Girls and boys are different, right? Boys are less social, more introverted, but physically stronger than girls, who love to talk and socialise.
Parents everywhere will tell you this. They will say their baby boys and girls develop differently—even the thoroughly modern type of parent who goes to lengths not to treat their boys and girls differently—proving nature trumps nurture every time.
Except it probably still is nurture that makes your baby girl a faster talker, and your baby boy a better walker.
Neuroscientist Lise Eliot first brought this to people’s attention in 2009 when she published a book based on a lot of scientific study in this field. She discovered that actually, even before a baby is displaying much of a personality, parents will unconsciously behave differently around boys and girls and altering their development in ways that conform to gender norms.
Study after study found parents were attributing traits to their offspring based on their gender without even realising it. One study Eliot cited in her book took baby boys and girls, and disguised them as the opposite sex. Then it asked parents to observe the babies and make judgements about their behaviour.
The “boys” were more often described as angry, while the “girls” were more often described as “happy” and “social”.
Except the boys were really girls, and the girls were really boys.
This was seven years ago, and yet we still see arguments every day about the “innate differences” between boys and girls as proof that men and women are suited to different roles in our society.
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The thing is, a lot of our developmental “stuff” is happening in those early months. So if parents are ascribing behaviours to boys and girls without realising it, they are ultimately going to fundamentally alter the way those babies develop.
If, as studies suggest, parents are more social with baby girls, then the baby girl’s language and expression are going to develop more fully and faster than the baby boy’s.
Baby brains are elastic, suggestible blank canvases. And how parents treat them really does determine a lot. So next time you hear someone say girls and boys are different because of nature, not nurture, you might want to point them this way.
This article was originally published on Mamamia’s US sister site Spring.St.