Boys will be Boys?

I have a 5 1/2-year-old daughter, Hannah, and a 2-year-old son, Jacob. I try to parent them as gender-neutrally as possible. I’m not perfect – I keep my son’s hair cut short and I don’t tend to dress him in pink. And I have a weak spot for really cute ‘girly’ shoes for Hannah. But, on the whole, I try to respect my children’s own expressions of gender, including what they wear, what they play with and how they behave.

Sometimes, my kids cross stereotypical gender lines. Hannah preferred watching NASCAR to most anything else on TV as a toddler, and Jacob likes to have his toenails painted and enjoys ‘nursing’ his baby dolls. Other times, they fulfill every gender stereotype in the book. My daughter plays princess and refuses to wear anything other than pink party dresses, and my son is all about diggers and airplanes and playing catch.

Fighting Bucks
Photo credit: nickdryz on Flickr

Lately, I’ve noticed some physical aggression from Jacob that I haven’t seen from Hannah. He goes toe-to-toe with other kids when he feels wronged in some way. If you take a toy from Jacob, even if you’re a full year older and a full head taller, he is going to the mat to get it back. In contrast, Hannah opted for the ‘cry and seek out mama’ approach. As my son very deliberately stares another kid in the eye and moves into his space, I’m reminded of a pair of bucks facing off over a mate.

It’s possible the differences I see between my kids are just normal personality variations, unrelated to gender. But maybe not. Maybe there are intrinsic differences. Or maybe they’ve been socialized differently, without my awareness. As Jacob headbutts me and chases his sister with a stick, he does seem kind of like a little testosterone monster. But maybe that’s just what I expect to see.

Jacob on the playground
Jacob sporting a bruise after engaging in some risky behaviour

I decided to do some research, and see what I could find. Here are some observed differences between boys and girls:

There are physical differences between boys and girls – it’s how we tell their gender in the first place. Starting in the womb, boys secrete higher levels of ‘male’ hormones and girls secrete higher levels of ‘female’ hormones. As a woman who has experienced puberty, menstruation, pregnancy and birth I know that hormones have a big impact on how I behave. And as a person who attended Junior High I know that social pressure also has a big impact on how I behave. I can’t even separate the two for myself, let alone my kids.

Hannah rocks her new cowgirl hat
Hannah LOVES pink

Even given the differences (which, let’s face it, are generalizations anyway), it still doesn’t answer the question of why they exist. Children are aware of gender from a very early age. They are also aware of the different ways that males and females usually behave from an early age. There is simply no way to separate nature from nurture, given the complexity of human behaviour. The studies I read acknowledged as much. Big help there, studies.

Regardless of their cause, I see some gender differences between my children. I don’t believe they are entirely in my head, or entirely the product of my parenting. But maybe I’m wrong. There’s really no way of knowing, because I can’t go back to the beginning, change the conditions and re-run the experiment with the same kid. What I can say for sure is that I will continue to love and support my children regardless of their gender identification, and how they choose to express it.

What do you think? Are there are real, inborn differences between boys and girls? Or do you think any differences are the product of socialization, and possibly even our own observer bias and what we expect our kids to do? I’d love it if you weighed in!

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  1. It is interesting. I think it’s a little of everything. However, have you thought what their behaviors would be like if you had Jacob first, then Hannah? If he was the older sibling, would he think to run after his younger sister with a stick? I think the role of being the younger versus older sibling plays a part in who we are.

    I’m an only child, and I can tell you I know I’d be a different person if I were to have siblings… and I know my parents would be different if they were to have multiple children. Although, having just one wasn’t their decisicion. So my Dad raised me the way he would have if I were a son and we fished, rode a motorcycle in the sand pits together, played basketball, caught pollywogs, and taught me how to change the oil in a car. I’ll admit I don’t like doing anything of those things now, but I was exposed to gender neutral activities. As a child, a daughter, I enjoyed those things with my Dad. It’s what made our father-daughter time special. Maybe I enjoyed those things because he did. Or maybe I thought he did.

    I’m running off on a tangent, but I guess what I’m saying is, I think another piece to the puzzle is the role we play in the family. Mother, Father, Daughter, Son… eldest or youngest… or the middle? Everyone plays their part and it sounds like your two kiddos play to their strengths. =)
    Sara’s last post … Mummy socks off!My Profile

  2. The chapter on gender in Playful Parenting says pretty much what I’ve felt all along, though Dr. Cohen has actual knowledge and research to back up his feelings on the subject. Some quotations: “On average, boys and girls do play differently…. Of course, like all sex differences, these differences are averages. Men on average are taller than women, but we all know short men and tall women. Some boys prefer playing house to roughhousing, and vice versa for girls.” And: “Many years of research can be summarized in one sentence: Inborn sex differences are real, but they are quite small.”

