Gender Stereotypes, Part Three

The secret of evolving our culture’s relationship to gender is to appreciate the reality that the sexes do differ in important ways including behavioral, neurological and physiological. However, gender differences fall on a spectrum and all points on that spectrum have equal worth and validity. Anytime we pretend something different (whether that “all women want to work outside the home” or “all women want to raise babies”), we do everyone a disservice or worse.

It is tricky to talk of differences when our differences have been used as a tool of prejudice and repression. But when differences exist, how can we not acknowledge them? The challenge and the obligation is to acknowledge our differences but to respect them.

Gender Stereotypes, Part Two

As the father of a daughter and a regular participant in kindergarten and first grade, I am pretty clear that the biological influence is very strong. While there are certainly additional socialized aspects of gender, there is a very strong and immutable biological component.  To be sure, these biological gender aspects fall on a spectrum. But, as an example, the female recipients of turned cards in last year’s kindergarten yellow-orange-red disciplinary system outnumbered males by an crazy margin. Maybe one girl got to orange once all year and not one got to red. For the boys, orange was “the new yellow” and red was a familiar stopping place. They we lucky there was nothing worse than red…

We have tried to encourage our daughter to play sport. She is adamant about not playing soccer, t-ball or basketball. The only thing she does that resembles a sport is karate, where she has stayed diligent and long enough to have earned a second-orange belt. But truth be told she mostly does that for two reasons. One, her father clearly loves that she does it. And two, she likes socializing with the other girls there. In her regular weekly resistance to going to practice, her biggest objections come when she knows her friends will be absent. So here is a case where parental pressure is the main reason for, not against, contra-gender behavior.

The reality is every one of us is a bit of a random walk down personality lane. Any combination of interests and preferences is possible. However, all results cluster around a mean and the means by trait for males and females are often quite different. We should acknowledge that and allow each their own, free from pressure to conform to anyone’s political agenda.

Gender Differences

Gender stereotyping is a very interesting, important, and complex subject.  Stereotype is defined as “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010).  Thus, stereotyping is oversimplified, uncritical, and perhaps even prejudiced.  It also lumps all members of the group into the same simplistic judgment.  On its face, stereotyping is wrong.

Our society has entertained many gender stereotypes over its history.  Most were directly prejudicial to women.  The most recent swing of the pendulum brought the culture to a belief in androgyny, a belief that all Homo sapiens have “the characteristics or nature of both male and female” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010).  However, recent neurobiological research demonstrates that this cultural assumption, however laudably equitable, is simply not correct.

A recent NIH/NIMH study found that “robust sex differences in developmental trajectories were noted for nearly all (brain) structures” (Lenroot et al., 2007).  The study also noted “peak gray matter volumes generally occurring earlier for females” and that “mean total cerebral volume was approximately 10% larger in males.  Total cerebral volume peaked at 10.5 years in females and 14.5 years in males” (Lenroot et al., 2007).  Thus, on average, male brains are larger than female brains and both total brain volume and gray matter volumes peaked 1 ½ to 2 years earlier in females than males.

A different study found that “girls rely on a supramodal language network, whereas boys process visual and auditory words differently” (Burman, Biten, & Booth, 2008).  In other words, females use different parts of their brain to process language and do so in a different fashion than males. 

With the recent developments in modern neural imaging technology, brains can be observed as never before.  A flood of research is revealing many new facts about how our brains work.  Many of those facts are revelations about how distinct average male and female brains really are.  One other study I would like to note is from a different field.  This study examined prenatal stress in rats and its effect on “latent inhibition (LI),” a Pavlovian conditioned response.  Fascinatingly, “prenatal stress increased the amount of LI only in the males” (Bethus, Lemaire, Lhomme, & Goodall, 2005).  In this pre-natal (i.e. almost entirely social influence free) study, female rats were unaffected. 

The body of evidence is large and growing larger that, on average, males and females have significant neurobiological, developmental differences.  Some are only in the timing of development, some are in structure and processing.  To be sure, there are no claims or assumptions of superiority for either gender.  However, unfortunately the easier and morally simpler assumption of androgyny is simple incorrect.  Unfortunately, there will be no simple answers in the area of gender differentiation.

