Question: How can parents prevent children from falling into gender stereotypes?
Lise Eliot: Yeah. I should say as a parent with teenagers and tweens now, it is true our influence only goes so far. But certainly when they’re very young, parents do have a lot of influence and the kinds of play things you bring home will determine what sort of skills your child exercises. So, we’ve always known that building toys are great for developing three dimensionality and coordination and hand eye coordination and spatial skills. But something like 88 percent of Lego sets are sold to boys or as gifts for boys. And so here’s something that parents can do, is to find building toys that appeal to girls. I know, like, playing wooden blocks are less gendered and girls may enjoy more.
There used to be more pink Legos, as I call them. I haven’t, you know, when I’ve looked recently I haven’t seen as many options. I think we see this in general that marketers have figured out that gender really sells. And children do have a strong, strong psychological need to categorize themselves as male or female. It’s one of the first concepts, first categories, that they learn in infancy. They know the difference between a male voice and a female voice. They know the difference between mommy and daddy. And as soon as they understand their own gender, which happens between two and three years of age, they feel very determined to live up to that and express it. So given a choice, given a Toys R Us, two different aisles, they will make those choices more and more clearly. Peers also, obviously, reinforce this.
So, you know, to the extent that parents early on can influence which peers your kids are playing with that can have a role. I talk in the book about research on siblings. There’s pretty good evidence that older siblings shape younger siblings’ interests and even abilities in things such as athletics. Girls with older brothers play more sports and are interested in sports. And boys with older sisters, at least according to one study of twins with – Actually – Well, can we scratch that? Yeah, so boys with sisters, in this case it was a study with twin sisters, were more verbal than boys with twin brothers. It’s presumably who you’re talking to early on will shape the amount of verbal practice you get, which we know is very important for wiring up language circuits.
Question: Does an overabundance of toy choice contribute to gender separation?
Lise Eliot: Yeah. I think that, in some ways, things have gotten more gender segregated just because kids are given so much freedom of choice. From the toys to the clothes to the music to the books, you know, it’s almost become the case that there’s girl books and boy books now. Which, you know, is – I don’t know how J.K. Rowling pulled it off but if we could have more of that literature that crosses over. A theme of the book is that, obviously, I feel that the two sexes have a lot to learn from each other. We do tend towards different strengths and the more time that we spend apart, we reinforce our traditional strengths and the less we learn from each other. And so, to the extent that families can get brothers and sisters working and playing together. And teachers can get boys and girls working together. I think that it’s generally beneficial. Appreciating that children do have a strong need to identify with their same sex groups and have activities that are single sex. But we want both.
Question: Does a single mother raising a child have an effect on their gender identity?
Lise Eliot: There’s been so many kids raised by single moms now that their gender identity, even sexual orientation, does not even to seem to be at all affected by whether you’re raised by one parent or two or gay or straight parents. And that is presumably because the peer group is much more important in gender identity. Now it is possible for parents to switch a child’s gender identity but it has to happen very early. And that sounds kind of freakish but it actually happens in certain situations where if a child is born with a severe birth defect that basically affects the whole lower abdomen and they don’t develop any identifiable genitalia and traditionally, if surgeons had to, sort of, create something, it was easier to create a girl’s body.
And so there is a population of XY individuals with a normal X chromosome and normal Y chromosome who should be boys but were raised from birth as girls. And the interesting thing about this population, and they’ve been studied now by researchers at Columbia and another institution, is that about half of them are perfectly happy with their female identity and the other half have shown signs or actually begun the process of switching roles in adolescence or adulthood; switching to the male identity. So what does this tell us? It tells us that, yes, genes and hormones are important for gender identity but they’re not decisive.
That rearing can also play a very important role and it does play an important role. For example, those girls with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia who were exposed to very high levels of testosterone, absolutely their behavior is more masculine in certain ways like physical aggression and interest in trucks and balls but their gender identity is very solidly female. They regard themselves as girls. They may be like tomboys but they do not switch gender or very rarely. So, you know, parents are important but really culture it’s much bigger than just a family. Children are socialized by the gender roles that they’re exposed to among their peers and society at large.