Savvy Review: Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot, Ph.D.

Eliza Clark
November 16, 2009

Every once in a while, a book comes along that promises to answer a fundamental parenting question that has been nagging at us. Lise Eliot’s new Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It is one of those books. The question: where do gender differences between boys and girls come from? How do they develop? What is nature, and what is nurture?

Every parent of a preschooler has witnessed the amazing process by which tiny babies with no sense whatsoever of their own gender identity rapidly morph into toddlers who fervently proclaim their allegiance to either cars and trucks or dolls and princesses with very little leeway in between. For those of us who like to think that we are living in a progressive age of far looser gender norms than previous generations, our kids’ fervent embrace of the most blatant gender stereotypes can come as a bit of a shock. Did we do something wrong? Has all the marketing taken over our kids’ brains? Or is it actually “natural” for three-year-old girls to want to wear only pink dresses?

Neuroscientist and mother of three (two boys and a girl), Lise Eliot, answers these questions deftly and yet without sacrificing any of the complexity and nuance that the topic requires. Scrutinizing every bit of research on brain development and sex differences available, Eliot traces cognitive, behavioral and emotional differences and parallels between girls and boys from their days in the womb through early childhood and adolescence, into young adulthood. She tackles such loaded topics as toy stereotypes, self-segregation by sex, linguistic versus spatial abilities, sex differences and aggression, and much more.

What makes this book so valuable is its balanced approach to these hot-button issues, and its practical and specific parenting suggestions. Eliot teases out the biological roots of the very visible differences we all notice between the youngest boys and girls, but also firmly emphasizes the plasticity of developing brains and the huge influence of culture and parenting on the formation of individual gendered identities. Her goal is to show parents how to bring out the fullest potential in each of their girls and boys -- and how could we not applaud that?  

To that end, she offers wonderfully concrete ideas for each stage of development. We were especially keen to hear her advice about the preschool years, and were not disappointed. “Children’s brains will never again be more malleable” than during these years, she notes, and so “the trick is to find engaging toys and activities that will coax members of each sex to practice the skills they are not otherwise inclined to.” For boys, she counsels plenty of time spent on language and literacy enrichment, fine motor skills, the expression of feelings as well as rough and tumble time. For girls, she urges building toys, puzzles, sports, ball games, visuospatial computer games and more. None of this is likely to dampen girls’ and boys’ passion for their dolls and trucks, but it gives them the chance to develop a well-rounded set of skills and interests that will serve them well in school and beyond.

For a great interview with the beyond smart Lise Eliot, see here. We also turn often to her first book when seeking an answer to the immortal question What's Going On In There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life.


From the Parents

Similar Articles

The Savvy Library

From the educational to the whimsical, our Savvy editors help you explore your world. You can search our 1972 articles by keyword, subject, or date.

Notable Selection

Below you'll find some of the more popular selections from the Savvy Library: