Are Girls and Boys Wired Differently?

We investigate gender differences and their impact on learning and development
By Glynis Horning

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Canadian couple David Stocker and Kathy Witterick whipped up a storm this year when they declined to disclose the sex of their newborn baby. They announced that they are raising the neutrally, and appropriately, named Storm as “genderless” until the child is old enough to “choose” which gender he or she is most comfortable with, unfettered by “social norms”. But how much do social norms influence gender, and how much is hard-wired into a child by nature? It’s an old debate given new direction by advances in biological and psychological research.
“Both social norms and neuro-physiological differences play a role in gender differentiation, and the relative contribution of each has only recently been understood – and continues to be discovered and to be controversial,” says Durban child and educational psychologist Dr Caron Bustin, a former pre-primary school principal. “This is especially so because these very differences can be manipulated according to our own bias or agenda.” Our opinions as parents are still as likely to be based on our own experiences and inclinations or social group as on our knowledge of medical, technological advances, she says. “Yet these advances have shown a consistent developmental pattern of neurological growth that supports the view that boys’ and girls’ brains do differ.”
Developing differently
Brain images show that girls’ brains develop more rapidly during early childhood, and boys’ brains are more “lateralised”, indicating that boys make greater use of one hemisphere during early childhood, says Bustin. “Activation in girls’ brains shows they use both hemispheres more – talk about multi-tasking.” At maturity, boys’ brains have a larger mass than girls’, but that doesn’t mean they are cleverer, she says. The differences seem linked to the presence of high levels of testosterone in boy babies. Research indicates that female brains are stronger in the left hemisphere, whereas in males the right hemisphere is generally stronger, bringing developmental differences, says Lameze Abrahams, principal psychologist at Lentegeur Psychiatric Hospital in Mitchells Plain, and senior lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health at the University of Cape Town. “Girls start using gestures, such as pointing and waving bye-bye, sooner than boys. They also tend to talk sooner (around 12 months versus 13 or 14 for boys), and by 16 months, girls use more words (around 100 versus 30). But the gap narrows, and by two-and-and-half both boys and girls use around 500 words.”
Learning differently
Studies show that girls and boys learn differently too. It seems the regions of the brain responsible for language and fine motor skills mature earlier in girls, while those responsible for certain cognitive abilities, such as spatial memory and visual-spatial skills, are believed to mature earlier in boys, says Bustin.
Schools don’t always cater for these differences, and this can act against the interests of young boys, she says. “Boys learn kinaesthetically – they generally prefer to learn while moving or manipulating things.” Some schools have found that boys perform better academically when given regular short periods of activity between periods of formal learning. “The large motor activity is believed to activate parts of the brain that stimulate neural activity. I know from personal experience that if boys are sent out to complete a circuit of the playground, or the whole class runs on the spot and does star jumps, the boys are energised and return to work with greater industry and focus.”
Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to enjoy sitting, listening, and doing fine motor activities such as drawing and cutting. “This plays to the wishes (and minds) of their predominantly female teachers,” says Bustin.
Abrahams says there are also biochemical differences at work: “Boys have less serotonin and oxytocin, hormones that play a role in promoting a sense of calm, than girls. That’s why it’s more likely that young boys will fidget and act impulsively.”
Behaving differently
Girls and boys express themselves differently, play differently and even throw tantrums differently, say both psychologists. “Because girls’ brains are wired differently, they may be able to talk about feelings and empathise more than boys, and be more aware of changes in tone of voice,” says Abrahams.
When it comes to discipline, boys may not be as sensitive to other people’s feelings, and may not respond immediately when asked to stop bad behaviour, she adds. They may also react differently in stressful situations. “Girls will be more likely to back down in a confrontation, while boys will experience a surge of testosterone and act out. Parents and teachers need to be aware of these differences and adapt their approach accordingly.”