    On the other hand, the radio show This American Life did an entire hour on the subject of testosterone that has lingered in my mind for years. One of the stories is about the experiences of someone undergoing a female-to-male gender change รขโ‚ฌโ€ s/he found the effects of testosterone on his/her psyche to be utterly shocking, especially as someone who had previously self-identified as a feminist lesbian.

    And I must say that I’ve loved the photos you’ve posted of your party-dress-wearing-but-tree-climbing Hannah. No worries that her girlie-ness translates into any kind of tentativeness!
    Rachael’s last post … What Are Days ForMy Profile

    • I too heard a report of a FTM transgender person saying that testosterone had quite an effect on the way he perceived the world, but there HAS to be some perception bias there. I mean, if you think about it, you’ve got someone with a gender dysphoria so severe that they feel the need to cross the line, and undergo not only a major medical procedure (hormone therapy just by itself is not a minor experience) but also the significant social difficulty and very real danger to become male (the murder rate for transgender people is 17 times higher than the national average, in the US, and that doesn’t count non-mortal violence) — don’t you think there would be a considerable feeling of…something? everything? when you start the therapy? I’m not saying it doesn’t have an effect, but it’s kind of like asking the hypochondriac how he felt about the sugar pills. (I am in no way suggesting that transgender people are imagining anything, just saying they have very strong feelings, and strong feelings about a subject tend to render anecdotal evidence even less valuable than anecdotal evidence usually is.)

      On the question of inborn gender differences, I remain skeptical of every conclusion that is reached from research done on children over the age of about 9 months. The adult cueing of gendered expectations is a hugely powerful normative force, and until experiments can somehow control for it, the “science” behind most of these experiments is worthless.

  3. It’s an often-denied fact that boys and girls are different from very early on. I do believe it’s inherent, that there are some differences that aren’t at all due to environment. As long as we don’t pressure our kids out of things they enjoy because they’re stereotypically masculine or feminine, I think we’re respecting their freedom and doing the right thing — even if we buy dresses for the girls and short haircuts for the boys. In time they can choose their own, and I’m sure you wouldn’t try to make your kids feel bad for what they chose.
    Sheila’s last post … Six monthsMy Profile

  4. I love this question, because I would have said the gender differences were mostly social rather than inborn–until I had kids.

    My husband and I agreed from the get-go that we would raise our son in a very gender neutral way. In fact, I might have even tried to over-emphasize more “feminine” playthings when he was younger: encouraging him to play with dolls and stuffed animals and strictly limiting the number of “boys toys” (balls, cars, trains, etc.) that we had in the house. No dice! He has steadfastly refused from infancy to have anything to do with dolls or stuffed animals and is completely obsessed with anything on wheels.

    Remarkably, I’ve noticed just the opposite in his little female buddies. The girls talk at a much earlier age, are less physical agile, and are much keen on people and their interactions with one another. The differences in the girls and the boys –even at age 2–simply astounds me.

    Of course, gender is a spectrum, and I know there is lots and lots of anecdotal evidence to that refutes these difference, but as one mama who wasn’t looking to see gender differences and tried to discourage them, I feel I have been schooled.
    Sarah’s last post … The Single Womans Daybook- Day 3My Profile

  5. I had one friend say when I had kids and she didn’t that her husband ‘thought that kids come out without gender. I said ‘that’s crap’. She said, as if I was not terribly bright ‘he doesn’t mean sex. He means gender.” I said “I know. That’s crap.” I was less than delicate because these people were always acting like they were more knowledgeable about basically everything than me. I did some feminism studies in university and there are theories about the fact that women are made, not born. Certainly there are boys who display feminine-associated characteristics and vice-versa, and certainly some things that are assumed to be inherent in masculinity or femininity are not. But I do absolutely believe that there are differences, and it’s silly and unproductive to pretend that they’re all manufactured.
    allison’s last post … Short and Sweet And you cant really fault him on the logicMy Profile

  6. I DO think there are some gender differences. I ALSO think that we look for these differences; maybe we even expect them. I HAVE noticed that my son shows more phsyical agression when upset than my daughter ever did or does. I also know that because my mother in law raised four boys, she told me to expect that.
    So… was I just expecting it, and thus pounced on it with an “AH HA!” when I saw it? or is it that he ACTUALLY IS showing more agression than my daughter when she was his age?

