Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Different Genders, Gender Differences and How We Handle the Princesses

I recently came across a post by a teacher about how she handled a little girl in her class who didn't have the typical girl behaviors and preferences. You've probably seen it, too- it was linked to from lots of blogs.

It is a great post, written by a teacher who sounds wonderful. I am glad our society is getting more accepting of little girls who want to dress and act more like we expect little boys to. It made me think about the furor over the little baby in Canada whose gender was being kept a secret and the baby's older brother, Jazz- and my reaction to that.

And this clarified some of my thoughts on the recent discussions about the "girl" LEGO sets, the Princess phase, and all that.

It has become clear to me that the reason that I'm uncomfortable with a lot of the discussions about gender specific toys is that they include an implicit judgment of the typically girl toys and of typically female pursuits. It is a fine line between advocating for little girls to have a wide open field when dreaming about their future careers and instilling an idea that being a hair stylist or a nurse is somehow less than being a mechanic or a scientist, and frankly, it seems like we're coming down on the wrong side of that line sometimes. And, as I wrote in those earlier posts, I am deeply uncomfortable with the message our culture sends that being into princesses (or, for the older girls and women, fashion and makeup) is somehow incompatible with an interest in building things or studying science. As I described in the gender bender post, I came up against that stereotype in college, and it was harmful. In fact, it may have been the source of my most serious doubts about pursuing a degree and eventual career in science.

The really disturbing thing about these issues is that they are coming from both sides of the political spectrum. I expect this nonsense from conservative traditionalists who think that women's place is in the kitchen, but it comes from people who consider themselves progressive, too. The same people who were defending Jazz's right to wear purple dresses and put his hair in braids wrote comments that said I was raising my children in a "pink ghetto" because we haven't banned the Disney princesses from our house. I don't want Jazz or the little girl in the post I linked to at the top to be bullied for being themselves. But I also don't want Pumpkin to be pre-judged based on her interest in princesses. I realize that the former is more vicious and harmful, but that doesn't mean that the latter is entirely benign.

We need to get to a place where anyone of either gender can be into anything, and not be judged, where we all recognize that the presence of one stereotypically female trait doesn't equal the presence of all stereotypically female traits, and where we don't denigrate those traits, regardless of who is exhibiting them. I want more women in STEM, but I want more male nurses and preschool teachers, too. And I want equal respect for all careers- even for that bogey-woman of the Lego girls discussions, hair stylists. (I mean really, what is up with the disdain for hair stylists? Where would we be without good hair stylists? Given how I feel right now, when I'm past due for a haircut- not a happy place.)

Pumpkin is fairly ignorant of all this nonsense so far. She doesn't see a problem with liking princesses and LEGO. She doesn't think that a love of purple is incompatible with a love of math. She doesn't know that strong language skills and strong spatial reasoning skills aren't supposed to go together (and you know what? She's actually pretty strong in both right now). It breaks my heart to think that soon, our culture is going to tell her that she's wrong. She is going to realize that people- even people who say that they are for equal rights for all- look down on some of her interests, while other people tell her that she is innately inferior at other things that she is actually quite good at, like spatial reasoning, while citing (incomplete and/or over-interpreted) science.

I hate that my culture is going to tear down my little girl's confidence. I want to protect her from that as long as I can, at least until I can start explaining this all to her and help her learn how to make her way through this mess of bullshit with her self-confidence intact.  And I'm certainly not going to be the one who tears her down. Princesses are OK in our house, and I've told the adults who visit us that their joking references to gender stereotypes are not acceptable while my daughters are young.

I've also been making conscious decisions about toys and activities- but my decisions are driven primarily by a desire to make sure that her environment stretches all of her skills. I've been heavily influenced by Pink Brain, Blue Brain, by Lise Eliot. I recommend this book highly to anyone who is interested in gender differences, specifically as they impact parenting. Dr. Eliot, a neuroscientist with three kids of her own (one girl, two boys), surveys the literature and finds "surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children's brains." She makes a convincing case for the role of plasticity (or the fact that our brains change in response to its environment) in the gender differences observed in adults. (She also points out that the gender differences in cognitive skills are much smaller than one would think from the popular literature.) As she says, "the male-female differences that have the most impact- cognitive skills, such as speaking, reading, math, and mechanical ability; and interpersonal skills, such as aggression, empathy, risk taking, and competitveness- are heavily shaped by learning. Yes, they germinate from basic instincts and initial biases in brain function, but each of these traits is massively amplified by the different sorts of practice, role models, and reinforcement that boys and girls are exposed to from birth onward."

