Gender Differences: Nature then Nurture

genderNature: boys and girls do develop differently

There are lots of anecdotes about how different boys and girls* are. And, for any point that you are trying to prove about gender differences, you’ll be able to find at least one study that supports it. But, when experts do a meta-analysis of all the studies, these are the main differences that show up consistently:

  • Emotional Development: Boys may get upset and explode more easily, and have a harder time self-soothing. Girls show fear earlier: they’re more likely to startle, and more likely to become cautious when their parents look worried about something.
  • Spatial Learning: boys are better at the ability to turn objects around in their mind to see how they could fit together differently (puzzles), and better at keeping track of moving objects and predicting motion (where the ball will land).
  • Physical Skills: Boys may be more physically active (although girls reach large motor milestones at about the same age). Boys may have shorter attention spans.
  • Language: Girls are better at perceptual speed tasks: identifying matching objects and pattern identification. They pay more attention to the human voice than boys do. Girls also talk earlier.

However, although those differences are observable patterns, the differences from all boys to all girls are small. When we look at individuals, there is just as much variation from one boy to another as there is from any one boy to any one girl.

It is true that girls’ brains develop faster. At birth, a full-term girl is about one week “more mature” than a full-term boy. Girls reach the halfway point of their brain development before 11 years, and their brain is fully mature between 21 and 22 year old. Boys’ halfway point is 15 years, with full brain maturity by 30 years old. Source. This delay can make boys seem “not as bright” or “not as good at academic skills” as girls, but that’s not the case in the long run.

Nurture: Boys and girls are treated differently

So, there are, in fact, slight biological differences. But we as parents reinforce and amplify the differences. We tend to encourage our children to do the things that we expected they would be good at (boys to throw balls, girls to talk) and we don’t challenge them in other areas, because “well, girls are just not as physical, and we all know boys talk later.” Our assumptions “crystallize into… self-fulfilling prophecies.” (Eliot)

  • Emotional Development: Some believe that “girls are more empathic / tuned into people from day one – they are much more likely to establish eye contact.” But others point out that because newborn boys are fussier and harder to soothe (due to those less mature brains), their parents are less likely to establish eye contact, so boys don’t get as much practice at that skill.
  • Emotional Expression: Boys are seen as more likely to be angry and aggressive, but that’s considered normal. Angry girls are told not to be angry. When girls show fear, they receive empathic support. But fearful boys are told not to be scared.  Source.
  • Spatial Learning: Girls are, in fact, slightly less interested in puzzles and building toys. But when we give our boys lots of Legos, and give our girls toy animals, the skills they don’t have the opportunity to practice can turn into a bigger gap in spatial skills which influences learning advanced math later on.
  • Physical: Boys are expected to be more physical and more interested in balls and bikes, so when they show these interests, they are more actively encouraged. Boys are dressed in clothes they can move well in. Girls are dressed in “pretty” clothes, and assumed to be less physically capable. There was a study of 11 month olds. The mothers were asked how steep a slope their child could crawl down. Then the children were tested. Boys and girls did about the same. But the mothers of girls had significantly underestimated what their girls were capable of. Source
  • Language: Parents and teachers see a boy lagging in reading and verbal skills and shrug it off with, “But of course, he’s a boy.” It is true that girls talk younger. At 20 months a girl may know 200 words and a boy may know 30. But in a month he’ll catch up to where she was! She will always have gotten more practice than he has, though, so she will always seem further ahead. Girls may also read younger, which means parents assume they like to read. These girls are more likely to read for pleasure – which builds language skills, putting them further ahead. Meanwhile, the parents may focus on how slow their boy is at learning to read – when he over-hears this, he assumes that reading is not one of the things he’ll ever be good at.

Think about your expectations for the children in your life. What assumptions do you make about their capabilities based on their gender? Where do you “make excuses” for them based on gender… “well, I know that this is harder for boys to learn…”? When guessing which toys and activities they’ll be interested in, how colored are your assumptions by their gender?

Yes, I get that boys and girls can be different. My boy was obsessed with trains as a toddler – my girls never even played with the trains I got for them. My girls carried their stuffed animals everywhere and had a complex understanding of the social relationships of those animals and my son only occasionally plays with his stuffed animals. But I gave all of them an opportunity to interact with a variety of toys. And I tried not to make assumptions about which toys they would like.

Some parents believe that gender differences are set in stone, others see them as more malleable. Media has a big influence on parents’ perceptions of gender stereotypes. Politically conservative sources are more likely to explain gender differences as being based on biology rather than culture, and that means there readers were more comfortable to traditional gender stereotypes as “unavoidable.” Source

As with most aspects of parenting, I think the challenge is for us to:

  • see our children’s strengths (gender based or not) as strengths and give them plenty of free play opportunities to practice them and gain confidence and a sense of mastery
  • see the areas our children are less skilled in as areas for growth not as “unchangeable biological imperatives”. Provide gentle nudges in play-based learning, or more direct instruction to help them learn and grow, without pressuring them with demands for instant success

Sources:

Over the next few days I will be posting about gender differences. Here are the major sources I used in preparing all these posts:

Pink Brain, Blue Brain. By Lise Eliot

Cognitive Gender Differences by Abigail James.

The Real Difference Between Boys and Girls. By Anita Sethi, PhD.

Boys’ Behavior: Why Boys Behave the Way They Do. By Troy Parrish.

* Caveat: All discussions of gender are more complex than they seem. We know that not all children labelled as “girls” or boys identify that way. Read more about transgender children here: HRC.

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