Lenroot et al. (2007) sum it up nicely: “Differences in brain size between males and females should not be interpreted as implying any sort of functional advantage or disadvantage.  Size/function relationships are complicated by the inverted U shape of developmental trajectories and by the myriad factors contributing to structure size, including the number and size of neurons and glial cells, packing density, vascularity, and matrix composition.  However, an understanding of the sexual dimorphism of brain development, and the factors that influence these trajectories, may have important implications for the field of developmental neuropsychiatry where nearly all of the disorders have different ages of onset, prevalence, and symptomatology between boys and girls” (Lenroot et al., 2007, p. 1072).


Bethus, I., Lemaire, V., Lhomme, M., & Goodall, G. (2005, March 30). Does prenatal stress affect latent inhibition? It depends on the gender. Behavioural Brain Research, 158(2), 331-338. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2004.09.013
Burman, D., Biten, T., & Booth, J. (2008, January 4). Sex differences in neural processing of language among children. Neuropsychologia, 46(5), 1349-1362 . doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.12.021 Retrieved from
Lenroot, R., Gogtay, N., Greenstein, D., Wells, E., Wallace, G., Clasen, L., Blumenthal, J., … Giedd, J. (2007, March 17). Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence. NeuroImage, 36, 1065-1073. Retrieved from
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2010). Androgyny. Retrieved February 25, 2010, from
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2010). Stereotype. Retrieved February 25, 2010, from

Gender Stereotypes

What are some examples of gender stereotypes?  Describe the development of gender stereotyping from early childhood into adolescence.

Gender stereotyping can occur in many forms and at many stages of development.  Studies show that gender stereotyped behavior can be increased by parental behavior in very early childhood.  As one example, children’s scores on sex role discrimination at age 4 were elevated in children whose parents had shown sex-typed toy preference at 18 months (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989).  Similarly, another study identified the emergence of gender labeling at about 18 months (Zosuls et al., 2009).  Another study showed that the use of gender in functional categories (e.g. “Good morning, boys and girls”) by teachers in elementary school led to subsequent increase in gender stereotyping among the students (Bigler, 1995).  Interestingly, from a developmental point of view, this increase in gender stereotyping was largest among students who had not yet developed multiple classification skill.  Susan Witt studied the relative influence of parents and peers and found that parents had the more profound influence on gender stereotypes. In addition, she argues, “Sex role stereotypes are well established in early childhood” (Witt, 1997, para. 11).  Other research shows gender stereotypes to be quite persistent, “The experimental intervention with elementary school children led to a reduction of occupational stereotyping.  Children’s own occupational aspirations were not, however, significantly affected” (Bigler & Liben, 1990).

Gender stereotypes can be created and reinforced in many ways.  They can be accidentally reinforced by the unspoken assumptions of caregivers and peers. Gender discriminated color choices (e.g. pink & blue), toy choices (Barbies & GI Joes) and even behavioral expectations (playing catch & playing house) are all examples of unconscious gender role differentiation.  More deliberately, boys are frequently expected to play sports, be tough and exhibit characteristics our culture associates with masculinity. Likewise, girls are directed towards dolls and more feminine behaviors and pursuits. Statements like “You hit like a girl” and “Boys don’t cry” make crystal clear the societal expectations for both genders.  As socialization and maturation progresses, peer pressure to conform can easily come to include gender stereotyped behaviors.  The enforced conformity of adolescence certainly adds to the stereotyping, but as we’ve seen above, gender stereotypes are well in place from very early on.


Bee, H., & Boyd, B. (2007). The developing child (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Bethus, I., Lemaire, V., Lhomme, M., & Goodall, G. (2005). Does prenatal stress affect latent inhibition? It depends on the gender. Behavioural Brain Research, 158(2), 331-338. Retrieved from

Bigler, R. S. (1995, August). The role of classification skill in moderating environmental influences on children’s gender stereotyping: A study of the functional use of gender in the classroom. Child Development, 66(3), 1072-1087. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.ep9509180275

Burman, D., Biten, T., & Booth, J. (2008). Sex differences in neural processing of language among children. Neuropsychologia, 46(5), 1349-1362 . doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.12.021

Fagot, B. I., & Leinbach, M. D. (1989, June). The young child’s gender schema: Environmental input, internal organization. Child Development, 60(3), 663-672. Retrieved from

Lenroot, R., Gogtay, N., Greenstein, D., Wells, E., Wallace, G., Clasen, L., Blumenthal, J., … Giedd, J. (2007, March 17). Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence. NeuroImage, 36, 1065-1073. Retrieved from

