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Gender Differences

One of the more enchanting mysteries of the second year of life is the discovery that there are actually two kinds of bodies: yours and the other kind. Girls discover `boyness' and vice versa, and the game of a lifetime is afoot. But do differences in gender affect the way we interact with our kids? Because we are so fascinated by gender influences in our own relationships (look at our literature, humor, the arts, religion), it is hard for us as a culture to sort out this tangle.

My daughter was being born eight weeks early, I was hoping (praying) that she was a she because I knew that female preemies stand a better chance of surviving the dangerous complications of low birth weight and prematurity. She did fine because she got good care; she was a she. But this is just the beginning of the story.

Boys are more mobile and active from uterine life onward, but mostly in the large muscle, whole body realm. But this does not mean that girls are passive. Harvard's Jerry Kagan has studied social vigilance in boys and girls and found that girls are less cozy with the unfamiliar, so they appear to cause or provoke less trouble, making them seem to be "better citizens." While boys are practicing `dominant dependent' skills, preschool girls are developing their so-called "intimate dependent" skills, seeking physical touch and support, especially when exploring new places and experiences. Their strong fine motor skills make them good at close work, inviting "close" responses from people in their worlds. By school age, we see girls honing their nurturing skills, assisted by repeated social support, as they begin to explore the immense powers of giving and withholding affection.

In the learning environment, other trends related to gender differences are being studied. For instance, more boys than girls are diagnosed with learning disabilities in the primary and elementary grades, although the discrepancies are significantly less than they were a generation ago. Another old standby in the gender difference literature is falling under new suspicion however, the spatial learning competence of boys over girls. Purdue University researchers have shown that when girls are given even minimal training in solving spatial tasks, they close the gender gap significantly.

Gender Perception by Adults
Despite our increased understanding of these "trends," no serious developmental expert believes for a minute that they are destiny for any given child. A defining moment came in gender difference research when a group of male babies were dressed in pink, and then handed to adults who were told they were girls. The adults responded with language and handling styles shown to be classically female-stereotypic: "adorable, cuddly, sweet, cute," etc. Female babies in blue were called "slugger, tough, strong, stubborn," etc. This is how we simply wind up reinforcing gender-stereotypic behaviors, rather than fostering individual growth and development. When we excuse a boy's aggressive behavior with "Oh, well, boys will be boys," sure enough, we get more aggressive behavior, not a child who is learning to master his impulses.

But even more influential than the social expectations of any given family or culture is the individual characteristics of your child. And that is more determined by her personality than her gender. This is why overdoing the gender thing creates such static in the communications between you and your child at any age. Healthy development is encouraged by exploring each child's unique appetites and capacities to the fullest. Be watchful of your own expectations and tendencies to reinforce stereotypes. Keeping these pointers in mind will help:

  • Keep the threshold for acceptable levels of whining the same for boys and girls.
  • Don't let pushing and shoving seem more O.K. for boys than girls.
  • Snuggle and read with your boys and wrestle and "videogame" with your girls.
  • Boys' nurturing tendencies start strong; having a pet can encourage this behaviour, as well as caring for younger siblings, and babysitting when older.
  • Turn off the TV and its stereotypical 'gender' images.

These are just some of the ways you can break through old stereotypes. And remember, when it comes to gender differences, it's not always black and white.

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