And then, poof, somewhere around their first birthday, it was as if the gender fairy flitted into our house and waved her magic wand, dusting them both with stereotypes. All of a sudden, my girl twin started ferrying around the toy chest’s lone baby doll, tending to his manifold needs as much as her rudimentary coordination would allow. At the same time, my boy twin became absolutely obsessed with smartphones. He keyed in numbers and toggled buttons with gusto. He had a strange reverence for wires and the act of charging.
Here they were, at 1 year old, poster children for the power of nature over nurture when it comes to typical gender play. The writing, it would seem, was on the wall.
As parents, we are endlessly fascinated by the differences between our sons and our daughters, and boys and girls are different, no doubt about it. There is far too much anecdotal and scientific evidence to suggest that the kind of gender typical behavior we notice in the children all around us is statistically insignificant. The important question, however, is not whether such sex-specific behavior occurs—we know it does. The important question is why it occurs.
Twins, it turns out, are particularly illuminating here. According to a large study of three and four year old twins, cited by neuroscientist Lise Eliot as part of her extensive research on this topic in Pink Brain, Blue Brain, “typical gender play is roughly 50 percent heritable” and 50 percent socially determined. Which means that whether your son plays with cars or your daughter nurses her stuffed animals could, in a totally neutral atmosphere, boil down to the flip of a coin. Internalize that for a moment. And then compare it to what you witness on a daily basis in your own home, as well as in the wider world. I’m guessing those real-life scenes make a mockery of any putative heads-or-tails divide.
The reason for the gap between the theory of what is innate and the reality of what we see is us. It is the parents: our preconceptions, our expectations, the colors we decorate with, the toys we buy, the opportunities we fashion, the messages we send. None of it is done maliciously, much of it is done unwittingly, and it’s not entirely our faults, either: we are up against towering forces in the marketplace and in the media. It’s fair to say, in fact, that the entire parenting ethos right now is characterized by an over-privileging of both gender’s relevance and its explanatory power—characterized, that is, by the tendency to give gender disproportionate weight at the expense of other factors such as pecking order or (non sex-based) temperament: My son is wild because he is a boy. My daughter likes princesses because she is a girl.
But the truth is, if twins are to be believed, that gender doesn’t have anywhere near the inherent explanatory power we like to think. And the rub is that the more stock we put in it as parents, the more we perpetuate the unnecessary stereotypes it gives rise to.
My own twins have showed me what can happen when you break that cycle. For instead of boxing them in, based on their early—and presumably hardwired—display of predilection (dolls for her, technology for him), I worked hard to keep options and doors open: in their games, in their clothing, in their senses of self. I didn’t simply reinforce their initial interests by treating those first forays into play as immutable points on the map of their nascent personalities, because the young brain is not immutable. It is plastic: it changes and adapts to experience.
In the early years, it is the parents who are responsible for what a child experiences. It is the parents who decide what a child is exposed to or not: whether a boy is allowed to push a stroller or have the pink bike he covets; whether a girl is allowed to opt out of frilly dresses or dig for worms.
Does all of this really matter, you might ask? Is the effort it takes to create an even quasi gender-neutral environment in which to raise our kids really worth it? Well, it only matters, as Eliot says, it’s only worth it, if you are looking to elicit from your children the “full spectrum of emotional and cognitive abilities.”
My twins are 4 now and, while they have picked up on the construct that certain things are “for girls” and certain things are “for boys,” they are very happy to circumvent the categories. My son wears nail polish and dresses and sparkly shoes. My daughter is more likely than any of her three brothers to stop on the street and watch a digger in action. They both play with dolls, they both play with gadgets. They both enjoy Sofia the First. They both run riot as superheroes.
And yet, they also both continue to exhibit typical gender traits. Which is fine. The aim is not to make childhood a wholly unisex affair: whether a baby is born a boy or a girl will always count. The aim, rather, is to strike a middle ground where gender is embraced, but not used to limit or pigeonhole. Where it is nurtured, but not used to justify. To let girls be girls and boys be boys to the extent that it is a natural outgrowth of who they are as human beings and not an artificial reflection of what society tells us they should be.
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