I won't try to summarize her entire argument here- if you are interested, really, go read the book. But I will explain what it has meant to our parenting. We focus heavily on ensuring that our girls get experiences, via toys and other routes, that will let them grow all of their skills. Dolls are great for practicing empathy. Puzzles and LEGO are great for spatial reasoning. Trucks and cars are great for instilling an instinctive understanding of the laws of physics.  Princess dresses are great for stretching the imagination. Etc., etc.

I think that we all start from a somewhat blank slate- evidence indicates that intelligence is only about 50% genetics. From the starting point provided by genetics and prenatal environment, we grow to achieve our potential based on the experiences we have. So my husband and I aim to make our daughters' experiences rich and varied, and to make sure that they get the chance to practice all of their skills. This does not mean that I think it is my job to make sure that their environment is optimal, as defined as "no iota of the potential on that not quite blank slate is squandered."  Rather, I think my job is just to make sure that a strong foundation is laid to ensure that they have the skills to pursue their future interests, whatever they may be.

This is why we have Pumpkin taking Chinese lessons- the window of opportunity for language learning is too good to pass up (and she likes them). This is why I didn't just shrug my shoulders and put the puzzles away when Petunia didn't show the same early enthusiasm for them that her sister did. We kept trying different things and found ones she'll play with. Eventually, we figured out that her fine motor development isn't as advanced as Pumpkin's was. The puzzles that she was physically able to do were boring to her. After much experimentation, we discovered that she likes mix and match puzzles (like mix and match fix puzzle) and puzzles that make sounds (like this animal sounds one). We also give her stickers and freely indulge her love of coloring, which will eventually help her fine motor skills come up to speed. And this is why I care that the "starter" LEGO castle didn't have a princess- because I want toys that encourage spatial reasoning AND that will get played with by my princess loving daughter.

To me, the most pernicious thing about the princess phase and other gender specific toys is that they deprive kids of the chance to grow all of their skills. Don't get me wrong- I care about the gender-based career stereotypes in the toys, too. But my (probably naive and arrogant) assumption is that the living example I provide will be more important to my daughters' opinions of their career options that whatever Barbie or LEGO show them. I realize that it isn't all about me and my family, and that most little girls don't have mothers whose career is a traditionally male-dominated one. However, I somehow became a scientist despite the lack of any scientist in my family, male or female, and the abundance of Barbie dolls in my toy chest. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be  carpenter, and then a country and western singer, and then a doctor, and then an anthropologist. Of those, only the carpenter had precedence in my family. My parents encouraged my ever changing interests. They contradicted the gender stereotypes when I came up against them, and always told me that I could do whatever I wanted. I'll do the same for my girls, and I think they will be OK.

What do you think about all of this? Tell me in the comments. It may be your last chance to discuss this topic here for awhile- I think I need to move on!


  1. Thank you for this post and the link to that amazing teacher's post. I've always been uncomfortable with people who get upset with Danica McKellar's math books (actress from The Wonder Years with a Math PhD). I never had a problem with "girly" math books if they worked to bring some girls to math. I don't think that someone should buy them for a girl just because she is a girl, but why shouldn't they be used if they work to get someone into math? Especially since the cultural reference to boys learning math is using stats from a typically "boy" interest, baseball.

    I was a tomboy when I was little. Instead of making me less sensitive to these concerns, I think it has made me more so because I've seen how other boys and teachers can treat girls who don't appear smart due to their interests. Yet some of my best students had perfect hair, makeup, clothes, and very girly designed binders and backpacks. I don't have a little girl, but I hope I someday do and I'll keep your post in mind as I see what interests her and what her strenghts are.

  2. Thanks for that link to the teacher's post. It's given me a lot to think about. We've got a very girly little girl on our hands - loves all things pink and princessy, but she also loves the stories my husband makes up for her which are full of monsters and bazookas. It is a bit scary just how fast gender stereotypes creep into those little brains. I think we're wired to seek out differences in order to create our own identities, and gender seems to be one of the things that little kids notice first - but it isn't the only difference.

  3. Anonymous6:40 PM

    I agree- nothing wrong with stereotypically girls toys in moderation. It's just when they crowd out other kinds of toys that it becomes a problem. We've got a nice number of well-loved stuffed animals, pretend kitchen stuff, dollhouse stuff etc. But we've also got a lot of the building, puzzle, moving parts etc. kind of stuff.

    Back when I was 4 or 5 I made fun of a little boy for having a doll. The Montessori teachers had a very serious talk with me and then with my mother and recommended she get me Free to Be You and Me. And that probably changed my life.

