It’s commonly believed that sharing, cooperation, exchange, empathy, assistance and comfort are mostly associated with girls. But is this true?
1. Girls speak better and sooner than boys. “Until about 30 months old, girls have a greater vocabulary than boys and use more complete sentences,” confirms researcher Caroline Bouchard, who led a study on language among 1,000 Quebec infants in 2007. “But thereafter, boys catch up with girls and the differences disappear,” she says. Research has determined 2 possible causes for this phenomenon, one biological and the other social. “Certain areas of the female brain develop faster, which makes language learning easier for girls,” she explains. “There are socio-cultural factors at play as well, such as the fact that parents speak more to their baby girls.” Some more gender-specific toys, such as dolls for example, also promote the development of language skills. However, the question of language continues to be complex and is still the subject of much debate within the scientific community.
In her study, Caroline Bouchard also took a close look at the first 100 words toddlers acquire, and the findings are fascinating. If 83 out of these first 100 words are common to both genders (mommy, rabbit, diaper, hair, etc.), the others are characterized as stereotypical. So, from among the 17 words acquired only by boys, five make reference to modes of transportation: keys, choo-choo, tractor, vroom and bus. In fact, “vroom” is the third word boys say, after “mommy” and “daddy.” In the 17 words acquired only by girls, we find “gentle,” “pretty,” “like” and “please.” “This clearly reflects the different attitudes parents have towards each gender, since parents are the ones who show their children how to speak,” concludes Bouchard.
2. Girls have more social skills. It’s commonly believed that sharing, cooperation, exchange, empathy, assistance and comfort are mostly associated with girls. But is this true? “In school, educators and teachers always evaluate girls as having better social skills than boys,” says Bouchard, who conducted a study on the subject. “However, when we observe children’s behaviour, there is little or no difference.” This difference between perception and reality can be explained in part by the prejudices associated with each gender’s social role. Since, for example, we expect girls to be more empathetic than boys, we give them a more positive assessment in this regard. “There is also the fact that boys are generally more agitated, which could provoke a more negative bias in teachers regarding their social skills,” notes Bouchard.
3. Boys are more aggressive. That pesky testosterone! We often think that’s what’s responsible for all sorts of aggressive behaviour. The truth is that scientists don’t all agree on the matter. “Studies are not conclusive,” notes psychologist Evelyne Touchette. “We’ve found, for example, that testosterone levels increase following an aggressive act, not prior to one.” Is this hormone therefore the cause of aggressiveness or the consequence? We really don’t know. Just as we don’t know how important a role it plays.
What we do know, however, is that many boys tend to be more physically aggressive. But is that inborn or learned? Studies show that the difference between boys and girls in this regard occurs at too young an age for socialization to be the reason. Nevertheless, it would seem that parents have a greater tolerance for physical violence in their sons, who, therefore, don’t learn to manage their anger as much. Researcher Marie-France Marin notes that girls are also aggressive, but in a different way. “As they get older, girls resort more to indirect aggressiveness, such as talking behind someone’s back or building a group against another person.”
Physical activities and sports seem to be promoted more among boys than girls.
4. Boys are more boisterous. Generally speaking, yes. But again, we don’t really know why. Are they born with a predisposition to move more? Or is it rather because we tend to play more energetically with them very early on and encourage them to be physically active? Or is it that we tend to punish boys less for excitable behaviour, since we expect them to be more agitated than girls? The matter is a topic of much debate.
5. Girls are better in school. They do better at reading, but in all other subjects, boys’ and girls’ results are comparable, including in math and the sciences. The supposed dominance of boys in math is therefore just a myth. Several studies reveal however, that from adolescence, boys focus slightly better than girls do and succeed much better at mental rotation tasks (e.g.: determining if two abstract figures presented from different angles are identical). Do they have a biological advantage? The answer isn’t clear. When girls practice doing mental rotation games, it’s been observed that this gender difference is greatly reduced. Other studies show that construction games, which are favourites with boys, help develop spatial skills. Several researchers believe, therefore, that learning has a greater influence than any biological predisposition. Since the brain develops according to experience, the different results obtained by girls and boys in reading and spatial perception tests could actually be a consequence of specific learning.
So, it’s neither all pink nor all blue. “What you need to remember is that there are more differences from one boy to the next and from one girl to the next than there are between the 2 genders,” stresses Evelyne Touchette. This is why it’s better not to generalize. Michèle sees this only too well with her twins who stray far from the roles of “typical little boy,” and “typical little girl.” “Noémie is the more physical of the 2,” she says. “When she’s angry, she tends to hit. Jacob, on the other hand, is the one who cries more and gives more spontaneous hugs.” As for Véronique, she notes that, of her 3 children, her son is the most talkative. “He tells me about his day in great detail, while getting information from his older sister is like pulling teeth! Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?”
When there’s a daddy or mommy missing
If your child has only one parent (because of abandonment or death) or if she has two same-sex parents, will she have a harder time building her sexual identity? “It shouldn’t be a cause for worry, because even if she doesn’t have a father or mother, your child is still in contact with other male and female models,” says Nicole Malenfant, early childhood education professor and author of books on early childhood. “The most important thing is to give her love and attention, and to take good care of her. If she feels loved and safe, she will blossom.” Of course, if possible, you can try to organize more get-togethers with a significant person of the same sex as the absent parent, such as a grandfather, uncle or aunt, so your child can bond with this person.
The brain is malleable and creates neural networks based on the stimuli and experiences to which your child is exposed.
Gender stereotypes influence the attitudes of parents and people in the child’s life, which in turn influences the child’s personality.
It’s better to concentrate on your child’s individual characteristics as opposed to those associated with his or her gender and to offer your child all sorts of activities and toys.
Photo: Maxim Morin
Source: Naître et grandir magazine, September 2013
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Sylvie Richard-Bessette, psychologist