In terms of child development, the differences between boys and girls are far outweighed by their similarities. All children basically have the same needs regardless of their gender. And yet “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!” is almost always the first piece of information we give (or ask for) about a newborn baby. Socially, gender is a very important fact.
There are different schools of thought as to whether gender differences are hardwired into babies’ brains or are a product of social conditioning. In reality, it’s almost impossible to disentangle whether differences between boys and girls are biological or social because, right from birth, adults treat boys and girls differently.
Expectations are incredibly important here. When adults are given a baby to supervise or play with, which sex they believe that baby to be influences how they interact with him or her. Differences between boys and girls can almost always be matched to these observed differences in the behaviour of parents/carers. Girls tend to have better language skills (adults spend more time talking to girls), boys have higher activity levels (adults let boys be more boisterous), girls are better at fine-motor coordination tasks (girls are encouraged to do more crafts), boys show more physical aggression (adults allow boys more rough and tumble play), girls show more relational aggression through name-calling (adults talk to girls more about feelings) etc etc etc.
Whether you believe that these differences between boys and girls are due to expectations becoming self-fulfilling prophecies (nurture) or stem from a genetic blueprint (nature), gender difference isn’t just a harmless preference for pink over blue or dolls over trucks. The effects for boys and girls are tangible and not always positive. For example,
- Girls are a month or two ahead in language skills by the time they start school. By the time they leave Primary School, boys are about a year behind girls on reading and even more on writing.
- Boys are three times more likely to be excluded from school and four times more likely to exhibit behavioural difficulties. Boys are more likely to become involved in crime. More boys than girls commit suicide.
- Girls are more likely to show symptoms of depression and anxiety. More girls than boys attempt suicide. Girls are more likely to suffer from eating disorders and more likely to withdraw from physical exercise and sport during adolescence.
The list could go on.
Of course, all of these are just tendencies – an individual boy may well speak earlier and better than an individual girl. But shrugging our shoulders and accepting that “boys will be boys” is not without consequence.
We will probably never know how much of gender is genetic but we do know that the environment has a massive impact. And that means that parents have an opportunity consciously to counter gender bias and allow our children to be children first and foremost.
So, forget about arguments about avoiding pink and blue, talk to your sons more. Talk to them about moods and emotions and read books with them about feelings. Encourage your sons to express their feelings with words. Get your daughters running around, building big things and finding construction solutions. Encourage your girls to be a little more like boys and your boys to be a little more like girls and, maybe, they can all get a little bit more of the best of both worlds.
©Anita Cleare 2016
Enjoyed this? Subscribe to monthly newsletters for tips and thoughts.