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Sunday, February 19, 2012

What are little girls made of?

 The full title of Lise Eliot’s book really explains her intent: Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into TroublesomeGaps -- And What We Can Do About It. The way it is structured, she goes through the differences that are “hard-wired” or innate and how the difference set by nature tend to get exaggerated by the nurture effect. Each descriptive section is followed by a prescriptive list of things to do to counteract some of those stereotyped paths that can prove detrimental to both boys and girls.

In her introduction, Eliot asserts that the two sexes do not originate on different planets but on neighboring states: “’Men are from North Dakota, women are from South Dakota.’” The fact is that while “the mean male and female” ranks are not all that far apart, though “it’s only the extremes that make headlines.” Perhaps in the romantic spirit of vive la difference, most of what gets published about men and women highlights points of divergence beginning in childhood or even in the womb.

This book also ends up highlighting differences, though it does point out that some of them are completely due to parental and other response to a baby’s sex. Dress a baby in a pink outfit, and people will comment on how dainty, delicate, and pretty she is. Dress the child in blue, and you will hear altogether different types of comments. Experiments show people respond to the clothes cues rather than the child itself, for they do the same when the clothes are deliberately switched. Parents, of course, have the greatest influence on gender expectations, and already from the time a baby crawls, the boy is expected to be capable of greater challenges in slope than the girl (see pp. 66-67).

However, due to the fact that girls do mature somewhat faster, some parents feel their boys could be at a disadvantage in school with girls who have greater verbal development. Consequently, boys are more often selected by parents to start school later in the practice called redshirting.

In fact, school principals and teachers often promote redshirting for girls, as well, either by advising parents of children near the cut off dates to hold the child back for the sake of better competitive advantage or by forcing the effect on everyone by arbitrarily moving up the cut off date, say from December to mid-October or even September. Despite their claims of expertise, they could be setting people on the wrong track:

Whatever the motives, most research finds the practice of redshirting misguided. Although the older children in a class may have a modest advantage in kindergarten and the first few grades, their academic boost typically fades by later elementary school. There is also some evidence that children who were held back are more vulnerable to risk taking and other emotional and behavioral problems when they reach adolescence of their classmates.

Aside from that, it is possible that their on par performance that is due to being older than their classmates could conceal the fact that they have “true development delays or learning disabilities” that are better addressed earlier than later (144-145).

Eliot does take veer off a bit at times , as she seems to have it in for Leonard Sax.  Sax advocates educating boys and girls in separate schools, a concept that she devotes quite a number of pages to in arguing against it. Though she admits that boys do prove more aggressive and more competitive than girls and that they avoid playing together through most of the elementary school years, she maintains that they should work together in school in the same classrooms. The way she dismisses the records of success for women who have gone to all female schools is by saying that they were atypical – the best and the brightest in their day. Of course, once you start analyzing results in that way, you can dismiss the findings of many studies, including many of the ones Eliot refers to in her own arguments.

My particular greater concern here would be that the book’s premise can be turned on its head by those who would characterize themselves as conservative or “traditional.” Wouldn’t they be able to say that what her prescriptions demand is for people to work against the pink princesses and dolls for girls and superhero and construction toys for boys that they would naturally go for? That is exactly the type of thinking that gave rise to the Lego line “for girl,” which I discussed in a blog post elsewhere.  While I was reading Eliot’s descriptions of how girls play, it sounded to me like a corroboration of (should I say justification?) for Lego’s assessment that girls would not care to build unless they have dolls and accessories and feminine colors to work with.

That brings me to an even more fundamental question is something that Eliot merely touched on but didn’t really explore: the fact that the genders seem to have grown more polarized over the past few decades – just when you would think progress would have narrowed the gap. That is why people are so disappointed in seeing Lego tacitly characterize the standard sets as for boys. The pink bricks and “Friends” sets are supposed to be a godsend for girls who are assumed to otherwise never build once they outgrow the Duplo sets. Even things that were considered gender neutral now have to be labeled as either blue or pink. Based on the advertising and habits of children in the 1980s, people actually did not box boys and girls into such rigid categories as much then as they do now. I would really like to see when and why the road of girlhood started to curve back toward the 1950s .

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