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Book commentary- Pink Brain Blue Brain

gloudon's picture

                                                                        Book Commentary – Pink Brain Blue Brain

        Lise Eliot’s book, Pink Brain Blue Brain, is an in depth exploration of the differences between the brains of girls and boys. Eliot wades her way through studies and breaks down proposed differences of the physiological, chemical, and behavioral types. With each break down, the conclusion often results in little or no physiological difference, but rather a behavioral difference. This book sheds light on parenting and teaching styles that can prevent these behaviorally different tendencies from becoming gender stereotypes. Through the perspective of our discussion of the differences between men and women in class, I believe Eliot takes her suggestions too far. I disagree with her concept equalizing the strengths of boys and girls, as there are many important differences that are essential to the balance of society.
         Eliot begins with infancy, where she identifies one of the only chemical/physiological cause of difference between boys are girls. The prenatal testosterone serge is a major factor in the difference between male and female lab mice. Proof of the effects of prenatal testosterone comes from the behavior of male mice castrated after the end of the prenatal testosterone serge (at four days). Male mice castrated before reaching 4 days acted more like female mice, because they had not been exposed to as much testosterone, meaning that the prenatal testosterone serge is doing some kind of pre-wiring that makes boys into boys. Although there is no direct connection between the effects of the prenatal testosterone serge on male babies and male baby mice (32), “There is evidence that the TE area (in the temporal lobe) develops more slowly in males… due to testosterone” (78).
            Moving past the cause of difference (testosterone), Eliot focused on behavioral tendencies. She agreed that statements like “you can’t play dress-up, you’re a boy” and “girls aren’t allowed to play football” are normal in our culture (120). She also made distinctions between girls’ and boys’ toys and activities. Eliot classified “balls, bats, and trucks” as boys’ “preferred toys”, while girls preferred “feeding a baby doll [or] playing house” (131). I found Eliot's recognition of these differences in attraction to toys important because they are both true from both the scientific prospective and the day to day perspective of anyone who have ever been around children.
            Designating toys by gender allowed for Eliot’s discussion of the strengths generated in each sex through playing with certain toys. Overall, she argued that “doll play and pretend parenting reinforce social-emotional skills” (typically in girls) (130). On the other hand, boys are drawn toward “balls, bats, trucks...[and] all their shoot-'em-up play...[which] is great for developing a child's visuospatial sense” (131). Once again, these are the stereotypical results that come from playing largely with dolls versus balls. Naturally, playing with dolls builds nurturing social skills as the little girl feeds, changes and soothes her doll. This type of play encourages little girls to anticipate the feelings of someone who cannot communicate - an essential part of developing strong social skills. Oppositely, little boys do anything but nurture their footballs, rather they learn spatial skills from passing, kicking, and catching. Consequently, these very different sets of to toys develop opposite strengths and weaknesses in boys and girls. These strengths and weaknesses are what Eliot believes pose as challenges when children enter school.
                 As children enter kindergarten and begin their academic careers, the strengths developed during pre-school play become evident. Little girls began to excel in language - a product of playing kitchen and caring for their dolls and little “boys are more often the fidgety ones” (148). The deficiency of boys’ play starts here according to Eliot. During their pre-school years, boys are given “balls, bats, and trucks” which fall short in stimulating conversation (131). Rather, these toys promote outdoor exercise, just the opposite of the majority of plans during the school day. Oppositely, these spatial skills will benefit boys when numbers and shapes enter into the curriculum, leaving girls behind with their advanced social skills. So, should parents do something to combat this discrepancy in ability?
                According to Eliot, these discrepancies between the strengths and weaknesses of girls and boys produced are by their respective toys. She believes that "children's brains will never again be more malleable than they are during the preschool years [which provides a chance to] inoculate boys and girls against the potential trouble spots in their development" (137). Eliot promotes "ball games, sports, building toys, and visuospatial computer games” to develop little girls spatial skills. Similarly, she alerts "parents of boys [to] take note, because there’s a lot to be gained from playing with dolls" (130). Through these careful toy choices, Eliot believes that parents can promote the development of spatial skills in girls though traditionally boy oriented toys and promote the development of social skills in boys through traditionally girl oriented toys. Through the switch up, Eliot believes it is possible to turn weaknesses into strengths and equalize the skills of girls and boys.
              In my opinion, encouraging children to play with toys they naturally dislike is the wrong approach. I believe that the different strengths and weakness that make a woman a woman and not a man are important (and vice versa for men). In class, Professor Grobstein often talked about the difference between men and women while driving in unfamiliar territory and being potentially lost. His story ends somewhere along the lines of men not wanting to ask for directions because they believe they know exactly where they are according the picture in their head. In contrast, women want to stop and ask for directions because they determine their location based upon landmarks and are therefore willing admit to being lost as there is no picture in their head to rely on. This story supports my faith in the intentional difference between the thought paths of men and women. If both men and women had the same spatial skills, both would have the same picture of the map in their heads, and neither would admit to being lost.
          The different strengths and weaknesses between men and women are important for balance. If both sexes come to the table with equal strengths, problems will be viewed from a single angle. Therefore, the pattern of buying “girl toys” for girls and “boy toys” for boys if for the most part, a good thing because they foster different strengths. It takes this difference to solve the problems of the world and to locate grandma's house over the river and through the woods. For this reason, I disagree with Eliot and promote children playing with the toys of their choice.



