Does recent research on brain development help us understand our girls — or does it stereotype them? As fascinating as these findings are, the information is controversial on both a scientific and ideological basis. While many experts see value in research that shows some differences in male and female brains, they do not believe brain development is a stronger influence on a girl than the way she’s raised, the society she lives in, or the experiences she has in life
JoAnn Deak notes that “although there may be a slight difference by gender at birth, how the brain is used over time can change that. So boys can develop great language skills and girls can develop great spatial skills. This is why life experience is so important. We don’t have to live with the basic structure of our birth; we can enhance and improve it. A girl can become as good an engineer as any boy or a boy as good with language skills as any girl. It’s how we work with our children and what we encourage them to do that makes a difference.”
Use the information to serve, not to label.
Catherine Steiner-Adair finds some of the information in brain research interesting, but is disturbed by how we might interpret it. “The research tells us interesting things, but what matters to me is how our culture uses it to serve or disserve girls and boys. When we use this research to look at ways to strengthen girls’ accomplishments or achievements, it’s a good thing, but when it’s used to make sweeping generalizations or put girls in a straightjacket it can be a cause for concern. The bottom line is we are more similar than we are different.”
Deak comes down on the side of culture and nurture as dominant influences, while seeing many insights parents can gain by understanding their girl’s brain. “As an example,” she says, “take a look at why friendships matter so much to a girl and why fathers often have difficulty understanding why a girl may feel desperate after having a fight with a friend. Because female brains tend to focus on and remember details longer, and because the oxytocin girls produce has the effect of causing them to care more about connections and relationships than boys, this can lead to the terrible trio of social conflict for girls: they notice it more, they remember it more and they care more! Understanding how your daughter’s brain functions and where she may fall in the 80/20 scale might help you communicate with her more easily, figure out what’s going on with her emotionally, help her learn, and guide her through challenges — be they physical or emotional.”
Watch out for media distortions.
Steiner-Adair also expresses concern about how the media may misuse and distort brain research. “TV shows tend to focus on the relational — gossipy and mean — aspects of girls’ behavior. This research is sometimes used by the media to defend these behaviors and support an argument that says, ‘Well, that’s how girls are.’ It’s also used to stereotype boys as genetically insensitive types who shouldn’t be expected to develop relational skills. And then it creates storylines and characters that play out those stereotypes.”
Don’t underestimate the power of social influences.
Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, sees value in aspects of the research but also points to other factors that may affect development as much as — or more strongly than — the brain. “It’s increasingly understood that girls socialize each other in very powerful ways, beginning in late childhood, by the age of about ten. By socialize, I mean they teach each other the unwritten rules of what it means to be a girl — the etiquette, what’s OK and what’s not OK, what will be tolerated and what won’t be tolerated. Girls socialize each other as much as their parents socialize them, so you can’t reduce it all to the brain.”
Find a middle ground.
Seattle-based psychotherapist Meg White, M.A., recognizes the value of the brain research and uses it in her practice, while recognizing its challenges and implications. “I used to be much more firmly planted in the nurture camp, but since I’ve had my own children, I am also looking at nature, as there are things so classically ‘boy’ about my son and ‘girl’ about my daughter, despite the fact that I have raised them in a pretty gender-neutral fashion,” says White. “But that said, I do fear that categorizing girls as less genetically predisposed to assertiveness keeps girls stuck in their stereotype and can get parents stuck in raising them in accordance with that stereotype. So in my practice, I find a middle ground. I think it’s important that first parents take into account the child in front of them — the temperaments, gifts, challenges and the world she lives in. Second, I try to help parents use information from the brain research to better understand a girl’s development and then encourage her to stretch her brain connections in the areas that will help her develop as a healthy, independent, assertive person.”