031: Parenting beyond pink and blue

Today I join forces with Malaika Dower of the How to Get Away with Parenting podcast to interview Dr. Christia Brown, who is a Professor of Developmental and Social Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where she studies the development of gender identity and children’s experience of gender discrimination.

Dr. Brown’s book, Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue (Affiliate link), helps parents to really understand the scientific research around gender differences in children, which is a harder task than with some other topics because there’s just a lot of bad research out there on this one.  I ask about theories of gender development while Malaika keeps us grounded with questions about how this stuff works in the real world, and we both resolve to shift our behavior toward our daughters just a little bit.

Related Episodes

Interview with Yarrow Dunham on how social groups form

Interview with Kang Lee on children’s lying (yep – your kid does it too!)



Brown, C.S. (2014). Parenting beyond pink and blue. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press. (Affiliate link)

Taylor, M.G., Rhodes, M., & Gelman, S.A. (2009). Boys will be boys and cows will be cows: Children’s essentialist reasoning about gender categories and animal species. Child Development 80(2), 461-481. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01272.x

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Jen: 00:30 Hello and welcome to Your Parenting Mojo. We have a pretty cool show lined up for you today. So those of you who are subscribed to my podcasts by my website at YourParentingMojo.com might’ve seen a notification go out just before the holiday, letting you know that had been interviewed by Malaika Dower, who is the host of the podcast, How to Get Away with Parenting. And as a side note, I’ll say that Malaika is interested in a lot of the same issues as I am. So you should go and check out her show and if you’re the parent of a child of color then you should pause this show and go and check out her show at howtogetawaywithparenting.com right now because there are very few podcasts for this audience and hers is a really good one. So right after we recorded our episode, Malaika texted me and said, did you ever think about doing an episode on gender-neutral parenting? Does it even make a difference if I put barrettes in my daughter’s hair and put her in pink dresses or if she only wears pants and I always say “yes, our neighbor is writing down his riding down the street” on her bike rather than “he or she is riding her bike.” So like I always do, I looked around to see who’s doing really good work on the subject by which I mean work that is actually based on the outcomes of real scientific research and not a study saying that girl babies hear about one decibel better than boy babies for very high pitch noises and that this is enough justification for gender segregated classrooms where we never let the noise get too loud in the girls classroom and I wish that I was kidding you about that, but I’m really not. So when I read the book, Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue and I found that it critically examines the relevant scientific literature on this subject, much like we do here on the show, I knew that I had to ask the author to talk with us. Dr. Christia Brown is professor of development and social psychology at the University of Kentucky where she studies the development of gender identity and children’s experience of gender discrimination among other topics. Dr. Brown received her Ph.D from the University of Texas at Austin where her research focused on how and why children form gender and race stereotypes and how they understand gender discrimination. As I mentioned, Dr Brown’s book is called Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes. Welcome Dr Brown, and also welcome to Malaika Dower, who’s going to be our co-interviewer today.
Malaika: 02:36 Hi!
Dr. Brown: 02:36 Thank you.
Jen: 02:37 All right, so let’s start with the big question.
Jen: 02:41 Is there a genetic difference between the brains of very young boys and girls? Can you talk us through that a little bit please?
Dr. Brown: 02:47 I can. I mean there are, I mean obviously there are genetic differences between boys and girls, is that when you start to really look at brain differences, there aren’t very many and there definitely aren’t many when you look at young children. So yes, there are some differences between adults. The problem is they’ve had an entire lifetime of different experiences and there’s lots of evidence that all those experiences shape the brain in very concrete structural ways. So when you’re talking about what are these of biological differences early in life, there are very, very few and there’s far more differences between individual boys and individual girls then between boys and girls as a group.
Jen: 03:31 Wow. Uh, okay. So you said two really big things there. Firstly, that the experiences that we have in our lives physically shape our brains, so that adults have very different brains than they did as children. Is that right?
Dr. Brown: 03:45 That’s exactly right.
Jen: 03:46 Okay. And then secondly that there are some differences between boys and girls, but the overall difference between boys and girls is far less than the difference between two individual boys or an individual boy and an individual girl, is that right?
Dr. Brown: 04:05 Right. So I mean the idea that knowing someone’s gender doesn’t help you very much predict even what their brain looks like structurally. So it definitely doesn’t help you predict what kind of behaviors or interests or activities they’re going to like doing. Neuroscientists even say their brains don’t look different. I mean they talk about it as more of like a brain mosaic and that there’s parts of kind of stereotypical boy parts and parts of girl parts all within every individual’s brain. It’s not this pink and blue dichotomy that we often like to think it is.
Jen: 04:38 Hmm. Okay. So when we start to think about some of the topics where we imagine this being important; I’m thinking that start with temperament, temperament and emotion…what does that mean for differences if there are any.
Dr. Brown: 04:55 There aren’t any when it comes to emotion. And I’ll say Janet Hyde does really great research, so she’s a developmental psychologist, and she has done a lot of meta-analyses on these. So when I say that there aren’t differences, it’s not based on like one or two studies, not finding differences. She’s taking kind of every study that’s ever been done looking for a gender difference and puts them all into one pot and then kind of analyze as across…She has one study, looked across a million something kids. So when I say there’s no difference, it’s really based on hundreds of studies and they found that there aren’t differences in emotion, there aren’t differences in temperament in between boys and girls. The one difference you see that’s, it’s not big, but it is, I think what I would say, you know, an actual difference is boys have a little bit of a higher activity level like infant boys and they’re a little bit more impulsive, so a little bit more likely to kind of reach out and grab something when they’re infants compared to girls. Again, it’s a small difference and it’s just a mean level difference. So it doesn’t really predict my individual daughter who’s going to reach out and grab something in the grocery store so doesn’t really help me as a parent. But as new looking at lots of groups, you see a little bit of a difference there but not when it comes to like emotional expression or who feel sad or who feels happy and how upset you get that, there’s not a difference at all.
