Friday, August 19, 2011

The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children, by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett


Columbia University Press, ISBN 9780231151627, September 2011

Are girls and boys really that different? Are their brains wired differently in important ways, leading to very different abilities and needs? Rivers & Barnett take a hard look at claims that the brains, and therefore the abilities, of boys and girls differ in major ways, making it necessary to teach them in very different ways. First they look at the claims, the proposals based on them, and the studies claimed to support them.


These claims include the idea that boys are innately less verbal than girls, because of their brain structure and wiring, and that they are thereby disadvantaged in the "verbally drenched" curricula of most schools and that this problem is compounded by the fact that most teachers are women. The corresponding claim, about girls, is that they are not equipped to do as well at math and science as boys, and really shouldn't be expected to even try to learn math in the same classrooms as boys. Girls need to be taught science through things that relate to girls' lives, such as using cosmetics to teach chemistry. Also, boys need to be spoken to loudly and forcefully, while girls need to be spoken to softly. Really, the proponents of this view say, the best thing for both boys and girls is to be educated in single-sex classrooms geared to each gender's natural strengths and weaknesses.

Rivers and Barnett take this position apart in great detail, analyzing and explaining the flaws and the limited scope of the studies claimed to support it, as well as presenting the substantial body of well-constructed studies  that collectively present a much different picture, of girls and boys substantially equal in abilities and potential. These studies, precisely because their results are not as flashy and exciting, simply do not get the same media attention. What they show, however, is for more hopeful for both girls and boys.

Girls arrive at school with somewhat better verbal abilities, and boys with somewhat greater spatial, mechanical, and visualization abilities, because of the different ways that parents and other adults relate to young children. Even at very young ages, parents speak to their daughters more, and in ways that are more helpful for developing both verbal and interpersonal skills. Boys, meanwhile, are treated to more games of catch and other physical activities that develop their spatial, mechanical, and visualization skills. Because the human brain, especially in growing children, is extremely plastic, these differences in adult interactions with girls and boys actually cause their brains to wire themselves differently. Despite this, girls and boys rapidly catch up with each other in school--until, on the verge of high school, girls start to get messages that they don't really need calculus and advanced math, and shouldn't expect to do well in them. The most tragic part of this is that teachers perceive boys as doing much better in math that girls, even when their best students are in fact girls, and girls as doing much better in English, even when boys are their best students.

Rivers and Barnett's message is that what both girls and boys need is not to be separated into single-sex classrooms that play to their perceived strengths and downplay the areas where they are perceived to be weak, but rather to be challenged to learn from each other and develop all their talents.

For me, the saddest section of this book was the discussion of the startling re-segregation of toys. In the 1950s and 1960s, my parents, and aunts and uncles, put a fair degree of care in preventing all us cousins from getting the idea that there were "girls' toys' and "boys' toys." I had a cap gun, baby dolls, a Fort Apache set, a tea set, dress-up dolls, a chemistry set. . . When kids outside our normal social circles told us about this weird concept "girls' toys" and "boys' toys", we didn't believe them.

Rivers and Barnett describe toy departments where most toys, even such seemingly "neutral" toys as Legos or balls, are gender-typed with colors and patterns that relentlessly make them "girls' toys" or "boys' toys"--and mostly boys' toys, with little but the most stereotypically "female" toys left in the much-contracted girls' toy sections. Yet experiments show that a tea set in combat cammo pattern is perceived as a toy for boys by both girls and boys, while a toy gun in purple and silver is perceived as a toy for girls. It's not the toys themselves; it's what children of both genders have learned from adults around them about what signals girls' or boys' items.

This is an excellent and important book, clearly written yet also packed with documentation.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.