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We’ve all heard the stereotypes: boys are better at math, girls talk earlier and are more verbal throughout life, boys are too busy playing to learn well in the classroom, and many more.  But are they true?  And if so, what’s the cause?  Are these immutable characteristics caused by genetics, or do social and environmental factors play a role?

Lise Eliot tackles these questions in her book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps – and What We Can Do About It.  She reviews hundreds of studies of sex differences, analyzing their methods and what we can tell by looking at so many all together.  Her basic thesis is this: there are slight differences between boys and girls, but those differences become exaggerated by social influences.  And, perhaps most importantly, both boys and girls would greatly benefit from closing those gender gaps.

Or, in her own words: “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 competitiveness – are heavily shaped by learning. . . . [E]ach of these traits is massively amplified by different sorts of practice, role models, and reinforcement that boys and girls are exposed to from birth onward.”

The book often goes into statistical analysis of the various studies, but it’s also very accessible.  She shows how studies are often picked up by the media and used to make a point that they don’t really support.  Often the difference between men and women is smaller than the difference among women, for example.  In other words, “for most psychological traits, sex differences are quite small, and, fundamentally, men and women are more similar than different.”

The book looks at all stages of development, from newborns through college and beyond.  She points out what factors are most important at each stage and gives suggestions for ways that parents and educators can minimize differences.  Of course, I was most interested in the baby stuff and it was fascinating!

She describes one experiment where eleven-month-old babies crawled down a carpeted slope.  Before they did so, their mothers were asked how steep of a slope the baby would be able to crawl down.  Mothers of boys were pretty accurate in estimating how their boys would do, but mothers of girls underestimated their daughters’ abilities.  In fact, the girls were able to crawl down steeper slopes than the boys but their mothers thought they wouldn’t do as well as the boys.  Mothers of girls are also much more likely to tell their daughters to “be careful.”  This constant worrying is sure to make girls more doubtful of themselves.  Parents need to challenge their daughters physically, rather than holding them back.

Boys, on the other hand, could do with more loving.  They are more vulnerable when they’re born and continue to develop at a slower pace than girls through puberty.  Infant boys are “more irritable, more easily distressed, and harder to soothe than girl babies.”  Mothers of boys are more likely to respond negatively to this emotional behavior, telling them to “toughen up” or “be a big boy.”  This sends a negative message to boys, leading to stunted emotional development.

But while men learn early on to hide their emotions, that doesn’t mean they’re not feeling things.  In one study, men actually responded more strongly to emotional stimuli, but they kept it hidden.  What’s the problem with that?  When boys are unable to express their emotions in a healthy way, they might become more likely to experience behavioral problems, “from acting up to violence and drug and alcohol abuse.”  This makes it even more important that parents encourage boys’ emotional development.

On the other hand, mothers of girls are more likely to ignore their daughters’ anger, teaching them to stifle those emotions and ultimately leading to a lack of assertiveness.  While girls are often encouraged to display their emotions when those emotions are considered traditionally “feminine” emotions, they are typically told to be a “good girl” when they get angry.  Girls should be encouraged to explain why they’re angry and to ask for what they want.

For young children, play can be the most important learning tool.  But children pick up on parents’ social cues early and reflect that in their toy choices.  As children get older, “boys increasingly avoid feminine toys, while girls increasingly explore masculine ones.”  “Subtly or not, parents discourage boys from playing with girl toys and, to a lesser extent, girls from playing with boy toys.”  This is a problem for both girls and boys.  Boys’ toys tend to require much more spatial understanding and manipulation.  When girls don’t get practice at those skills, it can affect them later, especially when it comes to learning math.  Furthermore, playing games that involve more movement will help keep girls on track with motor development and encourage them to be active throughout life.

However, it’s equally important for boys to play with traditional girls’ toys.  Girls’ toys often involve more imaginative social play, which can help boys develop crucial skills such as empathy and expressiveness.  And perhaps more importantly, encouraging boys to play with girls’ toys teaches them the important lesson that all potential interests are equally valid, and that they will not be subject to ridicule if they are interested in playing with something that doesn’t fit into the traditional “male” stereotypes.

What about the frequently cited idea that girls are more verbal than boys?  Eliot points out that “sex does not play nearly as dramatic a role in verbal skills as many parents perceive it to, whereas children’s environment has a very large impact – accounting for some 60 percent of the range of verbal skills for both boys and girls.”  On the other hand, gender accounts for only 3 percent of the total variance in language skills.  In other words, yes, gender does make some difference.  But not nearly as big of a difference as environment makes.

The most striking, and worrying, aspect of all of this is the extent to which our perceptions of differences can affect us.  In one study, talented math students were given a math test.  One group of students was told, “No gender difference has been found on this test.”  Men performed only slightly better than women.  The other group was told, “Test usually produces a gender difference.”  Men did much better and women did much worse on this test. I’ve included the image below because it was so powerful to me.

The messages we get from our parents, peers, teachers, and others have a profound impact on our own perception of ourselves and, ultimately, on our success in life.  Ideally, it wouldn’t be this way.  But it is.  And we do a huge disservice to both boys and girls when we tell them that they can or cannot do certain things.

So mothers of boys: talk to your boys! Encourage them to share their emotions and allow them to be vulnerable.  Read to them often and encourage social play.  Mothers of girls: encourage active play and play with toys that will develop spatial skills.  Don’t hold them back by being too protective or worrying too much.  And allow them to assert themselves.  Finally, do yourself a favor: read this book!