Girly-girls and boisterous boys: are they born or made?

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As you watch your little girl start to love everything pink and pretty, or your little boy develop a fascination with all things loud and mechanical (or vice versa!), you may find yourself wondering about gender norms and just why your toddler has taken a liking to certain things and is behaving in a certain way.

For many years it was widely accepted that the way in which we raised toddlers was the sole cause for boys and girls behaving differently. Parents were said to be responsible for making boys ‘too rough and tough’ or leading girls to love dolls and be ‘too soft’. However, more recent research points to the fact that boys and girls partly act and behave in ‘traditional’ ways simply because they seem to be wired that way.

Genetic programming of gender roles

In the early weeks of pregnancy, baby boys and girls appear identical, until the Y chromosome kicks in at about week eight. This begins to trigger significant changes in make-up. In brief, male hormones see boys developing different sexual organs and they also begin to cause changes in muscle mass and fat deposition. Further ‘wiring’ differences continue through to birth and beyond, and by the toddler years we find that the wiring in the language centres of girls’ brains is slightly more sophisticated while boys need more physical movement to learn and develop, and also need more sleep. Further, research suggests boys’ attention spans are shorter but that they learn better spatially (through pictures and action). In contrast, girls learn better in a verbal, social setting and so prefer play that fits with this style.

Related: When your baby's gender disappoints

Because of these wiring differences, when faced with challenges and problems boys and girls tend to respond differently. At the risk of simplifying the science, boys tend to take action to solve a problem, whereas girls tend to verbalise and socially engage.

In simple terms, toddler boys are more likely to smash trucks together, to draw on walls, to build and knock down blocks, and to laugh when they throw things off their highchairs. In contrast, girls may favour dress-ups, dolls and imitating adult roles as part of their preference for verbal stimulation and social interaction. However, it’s just as important that girls have the opportunity to build and destruct, as it is for boys to have the opportunity to play imaginary games with doll-like figures, even if they naturally prefer action characters.

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Adult influence on children’s gender roles

In accepting all the recent research, though, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet. There is still some validity to the argument that adults influence and condition traditional gender roles in children. While toddlers are seemingly wired differently, we do tend to reinforce some of these natural tendencies.

As parents, our language and behaviour can guide our boys and girls towards traditional stereotypes. For example, when our boys fall over, we may be more likely to make a comment such as, “You’re all right, hop up, no tears, be a tough little fella...”. When our girls trip we’re perhaps more likely to make a comment such as, “Oh darling, are you okay? You poor thing. Here, Daddy will give you a big cuddle...”.

Similarly, we often talk about our ‘big boys’, but our ‘little girls’. We may let boys choose their own chaotic clothes more often, but show distress when girls pick clashing outfits. Hopefully we can use the same language and encourage the same behaviour, regardless of the sex of our toddlers.

Related: Raise siblings who love each other

Going against the gender norm trend

All this being said, typical development has a very wide scope. The research findings I’ve mentioned do run the risk of leading to false generalisations, such as that ‘tom-boy’ behaviour in girls is really not natural, whereas it’s actually very normal, well-adapted behaviour. For a variety of good, healthy reasons, a number of girls somewhat challenge their natural wiring and are happier to play actively with the boys instead of favouring social interaction, and choose to wear pants, not pretty, pink dresses. Similarly, some very healthy boys like to play with traditional girls’ toys or try Mummy’s dresses on. They may not prefer such active play and find more contentment in talking with girls sometimes.

For both girls and boys, there is no definite link between such early discovery of different types of interaction with later choices of adult behaviour. Only if a toddler becomes unusually fixated and ritualistic with certain patterns of behaviour, resulting in emotional distress, would there be reason to question things. Otherwise it’s very important to neither encourage or discourage such behaviour. It’s most healthy to simply allow your toddler equal choices of games, toys, outfits, play opportunities and the like. Toddlers are surprisingly good at knowing what they really like and prefer. Further, toddlers are wonderfully talented at trying a variety of opportunities, if given lots of choices, which allows them to progress through normal stages and to accept differences.

Toddlers begin with unique biological differences and wiring, but parents can also have a wonderful, powerful role in shaping broad, adaptive behaviours and by offering wide choices can help avoid stereotyping, allowing toddlers to develop to be the beautifully unique people they were always going to be.