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].

Gender Differences in Sports Interest

  • Competitive sports are good for both boys and girls. But from an early age boys, more than girls, like balls, games with clear winners and losers, and play fighting. Later in 4th to 6th grade, boys in free play are competing with other boys 50 percent of the time whereas girls compete against each other only 1 percent of the time [2]. 
  • Another large study questioned high school seniors about their participation in a wide range of activities: sports, music, art, dance, religion, spending time with parents or friends, volunteering, and religious activities, among others. Far and away the largest sex difference was in “non-school sports,” with male participation exceeding female participation by a factor of three. In college, anyone who is interested can play intramural sports, but again there are three to four times as many men as women who do so [2].
  • But boys don’t just like sports more than girls; they need sports more than girls. Boys bond with their chums through shared activities, like sports. If girls don’t have the activities or sports, they will still bond through talk [2].
  • Perhaps more importantly, sports keep boys out of trouble. The source of much crime is gangs or other unsupervised peer groups of teens. Even violent sports like football and wrestling channel young males, filled with testosterone, into rule bound competitive activity [2].

Gender Differences in the Approach to Sexuality

  • Teen girls and their collegiate sisters commonly experiment with casual sex without having a clue that they are much more likely to get an STD than their male partners are and much more likely to become infertile or develop cancer later if they do get one. Moreover, the emotional aftereffects of sex for women are far different than they are for men. Evolutionary anthropologist John Townsend’s studies show that sexually active women with extremely liberal sexual attitudes aren’t able to deal with casual sex emotionally. They feel used, hurt, and demeaned after sleeping with men uninterested in relationships [2]. 
  • Similarly, Denise Hallfors, a research scientist at the University of North Carolina, finds that for females, teen sex with multiple partners increases the odds of subsequent clinical depression by a factor of ten; for men it’s more like a factor of two [9]. A study of casual sex among college students comes to even more dramatic conclusions: Females who “are the most likely to engage in casual sex” report the most symptoms of depression whereas their male equivalents who are the most likely to engage in casual sex report the fewest symptoms of depression [10, 11, 2, 12].

Implications for Education

In the first years of school, 95 percent of the time boys and girls have women as teachers.   Many of these well-meaning female teachers believe that there is too much violence and competition in the world and not enough cooperation and communication. They often assign reading books meant to induce sympathy for the feelings of characters with problems. 

But most boys are bored by these books, and they are less likely than girls to read books that they think are boring in order to please teachers or parents [12].
In part, boys fall so far behind in reading because educators often don’t give them stories that would appeal to them--adventures and combat, heroes and villains. And, we don’t give them the competition they crave by dividing the class into three groups and finding out which group best understood the story [12].

Much of the information you have read here was excerpted from Dr. Rhoads' book, Taking Sex Differences Seriously . To learn more, please visit      

  1. Alexander, Gerianne M. and Melissa Hines. Sex Differences in Response to Children’s Toys in Nonhuman Primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus). Evolution in Human Behavior.  23: 467-79.
  2. Rhoads, Steven. (2004). Taking Sex Differences Seriously. Encounter Books.
  3. Blum, Deborah. (1997) Sex on the Brain. Viking.
  4. Moir, Anne and David Jessel. (1989). Brain Sex. New York: Delta.
  5. Baron-Cohen, Simon. (2003). The Essential Difference. Basic Books.
  6. Maccoby, Eleanor. (1998). The Two Sexes. Harvard University Press.
  7. Popenoe, David. (1996). Life Without Father. New York: The Free Press.
  8. Geary, David C. (2008). Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
  9. Hallfors, Denise, et. al. (2005). What Comes First in Adolescence—Sex and Drugs or Depression. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 29:3, 163-170.
  10. Grello, Catherine M., et al. (2006). No Strings Attached: The Nature of Casual Sex in College Students. The Journal of Sex Research, 43, 255-267.
  11. Grossman, Miriam. (2007). Unprotected. New York: Sentinel Trade.
  12. Sax, Leonard. (2005). Why Gender Matters. New York: Doubleday.