Exceptions abound, of course, but do girls naturally gravitate towards dolls and kitchen play sets or do we, as a society, subtly influence their preferences by plying them with the toys we think girls will/should like? Are boys hardwired to like trucks and cricket (or baseball) and motor car racing and science and math or do we expose them to these activities because they're boys?
Now that I am the mother of a son and a daughter, I'm observing my own little experiment take shape. Every day provides ample data to test either hypothesis - is it nature over nurture or is it nurture over nature?
Just the fact that they are two different people accounts for a lot of differences to begin with. Those of you with children of the same gender could attest to this too, I'm sure. Although I never fail to be amazed by it - how can children of the same two people be so different from each other?
But of late, I've been watching D, my two and a half year old daughter, doing things that I cannot attribute to anything other than gender. We have not bought her dolls, we have not bought her cooking sets. We don't buy her overly frilly clothes.
First, there's the need to comfort all manner of objects around the house. The huge wall mirror in the dining room is sad. Why? Because he's missing his mommy mirror and wants to see his mommy. So she goes and stands next to the mirror and pats it in an attempt to make it feel better. A few minutes later, "He's feeling better, mommy! I made him feel all better!" It's the same story with her blankie, her Clifford toy, a book. They're all missing their mommies and feeling sad.
Then there's the babying. She has a toy walk-along dog that one day I found her putting baby lotion on. She squeezed little bits on to her palm and smeared it all over the toy. Then she laid him on her lap and tried to pat him to sleep. With a lullaby.
When she's trying to make me feel better, she's fully involved, unlike my son who feels terrible and awkward at the same time. I can see him wishing I'd feel better already. D, on the other hand, acts like she's found her calling. She sidles up to me, holds my hand, says "awwww, feel better, Mommy," and proceeds to ask me how I'm feeling in a gentle voice. And she's a great - and constant - assessor of facial expressions. She wants to know if I'm sad, angry, happy, feeling better, all from looking at my face. And goes off in a huff and sulks, "You're angry. I don't like you anymore." My son just says, "Mom, stop being angry with me," fully meaning it and expecting me to stop being angry that minute.
I haven't started applying more make up since D was born nor do I spend any more time grooming myself, but she's fascinated by every little detail. She must apply chap stick before heading out (I have to remind my son every single time and sometimes do it by force); she stands patiently while I apply baby lotion; she loves hair clips and walks around with hair bands for bracelets; she loves my bangles and will play with them for hours; the look of absolute delight on her face when I wear traditional Indian clothes is to die for; she gravitates towards frocks (one day after she put on a pant and a turtleneck - the hallmark of a winter wardrobe - she looked at herself in the mirror and declared, "I look like a man. I want my frock."); she's partial to soft material; she loves her flowery shoes; I can tell she cannot wait for the day she can start using eye-liner and perfume and deodorant spray (she stands next to me and lifts her arm and pretend sprays into her armpit, in unison with me); she has strong opinions on what she'd like to wear on any particular day, taking her time to assess the possibilities and finally picking one.
My son, on the other hand, will wear the clothes in the topmost layer of his drawer. If he puts something back into his drawer after using it for a short while one day, the next day he appears in the same set of clothes.
As you might have guessed, I am gravitating towards the opinion that nature trumps nurture. But we're not complaining. My husband is the eldest of four brothers and I was not too much into make up and dressing up when I was young, so it is delightful as it is fascinating for both of us to watch D. We're not in any hurry to nurture her natural instincts out of her any time soon. Very likely never.
Update (October 12, 2009): Emily Bazelon reviews Lise Eliot's Pink Brain Blue Brain:
"Sex differences in the brain are sexy," Eliot writes. And so we tend to notice them everywhere. "But there's enormous danger," she says, in our exaggeration. It leads us to see gender, beginning at an early age, only in terms of what we expect to see, and to assume that sex differences are innate and immutable. We forget that the differences within each sex -- among girls and among boys -- are usually greater than the gaps between the two.
... Eliot's trump card is the brain's plasticity. Our brains are works in progress. They change based on experience, especially in early childhood. So a child's environment matters in terms of the skills and interests he or she develops. That doesn't mean pushing trucks on the 3-year-old girl who wants dolls -- we've all seen that experiment fail. But how about giving her a Lego set, sidewalk chalk or even a doll stroller, to encourage her to move around and think in spatial terms?