Interview: Lise Eliot, Ph.D. Author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain

Lise Eliot, Ph.D., has been getting a lot of media attention about her latest book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, and it was a pleasure to chat with her over the phone and an honor that she did it despite one of her sons being sick that day.This is far from a transcript of our conversation, but a summary of what we discussed.

VLF: Why did you write this book? 

LE: The size is reflective of my compulsive nature. My first book was on brain development and it was inspired by my pregnancies and children. I kept running into brain development stories and began to wonder what do we really know about boy/girl differences? What are the causes? There wasn't a book out there that could answer that question, so I decided to write it. I gathered all the studies and decided to write the book myself. I wanted to take a chronological approach from prenatal to puberty.

I was seeing a trend in parenting literature that seemed to be exaggerating sex differences between girls and boys. Compared to the peer reviewed articles I was writing. I knew that part of my job was to temper people's views. Yes, there are differences, but not as dramatic as we have been led to believe. In some areas there are big differences and in others areas very small differences.

It's a book of science and I wanted it to be precise and quantitative.

VLF: What as your most surprising discovery while writing this book? Scientifically?

LE: Well...That's a hard one.

VLF: What was the most surprising way people responded? 

LE: Oh, how adamantly people rejected that socialization makes a difference. I've read some of the comments on the blogs. People just revert to "Oh my son made a gun out of play-doh and my daughter made families out of her trucks." so therefore it is all hardwired. I try to make the point that some of the biggest sex difference are in toy selection. It's bigger than verbal, math, aggression and risk taking. I think it is misleading because parents see the difference in toy selection and draw a lin to everything else. Parents think that girls are so sensitive and appreciate others feelings and boys could care less about each other. Empathy has a very small difference between the sexes. The difference depends on how you measure it too. Self-ratings are skewed by our social expectations - women rate themselves more empathic than they are. If you test people objectively you see much smaller differences between men and women.

VLF: How can we effectively call a truce? Especially when something like the boys crisis comes up it makes girl advocates feel that all the attention and resources are taken from boys. And ditto for the flip debate. 

LE: There still is a boys crisis. It's blamed on the feminization of the classroom. I keep pleading that we need to appreciate each child as an individual. Any focus on gender at all is backfiring on us, it is leading to these stereotype notions. I do think that classrooms need to be more boy friendly with more men as teachers, recess, physical activity and competition. All of this will benefit girls too. It won't hurt them to move around more or get comfortable with competition. Teachers need to remain sensitive to gender issues.

VLF: What is your biggest critique of how science is reported in the  media? 

LE: The media is always biased towards what is new. The problem is that a study comes along and violates 20 years of work. The appropriate response is to average it all together, but the media likes news so things off the press looks exciting. In the case of gender differences anything about the brain is given more weight, attention and credibility. What we see from brain imaging is really just a reflection of years of behavioral experiments. There are a few beautiful experiments that have helped expand our knowledge. We still have never answered the question between nature versus nurture.

VLF: How much do you think we shortchange boys by toughening them up or allowing the idea of "boys will be boys" to prevail? 

LE: Some toughening up is good for everyone. There are some girls who ruminate a lot on their feelings is actually one of the big risk factors for depression. Managing your own emotions is one thing, applying that to others is inappropriate. We need to continue to cultivate boys' sense of empathy and caring. These things are learned. Children learn it by seeing it modeled by adults and other children around them.

VLF: You spend a lot of time talking about stereotypes and debunking them. But how can we effectively rise above them yet still give our girl pink Legos? 

LE: In this day of age it is hard to fight the pink. Just walk into any toystore. I would certainly fight it as long as you can. When girls are little, they don't understand that pink is for girls unless it is drilled into them. Once they know that pink equals girl you have to play into that. We need to get our kids to exercise the domains that aren't gendered - spatial skills especially. I am really amazed at the strength of the pink in our world. I saw pink Bears jerseys in the store the other day. It's become code of "I am woman." I do think unfortunately that in this society where youth culture is so strong, we have to try to hijack these things to get girls to try things.

VLF: Do you consider yourself a feminist? 

LE: Well, absoluately. I don't understand how feminist became a dirty word.

VLF: How do we overcome the idea that difference or bigger is better? 

LE: It's has been a contribution of the whole difference feminism as well as all the psychological research. Sex differences divide up fairly equally. Boys do have bigger hearts, livers -- they are just bigger. Everything scales up.

VLF: What is your take away message for parents? For teachers and advocates? 

LE: Parents want to treat kids in a gender neutral way. It's not easy, but keep at it. To realize that even when we are trying, it's not all possible. Children are difference and provoke different reactions out of us. Keep an open mind of how kids are spending their time. Think about how that is wiring them up for difference abilities. If your son takes a big liking to video games we might worry. But if it is done in a social group, it might be more of a bonding experience and that might outweigh the concern we have over the gaming. I hoped to open parents' eyes to the full range of intelligences, none of them are limited to boys or girls. Keep in mind this cross training that girls can benefit from - girls can benefit from spatial experiences and boys from verbal and social interactions. I was just at the grocery store and there was a little girl playing with the chain that separates things. I thought aw, that's just what my sons would have done as kids, but her mother was discouraging her. I thought, what a shame! The girl wanted to figure out how it worked. We should encourage tinkering and exploration.

Advocates need to be more proactive to encourage kids to cross these gender lines. We are so into "choice" and letting kids make their own choices. We give them a huge cafeteria of choices, but they will default to gender segregated roles early unless we do more encouraging and engineering. I've had people tell me that their girl wouldn't like woodworking because the class is full of boys. Teachers go too easily to gender segregation. We need to engineer beyond that. There is a lot to be learned by crossing over.

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