Jen: 06:22 And so when we think about math, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on this right now, in terms of girls’ ability to do math and that their ability actually seems fairly congruent with a boy’s ability to do math, but the boy’s confidence in his ability to do math is much higher. Why is that?
Dr. Brown: 06:42 Well, I mean kids really early. No, the stereotype that boys are good at math. I mean there’ve been studies that show it was like five and six know that stereotype. So by the time they’re starting school, when they’re actually doing math, they know that boys are supposed to be good at this and girls are less good at it. So I think when you think that you’re going to be good, that does a lot to increase your own competence and reduce your anxiety about the subject. Whereas girls kind of go in thinking, yeah, might be doing well in class, but I’m not really good at math.
Malaika: 07:14 Just generally sort of the intervention of that. So if we’re parents that are trying to intervene in that, where should we step in? And does reinforcement help, so I have a daughter and I want to make sure that she feels like she is good at math or that that’s not even a question of being good or bad, just here’s math, I will do it, kind of thing. Where if we know already that by five or six they, they have that feeling for me, trying to either counteract that sentiment in girls. Where would I start on? How would I start to, to counteract that. Would I start when she’s now she’s not yet two by saying isn’t math fun! And a kind of overflowing it or do I just kind of like figure out a way to show her women who are doing great at math and math is just the thing that we all have. How would you go about an intervention?
Dr. Brown: 08:11 Yeah, I mean I think all of the above. I mean, honestly, I mean we get this really cool study in that it was really cool because I wasn’t the one who designed it, but I kind of came on later and it looked at how much parents of toddlers talk to their kids using just like the kind of numbers you used when you have toddlers. Like, oh look, you have four apple slices left. Oh there’s three blue cars in a row. Look, there’s five trees, that kind of thing. Let’s count the stairs as we walk up them. Then that just kind of everyday casual number use. And what we found was that parents of toddlers, so parents of boys used numbers three times more than parents of daughters. And so in the world of psychology, a huge difference. I mean three times the amount is a lot and it’s that casual use of early math.
Dr. Brown: 09:03 And so part of what I think for parents of toddlers is to be aware of how much you use math in just daily life. I think that’s one of the reasons boys are more competent in math, is it’s just part of their daily life all the time. So whatever you’re doing, you’re turning it into and just kind of casual math problem and the way that you just talked to your toddlers. I think that’s part of it. I think, by the time they were about four and five, that’s when I chose to really start talking about stereotypes about when they go to school and they start doing math in preschool or kindergarten and saying, you know what, I’ve heard that some people think boys are really good at math and girls are not good, but that is so wrong. So really explicitly addressing it that way when there’s a boy in the second grade, that makes a comment because he’s also absorbed the kind of stereotype that girls have a lens for understanding where that comment is coming from.
Dr. Brown: 10:02 So part of it’s just like addressing it head on, but it is, it’s also showing role models. It’s talking about math. The other thing we know parents do is they assume that even when girls do well at math, it’s because the girls worked really hard, whereas the boys are just naturally good. Parents try to offer help to the girls in math more than they offer it to boys. So partly I think for parents it’s also just kind of being aware of your own kind of baggage you have about your own math ability and making sure that that’s not filtering out into some presumed difference that you’re how you’re treating kids.
Jen: 10:39 I was actually just reading a study on that last night. There’s a woman named Sian Blaylock out of…I think the University of Chicago who’s done some research on this and found that if the mother particularly has a lot of emotional baggage around math, it can actually really impact the way the daughter particularly learns about math. So Malaika, were you confident with math when you were in school and do you feel confident with it now?
Malaika: 11:05 I wasn’t, but my mom was. My mom is very good at math. She’s a scientist, she’s a doctor. She’s so, she instilled in me a sort of love of figuring out and solving problems, but I still hold, I do hold that baggage of like, well, I’m not as good as my mom was. So, but I, I’ve heard studies like this before, so I’ve recently been sort of like, I’m going to get okay with it being good at math or I’m in an almost basically I’ve decided I’m going to lie to my daughter and say I love that. That’s great because I don’t want to… Even though my mom genuinely did feel that I still had, I think maybe the, the impact of others around me saying that I probably wasn’t good at math maybe it might have affected me not being good at math or not liking that or math or being afraid of, of, you know, pursuing it further. I ended up doing advanced math and stuff in school, but that was more of a sort of track that I was on, but it wasn’t something… I had a fear of it. And so yeah, my, my plan is just to lie to my daughter.
Jen: 12:06 It makes sure she doesn’t catch you. I have an episode coming on lying to children and if they catch you it’s bad news.
Malaika: 12:15 Well then my plan is to get good with math.
New Speaker: 12:16 Okay. Or get or get good at lying. Yeah. Okay. So that’s really helpful. In terms of the math and the verbal abilities, I think there’s a really definite stereotype that girls are better at reading and particularly better at talking as well. Is that it’s kind of an inherent difference or how did, how it goes even get that idea in the first place.
Dr. Brown: 12:38 I’m not sure. It’s actually has been in popular culture for a long time, but there have also been meta-analyses on that that show there are really no differences in, for example, who’s more talkative boys or girls. We really talk the exact same amount. Where are the difference does seem to be is that girls develop language and kind of first words a little bit earlier than boys do. So you know we’re talking months, not a year, but girls say their first word a couple of months on average before boys do, but that’s just really the starting point. Boys catch up so there aren’t reliable differences between verbal abilities between boys and girls. It’s really just that kind of first words is where you see it.
Jen: 13:29 I wonder if that leads parents to, you know, when the girl is the first one to speak and oh, she’s a girl, she’s really chatty, and then it kind of just snowballs from there and becomes a self reinforcing stereotype. Is that possible?
