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Considering Sex Differences for Effective Education

By — Gender Differences Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

As many parents observe everyday, boys and girls display a number of differences in their interest in, and strategies for, connecting with others. Although many believe that socialization explains these sex differences, the evidence for deep-seated biological influence is strong. First, until children are about three, they don’t even know what the stereotypes are, so they cannot be imitating what they think boys and girls are “supposed” to do. Second, experiments with other primates show that female adolescents newly exposed to dolls and trucks usually prefer the dolls whereas their male counterparts usually prefer the trucks [1]. And, greater male interest in rough and tumble play is seen in humans around the world as well as in other primates. Moreover, biology even helps explain the exceptions. Females who have been exposed to more testosterone in the womb are more likely than others to prefer balls and trucks to dolls as children [2].

Whatever the explanation for gender differences, it is important for parents and teachers to better understand how boys and girls relate to others to ensure they reach their full potential.

Gender Differences in Social Connection Evident from Birth

In the first weeks and months of life, young boys and girls show different interests in other humans. One-week-old baby girls can distinguish an infant’s cry from other noise; boys usually cannot. Three-day-old girls maintain eye contact with a silent adult for twice as long as boys. Girls will look even longer if the adult talks; it makes no difference to boys. Four-month-old girls can distinguish photographs of those they know from people they do not; boys the same age generally cannot. On the other hand, five-month-old boys are more interested than girls in three-dimensional geometric forms and in blinking lights. They smile and babble at them as if they were animated—a mistake that girls rarely make [3, 4].

When given a choice, one-year old girls look longer at a film of a human face, whereas boys look longer at a film of cars. But young girls are not just more interested in people than boys are; they appear to care more about them. Girls tend to be more empathetic. At twelve months, girls encountering distress in others show more unhappy faces and behave in a more comforting manner. 

Gender Differences in Style of Connecting with Others

  • When girls interact with their peers, girls especially seek best friends with whom they can have intimate, self-revealing conversations [5]. In contrast, boys are interested in action not talk, and they are more likely to play fight through rough and tumble play than to put their arms around their pals. 
  • At two, when girls are more attracted to dolls, boys are more attracted to balls. They use them together with toy guns and swords to have contests and establish winners and losers among groups of boys who share their interest in particular games [2].
  • Girls’ and boys’ fantasies, as revealed in their stories, are strikingly different. Girls are more likely than boys to have fantasies about weddings, while boys are more likely than girls to have fantasies about superheroes combating evil villains. (In preschool, boys tell stories with “aggressive violent themes” 87 percent of the time; girls tell such stories 17 percent of the time; 76 percent of the girls stories deal with family themes.)
  • Boys’ focus is on their imagined self’s strength and power whereas when girls play family—“you be the mommy and I’ll be the child”—or even when they play soothingly with a doll, they are imagining what is going on in the other’s mind and what the other is feeling [6, 2, 5].
  • Boys who play cops and robbers –with carrots or sticks if we take away their toy guns—don’t end up being serial killers; more often they end up being the cops who want to chase the robbers. Moreover, the play fighting that boys engage in at recess is great fun for them and not really fighting [6]. They are often reproducing the rough and tumble play that they practiced with their fathers—play where they learn to stay away from the eyes and never bite. Such play is more about channeling rambunctious boys toward self-control rather than toward aggression [2, 6, 7, 8].
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