By Lise Eliot
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Neuroscientist Lise Eliot argues for more brain research on boy-girl differences in this excerpt from her new book, "Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps--And What We Can Do About It."
(WOMENSENEWS)--You're finally getting to know the new neighbors. They moved in a week ago, but you've had no chance to chat, which is surely why you didn't notice sooner that the woman is pregnant. Very pregnant, by the looks of it.
"How wonderful!" you croon over your common fence. "Do you know if you're having a boy or girl?"
Why is this always the first question we ask when learning about a new baby? The answer is simple: because sex is a big deal. Not just the act of it, but the fact of it. Of all the characteristics a child brings into the world, being male or female still has the greatest impact on future relationships, personality, skills, career, hobbies, health and even the kind of parent the child is likely to become. That's why 68 percent of expectant parents learn the sex of their child before birth and why you know your neighbor is naive to answer, "We really don't care, as long as the baby is healthy!"
Most American parents hope to have at least one child of each sex. We enjoy the differences between them, even as we worry about their consequences. Will this little boy, now so active and exuberantly affectionate, settle down enough to begin school? Will he form meaningful relationships with his friends and teachers? Will he still express his feelings or, for that matter, communicate with us at all when he grows up?
For parents of girls, the fears run in the opposite direction. Here she is, so confident and full of life. Will she still dig for worms and wonder about the planets when she's in middle school? Will she be assertive enough when she lands her first job out of college? Will it be any easier for her generation to juggle career and family when she grows up?
Boys and girls are different. This fact, obvious to every previous generation, comes as a bewildering revelation to many parents today. Raised in an era of equal rights, we assume--or at least hope--that differences between the sexes are made, not inborn. We mingle comfortably with members of the opposite sex, harangue as easily about sports as cooking and cheerfully compete in the workplace; all the while pretending the two sexes are more or less the same.
Until we have kids of our own, at which point the differences are impossible to ignore.
Like many parents, I could cite endless examples of the differences between our daughter and two sons: Julia loves shopping, while Sam and Toby can barely be persuaded to try on jeans at the mall. Then there was the evening not so long ago that Julia spent drawing pictures of fairies while Sam and Toby raced around the house having a light-saber battle. Even as a young toddler, Julia would lay all our kitchen towels on the floor and then put a stuffed animal on each one for "nappy time." The only thing that absorbed Sam and Toby as much at that age was seeing how many objects they could jam inside a VCR.
Also, like other parents today, I feel compelled to excuse this gender-typical play with the obligatory, "We certainly didn't encourage Julia to play only with girl toys and Sam and Toby to play only with boy toys." On the contrary, many of our kids' building toys--the wooden blocks, Duplos and Lincoln Logs--were originally purchased for Julia, our oldest child. I try to make a point of praising the boys' nurturing behavior--like when Sam hugs Toby or cuddles his pet gerbil--and never stand in the way of their attempts to help me cook.
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