    I will say that the other day, when in the midst of a biting, kicking, hitting tantrum, I told him to go take it out on the little fold-out foam couch. He stopped, looked at me, like, “Are you serious?” and when I encouraged him again, he let go on that little thing. And? Stopped his own tantrum. Like the need to get the physical agression out was all he needed, then moved on. That never worked with my daughters tantrums – and believe me, I tried (try) everything.

    Different personalities? Yes. But perhaps something about gender as well.
    kelly @kellynaturally’s last post … Techniques for Turning a Breech BabyMy Profile

  7. As the mother of three young boys, and a Cub Scout leader, I have some experience in this department;-)

    First, I also did the gender neutral thing the first few years, no guns toys, etc, etc. Then one day at breakfast, Joshua, aged 3 shaped his toast crust into a weapon, and said to his brother “I’m going to make you go to Heaven!” Since he hadn’t been exposed to tv, movies, etc with more typical declarations like, “I’m going to kill you,” this is what he came up with on his own. That inner hunter came out, even though he didn’t have the “right tools” by today’s standards.

    Second, there really is such a thing as a “pissing contest” (please pardon my language) and these boys literally race while peeing (and dressing, and teeth brushing, and swimming, and running, and on and on).

    Third, every single time I ask them to sit down and have a tea party with me, they laugh hysterically; they do, however, like to play restaurant and knit…

    Boys and girls are different. Really. Trust me on this;-)
    Michelle’s last post … A New DecadeMy Profile

  8. i think they are different and that gender differences do come in to play at a much earlier age than we expect. i should qualify by saying that i have only the one and cannot comment on sibling pressures and so on

    neonatal males and females do undergo different sex steroid profiles immediately after birth which may affect brain development and behaviour (refs: 1976 and 2002 and from what i remember there may also be a surge in testosterone around 2-3y in boys which does affect behaviour (though i cannot find a reference to back this up and other texts advise it remains low until puberty so i have no idea where this came from!).

    more food for thought; boys behave differently and this affects their classroom experiences. i read this article in Macleans yesterday (liibrary time with my wee guy) which has me wondering about his own education

    as far as gender differentiation socially – i’ll try to let my wee guy be the boy he is in whatever way he feels comfortable with (wonders: do single male children with a mother as the SAH-parent show differences in gender roles in later life?)
    pomomama’s last post … do you know where youre going toMy Profile

  9. Like many things I think boys and girls and gender behaviours are based on their environment AND biology. I think they have to go hand in hand That being said it would be difficult to do a control study. How many kids are locked in bare rooms their entire childhood and then given trucks or dolls to play with? (Geez, that was a scary idea.)
    Melodie’s last post … An Unhurried Breastfeeding JourneyMy Profile

  10. Maybe I am misreading the tone of this post….. why is it wrong that they could be different? I think there are some stereo types that are fostered through social pressures, but at the core of it, I am happy my boys are boy-like. As long as they remember that everyone deserves respect and kindness.
    *pol’s last post … what happenedMy Profile

    • I would say that it’s concerning if we impose our own expectations of gender on our children. And I worry about societal norms, sometimes, because often when kids fall outside of those norms they face a lot of discrimination and difficulty. Examples of this would be the high rates of bullying that homosexual teens face, or the way they can be rejected by their families. So if I am somehow directing my kids to express their gender in some way, or if society at large is doing it, then that can be not so great.

      If, on the other hand, my kids just identify as very stereotypically male and female, and that’s born in them and they want to express that, of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Although I do think it’s interesting to consider where it comes from, and whether the differences I’m observing are real or just in my head.

  11. I have 1 boy and 2 girls and I have found more individual differences than gender differences overall at least during the preschool period.
    #1 was the gentlest, quietest and had easiest time sitting still (boy)
    #1- best at fine motor skills (boy)
    #2- h ad hardest time sitting still until around 6 years- needed A LOT of physical activity to counteract time sitting in school until.. well even now at 12. (girl)
    #2 is the most adept at math and anything gross motor related (girl)
    #2 and #3 showed most toddler aggression. (girls)
    #3 is the most articulate at 2 yo (girl)

    All played with similar toys in toddler/preschool- albeit in slightly different ways that my be gender related. For instance, #2 was more interested in the trains with faces and their relationships rather than how the layout worked.

  12. I think it’s a combination between inborn personality and gender behavior plus social influence. Even if you feel like you are a pretty gender-neutral parent that doesn’t mean that your friends are gender neutral or your children’s grandparents or even the librarian at story time who makes a passing comment about “pink is for girls.”

