Boys will be boys. Girls will be girls.

But will they?

At the first “coffee chat” in my office earlier in the year we discussed how children explore gender and form gendered identities.  This was described in a recent Huff post article by saying that young children are “gender detectives.”  Indeed they are! What do our little detectives find when they look around?

The article examines fashion choices for very young children and explains that based on the available evidence, these “gender detectives” confront narrow identities to fit into based on their gender.  Boys can be smart, strong, and superheroes; girls can be pretty, sassy, and reliant on boys. This is real. This is the culture we are raising our children in. It deserves our attention.

Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist who focuses on gender in children, shows that the popularly portrayed gulf between the sexes, on everything from social behavior to academics, stems from very small differences between boys and girls that are then replicated, extended, and deepened by culture.  She writes,

 “The truth is that neuroscientists have identified very few reliable differences between boys’ and girls’ brains.  The latest high-resolution MRI studies reveal…there is more overlap between average males’ and female’s brains than differences between the average brain of each gender. To put it another way, the range of performance within each gender is wider than the difference between the average boy and girl.”

So, if a boy has as much neurological similarity with a few girls as he does with a few boys, how do boys wind up “being boys?” 

Eliot continues, “Abilities develop in a social-cultural context. In spite of claims – and intentions – to the contrary, few parents or teachers are truly gender neutral.”  Raewyn Connell, researcher and writer on gender identities in education and an advisor to UNESCO on gender initiatives, digs deeper into this point: “Historians and anthropologists have shown that there is no one pattern of masculinity…different cultures, and different periods of history, construct masculinity differently. Masculinities do not exist prior to social behavior.”

We each play a part in this. The way our stores, gyms, schools, and apartments are set up; what we expose our children to on TV, in magazines, and in music. Our young “gender detectives” soak all this up and are left with a narrow range of possible identities.  At times, this can be comforting: a group of boys all having similar interests can lead to instant camaraderie in the classroom; a group of girls each having the same doll at home allows for their play at school to overlap.  However, this socially-constructed gender narrowness can also be highly problematic.

What happens to young girls when they are inundated with monolithic images of women as attractive and reliant on men? A group of local Jewish teenagers from Ma’yan (a Jewish feminist group housed right here in the JCC) recently made a video in which they explore the consequences of gender identity as it develops within our community. They trace the evolution from early exposure to gender-biased images (which all our children are exposed to) to a teenage girl’s perception that, “To be a strong woman you also need to, like, be a b****.”  If you are interested in ways that media images of women affect very young girls, you will find it well worth your time to set aside 20 minutes to watch the video in its entirety.

This happens here, this is happening right now.  The way we treat gender in the nursery years affects our children’s identity as they grow into mature adults.  The choices we make for our children’s fashion and media exposure, the words and intonations we use when talking to children, the programs our children are enrolled in, each have the potential to determine the possibilities our children see within themselves. 

My hope for our community is that we make choices that broaden, rather than limit, those possibilities. You might hear our teachers address the students as “friends” instead of “boys and girls.” You might hear our teachers switch the gender roles within fairy tales. You might notice that our teachers avoid gender-based color preferences when providing students with materials. These are decisions we make to avoid the narrowing binary of gender labels; they are beginning steps that only scratch the surface. The topic deserves our attention, as educators and parents. If our responsibility as partners with each other is to shape children who will shape the world, there are real questions we must grapple with.

What choices, of words and behavior, do you make about your child’s emerging gender identity? How does your child construct his or her self-image? How do you see the classroom contributing to this? What do you want out of a school setting around this topic? I invite you to share your answers with each other, your partners, your teachers, myself, and yes, even your children. 

Shabbat shalom,