But times are changing, and today boys are being encouraged to communicate rather than suppress their emotions, says Bustin. “This is a real challenge for some, though.” And the understanding that boys respond to physical education can translate to physical discipline and a return to corporal punishment. “This would be short-sighted, because aggression begets aggression and retaliation. It’s also very difficult to teach children conflict resolution when they’ve been urged to solve problems physically; they’re no longer focused on the process, but on an instant short-term solution.”
Both psychologists are impressed by the readiness of new millennium parents to learn more about child raising, and report that they are “much more enquiring” about different forms of education, learning, communication and discipline. The upshot, says Bustin, is that while there are undoubtedly social pressures about gender expectations, few parents now talk in generalisations. “They talk rather about their child and his or her unique personality and genetic inheritance, which is as it should be.”
Do we stereotype?
Consciously or not, most parents hold certain expectations of each gender and reflect these in their interactions and the choices they make for their children. “Some parents are quite open to toy and play choices,” says Bustin.
“Others may be guided by the desire to provide their child with clear boundaries as to gender orientation not from a homophobic point of view, but because of what they consider to be their responsibility to their child to give them direction.”
In her experience, many parents say they find it difficult when their boys dress as girls. “But this is a healthy and passing stage many boys enjoy. Boys often see it as a huge joke and show, through their behaviour, that they are quite sure of their gender activity.”
Bustin would prefer parents to relax on issues like this and focus on other stereotypes. “Our failure to develop the ‘feminine side’ of boys by encouraging them to be in touch with their feelings, or to stimulate girls in traditionally ‘male’ fields such as the sciences, is a failure in our duty to develop the whole child and equip them for life in general,” she says. Current research doesn’t show support for a “maths gene”, but there’s plenty of evidence that encouragement and practise improves maths and science skills for girls and for boys.
Durban hairdresser Claire Graham had no qualms about gender stereotyping when she learnt three years ago that her third child would be a girl. Her sons, Murray and Ross, were then five and four. “And I was ready for something different,” she says. “It’s been such a treat. I did the whole pink thing – pink nursery, pink pram… Sophie knew from the start that pink was her colour, and she loves it.”
But the differences between Sophie and her brothers are far deeper than a coat of pink paint, says Claire. “I’d roll a ball at her as I did for the boys, but she just wasn’t interested. I’d offer a doll, and she’d immediately start rocking it. Sophie’s always wanted necklaces and high heels, and she’d rather read books or sit colouring than scrum down with her sports-mad brothers or tear around with them on bikes.”
Johannesburg PA Kim Furweger, on the other hand, has “never been big on gender roles”. Blue, she says, is her favourite colour, and that’s what her daughter Gaby, 10, and her son Cameron, eight, both tend to wear.
There are differences between the children, she says, but these are “much more to do with personality than gender”. She says, “I was told boys were more active and naughtier, yet Cameron’s easier; he’s a relaxed child and very focused, and he always finishes projects. Gaby rushes on to the next thing.”
Kim encourages both children to “try everything”, and they do, sharing any possibly inherent gender strengths. “Cameron asks Gaby to teach him to knit,” she says with satisfaction, “and he gives her criticism when she plays soccer, not that she always appreciates it.”
Spot the differences…
In general:
  • Talk earlier
  • Have better verbal and listening skills
  • Have better fine-motor skills
  • Are attracted to faces
  • Are people-focused
  • Are able to sit quietly for longer
  • Are more easily startled by loud noises or voices
  • Are more cautious
  • Are less likely to be injured
  • Are less prone to certain developmental disorders (autism, attention deficit disorder, language disability)
  • Walk earlier
  • Have better spatial skills
  • Have better gross motor skills
  • Are attracted to motion
  • Are action-focused
  • Need to be on the move more
  • Are less easily startled by loud noises and voices
  • Take more risks
  • Are more likely to be injured
  • Are more prone to developmental disorders mentioned under “girls”


Bouwe van der Eems wrote 7 years 34 weeks ago

An excellent book on this subject, written by a pediatrician that researched this subject for years has the title "Why Gender Matters". The name of the author is Leonard Sax.

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