The eyes have it

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bgeyesSugar and spice and everything nice,

That’s what little girls are made of.

Snips and snails and puppy dog tails,

That’s what little boys are made of.

That’s a nasty little rhyme isn’t it?

I mean, it kind of implies that you, as a parent, really have no say in the matter. And isn’t that just the kind of thinking we’ve been trying to grow out of in this new age of gender equity? Still, boys and girls are different.

But that’s social conditioning–right? You know–boys learn to be boys and girls learned to be girls. We do this by giving girls dolls to play with and expecting boys to push Tonka trucks around the house. We paint their rooms different colors, treat them differently, and expect different things of them.


I’m going to be brutally honest with you here. I totally used to believe this. So, when my daughter was born, I did everything I could to avoid raising a “soft” girly-girl. If I was going to have a girl, I wanted the toughest, street-smartest, scrappiest girl on the block.

No way was I falling into that gender trap.

So, in keeping with our (yes my wife bought into this too) anti-gender-bias-parenting-philosophy, when Emma turned 2, we threw her a “Balls and Games” themed birthday party. At every turn we encouraged sports and physical play. I made her watch the Vikings with me on Sunday’s–even got her one of those cute little purple jerseys.

I am not making any of this up.

Understandably we were confused at Emma’s insistence that (between the ages of 2 and 7) she always wear a pretty dress.

This was not at all the sort of choice we were encouraging. Still, the pretty dress phase persisted. Not only that, but Emma never did take much interest in all those balls she got. Instead, she gravitated toward playing (you guessed it) dress-up. In the end she was far more interested (and happy) playing “Pretty Pretty Princesses” than a game of catch with her old man.

Trust me, I’ve got the pictures of me in beaded necklaces and clip-on earings to prove it.

This was confusing.

Brain Research to the rescue

Little did we know, however, that in the early 1990’s, new and intriguing research was being done, the results of which were beginning to point to a new way of thinking about the way boys and girls experience the world. For a long time, the results of these studies were not well known. In fact, many scientists themselves hesitated to talk too loudly about what they were finding because much of it flew directly in the face of our social paradigm of gender equity.

Nearly decades later, the research is just beginning to hit the mainstream. And it’s making quite a splash—because it makes so much sense.

Take my own daughter’s tendencies to enjoy dress-up and princesses instead of games with balls–despite her parent’s gentle nudging in the other direction–for example. Recent findings explain why.

In his book, Why Gender Matters, Dr. Leonard Sax describes a Cambridge University study in which researchers documented boys’ and girls’ preferences to look at a “simple dangling mobile or at a young woman’s face”—on the day they were born. In all, 102 babies were videotaped and the tapes analyzed by researchers who didn’t know the sex of the child.

The results showed that boys were more interested in mobiles, and girls were more interested in the young woman’s face. And the differences were large. Based on this study, the researchers felt that they had “proven beyond a reasonable doubt that sex differences in social interest are, in part, biological in origin”.

Because this study was done on babies less than one day old, it suggests that boys and girls are pre-wired to be interested in different things. But it doesn’t stop there. According to Sax, this particular difference has to do with the anatomy of the eye (Sax 2005).

Hold on to your seats because I’m going to get a bit technical here.

Apparently, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

The ganglion cells in our eyes are of two different types—P and M—each having very different jobs. M-cells, which are larger, are wired to rods and are primarily simple motion detectors. P-cells, which are smaller, are concentrated around the fovea, or the center of the field of vision, and are responsible for collecting information about color and texture.

Only very recent microscopic analysis of the eye has revealed that the retinas of male and female eyes have vastly different concentrations of these cells. Female retinas have a much higher concentration of P-cells (responsible for colors and textures), and male retinas have many more M-cells (responsible for tracking movement). Sax puts it this way. P-cells (denser in females) answer the question, “What is it?” M-cells (denser in males) answer the question, “Where is it going?” The interesting thing is that these are large differences that hold true across species. Every male animal has more M-cells than every female animal.

No wonder my daughter was much more interested in the rich colors and textures of princesses and dresses than tracking, catching, throwing, or chasing balls!

This is particularly well illustrated (pardon the pun) when you look at boys’ and girls’ artwork. Boys like to draw action—shooting rockets, guns, bullets, chasing—and they prefer to do it using colors such as black, grey, silver, and blue. Girls often will use warm colors such as red, green, beige, and brown (and more of them) to draw pictures of people, or pets, or landscapes with trees and flowers and houses. In short, girls draw nouns, boys draw verbs (Sax 2005).

My daughter (all daughters) have more P-cells designed to see (and appreciate) all the colors and textures that make Pretty Princess stuff so, well—pretty. And it doesn’t stop there. Not only are girl babies more interested in faces, but as they mature, they also become much more interested in reading and responding empathetically to the emotions those faces wear. In short, on the playground (and for the rest of their lives) girls are much more interested in, and skilled at, the intricacies of relationships.

On the other hand, because boys have more M-cells, they have a much higher interest in action, motion, and physical play—which, as they mature, will evolve into a whole different set of skills and interests.

The point here isn’t to completely abandon providing stimulating activities for our children, but to realize children have filters through which they experience the world. And that these filters will play a big role in determining how interesting an activity is to him or her.

Play to your child’s strengths. And don’t worry. They’ll let you know what those are.

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