Dr. Brown: 13:41 It’s completely possible. I think that’s where most mean, that’s really where most of these differences eventually come from is that parents kind of presume that there’s this difference and there’s this little morsel of a difference, but parents are…it feeds into kind of what they think boys and girls are like. And so very accidentally they kind of play out these stereotypes. So we see that parents talked to infant girls more than they talk to boys. They just use more language with them so they just get more verbal input than sons do. And so, you know, of course they’re going to have kind of differences then in terms of some types of language tasks later on.
Jen: 14:22 Hm. Wow. That’s, that’s incredible. I mean, I only have one child and that’s the way I’m planning on having it stay, so I can’t make a case study on this, but the fact that, that I might have unconsciously treated my daughter differently than I would have treated a son is sort of mind boggling to me. Malaika, what do you think about it?
Malaika: 14:43 Yeah, I mean, I definitely have. My daughter is talkative. She’s not yet two when she’s speaking in full sentences. And I definitely been like, oh, well I’m talkative and my mom’s talkative and so it’s just the women in our family… I’ve just, that example alone kind of stuck with me. But I have found that there’s times when I. where I wonder, um, I think I told you Jen about just the time that she knew my daughters, so almost bald. She doesn’t have much hair so I don’t have to do her hair. But one time I put a barrette in her hair, and I generally dress her…in what would be, what are, what are boys clothes because I buy them from the boys section, but I consider them just like plain clothes. I don’t particularly dress her in any colorful dresses unless we’re maybe going to church or something, but for the most part she’s always wearing boys clothes and I put a barette in her hair once and I immediately felt internally this sense of femininity, like coming from her a 20 month old child and I was like, oh my gosh, she looks like a girl now and I now I see the difference and I didn’t realize that I had, I think I have been treating her like a boy because I dress her like a boy. And I wondered, you know, kind of like, oh, I, I think you mentioned before a lot of this stuff is the baggage the parent has. And I didn’t even realize I had all of this baggage about femininity and masculinity in a toddler, you know, so I don’t know how to undo it, I guess.
Dr. Brown: 16:09 Yeah. I mean there’s a great kind of classic study where they brought a baby into a lab and they dress. This is the exact same baby. They dress in the baby and pink clothes and called her Beth and then they had these participants come in and just interact with the baby and then they coded what it looks like. Then the other time they would dress it in blue and I think they named the Baby Adam. Again, the exact same baby. All that was different was what clothes they put them in and yeah, the adults that were interacting with the baby were talking about how cute and pretty and delicate at what this child was dressed in pink, but when the exact same child was dressed in blue, they made comments about how strong and tough and we’re more kind of physical with the baby.
Jen: 16:49 Wow.
Dr. Brown: 16:50 And it’s really subtle. I don’t think any parent goes into it thinking, oh, I’m going to treat my daughters differently than my sons. I think it’s just we’re also products of the culture. I mean I wrote a book on it. I’m still a product of the culture. I have to fight it, like aware of it myself because we also lived here and we grew up hearing in the same kind of messages and internalizing it and we have our own implicit biases even though we don’t really believe them, they’re just embedded in that part of our brain that, you know, internalized I’m not very good at math. I mean I have that and my husband jokes because I have my minor, my Ph.D Minors and Statistics, but I would say I’m not very good at math and so you could, you know, it’s like this internalized idea I had as a sixth grade girl, which isn’t really… Doesn’t match up with the objective reality of my life.
New Speaker: 17:40 Yeah. One would think that a phd minor would qualify you as not bad at math.
Dr. Brown: 17:46 I’m just trying to do it too, you know, that I don’t make the negative math comments [unintelligible] help you with that.
New Speaker: 17:52 Yeah. I was just thinking about a couple of examples that popped into my mind. Malaika when, when you first reached out to me and said, hey, I saw your podcast and I’m really interested in talking. I checked out your website and I saw pictures of Lucy, your daughter and you know, she was wearing boys clothes and it, I didn’t skim for her name, I just looked at the pictures and I think in my first email to you I referred to her as a him because I had assumed that your child was a boy based on the clothes and I didn’t think about it closely enough at the time to be able to remember back and see how did my thinking shift when I learned she was a girl. But I do remember being surprised when you first mentioned her name and. Oh, I thought she was a boy.
Malaika: 18:32 Yeah, I get it a lot and I’ve noticed it on the playground. So the reason we dress her in boy’s clothes is because she’s, you know, exploring the world and I don’t think it’s helpful for her to have, you know, clothing that wouldn’t, wouldn’t be effective for exploring the world. So I don’t want her legs and her legs to be exposed. So she’s not wearing dresses and it’s the Bay Area, so it’s never warm enough to wear shorts really. And so, you know, I put her in hard jeans or overalls and then I…in that sort of way of like, obviously I don’t own her, but I spend the money to buy her clothes and I don’t particularly like light colored girly clothes. I dress, you know, I have a female presenting body obviously, so my breasts and hips are obviously looking like a woman when I wear my clothes.
Malaika: 19:19 But when I put my clothes on her, she looks like a boy, I guess you would say. And I’m noticing it on the playground that everybody’s calling her a boy when they’re not really talking. And she’s not saying I’m not calling her name out. And I see the difference of the way sort of Dads interact with her on the, on the jungle gym and everything and like, oh, give him a chance and like, oh he’s here, here he comes and blah blah blah blah. And then when I start calling her name or saying, oh you know, she, oh, that’s just the way she is and that there’s a bit of confusion in that it seems to be there. There’s this innate sort of like, oh, you have to be polite for the girl and you have to let the girl go first or, or oh, that’s why she’s, I don’t know, I, maybe I’m looking through it in this new way because I didn’t intentionally… I’m not doing what I consider gender-neutral parenting. I’m just, I just don’t like frilly dresses so she doesn’t wear them. But I definitely noticed there’s a different interaction when they think she’s a girl. And then when they find, when they think she’s a boy and then when they find that out, she’s a girl. It’s curious.
Jen: 20:22 Yeah. You’re not dressing her in a sack like one of the examples in Christia’s book.
Malaika: 20:25 I mean honestly, I hate shopping so much. So if Target sold sacks, I would buy them.
Jen: 20:34 Christia, what do you think might be going on in Lucy’s mind when she hears people refer to her as a boy? Does it matter?
