Boys, Girls, Toys…

I’m sick to death of people insisting that boys play this way and girls play that way, or that girls are genetically predisposed to want dolls and boys, cars (because, friends, way back in history when all this supposed evolutionary biology was happening, there weren’t cars, point 1).

I read an amazing book a few years ago called Pink Brain, Blue Brain, in which Lise Eliot (who also wrote the fabulous What’s Going on in There?) rounds up and analyzes the various studies about the differences between boys and girls, starting in utero. The TL:DR is that there are nearly no differences between boys and girls at the beginning, and then they widen over time. In many cases, these differences are exacerbated (or possibly caused) by subconscious cultural factors. For example, one study took a group of babies who were just crawling and built a ramp that had an adjustable pitch. They dressed half of the babies as girls and called them by “girl” names, and the others as boys (the baby’s actual sex did not necessarily match their “presented” gender). Then they brought in people and asked them to set the steepness of the ramp to what they thought a specific baby could safely navigate. All of the participants, no matter what their stated beliefs about feminism and all of that, set the ramp to an easier grade for the “girl” babies. In what other ways are we nudging boys and girls one way or the other, and not even realizing it?

Another point she makes is that the size of the differences shown in these studies is often very small. The headline might say “boys have fewer words at age 3 than girls!” but then you read the study and it turns out that girls, on average, had 10 more words than boys, and that the vast majority of both boys and girls were in the middle of this big, overlapping bell curve. We all read these headlines, though, and rarely click through to look at the data, and find ourselves saying things like, “Oh, he’s very verbal for a boy.”

Don’t mistake me–I will be fine with it if my kids grow up into a girly girl and a Boy Boy (is there even a term for that?). I just want them to do it on their own terms, to become whoever they are, in response to their own talents and desires, not the people marketers want them to be.

Speaking of marketers, do you remember all the fuss when LEGO unveiled their “Friends” play sets? Their PR people said, over and over again, that their focus groups showed that girls wanted to play with toys that let them make stories, and this was the inspiration for the “Friends.” LEGO Friends have sold very well. Good for you, LEGO (I also love how their site categories list has about two dozen items, one of which is “Girls.” So, the rest of it is just for boys, here’s your token category). The thing is, this gendered essentialism is, at best, unhelpful. Children play in lots of different ways. I remember my brother building his LEGO pirate ship once or twice, but mostly playing out stories about the pirates.

Silas is like this–he has minimal interest in building toys. His way of playing with his DUPLO blocks is to ask me to build a house or a tunnel or a bridge and then to take the two minifigs and have them walk around it saying things like, “I like the door window that opens in the house. Let’s go through the tunnel. Is there an alligator in there?” Does that mean he plays like a girl?

I’m starting to think pretty seriously about getting him a dollhouse for his birthday, because I’m sick of building DUPLO ones. I’m glad that gender-neutral dollhouse things are available now; I don’t think there was much of that when I was a kid.

Meanwhile, Mama’s little civil engineer is totally into the DUPLOs. I think that she actually managed to stick two together the other day!

They make good teethers, too.


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One Comment

  1. June 10, 2013

    Re pic: Dumpling!
    Re everything else: you’re right, as usual.
    Re legos: Martin and Sasha both love legos, but Sasha prefers building complex structures from instructions and Martin makes them drive around and act out stories. And also, the plural of this anecdote is DATA!

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