all. It's that last part that I don't like.

Now, I totally support anyone who chooses to go against the grain because he honestly thinks that the status quo is flawed. (That describes me, too, you know!) But if he also wants to spread the message around, so that everyone else (or just a big enough group?) joins him in a crusade, then that will seriously turn me off. It's just a bigger form of the same neediness that makes us choose a certain haircut or pair of shoes (or whatever) because we want validation from others. Far from being proof that he knows he's right, it's evidence that he's uncertain and insecure. That's not someone who should be leading a charge.

Anyway, if someone personally believes that "You can be anything you want" is the right message and raises his children accordingly, I'll mind my own business and I'll be a good neighbour. But that's just not how I want to raise mine. I'd prefer to tell them: "If there's something you want to do, you must be responsible for doing what it takes to achieve it."

(I think there's a lot to the wording as well. "Something" is nice and solid. "Anything" seems to me to be a Trojan horse of existential angst.)

And of course my comment is so long that I now have to split it in half . . .

Enbrethiliel said...


When I was younger, I was also very attracted to "boys' stuff." Like G.I. Joes and martial arts classes. "Their" things were just cooler. But the line between "boys' stuff" and "girls' stuff" was never wider than in the 1980s (or so I recall it!)--and my family and teachers just didn't think the former was appropriate for me. I'm sure that it was easier on me that I didn't have a brother who got everything I wanted but didn't want anything I had! But what really helped me to make peace with it, many years later, was seeing that I hadn't wanted "boys' stuff" as much as I'd wanted "Americans' stuff."

Other things I longed for that I couldn't have included playing in a school orchestra, taking part in little league sports, and going off to camp in the summer. And I didn't have those simply because they weren't available in the Philippines when I was a child. The emotional effect of this "deprivation" (which I really did feel despite my otherwise incredibly privileged childhood--have I mentioned my grandparents were millionaires?) was that I spent decades of my life trying to be American . . . because being Filipino didn't seem good enough. (You may remember the fallout from this on my "Igor" blog.) If it were good enough, why weren't any Americans illegally immigrating here??? (Hmmmm. I guess did have a privileged "older brother" of my own . . .)

The point I'm leading to is that I spent so many years being unable to tell the difference between wanting what others had and disliking myself, that when you express dissatisfaction with being a woman and relate it to all the stuff the men in your life get to do, your discontent sounds familiar. I don't want to presume, in case I'm off base, but if there is a connection, I'll underline the difference between my past self and my present self.

Today, I still want a lot of things, but they're no longer mostly "what the privileged others have/do." I just want what I want. And I feel neither the need to apologise for it nor the desire to argue with the world for being too narrow-minded to let me have it earlier. It's enough to know that I can take concrete steps to get to my goals . . . even if my pace isn't as fast as I'd like it to be.

But if this doesn't apply to you at all, I hope I haven't been offensive.

Sheila said...

I don't defend the statement "you can be whatever you want to be." It seems it was a popular thing to say when I was a kid, but it's obviously untrue. I think what was meant was "You will still have my approval whatever you choose to be," and not, "You have the capacity to be absolutely anything you can imagine." I am not going to tell my kids they can do whatever they want. But I will tell them that if they want something bad enough, they should make a plan and see how they can make it happen. My dad always told me that the main thing you have to do to succeed is to want it bad enough. I think there's more to it than that -- I will never be a supermodel no matter how bad I want it -- but it really is the case for many things that all you really need is to be willing to give up everything else and spend a ton of effort, and you can achieve all kinds of things. It's just that most people don't want to put in the effort and sacrifice.

A lot of kids, though, are taught that they *won't* have their parents' approval if they choose the wrong kind of work or the wrong vocation. And I think that's very sad. Maybe that's my American-ness talking -- I know most people throughout history had their life course chosen by their parents -- but I can't see how anyone is a better judge of what is the best kind of life for a person than the person himself.

It's okay if you come right out and say it -- I suffer from envy. I was very jealous of my brother growing up, and now I'm often jealous of people who seem to have all the things I've given up. But it is a fact that "boys' toys" are almost always more fun than "girls' toys." In studies mentioned in the book comparing which toys girls and boys played with, given the choice, almost all the toddlers chose boys' toys. And doesn't that kind of send a message to kids that being a girl is kind of lame? I'd like to raise my daughters, if I ever have any, proud to be girls. Not, like my poor little sister, forced to dress as a boy and go by "Joshua" to get her brothers to stop tormenting her.


Sheila said...