Malaika: 20:39 It doesn’t seem to matter. A great research answer for that because I don’t know that we know the answer to that – but kids aren’t confused when they learned their gender really early and again, I think they are much more sophisticated in how they understand gender, I think, than we often think that they are. So by about three, she’ll know her gender; in the next year or two, she’ll know that it can’t change. I think that the message that I’m dressing you in ways to be agentic and active and to play and be what toddlers should be is such a powerful message that it overrides any possible confusion it would bring, but typically they’re not confused. I mean, they’re called she enough and they know their gender that we don’t really ever seem to see any confusion just by wearing blue jeans.
Jen: 21:28 Yeah. The other thing I was thinking of, as you guys were talking a minute ago, was last night when I picked my daughter up from school, we were one of the last ones to go and another child was helping the teacher take a sort of a little carrier full of water bottles back into the classroom and my daughter said, “oh, he’s so strong.” And I said, yeah, he is, but he’s also older than you and you’ll be strong to get older. And I was just very cognizant in that moment that she already thinks of a boy as being strong. I wonder if she would have said the same thing if it was a girl who was carrying the carrier.
Dr. Brown: 22:01 Yeah. By about three and four is where you really see really elaborate gender stereotypes by kids. Again, strength, who’s more likely to cry, who’s more likely to be in charge, who’s likely to be the boss, who’s the doctor and who’s the nurse and even when their own doctor is a female. You know, we did a study one time where the kids, mom was actually a doctor and then we’re asking the kid, you know, who can be a doctor and they said only men, and we’re like, well, what does your mom do? Well, she’s a doctor. Okay. So there’s a real lack of logic that comes with being young but yet a very elaborate schema or kind of stereotype base for what boys and girls are like. And again, it’s even when the parents would be horrified by it, even when the parents aren’t doing it, the kids are doing it.
Jen: 22:55 I’m like, are you kidding me? We have a female doctor. And I thought I was off the hook on that one.
Malaika: 23:00 Right? Might like I said, my mom is a doctor and I remember in school not being able to solve that riddle of like, I can’t operate on this patient; it’s my son. And I was like, well how is it the son? You know, so these things are so prevalent and it is, like you said, it’s embedded in our brain so early. So Jen, like when you kind of said, you know, to Carys, oh, but you’ll be strong too. And I wonder how useful and I know that in studies of like kind of counteracting racism, it is more useful to talk about it with your children and address it. But I find myself being on the end of, especially with sexism and gender stereotypes, like the less I say… I don’t want to layer up too much because I feel sometimes then she’ll be aware that there is tension. This sort of like people do think girls aren’t good at things. So if I tell her girls are good at things and she’ll, she’ll be like, why would you say that? Is it important to do to add those little add on things when my daughter said something like, I do say, you know, oh she can be a doctor too or I don’t know. Is it important to really like kind of put those little tidbits out there for her or, or, or can I just not say anything and hopefully she’ll just get it. I, I think I know the answer…
Dr. Brown: 24:19 I think you have to say it and you have to say it almost every time because I think stereotypes are so ubiquitous that it’s like your voice has to be louder than all the other voices she hears because she’s going to just hear it everywhere in all sources, whether it be media or teachers at school or peers, and very well-meaning people, even people that you love your kids very much. It’s just so ubiquitous and pervasive that you really have to say it every time. Otherwise they don’t know the difference. They don’t know the difference between what’s real versus the stereotype unless you help them label it.
New Speaker: 25:01 Right.
New Speaker: 25:01 I wonder what you think about the idea – I’m thinking back to Piaget and child development theory and the idea that the experience that the child has, the, you know, the physical experience of something is, is very important and possibly more important than things that we tell them. Is it important to, you know, every time you go for a doctor’s visit to talk about how the doctor is a woman or you know, how can you, is it important, firstly, I guess, when you’re talking about a gender and the development of gender identity. And secondly, how do you personally and how would you think about us as we are navigating this issue for ourselves as suggest that we could use that idea to help our children?
Dr. Brown: 25:41 Well, I do think, I mean, so I think Piaget was spot on and that much of his theories and how he talked about childhood is that kids are really active constructors of their world. They look at the world and they come up with their own ideas about how things are and the problem is their ideas are often pretty skewed and so kids are really active and coming up with ideas and those ideas are really stereotypical typically. And so they need help noticing the things that don’t fit the stereotype. So humans just in general, whether it be children or adults, they kind of overlook the things that don’t fit the stereotype. So they overlook when they see women doing jobs that they assume men do. An example is just my own daughter, and again I studied this and I’ve studied this before. I had kids, so I’ve done this the whole time, but my daughter was five, my husband’s a firefighter and we were at the… So that’s replete with gender stereotypes. We’re at the fire station, she’s making a and we were driving home and she makes the comment about how only men can be firefighters. I forget the way she said it, but something about only boys are firefighters. The problem is my husband had a woman on his fire fire truck. I mean one of his people that were in his fire station that we saw every time is a woman. She’s always wearing firefighter gear. It’s not like she’s out of context. Her, you know, my daughter’s entire life. There was a woman firefighter that she saw on a regular basis, but she still made the comment about only boys do that. And so, because I’ve hadn’t pointed it out, I hadn’t pointed out. Wow, isn’t that great that there’s a woman on Dad’s fire truck? You know, I didn’t, I had never. I guess I just assumed it was kind of obvious, but. So she had made a stereotype based on other cultural messages that was completely counter to what her own daily experiences were.
New Speaker: 27:33 Wow.
Dr. Brown: 27:34 Yeah, I was shocked.
Jen: 27:36 And so you said…
Dr. Brown: 27:39 So you know, that’s why I point… No, I make the point that’s in my book, but I say it a lot is that we really have to point it out all the time because partly it’s, you’re pointing out the that either or kind of thinking. So only boys can be firefighter. Well maybe that’s not that big of a deal, but I have to say, no, not all boys want to be firefighters and there are girls that want to be firefighters to. And so think about (and I named this woman that we knew). So it’s like, I kind of try to catch it every single time. I mean, you know, given busy lives and things like that, but I try to catch it more times than not because I feel like if you don’t, their brains just skip over it and are in form the stereotypes consistent with all the other messages that they’re getting.
