I recently read a great book Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot about the differences between boys and girls. Subtitled, “How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps – And What We Can Do About It”, the book’s basic thesis is that there are some statistically significant biological differences between boys’ and girls’ brains but not so many nor as significant as is often made out. Rather, cultural influences act to magnify the differences that are there to make older boys and girls, and eventually men and women, quite different. Thus an initial biological seed can be reinforced by culture to produce a powerful effect.
For instance, according to Eliot, one of the most statistically significant differences between the sexes is toy preference – starting around their first birthday kids start identifying toys and “for girls” and “for boys” and by the time they’re three they, statistically speaking, strongly prefer to play with the toys that are “for” their sex. (Of course some kids cross the gender line regularly and most kids will occasionally. But it’s a strong effect; much stronger than the frequently touted differences in verbal or mechanical ability.) The development of these preferences seems to be neither completely hardwired nor completely cultural. But it is strong.
I experienced this first hand the other day when I went to buy my three-year-old daughter Amelia some roller skates at Target. The had three kinds, a set of “princess” skates in pink and purple and decorated with pictures of princesses, a set of purple Dora the Explorer skates, and finally a set of red skates modeled after the main character from the Pixar movie Cars. I suggested the Cars skates, since Amelia loved the movie and had been quite excited to see some Cars toys earlier on our trip through the store. But she immediately countered with a request for the Dora skates because “the Cars skates are for boys and these are for girls.” I tried for a bit to remind her how much she liked the movie but there was no changing her mind. And I didn’t want to linger too long lest she notice the truly ghastly princess skates.
On the other hand, there is still some wiggle room. Today I got a package of hand exercisers from Iron Mind, a company that makes serious strength training tools for hardcore muscle heads. These grippers, part of the “Captains of Crush” line, are knurled metal and the ones I got, which require 167.5 and 195 pounds of pressure to close, are only the middle of the line by difficulty. So serious manly exercise equipment, right? Not so fast. Along with the full-sized grippers, I also got a stubby gripper intended for exercising the thumb and one finger at a time, which is just about the right size to be a full-size gripper for Amelia. She was instantly drawn to it, trying to squeeze it closed with both hands. “I’m going to be the strongest kid in the world,” she said. “This is my princess gripper.”
I wonder if Iron Mind would consider making Captains of Crush in sparkly pink?