Children and parenting: "Pink for girls and football for boys" - gender biases shape our brains

The initial divisions may seem innocent, but over time, gendered worlds have a lasting effect on how children grow up to understand themselves and the decisions they make - just like how they behave in the society in which they live.

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Although many girls play soccer - and recently have more and more success in professional soccer - the sport is still largely considered to be predominantly male, Photo: Javier Hirschfeld/Getty Images
Although many girls play soccer - and recently have more and more success in professional soccer - the sport is still largely considered to be predominantly male, Photo: Javier Hirschfeld/Getty Images
Disclaimer: The translations are mostly done through AI translator and might not be 100% accurate.

My daughter is obsessed with all things pink and designed for girls. She reached for the pink floral dresses that they make specifically for girls even before she turned two.

She was three years old when we once saw a group of children playing football, and I told her that she could join them one day, when she grew up a little more.

"Football is not for girls," she answered me firmly. We carefully explained to her that girls also play football, although a slightly smaller number of them. We could not convince her of that. In any case, she is also very lively and he likes to play and jump, which are attributes usually attributed to boys.

Her clear ideas about what girls and boys should do were unexpected and noticeable a little too soon, but given how gendered the children's world was from the start, it wasn't hard to see how it came about.

The initial divisions may seem innocent, but over time, gendered worlds have a lasting effect on how children grow up to understand themselves and the decisions they make - just like how they behave in the society in which they live.

Gendered ideas continue to influence and establish a society that unconsciously promotes values ​​associated with toxic masculinity that are not good for anyone, regardless of how we identify. So how exactly does our obsession with gender issues have such a powerful impact on our world?

The very idea that women are intellectually inferior to men was considered a fact several centuries ago. Science has long tried to find differences that underline this assumption. Over time, numerous studies have debunked many of the alleged differences, but our world remains persistently gendered.

When you think about it, all of this is not at all surprising given the way we are exposed to socialization as children. Parents and guardians do not want to treat boys and girls differently, but the evidence shows that they do just that.

It all starts before birth when mothers describe the baby's movements in different ways in case they know they will baby to be male. Male babies are most often described as "livelier" and "stronger", but such differences do not exist when mothers do not know the sex of the child in advance.

Since it became possible to identify the biological sex with the help of a scanner, one of the first questions of future parents is whether they will have a boy or a girl. They are before that the shape and size of the abdomen were used to determine sex, despite the fact that there was no evidence that the method worked.

Somewhat more subtly are the different words we use to describe boys and girls, even when describing their identical behavior. And when we add gender-defined toys to all of that, we only reinforce the differences in traits and hobbies that are already assigned to the male or female gender.

The way children play is an extremely important part of development. This is how children initially develop their skills and occupations. Playing blocks encourage an interest in building, while dolls can encourage caring and understanding of others. The variety of experiences we gain through play is obviously important.

"When we target one type of building block to only one half of the population, it means that half of the population will develop a certain skill or type of interest," says Christia Brown, professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky.

Also, children are like little detectives who determine which category they belong to based on constant learning from those around them. As soon as they understand which group they fit into better, they naturally begin to gravitate towards the categories that were assigned to them from birth.

Because of this, girls already from the age of two they turn pink, while the boys avoid her. I witnessed firsthand a scene where my two-year-old daughter stubbornly refused to wear anything that resembled a boy's choice, regardless of my futile attempts not to impose gender-defined clothing on her.

Javier Hirschfeld/Getty Images

Because of all this, it is not surprising that preschool children learn to identify with their gender so early, especially if parents and friends are in the habit of children are given toys that are associated with their gender. When children understand which "tribe" they belong to, they become more open to gender labels, explains Cordelia Fine, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne.

This then affects their behavior. So, for example, the very presentation of a new toy can change the child's interest in her. For example, girls are more interested in typically male toys if they are pink in color.

And this has its consequences. If we only give girls and not boys dolls or make-up kits, then we prepare them to self-identify with similar interests. According to this principle, we prepare boys to be much more actively interested in cars and toys in the form of various tools.

Ali boys, of course, also enjoy playing with dolls and prams, but these are not the things we usually buy them. My son rocks the baby doll just like his sister did and loves to push them in the pram.

"Boys in their first years of life are also caring and compassionate, except that we teach them very early that these are ``female skills,'' and we punish them for that," says Brown.

If boys are discouraged from the earliest days from playing with toys associated with girls, then they are unlikely to develop some of the skills they may need later in life.

If their peers discourage them from playing with dolls, and at the same time they watch their mother take care of the child mostly by herself, what does that tell us about who should be taking care of the children? And so we enter the realm of "biological essentialism" in which we attribute an innate basis to behavior for which, if we delve a little deeper into the subject, there is a high probability that it will be learned.

Toys are one thing, but the traits are also inherent in gender stereotyping. Parents of boys often say that they are more lively and like rougher games, while girls are gentler and more submissive. The evidence points to different conclusions.

Studies actually show that our expectations affect how we see ourselves and others. Parents gender-neutral angry faces are attributed to boys, while happy and sad faces are labeled as female. Mothers often emphasize the physical attributes of their sons and set much more exciting goals for them than for girls.

They also overestimate, for example, ability to crawl and highlight boys as leaders, regardless of the fact that there is no physical difference between them. So people also influence children with their own beliefs and thus reinforce similar stereotypes.

Language also plays a powerful role in this - girls reportedly start talking earlier - which is a small but recognizable effect that can also be the result of mothers talking more to their female babies than to their male babies.

Girls are also told more about emotions. In other words, we unconsciously tell girls to believe that they are more talkative and emotional, while boys are more aggressive and physically agile.

Brown explains that it's obvious why this misconception continues later in life. We ignore behavior that does not conform to stereotypical expectations. "We constantly overlook situations in which boys are sitting quietly reading books or those in which girls are noisily roaring through the house," she says. "Our brain seems to ignore and skip over the information that is not stereotypical."

Parents also tend to buy their daughters toys and clothes that are meant for boys, often in an attempt to be gender neutral, but not the other way around. This behavior gives an interesting insight into how we relate to gender issues.

Men have always been seen as the dominant and powerful sex, which usually leads to a more or less open dissuasion from playing with feminine things. Fine explains that we observe "manifestations of gender hierarchy" here - boys seem to start reacting to the "stigma" of femininity even in the earliest childhood.

This reveals the reason why girls in men's clothes are more acceptable to parents than boys in women's. Or why, in my case, growing up as a man elicited positive comments - I never liked dolls, but mostly played with trees.

Boys who dress and act like girls experience the opposite. Dressing femininely or highlighting feminine features diminishes a man's status - and those who stand out in this way even earn less.

Scholars who deal with these issues agree that priorities are largely determined by social circumstances, but there is still disagreement about whether gender behavior is innate or not. So, for example, there is evidence that girls who were exposed to higher levels of androgens in the womb are more attracted to toys that are typically categorized as boys. Even in this case, Fine points out that it is possible for the environment to influence their preferences. These girls don't even show much spatial intelligence - a skill that is often said to be more noticeable in men.

We also know that babies are extremely sensitive to the social signals that surround them and that they are able to start noticing differences early. Regardless of how these preferences develop, parents and peers will continue to condition and expect certain behaviors and thus create a gendered world with troubling consequences.

So, for example, when girls enter preschool for the first time, there is no gender difference in mathematics, but later it starts to appear when their teacher and their own beliefs get involved in the process. This is particularly problematic because such re-enforced stereotypes are "at odds with contemporary gender and egalitarian principles that our gender should not determine our interests or future," says Fine.

When certain toys are marketed to boys, it can influence the brain to strengthen connections that are part of, say, spatial intelligence.

And indeed, when a group of girls played the game Tetris for three months, the area of ​​the brain associated with visual processing became larger than in those girls who did not play the game. When girls and boys are offered a different type of occupation, brain changes may follow suit.

