When I became a mother, I vowed to raise my children beyond the confines of gender. I banned toy guns, gave my son dolls and never called him “my little man.” I gave my daughter trucks and building toys and tried to not gush about her beauty. I conscientiously exposed both children to women in authority roles, to Mr. Moms and to gender-neutral language (“here comes the mail deliverer”). So what happened? My son, now 5, regularly mows down the entire family with guns made of Legos, while my daughter, at 2, is fixated on caring for her three “babies.”
Sometimes I consider giving up. In a culture dominated by stereotypes (thank you, Madison Avenue and Hollywood), children cannot be raised completely outside of traditional sex roles. For that matter, we are learning that babies start out life with certain sex-determined brain differences. But at the same time, we’re also discovering that what parents do — or don’t do — can either amplify or diminish those influences.
Is biology destiny?
Sex differences start in utero, when testosterone surges in male fetuses create several enduring structural and chemical differences in the brain. While it isn’t clear how brain-structure differences affect behavior, girls’ relatively high levels of serotonin (an aggression inhibitor) and boys’ relatively low levels of serotonin and high levels of testosterone (an agent of aggression) likely explain most girls’ aversion to aggressive activity and boys’ proclivity for rough play.
But biology is only part of the story. After birth, when social environment becomes more important, parents and caregivers often unconsciously treat boy and girl babies differently. They tend to cuddle and talk to girls more than boys, according to child psychologist Lynda Madison, Ph.D., director of Family Support and Psychological Services at Children’s Hospital in Omaha, Neb., and author of Parenting With Purpose (Andrews McMeel, 1998). Parents also tend to use more diminutives with girls (“blankie,” “juicie”) and gentler dialogue. Girl babies are described as “sweet” and “pretty” and encouraged to be submissive and responsive.
Boys hear more firm “nos,” while girls are more often diverted or answered indirectly. Boys are encouraged to be more active, assertive and autonomous and are described as “sturdy” and “vigorous.” Parents tend to focus on sadness and emotions related to interpersonal relationships when talking with little girls, while conversations with little boys center on anger, frustration and retaliation. “We socialize the emotion out of boys and then ask how they got to be that way,” says William Pollack, Ph.D., author of Real Boys (Henry Holt, 1999) and a clinical psychologist at Harvard School of Medicine/McLean Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. “And somehow we also feminize loving gestures.”