There’s a trend afoot in American parenting that may not have reached every corner of the country, but which is quite visible in progressive communities: gender-neutral parenting. Some progressive parents are worried that if they give their little girls dolls or their little boys fire trucks, they will be inculcating in these children regressive gender norms. Better, argue the proponents of this parenting style, to offer kids gender-neutral toys — and sometimes clothes that are neither pink nor blue — so children can blossom into their true selves, freer from the dictates of gender roles.
It’s an idea with a certain appeal to it for those worried about gender inequity, but as Debra Soh argued in a provocative Los Angeles Times column last week, there’s one snag: “[t]he scientific reality is that it’s futile to treat children as blank slates with no predetermined characteristics,” she writes. “Biology matters.” She goes on to explain that a large pile of research findings suggest that early toy preferences “are innate, not socially constructed or shaped by parental feedback.” That’s why “[m]ost girls will gravitate toward socially interesting toys, like dolls, that help social and verbal abilities develop. Most boys will gravitate toward toys that are mechanically interesting, like cars and trucks, fostering visuo-spatial skills.”
There’s a lot of confusion on this front, and much of it stems from popular misunderstanding of neuroscience research. As Soh points out, last year a Proceedings of the National Academies of Science paper suggesting that male and female brains are functionally identical spread far and wide, held up as evidence that sexed differences in behavior are entirely, or almost entirely, learned. But when a group of researchers went back and re-analyzed the data underpinning that paper, they found that in fact, “brain features correctly predicted subjects’ sex about 69–77% of the time.” This means that while there is overlap between male and female brains, there are also predictable differences — differences that could help explain why even very little boys and little girls tend to act in reliably different ways.