when the status quo frustrates.

Aww Baybeez!

My twin sibblings
Cute little devils, aren’t they.

So I was talking to my ex-husband the other day, and I was asking him how his new baby was doing (he just got remarried about a year ago) and he said she was fine, and then he said, “You know, she’s so sweet.”

“Aww,” I said, cause it was expected of me, and also, she really is a cutie–I ran into her and her mom at the grocery store the other day.

“Girls really are different,” he continued on enthusiastically. (He and I have two boys together.) “I mean, right from the beginning. They’re just so much, you know–”

“Girlier?” I suggested.

Some dryness may have been apparent in my tone, because he immediately began elaborating–”Just, gentler. And just daintier. And calmer, you know?”

I had no interest in debating his assertions–she’s his new baby, I’m not gonna argue with that kind of infatuation! And I don’t know the specific kid beyond a few brief encounters. But after we exchanged a few more pleasantries and hung up, the conversation returned to me and got me thinking…is there really a perceptible difference, on any level other than genital, between girl and boy babies? Especially girl and boy babies that young?

I’d never really thought so. My sister was born when I was ten years old–my mother developed pre-eclampsia and nearly died during the delivery, something which no doubt planted early one of the seeds that has helped me flourish into the ardent pro-choicer you see before you today.


But I digress! Point was, Mom was a mess for quite a while afterwards so I pretty much raised my sister for the first few years of her life. I did everything for her but breastfeed her (Mom did that, of course–she had to. My sister would flatly have nothing to do with any bottle. Had no idea what her problem with them was!! but there you have it). I gave her her first solid foods and she took her first steps into my arms; I had her potty-trained (mostly!) by age two.

When I was thirteen, for various reasons I went to live with my aunt and my grandma, who were also raising my aunt’s newborn son. She was a single working mom and Grandma was in poor health, so wouldn’t ya know it, I was back on the baby train…I only lived with them for about six months–the baby was probably less than two months old when I arrived and going on nine months when I left. Now, I admit I wasn’t LOOKING for gender differences…however, you’d think if they were really that noticeable, I’d have noticed them. Well, I did notice that changing my
cousin’s diaper was a lot riskier experience for getting the “hose” treatment–when my sister peed during a changing, it just made a wet spot under her; my cousin made a wet spot all over ME! But other than that…well, babies that age poop, pee, barf, eat, sleep, cry, wave their limbs around and stare at stuff at lot, basically. Not much else goin’ on. Really. As they get older they start smiling, writhing purposefully, then attempting locomotion, and also start exercising their little voices in attempts at speech-y sounds, but…um. They do that the exact same way regardless of whether they’re a girl or a boy. And if you’ve got one laying there in front of you in a diaper and nothin’ else, they don’t even HAVE a gender.

But apparently lots of other people disagree. Usually the first question out of anybody’s mouth, if the kid isn’t color-coded, is “Is it a BOY or a GIRL?” and once that’s identified, the cooing begins, segregated quite sharply by gender–”He’s so BIG!” “She’s so PRETTY!” “What a handsome little man!” “What a sweet little girl!” and so forth.

So I thought I’d casually research the topic. As it turns out, apparently there was a fairly well-known study (Rubin, Provenzano, and Luria) in the mid-70′s that found the following:

The parents in that study rated and described their newborn infants in gender-stereotyped terms, with the fathers being more extreme than the mothers in differentiating between sons and daughters. The parents as a group rated girls as softer, finer featured, littler, and more inattentive than boys; the fathers were more likely than the mothers to rate girls as softer, finer featured, more awkward, more inattentive, weaker, and more delicate than boys. The parents also verbally described their daughters as little, beautiful, pretty, cute, and resembling their mothers, and described their sons as big.

The only problem with this is, this doesn’t prove the babies weren’t different due to their genders; it just proves that the parents really thought they were. However, I found a more recent study (1995) that asks the following questions:

1) Has gender stereotyping among parents declined in the years since the Rubin et al. (1974) study?
2) Do fathers continue to stereotype more than mothers?
3) Do parents’ gender-stereotyped perceptions of their newborns decline with increased exposure to their infants, as parents acquire additional information about the unique features of their infants?

And they concluded that:

The results of this study suggest the following answers to the three questions posed earlier: First, contemporary parents continue to hold a few gender-stereotyped perceptions of their newborn infants, but fewer than those held by the parents studied in 1974 by Rubin et al. Second, the fathers in this study did not differ in any notable way from the mothers in their perceptions of their newborns, unlike the fathers in the Rubin et al. (1974) study. Third and finally, parents’ gender stereotyped perceptions of their newborns persist for at least a week after the parents take the infants home from the hospital.

