Gender Differences

(Texas Family Magazine, May/June 2008)

When I began my parenting odyssey five children and twenty-two years ago, I was a staunch adherent to gender neutral parenting. At that time, psychologists and parenting experts espoused the popular theory that children are born without notions of masculine and feminine or the limiting stereotypes that accompany them. Parents were encouraged to give their sons dolls and their daughter’s trucks in order to develop in them desirable traits traditionally denied them through society’s “sexist” assumptions. In this way, for example, boys would learn how to nurture and girls would be taught to assert themselves.

And so I dutifully brought my first-born boy home in a beautifully neutral white onesie and gave him a doll. The fact that he loved that doll positively reinforced my “good parenting” approach. Now, fast forward fourteen years later when my last born (also a boy) entered the world.  By the time he arrived, my strong allegiance to gender neutrality had begun to slip from my grasp under the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And the arrival of my youngest little ruffian sealed the coffin on this parenting approach forever, because he has been “all boy” seemingly from the day he was born. The idea that children come into the world a blank slate just has not held up. I now find myself making statements like “boys will do that” or “that’s such a girl thing.” Even though this is a result of a gradual fourteen-year shift, I am often shocked at and amused by my own change in perspective.  I, as it turns out, am not the only one to make this shift. So, overwhelmingly, have the scientists and researchers who study gender.

The experts, a relying on a large arsenal of research on gender differences, now know that boys and girls differ from birth. And though it is important not to misinterpret or over-apply study results, there are reliable findings that we parents can utilize to better understand our children.

For many of the documented gender differences, causation is not clear. That is, researchers are not sure whether the cause is biological or sociological. However, more of these differences are attributable to biology than we once thought. And a biological review of gender differences must begin with the brain.

The Brain

Now that neuroscientists have looked into the brain with the help of advanced imaging techniques and other tools never heretofore available, they know that the differences in the brains of boys and girls are considerable. According to Nancy Forger, researcher at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, “at least 100 differences in male and female brains have been described so far.”  Awareness of some of these differences is handy to know from a parenting perspective. For example, the male and female corpus callosums, which is the connecting tissue between the hemispheres of the brain, differ in both size and structure. Many researchers believe that the female corpus callosum permits more crosstalk between the two hemispheres, thus allowing girls to multi-task better than boys. On tests measuring multitasking skills, girls, on average, do better. (Am I hearing the collective “uh huh” of wives and mothers who knew this already?) Now you’ve got science to back up your suspicions.

Here’s another “no brainer” that turns out to actually be a brainer. The frontal lobe, which is the area of the brain involved in problem-solving, spontaneity, memory, language, judgment, impulse control, among other high functioning behaviors, grows at earlier ages and is generally more active in girls than boys. This is one of the reasons why researchers believe girls make less impulsive decisions than boys. (Boys? More impulsive? Nooooo!!)  While evolutionary psychologists might suggest that male impulsive behavior was likely beneficial back when males had to forage for food, hunt, and attract mates, such behavior is no longer necessary for most boys we know. So armed with the knowledge of our son’s propensity for impulsiveness, we no longer have to ask the rhetorical question, “what were you thinking?” when he jumps from the highest point of the playground jungle gym. The fact is he was likely not thinking, or at least not engaging that part of the brain needed to keep his impulses in check.

Hearing

It is also now well established that girls and boys hear differently. Girls hear more acutely than boys. This difference has been detected in infants and is believed to become even more profound with age. Perhaps more significantly, researchers discovered that girls hear better in the higher frequencies, which are associated with speech. The implication is that girl’s ears may be better adapted for communication, providing physiological support for the claim that girls are better communicators.

This is very useful information for parents looking to improve the way their families communicate (And what parent is not looking to do that!). Imagine this scenario: Your teenage daughter and young son are doing their homework in the same room. Your son is humming a commercial jingle because, he claims, it helps him concentrate. He also intermittently taps his foot on the hardwood floor and his pen on the tabletop. (Research indicates that boys learn better with movement). This is driving your teenage daughter crazy. She can’t take the noises. They are annoying her and distracting her from her work. She demands that he stop. She accuses him of doing this just to get on her nerves. He says his noises are quiet and she is just picking on him. You need to intercede before violence ensues. Now that you know there is a very real difference in how your son and daughter may be hearing these noises, you can more effectively deal with the conflict. Your son may truly believe that his noises are below threshold, while your daughter may be hearing them loud and clear. Instead of scolding your daughter about picking on her brother or your son for intentionally being annoying, you can simply acknowledge to them both that they could be hearing the noises differently and then put them in separate rooms.

These hearing differences can really affect parent-child communication, too.  One season, my soccer playing daughter complained to her father about her coach. “He is always yelling at us,” she said one evening after practice. So my husband attended her next practice. He listened as the coach gave our daughter direction and advice, but he witnessed no yelling. During the car ride home, she commented, “I’m glad you saw him yelling at me for yourself!” My husband was perplexed and concluded that she was being too sensitive. She responded angrily, “of course, you think I am being sensitive. You’re always yelling, too!” The two of them never came together about this issue, and now we know why. What was a normal volume to Dad and the coach was likely loud to our daughter…very loud. As Dr. Leonard Sax points out in his book, Why Gender Matters, if a 43-year-old man speaks in what he thinks is a normal tone of voice to a seventeen-year-old girl, that girl is going to experience his voice as being 10 to as much as 100 times louder than what he is hearing. That is a huge difference. Armed with this knowledge, Dads can more effectively communicate with the girls and women in their lives. Informing your daughter about this difference can let her know that her coach’s or father’s tone of voice is likely not a personal attack.  Coaches might find this information useful, too!

Vision

Scientists have established that the visual systems of boys and girls are organized differently. And those differences, primarily in the retina, account for differences in sight and perception. Basically, boys’ eyes are best adapted to perceive the location, direction and speed of an object. The female eye is best equipped to see color and texture. Thus, girls can differentiate and perceive details better. And boys’ sight is more drawn to motion.

This difference in vision can be at the root of so many matters—toy and play choices, learning styles, differences in artistic expression and communication. Studies show that infant girls prefer dolls over trucks, and boys, vice versa, even before they have discernible notions of gender. These preferences are thought to be related, at least in part, to vision differences. Other studies find that boys more often draw action pictures in gray, black, and blue (colors that the cells in their retinas best perceive), while girls are more likely to draw faces, people, animals and flowers in a far wider array of colors.

Girls are also much more likely to pick up subtle facial cues, which only contributes to their communication arsenal.  So go ahead and buy that black and white spinning mobile for your baby girl. But you might want to also put the big happy faced sun toy in her crib as well. And feel free to add the mirror to your son’s crib, but be sure you put the black and white moving mobile in there, too. And if the mobile also plays music… make sure you can adjust the volume louder if you need to.

Risk

Boys are risk-takers. They value risk for its own sake and they value risk-taking in their male peers groups. Thus, boys are more likely to take greater risks as a group than they would if acting alone. Among boy peers, success with risk equals status.

Girls, on the other hand, are less likely to enjoy risky behavior. According to studies, where boys are more likely to report feeling “exhilarated” after engaging in dangerous activity, girls experience “fear” and feelings of uneasiness. Risky behavior is not encouraged among girl peer groups and is more likely to be judged negatively. If a ten-year-old boy rides his bike down the driveway and launches off the curb into the middle of a busy street, his male friends will likely laugh, applaud and be impressed. If a ten-year-old girl does the same thing, her female friends will likely scream her name, and ask her if she has lost her mind. More likely than not, there will be no female laughter or cheers. Researchers now know that risky behavior engages different parts of the male and female brain, with different hormones. Boys respond to stress and confrontation primarily through the sympathetic nervous system delivering a surge of adrenaline to the blood stream and thereby exciting the “fight or flight” response. Girls are more influenced by the parasympathetic nervous system, which utilizes acetycholine instead of adrenaline. So instead of the thrill of “fight or flight”, girls may manifest feelings of dizziness, incontinence and/or nausea. It’s no wonder, then, that girls tend to be more risk-adverse.

In light of these differences, parents can help their children become braver and more balanced as they grow. We can assist our male children by channeling their risk-loving energies into activities that are fun and exciting, but less dangerous. Choosing to go on regular family ski trips is safer, for example, than allowing your son a snowboarding trip with a group of male friends. Also, knowing that your son craves danger for danger’s sake, you may want to make certain he has all of the appropriate safety equipment for his various activities. Sending him to the skate park fully padded and with a helmet is a much better strategy than letting him out of the door with just the admonishment to “be careful”. There is simply nothing careful about skateboarding, which is why your son is drawn to it.

Handling your potentially risk-adverse daughter is another matter. The fear and apprehension associated with risk may prevent her from taking appropriate chances and facing challenges that are important to her growth and maturation. Some girls need help and encouragement to step out of their comfort zones. It is important for parents to expose their daughters to a variety of activities that push them to assert themselves and try new and difficult things.  As Dr. Sax points out, parents do not serve their daughters well by being overly protective. A skinned knee (and failure every now and then) helps all children learn to cope. They discover that they can survive these challenges and learn from them in ways that they cannot if they are spared the adversity.

Girls also benefit from positive peer support. Although girls do not seem to encourage dangerous risk-taking among their friends, Drs. Chandra Muller’s and Catherine Rigle-Crumb’s research at University of Texas suggests that when they are surrounded by a high-achieving group of friends, girls will choose courses that are more non-traditional  and believed to be more challenging for them(like math and science). Parents can help their daughters reach new levels of achievement and fulfillment by encouraging their bonds with friends who share common aspirations and who are positive and supportive.

The discussion about gender differences is tricky because there is the risk of assigning behaviors and traits to one gender that are manifested by both sexes. All of the experts warn that the differences within the members of one gender vary as much (if not more) than the differences between the two sexes. So you may find that not all of these gender specific characteristics fit your child. There are exceptions to every rule and there are many other factors that affect the way children develop and behave. However, knowing that there is scientific support for the many gender differences that we, as parents, have observed frees us to more effectively help our children by fashioning our efforts in ways that address their needs.

© 2008 Texas Family Magazine Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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