I'm not sure I catch your meaning on crusades. Are you saying it's fine to have strong opinions so long as I don't share them? It seems to me there's a big difference between, say, sharing your ideals or religion and getting your hair cut in a trendy style. If I really believe what I think, and I believe my ideas are more conducive to happiness than the opposite, why wouldn't I share them?

Especially since we function as a culture, and that culture affects all of us, I see each of us as moving the culture in some direction or other. I try not to do it in an adversarial, culture-war way, but I can hardly help doing it in some way, just by the choices I make. Shall I shut down my blog lest I seem to be campaigning for my point of view on the vast array of issues on which I have an opinion?

Perhaps I am misunderstanding you.

Enbrethiliel said...


Yesterday, recalling this post, I asked a friend of mine who has been thinking seriously about having her first child, "Are you bothered by gendered toys?" She said, "No . . . but I'm sure I will be when I'm actually a mother." This is totally the case for me now. I see everything in the light of my own childhood, and though I get that you have the added perspective of someone who is responsible for other people's childhoods, my vision will necessarily be more limited than yours.

From where I stand, gendered toys are not a big deal because the distinction between "boys' toys" and "girls' toys" is just a marketing concept. It's great at making money for toy companies, but it's not a picture of reality. That many "girls' toys" are indeed lame (Sigh!) doesn't make girls themselves lame. And though I agitated for G.I. Joes and Matchbox cars as a child and literally decapitated my Barbies in protest, I also had a great time with Play-Doh compounds, Crayola kits, and Lego sets, which are not gendered at all. (Actually, having typed that, I recognise that I myself could split those three hairs. LOL! Maybe later?)

These days, I'm very happy to see new cartoons and toy displays that show more boys and girls having fun together. It's nice when the media and I get along. ;-) But I'm also reminded of the time The Last Psychiatrist critiqued the Dove commercial with the sketch artist: it made the great point that we can't wait for commercials to set the standards for us, whether they are standards for female beauty or for cool toys. We already know what we believe and what we like: the media's unwillingness to reflect this doesn't have to be a big factor in our lives.

It's also clear that you and John are the greatest influences that your children will ever have and that you take your roles as parents seriously. The loudest, most successful marketer in the world has got nothing on parents like you. I'm sure that any daughters you have will be appreciated by their older brothers and be happy to be female.

Enbrethiliel said...


Of course I wouldn't recommend that you shut down your blog! How would we talk if you did? ;-) And I clearly like that you share your strong opinions, otherwise I wouldn't be here.

I also think it's impossible to have strong opinions and not to share them in some way. They tend to colour conversation in obvious ways. My statement about crusades was inspired by people I know who don't seem content running their own lives, but feel that they must also run the lives of others. (Full disclosure: I fight this tendency in myself everyday as well.) A very personal example is an older family friend who didn't like my career choices and tried for months to get me to join a company where she knew the top managers. Not as a one-time favour, but so that she could keep an eye on me and make sure I made better choices from then on.

I guess a more general example would be the people who pushed hard to make the wearing of seat belts and helmets mandatory. They had no personal connection to the vast majority of those who ride cars or motorcycles, but they still thought that those people should agree with them. Even if they had to enforce agreement through legislation.

It's true that the choices we make can be so counter-cultural that they seem adversarial, but intention is also important. It's the intentions that really give people away. And now I'm thinking of a woman who was inspired by the Supersize Me documentary on McDonalds to do her own experiment by eating only out of Starbucks for a year and documenting the experience. (You're shuddering right now, aren't you? All that processed food! LOL!) Anyway, when she was asked why she was doing it, she said that she wanted to bring a woman's voice to what had been a man's experiment. And I rolled my eyes so fast that I nearly gave myself brain damage.

I mean, first of all, there isn't anything exclusively male about Supersize Me. A man just happened to make it--and I'm sure he'd be surprised to learn she thought of it as a "men's documentary." Secondly, the woman no longer seems like a curious, adventurous, and even quirky (if slightly unoriginal!) seeker of knowledge . . . but she does seem like someone who thinks that such a description belongs to men. That's why she wanted it for herself. Not because it was an accurate description of her, stereotypes be damned, but because she no longer wanted it to belong to a group of people whom she felt oppressed or silenced by. But because she's not actually that sort of person, she's taking the label without deserving it. She may be changing the culture in a good way, but unlike women who really are curious, adventurous, etc., she has no integrity.

Sheila said...

