Curious about some stereotypical behavior you’ve noticed in your little one, or wondering what to expect if you’re expecting a son or daughter? It turns out that gender differences aren’t that significant — though there are a few that start in the womb and continue through childhood.
In terms of anatomy, differences between boys and girls can be pretty obvious. But when it comes to brain development, the disparities between the two sexes are actually pretty small. It turns out that behavior and development have more to do with life experiences than they do with gender — and in order to reach his or her full potential, your cutie needs lots of attention and encouragement from the get-go. Read on to learn more about where (and how much) gender plays a role in your son or daughter’s development.
True or false: Females tend to be more in tune to people’s emotions. True! After reviewing over 100 studies, researchers concluded that even in infancy, girls are better at figuring out people’s emotions based on their facial expressions. Another study found that baby girls would rather look at faces than mobiles, while the opposite was true for boys. While the reading-faces skill begins at birth, both nature and nurture play a role — the difference in ability is more than twice as pronounced in grown-up men and women as it is in little ones. What’s behind the difference? Experts think it’s because girls are taught to express their feelings, while boys are encouraged to suck it up.
Takeaway tip: As moms everywhere know, baby boys aren’t any less sensitive, so teach your son the words for his feelings (“You’re mad because you can’t reach the rattle”) as you talk to him.
One reason boys tend to outscore girls on the math portion of the SAT is that they may have an advantage when it comes to spatial skills — or the ability to solve problems involving size, distance and the relationship between objects. Although social expectations for male mathletes probably play a big role in this gender difference, studies have found that the difference does appear very early in life. Studies suggest that boys as young as 3 to 5 months old can visualize how an object will appear when rotated, while girls of the same age can’t.
Takeaway tip: Give your girl building blocks, talk about numbers, play ball with her, and, when she’s old enough, introduce her to kid-friendly computer, video and smartphone games that focus on targeting objects (now, there’s a great excuse to play Angry Birds).
Babies don’t distinguish between “boy” and “girl” playthings — in fact, studies show (and many parents know) that baby boys love dolls. So it’s plausible to think that boys like trucks and girls like tea sets because society tells them to. But while gender-specific marketing and peer pressure in preschool can influence a tot’s taste in toys, there’s good evidence that there’s also something innate about preferences for certain playthings, starting around age one. In fact, girls who are exposed to higher-than-normal levels of sex hormones, including testosterone, in the womb show an above-average interest in cars and trucks. And in a study of monkeys, male primates chose wheeled toys over plush toys, while females liked both. What does that mean for humans? You can expect your daughter to be more open than her brother about what she plays with — usually starting around kindergarten.
Takeaway tip: Widen your little boy’s toy horizons by offering all sorts of playthings instead of sticking to the stereotypical stuff.
Go to any playground and you’re bound to see more boys running, playing ball and jumping — and that difference in physical activity may start in the womb. After reviewing 46 previous studies, Canadian researchers concluded that baby boys are bigger wiggle worms than baby girls — they squirm more on the changing table, get restless in the stroller and crawl over longer distances, for example. You may not notice the difference in your boy and girl babies, though, say scientists: While the average boy doesn’t move around much more than the typical girl, the most active kids are almost always boys, and the least active, girls.
Takeaway tip: Get both sexes moving with plenty of active playtime — from dancing indoors to playing chase outside.
Boys are more physically aggressive than girls even before they turn two, according to studies. Scientists say prenatal testosterone is a big factor, and that boys are subconsciously playing at something they’re statistically more likely to do in adulthood than girls: get into physical confrontations. But girls aren’t angels, either: Toddler girls kick, bite, and hit three times more than either gender does by the time kids enter grade-school (by then both sexes have been socialized so they use their words more than their fists).
Takeaway tip: Little boys and girls need to learn limits, so be firm about enforcing the “no hitting” rule.
Although many parents say boys reach gross-motor milestones like sitting up, crawling, cruising, and walking earlier than girls, some pediatricians swear the opposite. But both camps are wrong: Study after study shows that there are no significant differences between boys and girls when it comes to gross-motor development. Both genders usually start walking sometime between nine and 16 months; yet in a study of parental expectations, mothers of 11-month-old infants consistently overestimated their boys’ physical skills and underestimated those of their daughters. The expectations that boys will walk earlier may have to do with physical size, since boys tend to be heavier and taller than girls by around six months.
Takeaway tip: Build up your baby’s muscles by giving your little guy or gal plenty of tummy time in the early months — and making sure your tot doesn’t spend too much time confined to the stroller, car seat, or play yard.
One milestone that girls and boys do consistently hit at different times is talking — girls start about a month earlier than boys on average, sometime in the first half of the second year. British researchers found that girl babies had significantly larger vocabularies than boys as early as 18 and 24 months. Experts say, however, that gender explains up to only 3 percent of differences in toddlers’ verbal skills, with a child’s exposure to language and his or her environment accounting for at least 50 percent of differences.
Takeaway tip: Moms and dads should talk to and read to their babies often, whether they’re girls or boys.
Girls, hands down, ditch their diapers faster than boys — sometimes a lot faster. While most girls start toilet training anytime from 22 to 30 months, boys can take three months to even a year longer than girls to achieve all of the 28 skills experts say they need to be diaper-free forever — from staying dry for two hours during the day to being able to pull down underpants. Girls, on average, can pee on their own (a big milestone) by 33 months, but it takes until month 37 for boys to get there. The biggest differences between girls and boys: Sitting still for five minutes so they can poop in the potty — on average, girls can do this by the time they’re three and a quarter years old, but boys take around five months longer to learn the skill.
Takeaway tip: Even if your little boy won’t get the hang of potty training until later, bring out the potty around his second birthday and just let him have fun with it. You never know — it may inspire him to beat the statistics.