Boys and girls

Anyone who spends any time at a playground will discover that even at a very young age, gender differences start to show up between boys and girls in how they play. I’ve written before about how — in spite of the non-traditional gender roles in my family — my sons are both into traditional "boy things" like trucks and trains.

I also think that adults often notice behaviors that reinforce their preconceptions more than the ones that challenge them; we’ve gotten some odd looks from other parents when we point out what a spitfire some of the girls in D’s preschool class are.  I’ve commented before on how different personalities D and N are.  It must be very easy it is for parents of opposite gender kids to assume that the differences between their children are due to gender differences. (And as families get smaller on average, fewer have multiple kids of each gender.)

It’s clear that societal and cultural factors contribute a great deal to both gender differences and the perception of them.  Jo(e) wrote recently about the shoes that girls wear, which limit their ability to climb and run.  Mieke picked up on this theme, quoting a friend’s description of how other adults interacted with her daughters:

"They would talk about Rachel and Sarah’s clothes or their hair or call them "cute" and almost always, ask Rachel and Sarah if they had boyfriends (as I said this started at three). It was kind of a default question that adults had when they didn’t know what else to say to the girls. When the girls said no, the adults seemed stumped by what else to talk about, if they said yes, they would ask all about the boy."

But it also seems that there are some differences that can’t be so easily dismissed as cultural.  There seems to be a broad consensus  that boys tend to talk later and to be potty-trained later.  Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with autism and related disorders as well as with ADHD.  (I recognize that there are cultural factors involved in how these disorders are manifested as well as in what behaviors get boys v. girls referred to a psychologist.) 

Dawn and her very thoughtful commenters at This Woman’s Work had a wonderful discussion a few weeks ago about children, gender identity, and transgenderism. Like Dawn, my fundamental goal is to allow my children to pursue their interests and enjoy their desires whether or not they conform with traditional gender roles.  That means buying D "lipstick" when he asked for it after seeing one of his classmates with it (although I wimped out and bought chapstick rather than lip gloss — he was thrilled with it anyway), but it also means letting him play endless games about shooting "bad robots" (robots because we told him he couldn’t shoot people).  And yes, I probably struggle more with the latter than with the former.

But I also agree with Dawn that

"I don’t have a problem with a boy playing like a girl or even wanting to be a girl. But I start feeling challenged when a boy says that he feels he is a girl because of these girlish interests."

This past year, the principal at the local elementary school split the 4th graders by gender for their reading period.  Her argument was that the boys were more interested in nonfiction (e.g. books about cars, animals and sports) while the girls were more interested in fiction.  Such programs — which are increasingly common — make me intensely uncomfortable.  I worry about the boy who wants to read stories, or the girl who loves baseball.  But the truth is, the regular way was clearly failing the boys — the previous year, something like 30 percent of the boys passed their reading tests, compared to 80 percent of the girls.  That’s not acceptable.

13 Responses to “Boys and girls”

  1. dave s Says:

    We have 2 boys, one girl. The boys are 8 and 7, the girl is 4. When he was 9 months old, I was carrying my older boy on the street, and a LARGE TRUCK went by and he was riveted, every fiber of his little muscles coordinated to twist so he could see it better. By the time he was five, he had decided girls are dog-meat – well, not so much distasteful as just wholly uninteresting. Last week I was at the end-of-year picnic for second grade sitting with some friends – parents and I noticed that all of us had boys, and the parents of girls were similarly sitting together.
    Now with our daughter a tidal wave of pink and sequins is washing over our house. We haven’t particularly fought this, but it’s not something we worked to encourage, either. And she asks us, ‘am I cute??’ – never got that from the other 2. She wanted dance classes, the others wanted soccer.
    So, they seem to me to have come different from the manufacturer. And maybe social stuff reinforces it some, and we are trying not to have them get limited. But, if their predilections are different, we are not fighting it.

  2. Sandy Says:

    When my son was younger, we gave him a doll which he proceeded to treat pretty much like a ball with arms & legs. When my daughter was born after that, when she was about 18 months old she got her own doll, which she carried everywhere, nursed, etc. My son did teach her baby to “fight” with hers – and she does seem enjoy the mock “baby battles”, but in general I was impressed with how much more concerned with the baby’s welfare my daughter was.
    I thought this was an interesting book on the topic: A Field Guide to Boys and Girls: Differences, Similarities: Cutting-Edge Information Every Parent Needs to Know
    by Susan Gilbert. I’m not sure every parent needs to know this info., but I enjoyed reading a popular account of the studies on cultural, social, and biological differences.

