The change in women’s lives that has taken place in the last two generations, and in the opportunities available to them, might lead to the conclusion that a gender bias no longer exists as part of our culture. Admission to law schools and medical schools has shifted toward women so dramatically that in many schools the number of women now exceeds the number of men. The number of women in the U.S. Senate has risen significantly, and the fact that women occupy many other political offices is now taken for granted.

Whatever controversy remains over the role of women in our society seems to focus these days on how few women break through the glass ceiling – or on the need for affordable quality child-care so that women are not held back in employment opportunities. Despite those remaining problems, it would appear that women have prevailed in their struggle for equality.

It therefore comes as something of a shock to find that a study of Google searches seems to suggest American parents are concerned about their sons being smart and their daughters being thin and pretty. Parents were more likely to ask about sons rather than daughters on every question related to intelligence. The concern about daughters on the other hand, was disproportionately expressed in anything related to appearance.

Are there ways in which ingrained ideas about gender differences have an impact on the way boys and girls develop? To what extent are our ideas self-fulfilling prophecies – that is, do we treat our children in ways that then result in the affirmation of our biases?

In her book, “BOYS & GIRLS, Superheroes in the Doll Corner,” teacher and writer Vivian Paley explores differences in the way kindergarten age children play and fantasize. She questions the clichés and prejudices of the teacher’s curriculum that reward girls’ domestic play while discouraging boys’ adventurous fantasies.

My own observations of nursery school children have raised similar questions. It is startling to see the almost automatic separation of girls to the housekeeping corner and boys to the block building section. Many teachers prefer quiet, orderly classrooms, which leads to the greater management of the boys and efforts to control and direct their behavior.

An unfortunate consequence of a teacher preference for more manageable behavior is that too often a boy may be labeled a “problem,” or in this day and age, as hyper-active or having an attention deficit disorder. The much noticed rise in the use of medication to control behavior that is actually typical for active young boys, may also be a consequence of larger class size and a lack of tolerance for the behavior of young boys in particular.

There has been much discussion about whether it is desirable for girls to attend all-girls’ schools. The point made is the benefit for girls of not being distracted by their interest in gaining boys’ attention. If that is a benefit, the same might apply in reverse to boys at a single sex school. Perhaps more significant, is the recognition that teachers often respond differently to boys, calling on them more readily and responding positively to what may be a more assertive style in giving the answers.

Of course, the cultural fixation on weight and beauty when it comes to girls has been commented on at length as having destructive repercussions. But perhaps the deeper concern is the need for us to recognize as parents what our own gender biases are, so that neither girls nor boys are educated into a way of being that may run counter to who they really are.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at