My four-year-old nephew recently answered the front door wearing a fireman's hat, a Lightning McQueen shirt, and a pair of my niece's Disney princess shoes, carrying a purse filled with Matchbox cars. "You're a thesis," I said. "Ka-CHOW!" he replied.
I don't have any children of my own, but my sister's kids are at that very interesting age where they're just starting to identify things as "for girls" or "for boys." In a few months, I suspect my nephew won't be caught dead in Cinderella's shoes, especially when he reaches the age of my 6-year-old niece, who is currently going through her pink princess phase and notably moving into the age where "everyone in my class" birthday parties start to become "girls only" birthday parties, starting a cooties and gender-based separation that will most likely remain until middle school, when hormones override cootie-based fears and long-held gender separation rules and boys are once again permitted to join parties (much to my brother-in-law's dismay).
But going through a pink princess period and engaging in gender-specific birthday celebrations and the like might not be entirely helpful, from a developmental standpoint, according to Lise Eliot, the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It. As Eliot tells Helena de Bertodano of the Times of London, the brains of boys and girls aren't really that different after all; it's the social conditioning they receive that makes them pick up and internalize gender roles. "Everything is filtered through a lens of whether you believe boys and girls are hard-wired. I don't think your average person appreciates that differences in the brain can be learnt."
Eliot's work is reflected in a study recently published in Sex Roles, which surveyed 80 families and "looked at differences in the way play and caregiving were initiated verbally, and how the participants responded - also verbally - to this initiation, for mother-son, mother-daughter, father-son and father-daughter combinations," by placing toddlers in a one-on-one situation with their parents for snack-time interaction and play-time interaction. Researchers found that toddlers of both genders showed similar communication methods during snack time, but picked up on cues given by their parents during play time, as fathers tended to encourage assertive behavior while mothers encouraged cooperation and fairness. According to the authors of the study: "It would appear that children in the same family have different experiences in their play interactions with their mothers and fathers. Such differences may teach children indirect lessons about gender roles and reinforced gender typed patterns of behavior that they then carry into contexts outside of the family."
So how can parents challenge stereotypical notions of gender? Eliot suggests that it isn't as easy as giving a girl a raygun and having a boy play with My Little Pony: "Many parents have tried this, to little effect. Girls turned the trucks into families, boys played catch with the dolls, and both sexes knew there was something fishy going on." She instead suggests that parents consider buying toys such as Legos for girls, which encourage "the kind of visuospatial skill that is linked to higher mathematic achievement," and perhaps getting your son a pet, as it encourages boys to be nurturing and patient.
One wonders, however, how much influence a child's peers have on their understanding of, and adherence to, gender roles. It's certainly important for parents to challenge gender stereotypes, but unless the rest of the world joins in, children are going to be faced with, say, classmates who pull a truck from a girl's hands and yell, "This is a boy's toy!" or science and math teachers who overlook a girl's contributions to the class, or fail to encourage her to participate, due to an ingrained belief that women do not excel in these fields. Perhaps the best anyone can do, as Eliot notes, is to just try to provide kids with as equal a playing ground as possible: ""I don't want to be accused of saying it's all environment and it's all parents, I just want to right the ship. As a mother of both a daughter and sons, I believe we've got to find a better balance."