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.
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 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:
- 17-month-old boys are much more likely than their female counterparts to show physical aggression.
- Boys are more likely to experience most kinds of injuries and are more likely to engage in risky behaviours.
- Girls have higher rates of prosocial behaviour, and boys have higher rates of physical aggression.
- Children as young as 18 months display preferences for gender-stereotyped toys.
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 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!