Despite this apparent decline, some gender stereotyping persists and is consistent across studies. The parents in all three studies rated female newborns as finer featured than male newborns, and the parents in both the present and the Sweeney and Bradbard (1988) studies rated female newborns as more delicate than male newborns. Thus, parents seem particularly likely to perceive their female and male newborns as differing on physical characteristics. These differences were perceived even though there were no observed physical differences between the male and female infants in this or the previous studies.


The third major finding of this study, that the identified gender-stereotyped perceptions were stable across a 1-week period, suggests that parents’ gender-stereotyped perceptions of newborns’ physical characteristics are robust and not easily modified by exposure to the infant. In fact, most of the individual differences in parents’ ratings of their infants were stable across the study period.

Just had that conversation, yep.

It really makes me wonder…are we ever going to be able to resolve the nature-vs.-nuture question in regards to gender when stereotyping begins THIS early and is THIS pervasive..? Should I take heart from the fact that parents do less of that now than they did a few decades ago? Is that curve becoming steeper or is it leveling off?

8 Responses to “Aww Baybeez!”

  1. LL says:

    This topic makes me squirm a little bit. Haven’t had babies yet but it’s a definite possibility. I’ve had more than one person say to me that they didn’t strongly believe in innate gender differences before they had kids. I have a feeling they’re full of shit but I really have no leg to stand on in this argument. I’ve had relationships w/ babies (my little sis and my neice and nephew) & I can see the weird way adults treat em w/ respect to gender but I really feel like I’m not allowed to have an opinion unless I have kids myself. Sucks.

  2. Lisa KS says:

    If it’s any consolation, I’ve had kids and I don’t believe strongly in innate gender differences. Both my boys wanted baby dolls to take care of so they could be “like Daddy” (which really points a strong finger at what they see the adults around them doing, cause their dad was a very involved parent, as opposed to what’s, er, “natural”).

    However, I feel safe saying that whether or not there are any innate differences between babies this young is not a matter of “belief;” there just really aren’t any, period.

  3. schrödinger's cat says:

    True. My guess is that the same behaviour gets interpreted differently. If a baby (for example) is very active, a baby boy is “training to become a footballer”, a girl is “wild”. If a baby’s very attentive, a boy is”intelligent” and a girl “wants to join in the conversation”.

  4. delagar says:

    I’ll say this: kids sometimes are different, often from the start — it can be that your second infant won’t be like your first infant, and there often *are* huge personality differences between one infant and the next from the beginning (though not always). This has very little to do with gender, IME, and everything to do with the kid itself. But, if the parent is determined to see gender differences, the parent can decide that the differences between kid-a and kid-b are because this one’s a girl and that one was a boy.

    I’m thinking of two specific families I know, one with a boy-girl, one with two boys: in the first, I get lectured to by the parents about how “from the very beginning!” they could tell that the second child, the girl, was different, “and so!”; and in the second, where the second child is just as wildly different, no one thinks to blame his differences on his gender.

  5. peanutbutter says:

    I seem to remember one of these types of studies used the same babies, but the adults were told boy or girl, etc for purposes of controlling the variables. The same baby would get the gender based rating of whatever the adult thought it was.

    I have seen big differences in kids, both between boys and girls, between boys, and between girls. The problem is that there’s so much gender based influence from the very start, that I have no way of telling how much is nature vs nurture. Given these studies, though, I’m inclined to believe nurture plays a much larger role.

  6. Thene says:

    peanutbutter – iirc the adults a) were all female and b) were not told boy or girl, but were simply given babies dressed in either blue or pink pyjamas, a difference that was random rather than based on their real gender. The babies were treated very differently – the blues were bounced, etc.

    I’m just dredging this up from memory, so could be wrong – I can’t remember the name of the study, so can’t look it up >

  7. heller says:

    I can’t remember the study either, but I think you are referencing two different studies. The one in which the adults were told that the children were told that the babies were boys or girls, had the adults watch a film. The adults watched some black and white films of babies after having been told that the babies were either boys or girls; the adults usually rated the babies high in the expected gender stereotypes (boys active, girls quieter etc.) However, in some cases the group of adults were shown THE EXACT SAME FILM, but told that the babies were girls the first time they saw the film, and that the babies were boys the second time they saw it. They rated the exact same film twice and gave two different responses depending on the sex that they thought the babies were.

    I realize that my personal experience is only anecdotal, but I have two girls, and they are both very active. My first was very stubborn, fussy, and somewhat unpleasant. She was also extremely intelligent and interactive. My second is very happy, playful, and extremely fast and mobile. They are, of course, both completely adorable, but I have found more differences between the two of them much greater than the differences between either of them and their male cousin.

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