ScienceDaily. (2008). Boys’ And girls’ brains Are different: Gender differences in language appear biological. Retrieved from

Witt, S. D. (1997, Summer). Parental influence on children’s socialization to gender roles. Adolescence. Retrieved from

Zosuls, K. M., Ruble, D. N., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shrout, P. E., Bornstein, M. H., & Greulich, F. K. (2009, May). The acquisition of gender labels in infancy: Implications for gender-typed play. Developmental Psychology, 45(3), 688-701. Retrieved from

Verifying Understanding

I have been thinking about verifying understanding frequently.  I have mentioned this before but, as a scuba instructor, I am very familiar with the techniques of mastery learning.  In this essentialist, assessment-based world we live in, mastery learning becomes very relevant.  Simply put, in mastery learning, you do not get to move on until you have mastered the material in front of you.  The clear implication of this is that each student will be tested until that mastery is fully demonstrated. In my class, my students will expect to be challenged daily.  They will understand that being challenged is like lifting weights, failure is precursor to success. 

Of course, one of the first things I will expect my students to master is the art of taking tests.  They will study test taking and they will practice it.  Multiple choice and composing essays on the fly are skills like any other. My tests will be as challenging and devious as any the standards boards can devise, more so because mine are teaching tools.  Challenges will not just be tests, they will come in many creative forms.  In addition to tests and quizzes, I will ask students to “teach back” what they have just learned.  Maybe that means giving a quick verbal description.  Maybe it means preparing a five-minute mock lesson.  Alternatively, maybe it means breaking up in groups to work together to achieve mastery, with individual success dependent on collective success. 

Sometimes the best path is the crooked one.  Maybe the test will be writing a poem about algebra.  Or maybe it will be “draw a map of the island in Lord of the Flies.”  Maybe the students will make a probability matrix for the American Revolution.  The best way to learn something is to take it apart completely and re-assemble it.  The other best way is practice, practice, practice. 

One final note: key concepts and facts will appear on quizzes long after the unit is done.  Anything worth learning is worth still knowing at the end of the school year.


Parents and teachers want to know what they can do to promote a child’s self-esteem.  What advice would you give them and why?

According to Bee and Boyd (2007), self-esteem is a function of two factors.

First, children hold a vision of what they should be.  As they move out of childhood into adolescence, they increasingly compare their beliefs about who they really are against who they think they ought to be.  “When the discrepancy is large—when the child sees himself as failing to live up to his own goals or values—self-esteem is much lower” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 287).  

There are at least three obvious actions parents and teachers can take to close this gap.  First, they can work with children to have realistic expectations of their “ideal self.”  By working with children to be fully in touch with their humanity, that ideal can be lowered and the gap reduced.  Second, children all have different areas of strength and weakness.  Typically, the ideals to which children compare themselves are in areas selected by peer group and environment.  This is particularly true in adolescence as the peer group assumes greater significance.  Still, parents can help children shift their comparisons to areas of relative competence.  Finally, children often do a poor job of evaluating themselves.  Frequently, children allow their peer group to define them.  All too often, they place far too little emphasis on their own true strengths and goals.  Parents and teachers can make sure that children see all their capabilities clearly and emphasize their areas of relative excellence.  By doing these three things, the gap between ideal and perceived reality can be reduced dramatically.

Second, self-esteem is dependent on “the overall sense of support the child feels from the important people around her, particularly parents and peers (Franco & Levitt, 1998)” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 287).  In childhood and even in adolescence, children need the love and support of the significant adults in their lives.  Children need to know that they are held to standards, but they need to know that those standards are about the child achieving their own possibility.  They need to know that they are expected to strive and work for the very best they can achieve.  In addition, they need to know that failure is a part of being human, of learning, of evolving.  Mostly, children need to know that they are loved and appreciated.

It is easy to forget, especially with adolescents, but children look to their significant adults to find strength, courage, and direction.  It is up to those adults to provide those things with love and appreciation for all the challenges of youth.


“The best way to damage a child’s self-esteem is to compare him or her to another child”

That’s really interesting. I have written a number of essays around the idea that “success” should be internally judged. However, I never made the obvious jump to your simple rule! As the male figure in our home, I give myself more license to challenge my daughter than if I were the primary source of nurturance. One of the ways I let this occur is by comparisons. I rarely, if ever, compare her negatively to somebody else (as in “You need to try harder, like Sally”). I can see how that’s not healthy at any level. I do occasionally compare her rare extreme behaviors to her more notorious friends’ behaviors (as in “Is this Annie we invited to dinner? Somebody is sure behaving like Annie!”). My daughter FLIPS when I do that. I’ve never understood why it provokes such a strong reaction so you’ve given me a lot to ponder. In any event, I think your rule is solid and will incorporate it into my ruleset.