                                                                                      Works Cited

Eliot, Lise. Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome
Gaps--and What We Can Do about It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
2009. Print.


Serendip Visitor's picture

"If both sexes come to the

"If both sexes come to the table with equal strengths, problems will be viewed from a single angle. Therefore, the pattern of buying “girl toys” for girls and “boy toys” for boys if for the most part, a good thing because they foster different strengths."

I think Eliot's point is exactly that 'boy toys' and 'girl toys' foster different strengths, and so by encouraging children to play with both sorts of toys, the child's potential strengths, whether or not they are gender-typical, have a better chance to develop. In this way, it doesn't require a group with equal numbers of gender-typical women and gender-typical men in order to view problems from different angles. Your argument is very similar to those supporting the idea that women should be homemakers and men should be breadwinners in order to function in a household.

In the book, Eliot specifically states that ". . . in spite of our group differences, plenty of women are better than the average man at science, math, and asserting their opinions, while loads of men outperform the average woman at speaking, reading, and deciphering other people's feelings."

That means that if we want to be able to approach problems from different angles, we don't need Men and Women, we need whoever has the best skills that are relevant to the issue, and if a child wasn't able to develop their natural talents because their talents didn't fit their gender, well, that person will not be able to contribute as much as they otherwise could have, thereby diminishing the chances that the group will find the best solution to whatever problem they are facing.

Besides, a state of society in which there are no significant pressures for gender conformity is so far off in the future that we may as well discard the notion entirely (except as an ideal), which means that there will always be little girls who might be happier playing with trucks than dolls, or boys who want to dress up instead of play sports, but who end up just as forced to play with gender-typical toys they don't like as a result of social pressures.

Serendip Visitor's picture

I agree with both of the

I agree with both of the previous comments. I had quite a few responses to this book review, but agreeing with the others is the nicest way I can think to respond.

Serendip Visitor's picture

"If both men and women had

"If both men and women had the same spatial skills, both would have the same picture of the map in their heads, and neither would admit to being lost."

Or it could have to do with the fact that men are socialized to value power and not to show "weakness". Just a thought.

I'm a woman. I have great spatial sense. I'm rarely lost, and the map in my head is just fine, thanks. Does this make some sort of deviant?

I think it is problematic to make general statements that all men are one way and that all women are another way. While it could certainly be true that males and females trend statistically towards particular characteristics, everyone is different, and every "rule" has just as many exceptions. Basing our individual interactions on statistical generalization does not seem to be in any way productive.

Anonymous's picture

Don't you think that its a

Don't you think that its a problem if the "woman skills" promoted in girls by playing with "girl toys" produces skill sets that are valued less by our society and that result in women with less power earning less money?

I don't think that the author is suggesting forcing children to play with toys that they don't like, here, but instead she suggests providing both "boy" and "girl" toys to all children to give all children the the opportunity to learn skills that will enable them to do whatever they want as grown ups.