  4. Amen.

    I have been amazed at how much programming my kids started with. M had only her two big brothers' examples to follow, but her style of play is nothing like theirs. Nature vs. nurture was a big topic of discussion all through college, but I don't think I really understood it until I had my kids. They are who they are and I cannot change very much of that. I can guide, encourage and nurture, but not determine.

    This year, we had a lot of folks asking M if she was going to be a princess for Halloween. Really?!? There aren't any other options for little girls? She wanted to be a firefighter, and first told me that back in March or April. If you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up, she says firefighter, police officer, chef, carpenter, race car driver, princess and ninja ballerina. Not a bad mix. I just worry about how to prevent her from narrowing that down too much.

    I also worry about my boys getting teased (or worse) about their gentle sides. We've spent so much time trying to encourage and nurture that part of their nature, precisely because everyone else seems to be trying to choke it off. So what if W wouldn't watch The Incredibles for several years because babies aren't supposed to be on fire? (Curiously, he had no problem with the robot blowing things up. Just the baby being on fire.) I want a child that cares about these things!

  5. @QueSera- thank you for that lovely comment. I'm glad the post resonated.

    @TodayWendy- I'm always a bit surprised when someone tells me Pumpkin is a girly girl- which is silly, because objectively, she is. I guess my gut reaction is "so what?"

    @nicoleandmaggie- we had Free to Be You and Me, too. It was awesome.

    @VA Hills- you know, Pumpkin's never really wanted to be a princess for Halloween until this year, when she wanted to be Ariel. I didn't want to buy the Ariel costume (she has a beautiful handmade Cinderella dress from my mom) so I redirected to butterfly, which was great, because both her wings and her sister's wings still get used for dress up play.

  6. I really agree with your comment about the importance of hair stylists! I was way overdue a hair cut before Christmas, but I didn't want to call to make an appointment because my hairdresser is a family friend and I knew she'd fit me in even in her really busy week before Christmas and probably wouldn't let me pay either. She ended up coming around for Christmas cookie baking and just *told* me I was coming in for a cut and colour. And damn if I didn't feel better after that.

    Seriously though, you've (once again) articulated my thoughts for me. My personal preference doesn't lie towards pink and princesses, so I'm more likely to buy my daughter puzzles and duplo at the moment. But - if other people want to buy her dolls - and she wants to play with them, then go right ahead. It's actually adorable watching her pretend rock her Bubby or make all her toy animals have drinks and swims.

    And I don't think your assumption that your living example will be sufficient to demonstrate women can do STEM careers is naive or arrogant. The CEO (a short, blond engineer with a killer wardrobe and shoes) of the organisation I work for loves telling a story about how she was in a supermarket with one of her three daughters (then preschool aged, now all finished high school) when she ran into a man she worked with. She introduced him to her daughter and said he was an engineer too. Her daughter apparently said, "I didn't know boys could be engineers too."

    Oh and for extra special proof that an interest in all things shiny is no indication that you can't be a ridiculous over achiever - see my current favourite fashion blog... http://www.prettyshinysparkly.com written by a med student in Texas who is obsessed with all things sparkly.

  7. Anonymous5:41 AM

    People stopped saying that DS was "all boy" somewhere a bit before age 3 when he started on his super-nerd pursuits. He's so calm and laid-back.

    But it always amazed me age 8m through almost 3 how he would be less rambunctious than the girls in his class, but even at our Montessori he'd be praised as "all boy" and the girls would be asked to "settle down."

    This year the girls in his class are wild and all the boys (probably because they're on average a lot younger) are pretty quiet, at least according to DS and his daily reports of the color sticks for behavior. Or maybe the girls just get in trouble more for being active because they're girls and more is expected of them. I don't know. Failing at Fairness is pretty explicit about how teachers treat behavior differently by gender. I wish it could be updated 30 years later now so we could see how it all interacts with standardized testing-- it could shed light on why girls are doing better academically now.

  8. I love pink and I"m super girly. I had Free To Be You and Me and all the other gender neutral toys. It all reminds me of a comment that I read once I didn't become a feminist to give things up. I became one to get more options

  9. @zenmoo- I love that story!

    @nicoleandmaggie- oooh, the fact that the boys are "all boy" while my lively little girl is "a bit dramatic/excitable" drives me crazy.

    @feMOMhist- that is an awesome quote. I may use that one someone some day....

  10. I pretty much agree with you on all points and also regarding nature/nurture. I hate that society and culture is so limiting but I do think that good role models at home make a big difference. As an example, I think of two of my friends raising girls. One stays home and has a daughter is not girly-girl; the other works and her daughter loves princesses. I think in the long run, the working parent influence will outlast the impact of princesses.