Jen: 28:25 Yeah. Okay. I want to back out a little bit to the theory about how children develop these ideas because we talked at the beginning about how when they’re born they’re essentially boys and girls who were essentially kind of the same, but they get as they get socialized and get older. That changes and so I want to think through the idea about how people form categories as a way of making sense of the world and by the time this episode goes out, listeners will be able to look back to an episode that I recorded with Yarrow Dunham who’s a professor of psychology at Yale and his entire research focuses on how people form categories. I wonder if you can help us to understand what this means for the way that girls and boys think about each other and also the way that parents and teachers think about both girls and boys.
Dr. Brown: 29:13 Yeah, I mean we do seem to be pretty hard wired to look at categories and I think it was helpful evolutionarily, you know, in terms of it helps restrict all the information I have to process and when it comes to gender I can kind of only pay attention to half of the things as opposed to all the possible variables if I just have a boy set up kind of characteristics or girls that have characteristics it helps me process information much quicker. And so we know then that. I mean that’s part of the problem is that we do seem to be really early latching onto it and so our brains kind of want to look for categories and then everything that we do from the minute we’re born is designed to foster attention to gender above anything else. You know, whether it’s kind of scotch taping the bow on the baby’s head or putting them in the pink or the pink, it’s like… and then parents are kind of horrified if you miscategorized their kid. If you say, oh, what a cute boy is. And then you say, oh, well, you know, in my case I said, oh, her name is Grace. The other person is just kind of horrified that they categorized your baby wrong. So we seem to really want those categories really early and we fostered it all the way through. And so I think that, that, you know, there’s a lot of research that says that making things look artificially distinct. So giving girls very, very feminine clothes and boys, very masculine clothes, giving girls everything pink and boys everything blue. Um, you know, it’s really bad and preschools and kindergartens where you have the people will to boards. And the blue bulletin boards, teachers, you know, say good morning boys and girls, it’s kind of labeled all the time. That basically plugs into that tendency. We have already to want to categorize people. And so it says, here’s this category. And this category is the most important thing about you because we’re gonna use it all the time.
Jen: 31:09 Yeah, I was. I was a prize winner in primary school, actually. I grew the tallest sunflower, but I was only one of two prizes because I was the girl with the tallest sunflower and there was also a boy’s prize. And it’s like, why? Why do we need a prize for the tallest girl’s sunflower and the tallest boy’s sunflower
Dr. Brown: 31:31 So what it does is it tells kids this is the most important characteristic about you, so you better really pay attention to everything about this because we’re gonna really hit you over the head with your gender is going to determine everything. Yeah. And then again, the problem isn’t. It interacts with that natural tendency we seem to have. So that’s partly why it takes hold and flourishes.
Jen: 31:54 So I was going to ask you about where children get ideas about the way individuals in different groups behave. But I think you’ve already answered that. What you’re telling us is that we tell them it, right?
Dr. Brown: 32:04 Yeah. And the problem is we say it in a really subtle way and but kids are just really savvy. I mean they had to learn a whole language. They learn how to interact in the world, not because we explicitly taught them, they just paid attention and same way they just pay attention when, you know, women make comments about their own weight. Little girls here that and pay attention to that and start to internalize negative ideas about their bodies. They pay attention to men when they’re talking about know how weak it is to cry and things like that. Even when they’re not directed to kids, they all pick up on that really subtle stuff or when boys play with the doll and the dad looks a little bit uncomfortable, he doesn’t stop it, but he looks a little bit uncomfortable. They noticed that. And then, you know, they watch media for about five minutes and it’s really almost impossible to avoid kind of stereotypes. They’re just really more attuned than adults think. And then the problem is adults don’t talk about it, you know, we’d know to always be pointing it out a second. We don’t want to harp on it all the time, but instead they’re just picking up on our subtle biases and they’re not hearing are more explicit messages about the damage of the stereotype.
Jen: 33:22 Malaika, I’m wondering now you hear this, do you notice any differences in the way that you and your husband treat Lucy?
Malaika: 33:29 I’m not sure. I mean, I think, like I said, I think when it comes to physicality and physical things, I think we have given her free rein and I think I treat her almost like a boy and sometimes I think my mind shifts to like, “Would you tell a boy that they couldn’t do this?” And so I kind of think I purposely do that. My husband does as well. I think in other areas emotional and communication. We, I guess treat her like a girl. We are, you know, very, um, you know, huggy, touchy, feely and, and affectionate with her. We’re all so. I, you know, I think maybe because of the sort of type of parenting we’re doing, we’re very open to her opinions. And then we like her to be vocal and we listen to what she has to say and I don’t know if she was a boy, if I would be, I, we listen to what she has to say, but I don’t, I think I would expect less essentially, along the lines of verbal communication.
Malaika: 34:34 So, you know, we try to overcome that and I think we try in our own ways to, like I said, when I put a barette on her hair and I was like, Whoa, what is this feeling I have that she’s a girl. So we try to kind of see that. But there’s so much that we do that we don’t realize we do, you know, until afterwards. And I think that’s the hardest thing is just trying to figure out, oh, did I do it back when I said that, you know, that’s not very nice. Like why, why did I tell her that I want to go back and say something different, you know, because I think we do it and we don’t realize we do it.
Jen: 35:10 Yeah. I, I was thinking that would make a fascinating study. Malika and I actually use the same approach to parenting is called Resources for Infant Educators and it’s based on the idea of respect for children and I wonder if that inherently means that, you know, we talk with our children more because you have to have this give and take persists. And I wonder if there were more parents of girls than there are boys that could be, I don’t know. So. Okay. So once a girl knows that she’s a girl and sort of by extension that she’s not a boy, it seems like our culture and the way that we treat her helps her to develop ideas about how those groups are different. And I, in your book you quote a piece of research called Boys will be Boys and Cows will be Cows. Can you tell us about that Christia?