    I think that many of the differences we see are inborn to a degree. However, I think that so many of the gender stereotypes that we see occurring in boys and girls are encouraged by well meaning adults in our children’s lives. “Wow, Jacob, you’re so big/strong/smart.” “Hannah, what a pretty dress you’re wearing.”

  13. When people talk about Theo, they say things like, WOW – he’s 100% boy. I get this all the time. He’s so aggresive. The other day, he went full bore after a very very tough three-year-old boy. Took him from behind, lunged at him and brought out the teeth. Three parents within feet of him. I give him credit for using the element of surprise.

    And no matter where we are, if there’s a boy, aged three or older, they have his full devotion for the duration whether they want it or not. Girls do not get his attention that wa.

    So funny. My aim is to expose him to lots of reading, nature and arts-based activities to round him out (after he blows of his STEAM!)

    harriet Fancott’s last post … My little vampire- the social biterMy Profile

  14. I wasn’t going to comment because I have two girls who are completely different from eachother and no boy to compare them too and therefore no option. However, I thought it was interesting how radmama responded because if you didn’t put the sex of #1, 2, 3 beside the description, you would have no idea whether it was a girl or boy she was talking about.
    Tanya’s last post … Chicken chili soupMy Profile

  15. Having four boys and then a girl was quite a lesson in how biological some of these differences are. Of course, they’re *all different. And I’m not talking about preferences for certain types of toys or colors so much…as I am inherent differences in the way my boys and girl interact with the world. For example, from the time Clara was a few days old she would focus very intently on your mouth when you spoke, and she’d try to mimic your actions. None of my boys seemed nearly as interested in speaking or facial expressions. I didn’t think much of it until I read an article that said watching faces was considered a more “feminine’ trait!

    I wrote about it here over a year ago:

  16. Kids are who they are. And their parents are who *they* are. And the way a parent responds to / nurtures a kid is unique to that relationship. And then friends / cartoons / random strangers at the park come into play. Yikes! I lovvvvve thinking about this stuff but I know there is no way in hell I will ever be able to sort it out.

    My mom commented recently about my older son (age 4) that he seems confident in who he is. That is really all that matters to me. And when he comes home from school and tells me about the two girls who like to pretend to be fairies and tell him that boys can’t be fairies I assume the role of devil’s advocate and tell him they can so. I try to think less in terms of boys or girls and boys or girl “qualities” (or not)
    and more about individuals. Each a delicate, unique snowflake. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    (My younger child also makes the older one cry.)
    clara’s last post … In Which I am Magic AND Dull Surprising No OneMy Profile

  17. Ah, the age old question. I believe it is both, nurture and nature. Without a doubt, hormones and the specific cocktail mix you have is part of how you grow, act, and behave. I personally have two girls so can’t compare on that level, but I do know from an early, early age they had certain preferences for things, like shapes and colors, but I also see how what they are exposed to influences them as well.

  18. Oh way back when I was a University students parents used to drive me nuts talking about the gender differences they noticed in their kids. I’d think they were obviously encouraging boy/girl behavior just to, you know, maintain the patriarchal status quo.

    Now I see why they couldn’t help remarking about it — it’s remarkable. Little boys are, for example, almost universally obsessed with transportation. I have never ever ever met a little girl obsessed with transportation.

    By the by, the term gender means the way we express our boy or girlness culturally. Gender is, by definition, not innate. Our sex characteristics are innate and our gender is performed. The desire to express our sex via gender performances is most likely innate, however, as there is no human culture in which it isn’t done.
    Betsy’s last post … Bread Roses and a side of GuiltMy Profile

  19. Just to throw some interesting research into the mix, boys (and girls) raised by lesbian couples have some notable differences to boys raised by heterosexual couples (best research on this is by Stacey & Biblarz):

    1. Boys raised by lesbian couples show, on average, lower levels of aggression than boys raised by heterosexual parents.
    2. Boys raised by lesbian couples have their first sexual experience at a later age than boys raised by heterosexual couples.
    3. Boys (and girls) raised by lesbian couples demonstrate higher levels of compassion than boys raised by heterosexual couples.
    4. But interestingly, boys raised by lesbian couples pursue traditionally male careers at the same rate as boys raised by hetero couples.
    5. By contrast, girls raised by lesbian couples are more likely than girls raised by heterosexual couples to pursue stereotypically female careers.