  11. @zenmoo - I love that story too!

    Somehow as a kid I internalized that you couldn't be pretty *and* smart at the same time, which resulted in me pretty much resigning myself to being "ugly" since I could admit to being smart. I was sad about having to be ugly for the rest of my life. No idea where that came from... Well, actually I do, as one of the few non-white kids where I was growing up.

    It also resulted in me being somewhat baffled by the women at my college who fit my idea of "pretty" - white, blonde, skinny, well dressed, etc.

    I'm happy to say I've been deprogrammed so I'm hoping that neither I nor our culture imparts that ridiculousness to my child.

  12. Love your post. I'm sick of people on the internets insinuating that the daughters of working moms have a better chance of growing up to Be Anything They Want To Be than the daughters of SAHM's do. Or how daughters raised in homes that allow princess merchandise are supposedly screwed for life. Where is the Actual Research supporting either of these popular notions I see every-damn-wheres?

    "We need to get to a place where anyone of either gender can be into anything, and not be judged, where we all recognize that the presence of one stereotypically female trait doesn't equal the presence of all stereotypically female traits, and where we don't denigrate those traits, regardless of who is exhibiting them." AMEN!

  13. the milliner6:16 PM

    Great post Cloud. As someone who has a degree in fashion design (and someone who is also an overachiever and generally hates pink), the "implicit judgement of the typically girl toys and of typically female pursuits" really gets under my skin too. It's hard not to be offended when someone makes the assumption that they can define exactly who you are and what they think you are capable of based on one of your interests or your career. Yes, I have a degree in fashion, but I also own more power tools than my husband, I rock climb and I too am in need of a good haircut! Way overdue...

    FWIW, I do think you will have a greater influence on your girls than any toy will.

    It's funny because I rejected pink and overly girly color combos early on (pre teen?) at least partly because I felt that it pigeonholed me by others expectations. I do like certain shades of pink now (though usually paired with neutral colors) ;). The funny thing is that DS has a particular fondness for a shade of purple that you typically find in girls stuff, not boys. And it's actually a struggle for me not to avoid it at all costs. Couldn't do the purple winter coat, but managed the purple neck warmer. It's hard to figure out if it's because I don't like the color or if it's my leftover association of typically girly colours. I'm trying to not put much focus on it either way (despite the fact that I have these thoughts coursing through my head).

    @ VA hills, we have a sensitive little guy too and I worry as well about this getting squashed out of him. It is his nature to be this way and I want him to be able to continue to be this way (and also not be stereotyped /limited either). People who don't know us well often look at me a bit strangely when I say that DS can't watch such and such movie yet because it's too scary or sad for him (even if other kids his age are fine with it).

  14. @ the milliner- so glad to hear about another sensitive boy! We have to preview most movies for W, too. It doesn't matter how innocuous it seems, there could be one scene that will play into his fears and concerns.

    I am constantly amazed at what some of the kids in his class are watching. Even if they aren't sensitive, are first graders really ready for all of the Harry Potter movies? video games rated M? I wouldn't care so much if there was more acceptance of his differences. His teacher is very sensitive to all of that (thank goodness!), but she's not there all the time.

    I've fully embraced being the bad guy on this one. My kids know that they can always say I won't let them watch a movie, tv show, etc. If they're not 100% comfortable with it, they've at least got that out. Maybe we can preserve something of their sensitive natures. S is going into middle school next year, though, and I'm trying not to freak out about it too much. It's hard.

  15. Anonymous5:30 AM

    I never thought about it before, but I wear a lot of pink. That's because I'm a Spring and have Rosecea... so pink de-emphasizes the red in my cheeks and goes with my coloring. Never thought of it as any kind of statement. Pragmatism strikes again!

    My DS is also pretty sensitive, though he goes in waves. He can watch scarier stuff if he's clutching bead bear or his daddy while doing it.

    We still haven't made it through Star Wars.

  16. Neither of my kids ( a boy and girl) will ever do or be anything they want to if they grow up in Italy, which is a very sad prospect. The are so many positives about growing up here, but job prospects are not one of them.

    My daughter (5)is not girly in the least, nor is her brother (7)a boy's boy. They are both into imaginative play, where they both take on both male and female roles, especially the boy, who is always Ma when it comes to nurturing games. He has only recently stopped breastfeeding his 'babies' and they often come to blows when they both want to be the mama dinosaur.

    Interesting @Hush's comment about daughters of SAHMs. My Mum was a SAHM all her life, and although I always worked before having kids, I have not worked full time since and have spent a great deal of time at home. I am presently at home again. Curious to see if there is any research on that too.


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