Having said that, I do think we can teach children to learn from others. “Isn’t it great how Debbie keeps her desk so neat?” or “Why do you think Jessie looks so comfortable on stage?” Or to the negative, “What did you think of Susan’s behavior at recess? Why do you think she did that? Is there anything we can learn from it?” As part of those lessons, it’s also good to remind all concerned that everybody has their stronger and weaker moments. The challenge is to know the difference and fight for the best we have to give.

Discipline, Part Three

I’m intrigued by your idea of having children who act out write you an apology letter on the spot. I write this speaking as a former boy who spent a lot of time in trouble in school for “disruptive behavior.” If statistics hold true, roughly 3/4’s of your discipline will likely be directed at boys. Your average boy will be far more physically active than your average girl (hence the discipline ratio) and, at least in the lower grades, less capable of both the fine motor skills and verbal skills necessary to easily write you an apology. It was humiliating enough to be in trouble for reasons I only dimly understood. To then be tortured by having to write, of all things, an apology letter would be doubly bad. Obviously, you’re free to do whatever you think is best in the classroom, but I’d like to suggest a slight variation. Perhaps you could allow the disciplined children to choose the media in which they expresses their apology. Letter, artwork, poem, even a song or dance might resonate better and have a stronger effect on long term behavior. I’ve never tried this and I wonder what some of the implications of an ‘apology dance’ might be, but I can tell you I was gritting my teeth at age fifty-one just thinking about being one of those kids. It’s worth a try, I’d say.

As long as I’m advocating for boys, I’d like to add a couple of quotes:

“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” – Friedrich Froebel (Froebel Web, 1998-2009, para. 2)

“Boys get unfairly labeled as morally defective, hyperactive, undisciplined, or ‘problem children,’ when quite often the problem is not with the boys but with the families, extended families, or social environments, which do not understand their specific needs as human beings and as boys“  – Michael Gurian (Gurian, 1999).


Froebel Web. (1998-2009). Friedrich Froebel created Kindergarten. Retrieved February 22, 2010, from

Gurian, M. (1999). The good son: A complete parenting plan. East Rutherford, NJ: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Nudges and Sparks…

“Lives of great significance begin with a spark, a nudge, a gesture.  Let us touch as many as we can, while we can.”

John Furlong

February 12, 2010

Olympic Opening Ceremony Speech

Peer Pressure

For me, peer pressure comes in two forms.

The first is the one we generally think of as peer pressure. Children who are not in compliance with the current standard of ‘cool’ are excluded, teased or harassed. This could be pressure to have sex, to take drugs or other anti-social behaviors. Or it could be as simple as pressure to dress a certain way, look a certain way or like certain songs of celebrities. 

The other form of peer pressure is the pressure children feel from inside themselves to be accepted. I see it even in my 1st grade daughter. Children are constantly scanning their environment to find what’s ‘cool’, how they should act and dress. Coincidentally enough, I was showing my wife a Facebook picture of my very first major crush. The caption to the picture of her and two other girls from 1972 said, “Believe it or not this was who we scoped for what to wear the next day.” Many adolescents feel insecure and ‘not enough’ and they look to others they see as being ‘enough.’ By emulating their behavior, dress and even language, they hope to become ‘enough’ themselves. Ironically, even the ‘popular’ children generally feel exactly as confused, they just happen to be confused and popular.

The first kind of pressure is comparatively easy to combat. In my classroom there would be a crystal clear rule about respect for others. Anything designed to diminish a classmate would not be allowed within range of my sense (or my disciplinary reach, to the extent it is brought to my attention). The second is harder to combat. The message must be communicated that all adolescents struggle with identity, feelings of inadequacy, and not fitting in. Accepting those feelings as normal, developmental, and hormonal (as opposed to ‘real’) would be a small step towards reducing their power. A second step would be passing the message that each person is enough in themselves. The trick for each individual is to find and accept who they are and why they are here. Accepting “Who I am and who I’m not” is a huge step towards silencing internal and external peer group pressure.