Moving Beyond “Nature vs. Nurture”

Over the past decade, discussions about gender and development seem to have devolved into a competition of crises.  Efforts to promote educational equity and preserve girls’ psychological and physical health are pitted against evidence of boys’ dwindling achievement and overmedication for behavioral issues and ADHD.  Who has it worse?, this zero-sum game asks, assuming that boys’ and girls’ challenges are mutually exclusive and that one must fall behind for the other to advance.

Fueling this false debate has been a spate of articles and books claiming hardwired differences between boys and girls, and demanding that parents and educators respond by accepting some observed gender differences as biological imperatives.  Beginning in 2000 with Christina Hoff Sommers’ ad hominem attack on Carol Gilligan (who, despite insisting that we listen to girls’ “different voice,” never suggested that the difference was inborn) in The Atlantic magazine, and gathering steam with books from popular gender essentialists like Michael Gurian, Louann Brizendine, and Leonard Sax, the competing crisis headlines have proliferated.  These books spread the notion that feminist resistance to traditional gender socialization had been in vain: girls raised with blocks and trucks still prefer collaborative, imaginative play with peers, while boys carefully stripped of violent toys simply learn to use a pointed finger as a pretend gun.  Why fight Mother Nature?, they ask.  Why not adapt our parenting and teaching to accommodate children’s “natural” preferences—don’t ask rambunctious boys to sit still, or girls to cultivate difficult spatial skills.  Let the boys be boys and the girls be girls.

While the identification of brain-based gender differences has far outpaced our identification of the effects of gender socialization, thoughtful scholars and parents have long recognized that the interplay between nature and nurture is complex, subtle, and continuous.  Now, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, a new book by neuroscientist Lise Eliot, PhD, is finally calling the brain-difference gender essentialists to account for their oversimplification and misattribution of observed gender differences in children.  According to Emily Bazelon’s recent review in the Washington Post, Eliot’s argument centers on an understanding of the brain’s plasticity: the ways that experience influences and shapes the structure and development of our brains, especially early on.  So, because young brains are constantly growing and adapting, what may be small inborn differences can be either reinforced or counteracted by a child’s environment and experience.  

I don’t have any interest in erradicating gender.  I work with girls not only because I want them to have equal opportunities, but also because I have deep affection and appreciation for the pleasures of girlhood.  I don’t relish a future of Garanimal-wearing neuter children. But what I do envision, and what Eliot’s advice to parents promises, is a future where boys and girls—as well as children who fit neatly into neither category—are encouraged to develop the full range of human emotions and capacities.  That’s why Pink Brain, Blue Brain is at the top of my reading list.

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