When it comes to gender, members of the media just LOVE reporting with breathless astonishment on research that appears to reinforce conventional wisdom. Sometimes it takes a certain amount of squishing to make it fit said conventional wisdom; cf. coverage of just about every study on daycare's impact on the wellbeing of children. An interesting study presented at yesterday's British Psychological Association (BPA) meeting provides a case in point.
Dr. Brenda Todd, and undergraduate Sara Amalie O'Toole Thommessen, both of London's City University, offered 90 small children, ages nine months to three years, seven different toys. Some were stereotypically girls' toys (dolls, cookware), some boys' toys (car, digger). The researchers found that even the nine-month old babies showed significantly more interest in toys made for their own gender -- that is, the girls headed straight for the pink stuff, boys for the trucks. The BPA press release noted that the study's findings, "raise the possibility that there is a biological basis in children to play with gender-typed toys." That possibility alone attracted global media attention, as it always does, but we have to give the London Daily Mail credit for most doucheworthy headline: "Why Girls Are Naturally Drawn to Dolls as Soon as They Can Crawl."
To Dr. Todd's credit, she -- and other researchers interviewed in some of the news frenzy -- pointed out that nine-month old babies are hardly immune to socialization. That point always gets lost in the din, but it's the most important part of the story. When my son Ivan was less than a year old, he often wanted to bring a toy when we went out to run errands in the neighborhood. If he had a helicopter or truck with him, everyone wanted to ask him about it. In fact, generally, people did want to chat with him, as he was a friendly and charismatic toddler. But I noticed that when he brought his baby doll, instead of a vehicle, strangers rarely tried to engage him. And anyone who thinks babies don't pick up on such social subtleties has not spent much time around babies.
Because I can't resist having fun at the expense of others, let's take a gander at the concluding line of the Daily Mail report:
There could be a biological basis for their choices...girls prefer warmer colours such as pink, the colour of a newborn baby.
Where to even begin? It would be impossible to enumerate all the problems with this explanation of the pink phenomenon (for starters, Korean, Japanese and African-American babies are not pink, yet little girls of all races, at least in the U.S., love pink crap).
There's nothing wrong with the idea that biological instincts could inform play -- how could they not? But it's ludicrous how badly people want to believe that it's all about Mother Nature.