Friday, September 4, 2009

Parents Cause Kids' Gender Differences

Sharon Begley, Newsweek's science editor, has an interesting piece on the Newsweek web site that explains why parents may cause gender differences in their kids and that at birth, there really is no difference in the male and female brains.

You can read the whole piece here.

It makes sense to me.

Dad was absent in my early life working two jobs to support his wife and kids. Mom cherished her firstborn child (me), coddled and pampered me, and instilled in me many traits that were considered "feminine." With Dad absent early-on, Mom was all I had to model myself after and that I did, which just compounded my feminization.

And so it goes.

(The image above is titled The Pink Boy and is Gainsborough's companion piece to his famous painting The Blue Boy.)


  1. The old Nature/Nurture debate....

    Long may it continue.


  2. Hi Staci -

    I fear you have opened up a proper can of worms with this post. There are a lot of politics surrounding this topic. Without having bought Lise Eliot's book myself, I can (I think) reasonably question the premise as it is represented in the Newsweek article.

    Newsweek claims that Lise Eliot studied the literature, and it is almost certain that the vast majority of studies concern people who do not identify as transgender of any stripe. That will certainly produce results that apply to a very broad definition of "normal", but may not make as much sense when you consider a population that is several standard deviations west of strange :)

    I don't actually disagree with the conclusion that much of the masculine/feminine dichotomy is culturally constructed - and I also think that the culture in the US is particularly pathological in it's views about gender - but that doesn't change the fact that there are differences in the way that brains respond to the sexual hormones that broadly agree with the usual gender constructs, either. I'm specifically referring to the fact that many TGs feel much better when they have their hormonal balance altered in the direction of their own self-perceived gender (this effect is repeatable enough that some have considered it to be part of the criteria for SRS).

    I like to look at it this way - people's brains are mostly plastic. BUT there are clearly differences in each individual's psyche that go deeper than learned behavior. Environment can have a huge impact on how we subjectively handle the hard-wiring of our brains, so it behooves us as parents to walk a very careful and loving tread as we help to shape out children's lives. If a child is truly hardwired for a gender that is different from her anatomical arrangement, then as parents we need to find ways to help them deal with that.

    It's not clear to me what has motivated Lise Eliot to publish this book, but there is an aspect of it that feels very tied up with gender politics. Perhaps that is an aspect added by the reviewer in Newsweek, I don't know. If this is part of an argument against allowing an early transition for children/teens, well it's not clear to me that an early transition is always the right thing, but a lot of people think that an early transition is vital to helping a child feel normal as she matures. And in the interests of full disclosure, I more than half wish that early transition had been open to me back in the day: I knew that I wanted the choice from the time I was five.

    For a balancing view, it's probably worth a look at Julia Serano's page containing her own information on the biological origins of gender. By day, Julia is a biologist. She has a Ph.D in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from Columbia University and is currently a researcher at UC Berkeley in the field of Evolutionary and Developmental Biology. I think she has a few valid insights as well.

    - dayita

  3. Dayita --- Thank you for your extensive and thought-provoking comments. Your comments have moved me to consider my personal situation again; I will have more to say about it in a near future posting.