From the moment a baby is born, gender expectations can affect how that child is dressed, educated and in some cultures, employed or not employed. The discussion on nature or nurture, biology or environment has been ongoing for decades. Parents often report differences among their children, which they feel are related to gender. However, questions remain as to whether the differences are the result of biology.
There are clear biological differences between boys and girls -- anatomy is the most obvious. As they reach adolescence, anatomical differences become more pronounced. But differences in hormonal influences begin in the womb when a fetus with an XY chromosome pattern develops an increased level of testosterone. Although both boys and girls produce testosterone and estrogen, the quantities are different. According to an article in the April 2010 issue of “Scientific American,” boys tend to have larger brains, but girls’ brains reach full size earlier than their male counterparts; however, overall, these differences are small.
March 2008 research from Northwestern University indicates that boys and girls do have differences in language abilities. Magnetic resonance imaging, which allows researchers to see how the live brain works, showed that girls had significantly greater activation in the areas of the brain concerned with language. In boys, performance depended on how hard visual areas of their brains worked, particularly when dealing with written, as opposed to spoken, words. The researchers concluded that boys might be more effectively tested on what they learned from lectures by oral testing -- and evaluated on what the learned by reading if they were given written tests.
Gender Beliefs and Behavior
According to “Child Psychology: A Contemporary Viewpoint Updated,” by Mavis E. Hetherington and Ross D. Parke, children learn values, motives and behaviors from their parents and the culture within which they live. This includes their beliefs about gender. The authors note that typical male behavior expectations are independence, assertion and competitiveness, while girls are expected to be passive, sensitive and supportive. Children who differ noticeably from the expected behavior may meet with teasing from peers and disapproval from parents or teachers.
Authors Hetherington and Parke go on to say that although boys are more muscular, they are also more likely to become ill or have heredity anomalies. Girls are physically and neurologically more developed at birth. Furthermore, girls tend to talk sooner and more fluently, while boys are often better at math -- particularly math that is dependent on geometric principles. Additionally, boys are more likely to have reading, speech or emotional problems than girls. However, these differences are variable -- and individuals of either gender may exhibit them to a greater or lesser degree.
Parents may -- consciously or unconsciously -- affect their children’s gender-related behavior in several ways. A father who roughhouses with his boys but not his girls is sending a different message than the father who roughhouses with both genders. A mother who buys fuzzy stuffed toys for her female infant but hangs a mobile with trucks and bulldozers in the crib of her son is demonstrating her beliefs about appropriate gender toys. Peer pressure, especially in older adolescents, might cause them to behave in socially accepted ways even when such behavior goes against their natural inclinations.