Families

Ask Mr. Dad: Boys and girls: Nature vs. nurture?

Dear Mr. Dad: My husband and I have a boy and a girl and we try as much as we can to treat them the same way. We don't limit our daughter's wardrobe to pink and our son's to blue and we've banned gender-stereotyped toys from the house. But our daughter still behaves like a stereotypical girl and our son like a boy. What did we do wrong?

A: In a word, nothing. Despite many modern parents' best efforts to rid their homes of gender stereotypes, some stereotypical behaviors still pop up. But here's the big question: Are boys and girls really as different as they seem or is there something we parents are doing to make them that way?

Consider this: For the first 18 months of life, the physical and biological differences are so slight that when babies are dressed in nothing but diapers, most adults can't tell a boy from a girl. But that doesn't stop us from treating them quite differently.

Back in the late 1970s, researchers John and Sandra Condry showed 200 adults a videotape of a 9-month old baby playing with various toys. Half were told that they were watching a boy, the other half that they were watching a girl. Although everyone was viewing the same tape, the descriptions the two groups gave of the baby's behavior were incredibly different. The "boy" group overwhelmingly perceived the child's startled reaction to a jack-in-the-box popping as anger. The "girl" group saw the reaction as fear.

Parents not only perceive their boys and girls differently, but they often treat them differently as well. Mothers, for example, respond more quickly to crying girls than to crying boys and breastfeed them longer, says psychologist Michael Gurian. When girls have a difficult disposition, mothers tend to increase their level of affection, holding and comforting the child, but when a boy is similarly fussy and resistant both parents back off. While this all sounds pretty harmless, there may be some serious, long-term consequences. In one study, for example, boys who received more cuddling were found to have higher IQs than boys who didn't.

As their children grow, parents continue to be more protective of girls than boys. When playing with their children, fathers are more rough and tumble with boys, but treat their daughters gingerly. And when babies are just starting to take their first steps, parents tend to let their sons fall repeatedly, but will step in and pick up their daughters before they even hit the ground. Parents also tend to demand more compliance from daughters, but discourage it in their sons. They respond positively, for example, when their daughters follow them around the house, but negatively when their boys do the same thing.

The upside of encouraging independence in boys is that it teaches them to learn to solve their own problems without adult intervention. The downside, though, is that boys get less supervision and, as a result, are more likely to be injured or even killed than girls. As for girls, the ill-effects of telling them that the moment they cry help is on the way are obvious. Parents who step in to rescue their daughter before she's truly "stuck" not only deprive her of a chance to overcome obstacles through her own efforts, but may also be sending the message that they have no faith in her ability to do so.

The big question, of course, is why do we treat boys and girls differently. Some researchers say that parents are simply repeating the socialization they got when they were children. But others say that the differences are rooted in biology. "Boys and girls actually elicit different responses from us," says Gurian. "Because boys are a little bigger and stronger, we tend to play with them more roughly. And because girls are quieter and enjoy eye-to-eye contact, we spend more time talking to them."

In our search for quick and easy answers, it's often tempting to try to blame the differences in our children's behavior – and in the ways we treat them – on either biology or the environment. But clearly, it isn't that simple. The truth is that the two factors are both responsible and no one – not even the experts – can say for sure where one leaves off and the other starts.

(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to armin@mrdad.com.)

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