  3. Jennifer Says:

    I watched a BBC documentary on gender differences, in which they dressed a three month (?)baby in pink, and then in blue, and filmed people interacting with it. The differences in how they treated it were astonishing. The pink baby got the cuddles, the “aren’t you beautiful” comments. The blue baby was stood up, and told “haven’t you got strong legs”.
    After watching that, I don’t think you can tell how much is nature vs nurture, because nurture starts so young. That said, I tend to believe there is some nature in there, just impossible to tell how much.
    I definitely agree that adults notice things that reinforce their preconceptions. My three year old has a pair of girl friends who are constantly excluding outsiders – no, you’re not my friend, I don’t want to play with you, that kind of thing. People say how terrible it is that they’re being bitchy so early. He has a pair of boy friends who do exactly the same thing, and nobody comments on it.

  4. maggie Says:

    At my kids’ school there are at least 3 preschool boys who have baby sisters in the infant class. As the girls are getting into toddlerhood, the teachers are beginning to comment on the ‘toughness’ of the girls with big brothers. Before she was born, everyone told me that girls are different, that my girl would be so much more sedate, less active, easier . . . and here she is going down the big slide at 18 months when her brother was scared of slides until he was 3. Then again, at the tender age of 18 months, she is very into shoes (seriously – makes me change them at a whim and has preferences among different kinds), very into necklaces and bracelets, and likes to brush her hair, all things her brother couldn’t care less about. And, to be honest, that her mother isn’t that into, either!
    Who knows what’s nature and what’s nurture. I just hate the early asking about boyfriends thing.

  5. Mary Ann Says:

    We probably all have a dozen good stories about this. My son was a fearless runner and climber and very attracted to trucks. But he also treated his baby doll affectionately and occasionally dressed up in princess type clothes. My daughter liked clothes, makeup and fairy tales. But she could hold her own in a mud fight and was much more intrested in blocks, legos and other building toys than dolls. As teenagers, he became captain of the football team and she became captain of the cheerleading team – outcomes I didn’t see coming ’til the last minute.

  6. Darleen Says:

    I have one younger sister, and I have raised four daughters (no sons) youngest is 17.
    Now I have identical twin grandsons, 3 in Sept. and the differences are easily discernable.
    And it is not as facile as pink/blue, trucks or dolls, hugging or crying. Each individual child has their own rhythms. Each of my girls is distinctly different. But even those differences in the individual/micro realm fits into the collective/macro realm of gender.
    We can actually do our children harm if we don’t recognize and value the gender differences.
    If you haven’t read it before, I highly recommend this book — As Nature Made Him: the boy that was raised as a girl by John Colapinto.

  7. Jennifer Says:

    A have a boy (3 1/2) and a girl (12 mos), so I could tell you stories, too … they fall quite clearly into gender stereotypes. You should hear my daughter talk to her babydoll. My son, he’d rather sleep with his helicopter.
    I was interested to hear about splitting up reading classes. My son’s favorite books are the nonfiction ones, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like fiction. Of course he’s only 3… I find it hard to believe that separating kids by sex is a good idea. I’ll have to read the article more thoroughly. The take-home, for me, is: keep reading!!

  8. Academic Coach Says:

    I have 4 girls. The oldest, aged 10, hasn’t owned a dress in years. The youngest, at 4, loves makeup, high heels, jewelry and slinky little pink dresses that make me want to tape a sign to her back that says “This outfit does not represent my mother’s taste in clothing.”
    None of my daughters has ever played with dolls –all four of them prefer fantasy play with small stuffed animals. The youngest one, however, went through a barbie phase. The oldest loved playing with legos when she was 4. The youngest – who’ll turn 5 soon, developed her fine motor skills by painting her toenails on a daily basis.
    I have a sense that there are gender differences — but that these differences range along a continuum and are definitely influenced by genetics as well as the environment.

  9. milkbreath and me Says:

    Nature, nurture, nuts to you!

    I had been meaning to write this for a while, but some other blogs have covered the subject recently (the link leads to the blog with the most other links, because I’m lazy), and I don’t care to be redundant….

  10. jen Says:

    I have two girls and get in this conversation at the playground fairly often. It’s usually a “grass is always greener” type discussion where I fret about my daughters’ lack of gross motor skills, and the other mom frets about how her son will be tagged ADHD because he’s so high-energy.
    What I do hate, however, is the “boys are easier to raise” comment I frequently hear. As I was told last week: “I have both, and girls are so difficult! Boys are much easier to raise — much simpler.”
    I don’t have any idea what this is supposed to mean, or why it seems like an appropriate thing to say. I am invariably offended by it!

  11. Sylvia Vanessa Hernandez Says:

    I would like to receive more inf. regarding the differences between boys and girls. I am writing an essay in this topic.
    Thank you,
    Sylvia Hernandez

  12. dave s Says:

    “Brandon had one of his best days of the year….”

  13. girl Says:

    this is alot

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