Children learn to be boys or girls

Children learn to be boys or girls
Right from birth, without even realizing it, parents react one way with a baby girl and another with a baby boy.

Right from birth, without even realizing it, parents react one way with a baby girl and another with a baby boy.

Four-year-old Katrina is gentle, calm and affectionate says Myriam, her mom. “She often says sweet nothings to us and hugs us.” The little girl likes to play with dolls and have stories read to her, while her 6- and 8-year-old brothers, Christopher and Daven, on the other hand, prefer playing with superhero action figures, being active and running around. Véronique, another mom, describes her 9-year-old daughter, Lucy Maud, as quiet and reserved. “She likes crafts, figure skating, jewelry and nail polish. And when she was younger, she always wanted to wear dresses, even in winter.” Her 5-year-old brother, Alexis, on the contrary “climbs all over the place, is good at all sports, and likes trucks and video games,” adds Véronique.

Like most parents, Myriam and Véronique believe that the differences between their sons and daughters are mainly biological, since these mothers are convinced that they behave the same way with all of their children and are raising them in exactly the same manner. You may think the same about your own children. But this isn’t quite as it seems: “As soon as a woman becomes pregnant, she develops expectations about her baby and often imagines a little girl or a little boy according to society’s stereotypes,” explains Evelyne Touchette, childhood development psychologist and researcher at Université Laval. “The same goes for the father. He might, for example, dream of playing hockey with his son, while that may not occur to him with a daughter.”

Birth order (first born, middle child and youngest) also influences the differences we see in children.

A newborn’s room is also often decorated according to gender. The same goes for baby presents. There will be a lot of pink and frills for girls, and blue and pictures of race cars for boys. Each gender has its universe, its colours, and its toys. And right from birth, without even realizing it, parents react one way with a baby girl and another with a baby boy. Studies have shown for example, that parents describe their sons as big and strong with marked features, and their daughters as pretty, cute, nice, gentle, and small with delicate features. Other studies have also demonstrated that both parents talk more about emotions with their daughters than they do with their sons, and that they tolerate more angry reactions from their sons than their daughters.

According to Université Laval early childhood education professor and psychologist Caroline Bouchard, stereotypes influence parents’ attitudes. “We’ll talk to and console girls more than boys, and engage in more physical play with boys than with girls,” she says. And, in general, boys are allowed to try more new things than girls. “When my husband plays and tickles the kids, he’s more gentle with Katrina than with the boys,” notes Myriam. “And we’re more hesitant to let her play in the big slide than we are with her brothers. It’s weird, but it’s almost like it’s more normal for a boy to get hurt every once in a while.”

We also tend to register children for activities according to gender. For example, Myriam thinks about dance lessons for her daughter, while her sons do karate. “But my daughter will make her own decision,” she adds.

Studies show that even compliments differ. Girls are often told that they are pretty and nice. Boys, that they are making good progress. Even today, we’ll highlight a girl’s appearance and a boy’s accomplishments.

At birth, your baby’s brain is like an empty slate that fills up slowly according to her environment and experiences. Even if some behaviours are influenced by innate tendencies, they are largely amplified by various social factors. The repetition of images or messages forges a path in the brain. Everything a child sees and hears, at home, at daycare, at her grandparents’ house, at her friend’s house and on TV, contributes to the image she will have of men and women and consequently shape her behaviour and personality.

A son is not born with a gene for everything that goes vroom. Instead, he learns to like to play with toy cars because that’s what he’s been given. Most psychological differences between girls and boys come from education and society. Several studies show that there are fewer sexual differences today than before for a variety of behaviours, and that, most of the time, the differences that still exist are minor.

The media (television, Internet, video games, etc.) convey many sexual stereotypes.

At 3 years old, most children know if they’re a girl or a boy. They also understand the behavioural standards associated with their gender. For example, when she was about 3, Katrina started asking for more traditionally “girl” toys and for pink clothes. “Before that, I hadn’t noticed any major differences between her behaviour and that of her brothers,” remembers mom.

Of course, your child’s temperament is not solely based on the effects of socialization. Genetics also plays a role. “There’s a certain interplay between genetic tendencies and the environment,” notes Evelyne Touchette. “But after birth, environment plays a big role.” To prove it, just look at how brothers and sisters have such different characters!


Photo: Maxim Morin


Naitre et

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, September 2013
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Sylvie Richard-Bessette, psychologist