    Researchers in this area have suggested, based on these findings and the accompanying reasearch, that it is is the presence of a heterosexual male in the household that encourages boys to exhibit higher levels of aggression. Boys learn by example from their fathers and some (obviously not all!) of those fathers aren’t always the best role models.

    I’m not sure where that leaves us, but it does suggest that at least some of the differences we may consider “innate” are in some instances being taught or at least demonstrated.


  20. Number 5 should have read:

    By contrast, girls raised by lesbian couples are more likely than girls raised by heterosexual couples to pursue stereotypically male careers.

  21. I think there’s a reason for gender. There’s a reason we have males and females. That’s not to say that I don’t fully support those without gender, or gender confusion or even “feminine” men and “masculine” women. I do think that in general (and I stress in general) that boys and girls are inherently different and that’s the entire purpose of having two sexes in the first place.

    It was fascinating to me to have a girl who is SO girly and who cries and kicks if I dare pull out a skirt that isn’t flouncy (you don’t want to see what happens if I pull out pants). I never wore skirts. I climbed trees and played with “boy” toys. I even worked in a field that is 90% male. And yet I spawned a girly girl who at the age of 13 months, found a Pottery Barn catalog, brought it to me open on the page of the very pink dolls and indicated that the loved them so very much by hugging the book to her. At that point she had only her brothers trucks, etc to play with and yet she knew that she wanted girl stuff.

    In a similar way my son indicated he wanted boy stuff although it wasn’t as dramatic since he was the first kid.

    BTW. He was/is WAY more aggressive than Em ever was/is. WAY WAY more. It reminds me of animals marking their territory if someone dares to move in on his space.
    Marilyn (A Lot of Loves)’s last post … Show Me The Pumpkin: Wednesday of Few WordsMy Profile

  22. I brought back two fuzzy plush “moose” backpacks from Norway for the boys, which they hugged and snuggled with for a while. And then they said, “Let’s make them fight!” Right. I really try not to stereotype (we dance, we costume), but sometimes, I resort to saying, “boys!”
    Lady M’s last post … Hey- Thats One Way To Solve the Sleep ProblemMy Profile

  23. Great post! I think there are some inherent differences between boys and girls. I never made a point of “making” Ari like cars and trucks. He naturally gravitated toward them. I think boys, on the whole, tend to be more physically inclined than girls. Girls tend to be more verbal. But these are not hard and fast rules.
    Old School/New School Mom’s last post … Little One Books GiveawayMy Profile

  24. Like pretty much everyone else I think it’s a mix of nurture & nature. I figure my job is mostly to help nurture the positive male traits in my son and to try to channel the negative ones into more positives-like letting him get out his agression in a sport and not by pounding on a littler kid.
    Maman A Droit’s last post … Getting Ready for DaddyMy Profile

  25. Having only boys I’m not sure I’m in any position to offer a valid opinion. However even though I don’t intentionally parent them as boys, I see it in them to their core. Both my boys love dirt, trucks and play fighting. In fact, when they mess around in the basement with daddy it actually seems to temper it in the long run. I also think I can attest to it in my lack of ability to relate to their play. It really does seem foreign to me.
    Christine’s last post … StillMy Profile

  26. I haven’t read all the comments, and I’m sure there’s a lot of expert opinions there. The nature vs nurture issue is an ongoing debate. Personally, I’ve seen great differences in the way my boys and girl approach life.
    Francesca’s last post … Lasagne verdiMy Profile

  27. One of the things that I have noticed since giving birth to a son is that everyone comments on his boyness. People are only too quick to tell us that he’s going to be “breaking the girls’ hearts,” or that he’s “going to be a football player, that one!” I’ve also become incredibly aware of the amount of gender socialization that occurs all around us. Television shows, music, social interactions – whether I send my son the message that this is “boy” behavior or “girl” behavior – he’s very likely to receive it, because his society will send him the message.

    It’s very frustrating to me, because it is VERY important to me that he learns that “that’s for girls” is completely not-okay. And he’ll be faced with that for the rest of his life.
    TMae’s last post … Who are these people without their child!My Profile

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  1. […] I have to say that I was nervous about toilet-training my son, since conventional wisdom says that boys are harder to potty train than girls, but so far that has not proven to be the case for us. I’m knocking wood as I write that sentence, but it’s the truth. Both kids brought high points and low points on their journey to potty mastery, but in the end Jacob was dry during the day at around the same age that Hannah was, and he’s now dry at night about six months before Hannah was. Perhaps, in the end, an individual child’s developmental curve matters more than their gender. […]

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