Dr. Brown: 36:02 Well, I love it. I think the title is super clever, but the study was really fascinating and I think points to why these really subtle stereotypes can be so detrimental long term. And it’s the idea that kids are what they call a essentialists. So they assume that if there’s any subtle difference between groups, it must reflect real meaningful innate and unchangeable differences. So I mean, so for example, that study they did, they told kids these stories in which there were… Well, I mean the, I’ll say the title of it stems from the idea of if there was a cow raised by a family of pigs with the cow grow up to moo or to oink, right. And so we all kind of know that the cow’s gonna moo, no matter who’s raising it, is not going to start oinking just because it’s raised by pigs. So that’s a little bit of the origin of the title.
Dr. Brown: 36:56 But the idea was what do they think about people, do they think people have the same kind of different species as cows and pigs? So they ask kids, you know, there is a boy he’s raised on this island with just women and girls and the women and girls like to play with tea sets and do these really kind of feminine types of tasks. What would the boy wants to do when he grows up? And kids were more likely to say he would want to grow up and be a firefighter and do all of these things that the boy had zero exposure to and that he wouldn’t be interested in any of these feminine tasks even though we know that’s all he’d ever been exposed to. So part of the idea that they think that there’s something essential about boys that’s true to them, no matter what their exposure is.
Dr. Brown: 37:44 And the same for girls. If girls were raised on an island with only boys and men, what would they grow up to do? And the girls in the study say things like they would grow up and want to paint their fingernails and you know, fix their hair and do all of these things that we know well, they would have no context at all for that. But kids are essentialists. So they think that there’s these traits and qualities of girls that exists within them that are not at all related to kind of socialization. That they’re just innate and unchangeable. So girls are just biologically predisposed to want to paint their nails and fix their hair. But we know that that can’t actually be true, you know, nail polish is a new phenomenon in human history, there can’t be anything genetic about that.
Jen: 38:30 Uh huh. Okay. And so how do those changes kind of changed the way the brain develops and then maybe change the behavior over time? Does that shift as the child gets older?
Dr. Brown: 38:41 Well, I mean part of it is, the idea is that so kids think we are at our essence very different then they only typically pursue things that are right for their group. So if girls are at their essence different than boys as a girl should only want to hang out with girls. I should only want to be friends with girls. We don’t want to hang out and talk to the boys. And so we see these massive levels of gender segregation. So you know, you go to a preschool and the girls are on one side and the boys are on the other and they do not cross. I mean they do on occasion, but as a general rule, there’s lots and lots of just self-segregated play. And so what happens then is the girls socialize themselves to be more and more girl-like because that’s who they’re hanging out with.
Dr. Brown: 39:22 That’s all what they’re doing and the boys interact and get more and more boy like. And then that does lead to changes. So we know that the brain.. We have lots, millions and millions of neurons that are connected to other neurons. And if those connections in our brain aren’t being used, if we’re not practicing skills, if we’re not engaging in certain kinds of behaviors, those parts of our brain literally wither away early in life; it’s called synaptic pruning. So it’s like you have all these synapses where one neuron connects to another. If those things aren’t being used, the brain has to be more efficient so it gets rid of them; it prunes them away. And those are pruned away forever. So if girls are not doing a lot of, for example, rough and tumble play and kind of running around and throwing the ball and getting used to their body and space and those types of things, those types of skills, if they’re not developed early, the brain makes changes to fit with what their experiences are and those are permanent lifelong changes that basically lead us each to be more stereotypical versions of ourselves than we would have been had we been given a full range of behaviors.
Jen: 40:36 You’re encouraging me to think about taking a ball out to the park tonight, except that it’s chucking it down with rain. You make me want to go and do it right now.
Malaika: 40:47 I’ve read..I’ve heard of things like that before and that is again why we’re doing. I don’t want to say we’re doing anything. We don’t do very much very actively, but why we give Lucy, you know, boys clothes to play in because I think it promotes more of a free range of motion. And, and again, it’s like, you know, you don’t, you’re not telling girls to always stay clean and neat and tidy because they have a pretty white dress on. But where, how can I keep that going once she starts having friends? And my biggest concern is that once she does start socializing more and getting more girl-like how can I keep her, those synapses firing by promoting physical activity and promoting physical play that maybe her other girlfriends won’t want to do. Any suggestions?
Dr. Brown: 41:35 I mean, you’re kind of walking two worlds. So at school there is this really rigid definition of what they’re supposed to be. The girls are really supposed to play with the other girls and partly that’s just how they navigate their own social worlds at school. So partly then you just have to know about countering that when they’re not in school. So you know, extracurricular activities are really can be really important. So you know, my own… And that can be hard to avoid really gendered types of activities. You know, my kids do taekwondo now and they love it. But one reason I love it is because it is the exact same for the girls and the boys, they dressed the same, they do the same stuff, I mean, it’s a really diverse gender diverse and ethnically diverse kind of activity and that’s a pretty hard thing to find.
Dr. Brown: 42:25 But so part of it is just giving them a big range of options outside of school. And I also have never allowed them to have that level of gender segregation and other ways. So for example, when they have birthday parties, we invite both boys and girls and they do it at things like the trampoline park that is popular in my town, and places like that that both boys and girls can come because there’ll be a lot of parties that I learned the hard way when they start kindergarten, that’s just the girls are invited or just the boys are invited. And so I never would allow that because I said no, we can be friends with everyone and that we’re just not going to cut people out just because they’re not the same gender as you. And I draw the analogy with race; I said we would not invite kids just because they have a different skin color than you are not going to not invite them just because they’re a different gender than you.
Dr. Brown: 43:21 But again, I try to give them a real strong language for understanding the problems with only playing with girls. So both my kids are girls, and so I talk about it’s know we have boy neighbors. I made sure that they had boy friendships outside of school because I knew that there was pressure at school to only hang out with their gender group