The gender thing is actually getting worse at the toy stores I see. There are virtually no gender-neutral toys, and no girls' toys that aren't hot pink or boys' toys with no reference to violence. It's really hard to choose good toys! And they aren't to be found at the local department store -- the place is a wasteland of Transformers and Barbies.

Well, as a libertarian, I'm sure you know I'm not interested in pushing my ideas through legislation! I just share my ideas, and I hope that if they are good ideas, they find a hearing with other people.

Doing things men have done just because men have done them is one of the most maddening things. It's exciting to be the first person to fly around the world .... much less exciting to be the first *woman* to do it. You're still doing something that's been done before. And if you're *only* doing something because a man did it, you can't possibly be doing the same thing -- he did something original, for a real reason, and you're doing something derivative.

Yes, it's nice to prove that women can do the same things. But is that really the goal of feminism? Or shouldn't we win respect for the things we were already doing? I think it's great if a woman who feels called to a certain career is able to do it, and I'm proud that she's able to overcome the obstacles. But I would really like it if the things that women have done throughout history -- cooking, raising children, doctoring the sick without access to medicines -- were treated with respect, instead of just being seen as a matter of course because any woman could do them.

I can find people who respect motherhood, or at least who claim to. And I can find people who think every person should have the freedom to pursue a career they are talented in. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of people who do both. I think that raising children is one of the most noble things a person can do; but because it is so challenging, I don't think anyone should be pressured into it.

Christia Spears Brown said...

I just saw your blog (it popped up on my feed) and I wanted to briefly jump in. Thanks so much for the nice review. You summed it all up very well (and made me feel I did an okay job trying to say what I wanted to say).

I also wanted to say that I had wanted to add an entire section about autism and ADHD but took it out at the last minute. I felt I couldn't do it justice in the space. Those disorders are so complex and we don't really understand them fully yet. My oldest daughter has ADHD, but it could have easily gone undiagnosed because she is so compliant and not really fidgety. I do think there is a big issue with boys being over diagnosed with ADHD. But there is little research on this and I am always nervous to speculate if there isn't a study or ten on it. My opinion (based on other research): Boys are encouraged to be rambunctious, independent, and active...until school starts. Then they are expected to sit still and be quiet during a relatively boring school day. That is really hard, especially as PE classes and recess are getting shorter and shorter. So we seem to socialize them to be one way and then throw them into a completely different situation and wonder why it doesn't work well. This is also offered as a reason boys are struggling in school in general compared to girls.

For autism, there are genetic links, and perhaps some hormonal influences prenatally, but it is really complex. My colleague in the office next door at my university specializes in gender differences in autism and even she struggles for an explanation. It is a very important topic, though, and I considered having her write a pull-out section in the book about it. Perhaps I should have...

As for single-sex schools, much of my reaction is to the single-sex school of today that are based on gender differences, not the type of schools existing when we were kids. Today's versions can be just fine (more the old school type), or they can be a little south of crazy. Just check into the ones you are considering to make sure their curriculum/teaching style is what you expect (for example, as you have boys, make sure they offer chairs and desks to the boys; some schools for boys require they stand all day because of "all their energy").

I enjoyed reading the discussion in the comments. I think it is always interesting to discuss when gender should be relevant and when it shouldn't.

Anyways, sorry to intrude and thanks again!

Sheila said...

Wow, I'm impressed that you came over here! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

About autism especially, I can see that it's really a lot to ask to expect you to explain why boys get it more when we still don't know why anyone gets it at all! I've heard a heck of a lot of theories, both about the causes of autism and why boys get it more, but certainly nothing conclusive.

With ADHD, I would readily believe that diagnosis varies greatly between boys and girls. When I taught 1st/2nd grade, I had a roughly gender-equal class of 15, and in that group there was one boy and one girl whom I thought might have ADHD. But I also suspected strongly that the boy was much more likely to get a diagnosis, because he was a constant *disciplinary* problem while the girl simply had her head in the clouds. The difference could have been innate or socialized, but the result is likely to be meds for the boy and no help of any kind for the girl.

And yes, gender-segregated schools come in different kinds. I had actually never heard of these new "different ways of learning" schools, but it seems a very weird idea. But I see where it comes from, with many people I know declaring that being expected to sit in a desk and not being allowed to play with guns amounts to a "war on boys." I think cutting recess is a problem for all kids, but sitting in a desk isn't problematic for most. (The one student I had who didn't want to sit in a desk -- I let stand next to it. All the other kids preferred their nice comfortable chairs, so long as they weren't expected to sit there for too long at a span.)

Again, thanks for stopping by, and for your excellent book! It gave me a great deal to think about.

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