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Do Parents Create Gender Differences?

Illustration for article titled Do Parents Create Gender Differences?

In her new book Pink Brain, Blue Brain, neuroscientist Lise Eliot describes how tiny differences in the way parents treat babies actually create the gender differences many assume are inborn.


Discussing the book in Newsweek, Sharon Begley writes, "adults perceive baby boys and girls differently, seeing identical behavior through a gender-tinted lens." When baby girls are presented to adults as "boys," the grown-ups are more likely to see them as "angry or distressed." And they perceive male infants as more "happy and socially engaged" when they mistakenly believe they are girls. Also, moms underestimate their baby girls' climbing abilities — and parents interact less with their boy babies, perhaps because they are more irritable than girls.

Of course, the idea that boys and girls are differently socialized is nothing new. But Eliot's theory is that the differences between men's and women's brains actually stem from very tiny differences present in infancy, which are magnified by parental treatment. Boys may become less social, girls less comfortable with physical challenges, all because parents react to very small variations in behavior. According to Begley, Eliot debunks the claims "that women are hard-wired to read faces and tone of voice, to defuse conflict, and to form deep friendships; [...] that 'girls' brains are wired for communication and boys' for aggression'" and "that toy preferences-trucks or dolls-appear so early, they must be innate." Instead, she says, parental treatment causes small differences to "snowball, producing brains with different talents."


Eliot says, "kids rise or fall according to what we believe about them," and reading about her research made me wonder about the ways my own parents might have unconsciously pinked out my brain. In general, they were super-supportive and gender-neutral, but I do sometimes wonder why my brother played four organized sports while I got put in what the school euphemistically called "adaptive" PE. Part of this is almost certainly innate ability — I'm convinced that there is a gene for reliably knowing the difference between right and left, and I don't have it. But were my early signs of klutziness magnified by my parents? It's possible. I certainly felt like they protected me more than my brother — he didn't have, for instance, a two-year-long no-driving-on-the-freeway rule after he got his license. Ultimately, though, it's pretty much impossible to determine which of my spatial deficiencies come from parental protection and which from some sort of congenital ass-vs.-elbow confusion. But maybe Eliot's book will help parents recognize their unconscious prejudices — leaving people like me with only bad genes to blame.

Pink Brain, Blue Brain [Newsweek]

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I also think there is a subtle exclusion/inclusion game played with kids. I'm from a big family. At family events, even at an early age, the grown ups would segregate the kids by gender. The girls would wind up in the kitchen with the women while the boys were out on the driveway or in front of the football game. Even as babies — once a child was no longer required to be held at all times, they would divide us up in this way. It's so pervasive that it's one of the reasons I don't feel very close to my family. I was never accepted into the "boy" group, even though they were doing the things I wanted to do (and who wouldn't want to play basketball while the women cleaned up dinner). But I never enjoyed being in the kitchen while the women gossiped and exchanged recipes and toilet training tips. I became a gender orphan. I don't think anyone did it on purpose — it's just the way things happened.