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Yes, Biology Helps Explain Why Boys and Girls Play Differently

Photo: Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty Images

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.

Many progressive folks resist such talk, misinterpreting it as a normative claim — that males should act this way, while females should act that way — or a claim that we’re all just pawns of biological determinism, so there’s nothing much we can do about gender inequity and so on. But it’s neither: It’s just an acknowledgment that biological influences are real and can’t be scrubbed out of the human-behavior equation, especially when it comes to very young kids.

There’s other evidence supporting the idea of behavioral differences driven by innate biological factors, anyway. That evidence “comes from studying girls who were exposed to high levels of testosterone prenatally, in the case of a genetic condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia, or CAH,” Soh explains. “Girls with CAH tend to be gender nonconforming, and will prefer toys that are typical to boys, even when their parents offer more praise for playing with female-typical ones. This speaks to the vital role of hormones in developing gender preferences and sex differences in behavior, more broadly.” Research not only suggests these differences exist, in other words, but has begun understanding the mechanisms which produce them.

Soh’s piece is interesting to read in the broader context of society’s conversation about parenting. It feels like many parents, regardless of their personal beliefs on gender roles or feminism or whatever, worry that their kids’ play habits indicate something troubling. Either about the kid, or about them as parents. For liberal parents, it’s the gender-role stuff. For more conservative-minded parents, it’s longstanding worries about sissies and tomboys — a doctor on Fox News’ medical team, for example, called a woman “nuts” in 2012 for giving her boys dolls and her girls action figures. The toy panic also intertwines, in interesting ways, with the broader conversation about gender-dysphoric and trans kids — it’s quite common to hear the parents explain that one of the reasons they know their kid has a gender identity different from the one corresponding to their natal sex is their choice of toys.

Maybe parents should just relax a little. Sure, give your child a range of different types of toys to play with, so as to get a glimpse at their early preferences. But as long as your kid seems to enjoy playing, and as long as you are letting them know that whatever toys they play with, you love them, you aren’t going to screw them up just by letting them mess around with the toys they like. You probably have less say in the matter than you think you do, anyway.

Biology Helps Explain Why Boys and Girls Play Differently