New Speaker: 43:44 OK. Well that will work for us. Okay.
Dr. Brown: 43:51 So it can be exhausting, but it’s a defined once you, once they get that language. So here’s the hope at the end of year kind of tunnel. So my kids are six and 12 and now it’s much easier for me because they have a really good language for a gender stereotype they can spot them. It’s a lot less work for me now because they are kind of advocates for themselves. So it’s hard that first five or six years and then once they start being able to spot them, then it’s like the light switch is turned on and they know what’s the stereotype versus what’s an actual difference and they know why it’s unfair when only boys do something and how that, that’s kind of bias and they know what that means in their own, you know, six year old version of that or 12 year old version of that. So it does get easier once that foundation gets laid.
Jen: 44:43 Mhmm. And I’m just thinking for parents who are listening to this who were probably busy and you know, they’re trying to figure out what preschool to send their child to and they’ve got so much on their plate and you know, when you think about something like gender or you might listen to all this and think, well why bother? This sounds like a lot of mental effort to try and keep track of all this stuff and then formulate your thoughts as to what you’re going to say and remember to say it each time. And, and to me, it seems as though the why bother is because you want to try and not close off opportunities for your child and what parent doesn’t want that, right? Am I getting to the crux of the issue there?
Dr. Brown: 45:20 Yeah. Because, you know, there’s this data that’s so I think that’s so depressing in that, you know, nine year olds are on diets, you know, I forget the stat off the top of my head, but something like one fourth of nine year old girls are unhappy with their body and restricting their eating by the time they’re in middle school. That number is like 80 percent are unhappy with their bodies. In high school, boys get mercilessly teased for being any kind of version of atypical. So a boy that likes to read gets teased and harassed in middle school. There’s lots of sexual harassment that goes on in middle school. I mean, the reality is that world is coming and it’s coming whether you want to kind of deal with it or not. So I would way rather equip them to deal with that. And then, you know, school choices are going to be really important.
Dr. Brown: 46:11 They’re going to have to make choices about whether they pursue advanced math in high school because they’re not going to be able to major in things if they don’t take math in high school, but they got to start that in middle school. I mean, the problem is that it comes quickly. I know it’s hard to know it when you just have an infant or a toddler, but the next thing you know they were like in first grade and then it seems like overnight they’re in middle school and you’re like, oh my gosh. Now we’ve got to start thinking about are you going to take Algebra 1? So it comes really quickly and so it is a lot of effort, but I think the negative consequences are so disheartening that for me, it’s hard for me to get those kinds of stats out of my head.
Jen: 46:52 Well, thanks for that – ending on a depressing note. As we wrap up, I wonder if Malaika, I’m can ask you to do the same thing in a second. I’m going to just mention one thing that I’m going to do differently coming out of this and I’ll give you a minute to think by going first. I think I am going to make a very conscious effort and I mentioned already the idea of playing with a ball when we go outside and not just going to the park and playing on the equipment all the time, but having a different experience of being outside. And then the other thing I’m going to do more of is make sure that my daughter sees me doing things that show that I’m capable with my hands because I actually really enjoy woodwork and I have hardly done any of it since she was born. We just got a new bed for her and we put it together last night and I made the conscious decision that she and I were going to do it together so that she could see me doing that and it wouldn’t be my husband, you know, giving the orders and taking charge of the DIY project. So I’m going to make a conscious effort to do more of that. Malaika, is there anything that you might do differently now that you have this information?
Malaika: 47:56 I think, well, the one thing I really am going to do, which I said I struggled to do before was actually point out when a woman or a man is doing something against the stereotype because I think I had this foolish idea, like I said, even though I know that this is a problem that we face when we’re contracting racism, you know, to point out a stereotype and, and, and, and refute it. I was like, oh, well if she sees, you know, like I said her, her doctor or the woman, my mom’s a, a woman and she’s a doctor and, and she also knows women carpenters. I kind of figured that was sending some sort of signaling to her, but I really do think I need to actually verbalize and point things out and maybe stop a little bit of the gender neutrality that I’ve been trying to push. And you know, like say “yes she is driving a truck” rather than “that person is driving it.” I think I, I thought I was doing it in a, in a sort of, I’m a helpful way, but I think it’s actually passive and neutral, so I need to kind of enforce some – or, de-neutralize my gender neutrality by actually pointing out when something is going against the stereotypes. I’m really going to be conscious of that. I think.
Jen: 49:09 Do you have any concluding advice for us, Christia?
Dr. Brown: 49:12 You know, I think it’ll continue to be struggled. So now as they get older, I think you’ll see that when they go to like three year old, four year old preschool, it gets intensified. The princess culture gets really…
Jen: 49:25 Was that sharp inhalation from Malaika?
Malaika: 49:29 Yes, I’m worried about it. It’s going to be hard for me.
Dr. Brown: 49:33 And I think, you know, part of it is you just have to kind of double down and you know, my kids had been given lots of toys that I’m perfectly okay throwing away. I donate a lot of them and some of them, I don’t want to say it, some of them I don’t want any kids to play with, so they’re going in the trash. And so I think part of it is just always reinforcing that because the outside forces are going to get louder and so partly it’s just kind of knowing that how you do it, I really do think matters. I mean I see my kids now like they really are well balanced, diverse kids, you know, they wear girl clothes and boy clothes they play, you know, they play with Legos but they also have girl friends. So I mean I do think you see the effects, you just have to be kind of competent that you’re not the crazy one because I think the messages are going to be, of course they should have Barbies. Of course they should have Bratz dolls. Why not? This is what girls like, and it just kind of feel confident that you’re doing it the right way.
Jen: 50:32 Alright, there is hope parents. Super well, thanks so much for joining us on this episode of your parenting Mojo. If you’re interested, you can find the references to today’s show, including a link to Dr Brown’s book Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue at YourParentingMojo.com/Pink