As neuroscientist and writer Gina Rippon explains for Aston University, the fact that we live in a gendered world also creates a gendered brain.

This creates a culture of boys who feel conditioned to exhibit typically masculine traits - or else they may be ostracized by their peers. If we focus on diversity, it also means that, as Rippon says, we begin to accept the myths that boys are better at understanding science and girls are more caring.

This continues in the adult world as well. Women show that they underestimate their own abilities in solving mathematical problems, while men overestimate their abilities. Women will also do worse on tests if they are told that their gender usually scores worse. And of course, things like this greatly influence their choice of school, college and career.

Even more troubling is the idea that the way some male traits are emphasized early on and then conditioned is linked to male sexual violence against women. For example, we know that individuals who commit acts of sexual violence tend to display high levels of "aggressive masculinity," says psychologist Megan Maas of Michigan State University.

There are beliefs that men are naturally violent and need sexual satisfaction, while women are submissive by nature.

"Studies also show that girls who identify more with princesses are more concerned about their appearance and are more likely to be self-objectified - to think of themselves as a sexual object," Mas says.

Girls with the highest levels of "sexual gender stereotypes" also recorded reduced values ​​of traits associated with intelligence. The study also revealed that both girls and boys in the early stages of development see attractiveness as something that is "incompatible with intelligence and competence." ".

In a 2020 paper, Brown and her colleagues discussed whether sexual assaults by men against women are so common precisely because of the values ​​we instill in children.

Their socialization comes from a combination of parents, school, media and peers. "Sexual objectification of girls starts really early," says Brown.

Part of the reason these gendered ideas and self-sufficiency persist is that voices continue to emerge about the innate brain differences between men and women. However, the vast majority of studies that rely on brain scans fail to find any gender differences in the results of such testing.

Or perhaps studies showing different results have not yet been published. This is also known as the "storage in drawers" problem - when no results are found, they are simply not mentioned or investigated further.

And with those studies that do show some small differences, it is difficult to really know what role the culture that surrounds us or stereotypical expectations play in this. Adult brains cannot be neatly classified as male or female brains.

One study, which involved brain scans of over 1.400 subjects, is described by neuroscientist Daphne Joel as "a large overlap in the distribution of gray and white brain matter and interconnections in men and women". Or, all in all, we are much more alike than we are different.

One study even found that women behaved just as aggressively as men when it was explained to them that their gender would not be revealed while playing a video game, but they were much less violent when they were told that the experimenter knew whether is it a man or a woman.

This is due to the fact that women tend to be perceived as less aggressive and more compassionate.

When we consider the physiological reactions to situations that could call for empathy, women and men have an identical reaction, but it is because women from the earliest ages were part of a society that directed them to behave in accordance with seemingly feminine emotions.

This means that if we want any significant changes, people must first understand their own prejudices and be aware of situations in which their prejudices do not fit with the behavior they observe. Even the smallest differences between the expectations of girls and boys can increase over time.

Javier Hirschfeld/Getty Images

Therefore, it is important to remember why people are conditioned to think that boys are more lively and to remember that this is not true. My daughter is certainly as noisy as her brother - if not more so - while he still likes to pretend to cook. While these may not be the most representative examples, they also don't fit our idea of ​​what boys and girls like.

It would be simpler for me to point out my son's penchant for tinkering with anything and everything and my daughter's penchant for the color pink, while overlooking the many moments in which she played with toy cars and he played with dolls.

When our children inevitably begin to point out gender differences, we can help by revising the stereotypes with other examples, such as explaining to girls that they can play soccer, and to boys that they can have long hair.

We can also encourage them with a wide variety of toys, regardless of their gender and who those toys were intended for. We need to create as many opportunities for play as possible so that "they can experience them despite the ever-increasing avalanche of gender-specific games," says Mas.

If we fail to understand that from birth we are much more alike than we are different and to treat our children accordingly, our world will continue to be gender-determined. These habits are not easy to change, but maybe we can think twice before telling a boy how brave he is or a girl how sweet or perfect she is.

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