Any mom or dad with kids of both sexes has an amusing anecdote about their daughter’s innate love of glittery shoes, or the son’s desire to turn every stick into a pirate sword. But a mom of two boys could probably tell you 20 ways in which they were different, too. So, are boys and girls really “wired” differently? And what does it mean for our parenting?
Psychologist Ruth Ancer is mom to a daughter and a son. She describes some of the differences you might observe in a group of pre-schoolers: “From a young age, boys tend to be more action-oriented and girls tend to be more relationship-orientated. So boys tend to focus on what they’re playing with, while girls focus on who they’re playing with. Young boys tend to make noises or sound effects – ‘vroom, vroom’ – and might play a bit more physically. Girls tend to be more verbal, so they are more interested in talking.”
But the full picture is less simple. Ancer cautions that these are, of course, generalisations. She cites one study which found that the behaviour that we might describe as typical “boy behaviour” applies to about two thirds of boys. Three quarters of girls exhibit what might be considered typical “girl behaviour”. That leaves a large number of children who don’t fit so neatly into our stereotypes.
The impact of parenting on children’s behaviour
While it’s almost impossible to quantify how much gender behaviour is inborn and what is socialised – nature or nurture – there’s no doubt that parents play a key role in socialising children into gender roles. It’s not just about pink versus blue babygros.
Many studies have found that from when babies are born, parents treat them differently based on their gender. In one experiment, scientists observed that infant girls are treated more gently because of their perceived fragility. A baby girl’s cry was more likely to be interpreted as fussing or fear, whereas a boy might be seen as hungry or cross.
This difference in parental input continues as children grow older. Parents are often more accepting of boisterous, loud or demanding behaviour in boys. However, they may be less inclined to show empathy or physical affection to their boys. A son might be expected to put out the garbage, while a daughter will be asked to set the table.
Parents as role-models
One of the key ways in which we influence our children is by example. If mom does the housework and dad does the garden, or mom goes out to work and dad stays home, that’s what your kids experience as the norm. The relationship you have with your partner is a model for relationships between men and women. “Be aware of more subtle messages around gender,” says Ancer. “As a couple, have the conversations about what you want your kids to hear. Consider your own preconceptions and triggers too,” she adds.
Parenting boys and girls differently
Ancer says that being aware of gender differences can enable parents to help children deal with the different pressures that boys and girls experience. She points out that society expects boys to perform in a certain way (in sport or in school) and expects girls to look a certain way (to be thin or have long, straight hair).
Girls tend to suffer more from social anxiety, like being left out of a group, for instance. If you’re sensitive to these societal expectations, you can help kids work through them.
Parents are able to anticipate issues and have conversations around them from an early age, so that kids have the vocabulary to talk about those issues. She gives an example: “From the time she was little, I spoke to my daughter about how people come in different shapes. That there is no perfect body, but it’s good to be fit and healthy.”
A helpful question to ask yourself is: “Am I treating this child according to gender or am I seeing the child?” Our aim as parents should be to support our children in their individual growth and happiness; to allow them to experience the fullness of life; to thrive without being limited by gender expectations.
5 Intrinsic differences between boys and girls
Tips for parents
- Don’t try and “toughen them up” by withholding affection from boys. Boys love to cuddle too!
- Encourage girls to be physically active, adventurous and independent.
- Encourage young boys to express themselves and verbalise their feelings.
- Help girls find their voice and be assertive in their opinions.
- Communicate to boys that it’s okay to be sad or cry.
- Reduce the focus on your daughter’s looks. Compliment and celebrate the different parts of her character and intellect.
- Expose children to people who break the stereotypes and who demonstrate the different ways of how “boys” can be and how “girls” can be, says Ancer.
*Originally published in April 2014
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