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.


  1. Annika on May 17, 2017 at 5:11 AM

    I have been listening to your podcasts for a number of months now and very much enjoy them. My parenting leans towards RIE and AP but I am not perfect at all.
    This episode might be among my favorites also because it is such an important topic.
    I had one problem with it though and it might not have occurred either of you but the focus was very much on girls – how to point out all the women in male dominated jobs etc. that’s important of course. But I missed strategies for boys. I have a son (as well as a stepson and -daughter) so it’s important to me to fight all the boy related stereotypes. I was at a children’s event recently where face painting was offered. The girls got to choose among a variety of pictures (flowers, butterflies, cats etc) while for the boys it was pirates or action figures. Anyway, just wanted to let you know my thoughts and have been meaning to do that for quite a while already. Thank you for your work!

    • Jen Lumanlan on December 9, 2017 at 6:25 AM

      You’re welcome, Annika – hope the episode on raising emotionally healthy boys helped you! (www.yourparentingmojo.com/healthyboys)

  2. Rachel Ryan McMillan on March 29, 2018 at 3:17 PM

    I LOVE you podcast, Jen! — It has been exactly what I was looking for: academic but human, and you introduced me to RIE which has been a game-changer in my relationship with my two-year-old son. I am an art therapist, so the episodes on creativity and learning hit on my artistic side, and the episodes that delve into gender and culture help me plug my my social-justice/therapist side into parenting.

    One thing that struck me with this episode: Malaika mentioned how she tends to dress her daughter in clothing from the boys’ department, describing how she feels like this fits her daughter’s high activity level. I find myself doing the opposite action for what I thought was the same reason: I tend to buy him leggings and “jeggings” from the girls’ department because they’re stretchier (easier to move in) and less baggy (less likely to get caught in things that he’s tumbling on), thinking that girls’ pants are easier for my son to be active in … but now I’m wondering if I have been using that rationale to avoid pushing him into clothing that I associate with masculine stereotypes. And I’m thinking as I type this that we often have multiple reasons for the choices we make, many of them unconscious… which fits into this episode’s message of talking about these underlying beliefs in an open way.

    Thanks for doing the research for me, and prompting me to think through the many, many choices I make each day that affect my vibrant, adventurous, creative child!

    • Jen Lumanlan on July 11, 2018 at 8:36 PM

      Sorry for the slow response on this one, Rachel – funny you should mention it, but I was actually struck by the same thing while Malaika was talking. We dress Carys in leggings and t-shirts (when we can get her out of pajamas!) because to us it seems as though they allow freedom of movement. But yes, I think the ultimate goal is not to determine once and for all whether leggings or baggy pants are best for our child but to see what kind of clothes our child is most comfortable in, and to examine our impressions of and assumptions about that style of clothes if it veers away from traditional gendered clothing options.

      Glad you find the show useful!

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