Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Five top books on the gender trap

Peggy Orenstein's books include the New York Times best-selling memoir, Waiting for Daisy; Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Kids, Love and Life in a Half-Changed World; and the best-selling SchoolGirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap. Her latest book is Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture.

At The Browser, Orenstein and Eve Gerber discuss how, "from an early age, girls learn to be pretty in pink while boys are marketed a prepackaged masculinity." And Orenstein suggests five books that may help parents "give their children a broader, more imaginative outlook," including:
Pink Brain, Blue Brain
by Lise Eliot

Let’s begin with the raw material with which we’re born. Tell us about Pink Brain, Blue Brain by neuroscientist Lise Eliot.

That book was transformative for me. Lise looked through every study on gender and brain research and broke them down for the general reader. Science was not my forte but the book laid out neuroscience in such a clear way that I found it easy to understand and even entertaining to read.

It makes two key points. First, there are small differences between boys and girls at birth that are real. But, second, if we allow or encourage hyper gender differentiation those small differences become big gaps as kids develop. Those gaps include spatial skills, reading ability, and ways of dealing with people.

This book really changed the way I thought about parenting. It encouraged me to encourage my daughter’s friendships with boys. We want men to be nurturing. We want girls to develop strong spatial skills. Cross-sex socialisation at an early age helps ingrain those attributes.

Eliot doesn’t deny that there are differences between boys and girls, but argues that we overemphasise them and that over time gender differences become more pronounced because of cultural influences and the way brains work. Please brief us on the biology behind neuroplasticity.

As Lise emphasises, because of neuroplasticity nurture becomes nature. Consider language: We’re born able to make any sound but we lose the ability to make the sounds needed to speak other languages. In English-speaking culture, for instance, a lot of adults can’t roll their Rs. We were born with the ability to do so but that drops away. It’s not nature vs nurture – it’s how nurture becomes nature.

When humans cry, fall, learn to walk and learn to talk, we’re strengthening some neurons at the expense of others – the younger the child, the greater the effect. So when we steer our daughters towards pink princess dresses and playing with make-up and away from playing rough and tumble with boys, that has a lasting impact on the brain.

But little girls seem to be drawn to princess and fairy toys, books and clothes, like bees to honey. Is that all because of cultural cues?

When kids are little they don’t understand that, for most of us, gender is permanent. They think that you might inadvertently turn into the other sex if, for instance, you wear pink when you’re a boy or cut your hair short when you’re a girl. That’s why little kids become the chiefs of the gender police and your little girl may cry if you try to put her into trousers. It’s really important for them at an early age to say, “I’m a girl, I’m a girl, I’m a girl.”

So the appearance-oriented girl culture is exploiting a developmental phase, it’s not supporting a developmental phase. Once you understand that you can start thinking about how to help your daughter assert her femininity in a way that doesn’t undermine her long-term psychological health or personal potential. You can consider how to give her a different image of what it means to be feminine that’s stronger and more internal.

Parents seem to delight in and no doubt reinforce the differences between their kids. And sex is the most obvious distinction. Are parents the primary culprits in ingraining gender differences?

I think of the flip side. By controlling what comes into the house, parents can limit the exploitation of girls and broaden the definition of girlhood. For instance, when my daughter was four we were reading about Greek myths so she went trick-or-treating dressed as Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom. It was really feminine – she got to wear a toga and a crown – but it was a different image of femininity than Cinderella.
Read about another book Orenstein discusses at The Browser.

Visit Peggy Orenstein's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: Waiting for Daisy.

The Page 99 Test: Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

--Marshal Zeringue