Gray wrinkly brains

Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain is masterful, writes Emily Bazelon.

In her book about gender, Eliot describes a study of 11-month-olds asked to crawl down a carpeted slope. “The moms pushed a button to change the slope’s angle based on what they thought their children could handle. And then the babies were tested to see how steep a slope they could navigate.”

Girls and boys proved equally adept at crawling and risk-taking: On their own, they tried and conquered the same slopes. But the mothers of the girls — unlike the mothers of the boys — underestimated their daughters’ aptitude by a significant margin.

“Sex differences in the brain are sexy,” Eliot writes. And so we tend to notice them everywhere. “But there’s enormous danger,” she says, in our exaggeration. It leads us to see gender, beginning at an early age, only in terms of what we expect to see, and to assume that sex differences are innate and immutable. . . .

Our assumptions “crystallize into children’s self-perceptions and self-fulfilling prophecies.” Girls’ slightly lesser interest in puzzles and building toys is reinforced instead of challenged, and it turns into a gap in spatial skills and map reading. Parents and teachers see a boy lagging in reading and verbal skills and shrug it off with, “But of course, he’s a boy.”

Eliot calls for looking for ways to “help boys express their feelings, learn to read and write better, and feel at home in the school classroom,” instead of writing them off.  By the same token, we can look for ways to “help girls stay confident in math, learn how to read a map, and embrace technology and competition.”

Disney is offering refunds on Baby Einstein videos, which were supposed to make babies smarter but don’t.

. . . the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under 2.

Via The Quick and the Ed.

About Joanne


  1. Margo/Mom says:

    I remember during my student teaching days (a very long time ago) watching a group of upper elementary students playing volley ball. The girls, as a group, having the earlier growth spurt, were taller than the boys, likely stronger and definitely more coordinated. Next to them the boys looked like runs, but they were all over the court. When the ball came to a girl, she would lean away, with her arms at her sides. The boys on the other hand, ran up to meet the ball, eager for the hit. I remember thinking that if the girls were only aware, they would have been smoking these poor little boys. This being early 70’s, I stored it away as an example of the nurture side of the equation and the ways that girls are taught (or not) to be physically competitive.

  2. I have kids of both sexes and they all think there is far too much emphasis on feelings in the classroom, and I agree. There are a couple of generations that don’t know the difference between “I think” and “I feel.” I’m all for better instruction – and curriculum – in reading, writing and math.

    As the parent of travel soccer players in an area where soccer was a big-time sport for both boys and girls, there was (up to 2001, at least) a definite difference in the style of play. The girls tended to have better teamwork, less physical contact and significantly lesser skills (ball skills, not strength, distance etc). That being said, at the topmost level, many/most of the girls had started playing on boys’ teams and did not move to the all-girls travel league until puberty. These girls tended to play a more physical game and could still be seen as tournament guest players on high-school boys’ teams. That being said, the guys would be called for a foul going up against a girl that would not be called going up against a guy, so it really wasn’t a fair situation.

  3. ‘Eliot calls for looking for ways to “help boys express their feelings, learn to read and write better, and feel at home in the school classroom,”…’

    I’ll read the book. However, having sons and a daughter, I’d veto the “help boys express their feelings” bit. The modern public school classroom is far too interested in the students’ feelings. Moving to a classroom model which is competitive, and bases essays upon non-fiction and analytical topics would be a fairer approach–and one more likely to show improvements in student performance.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    If a boy doesn’t express his feelings as if they are girls’ feelings and if he doesn’t do it as if he’s a girl, is he doing it wrong?

  5. Interesting stuff – and it reflects the problem we’ve looked at in the UK regarding girls and participation in the tech industry. At a recent event when we discussed technical and constructive toys, one mother expressed disbelief and even dismay at the notion of giving a dump truck toy to a female toddler. It’s precisely this attitude of steering girls away from constructive and technical toys that can put girls at a disadvantage when these tasks are addressed in later life. It’s vital to ensure that in the school and at home we give children the opportunity to stretch themselves. Only then will we be able to address serious issues with gender imbalance in technical industries.

    Thanks for the reference Jo – will follow up.

  6. Amen, Parent2. Since I was a kid (with real old-maid teachers), normal boy behavior has been redefined as abnormal; probably requiring medication (ritalin etc) and it got progressively worse as my kids passed through ES-MS. Maybe if schools stopped treating boys as defective girls, it would help.

    Joanne, I played with “boy toys” and read “boy books”, as did my daughter. However, I don’t see problems with a gender imbalance in the STEM fields unless one is prepared to be just as concerned with gender imbalances in fields where women predominate. Men and women may be equal, but they are not the same. They tend to choose different fields and different choices within fields. Look at medicine, for instance; women disproportionately choose certain specialties and are more willing to trade more convenient hours for less pay.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Yes, more women than men in the professions are inclined to choose fewer hours and less pay.
    It’s the fault of the patriarchy, brainwashing them. Even in the professions, the bad menz have oppressed, suppressed, repressed and depressed the helpless women.
    You should read the femblogs.

  8. Richard, just because certain blogs overplay the effect of social conditioning doesn’t mean that those effects are absent. (And yes, I’ve talked with teachers who in private conversation quite openly admitted that they didn’t believe girls belonged in science.)

    Adults understand that the truth generally lies between the extremes.

    Just look at the range from “I’d rather fail a child that isn’t learning via phonics than use whole language” to the “using phonics is inherently racist/classist”.

    So, can we discuss the issue that constructive adults face rather than shaping arguments around the most egregious beliefs of *either* side?

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Tom West.
    It’s the margins of any debate which ultimately shape the debate, primarily because those on the margins have extra energy and too little else to do. They also have fewer scruples about mis-framing the facts, to be charitable, and thus conning the unwary. For example, you can’t be against VAWA unless you hate women. Try making a reasoned argument against it in public someplace.
    And that’s why I referenced the margin.

    As to your nutcase teachers, I know some who think crazy stuff, too. So what? I know some who want to medicate every fourth boy.

    I raised boy-girl twins, so my patience with the social conditioning schtick is pretty slim.


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