Blue snow cone juice melting down her chin, she stepped up to lead the group. “Let’s talk,” said 7 year old Tatum. She and her younger sister, Kenna, were camped on lounge chairs at the pool with my two boys. The crew had been swimming for a couple hours and were ready for a few minutes of quiet snow cone slurping. After this lull, Tatum initiated a conversation. My boys looked perplexed. Maybe it was the chlorine and sunshine, but the concept of talking for the sake of talking was foreign. Patrick and James are rarely ever quiet in their play with their boy buddies, but a lot of the conversation is action oriented. Tatum introduced some possible topics (I would love to have this moment on video) and they were soon chattering away.
Tatum and Kenna were my boys, closest girl friends. There was usually a short warm up time, but then the play was fantastic. The girls went through a Box Car children books phase and insisted we read them also so Patrick and James could be Henry and Benny to the girls’ Violet and Jessie (the Box Car children are orphans who live in a train box car). We had a memorable play date while they acted out adventures. The other highlight of this play date was the drainage ditch on the girls’ property that was filled with salamanders. All 4 went in knee deep after the elusive amphibians.
Tatum and Kenna moved to Ohio and our play dates are now almost exclusively with other boys. My suggestions of girl classmates to invite are usually rejected. The boys spend most of their time with other boys. Their female classmates spend most of their time with other girls. More time together would enrich their play and development. The separation reinforces subtle differences between boys and girls. There are biological differences between boys and girls, but environment can do a lot to reinforce and magnify the differences. Environment or nurture can also bridge the differences and provide opportunities for girls and boys to explore their full potential rather than be limited by a pink or blue playscape.
In Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot, writes about the biology. Boy babies are bathed in testosterone in the womb; this signals the reproductive organs to go male. Boy babies tend to be larger and somewhat fussier than girls and more vulnerable to illness. During the first two years they are more or less attracted to the same toys. Around 2-3 years old, they start to realize there is a thing called a girl or a boy. Their toy and activity preferences may become more aligned to gender as a way to “stay” a girl or boy. Young preschool age children are still mastering the concept of permanence. Their view of themselves as a boy or girl may have less to do with body parts and more to do with superficial appearance. When my niece was born, my son (age 5 at the time), asked, “Why did they give her a girl’s name? She doesn’t have any hair. How did they know she was a girl?” His definition of a boy or girl was based on hair. Boys had short hair, girls have long hair.
This preschool preference can become solidified by confining our girls or boys to stereotypical play or activities. While our girls may love the princesses, they also love other kinds of play and we need to continue offering a wide array of choices. Other differences Lise Eliot identified in the research are girls tend to be stronger in writing and weaker in spatial navigation. These are overall differences and there will be many individual exceptions. These are also not fixed. There is an amazing human development capability called “neuroplasticity.” Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change based on experience. The younger the child, the greater the effect. Given opportunities and support girls and boys can develop strength in many areas of learning and development. Pink Brain, Blue Brain has become a favorite of mine because Lise Eliot breaks down the research into a readable format and gives great parenting ideas on how to support our boys and girls in all areas.
Our boys are awesome and our girls are mighty. When I go to my nieces’ house, I enter a parallel world where everything is pink and purple. In their wake, they leave a trail of housekeeping toys, dolls, and art supplies. They are quick to branch out though when given the opportunity and the house has pockets of primary colored activity. Madalyn loves puzzles and trains. Caitlyn holds her own with her older cousin’s boy buddies at birthday parties. She is athletic and assertive. All the cousins have developed a love for ‘pop’ music and have raucous sing-a-longs in the car. Our children need our support in keeping their options open so they can grow up to be strong, capable people.