The Role of Gender in Challenging Behavior
In 1974, psychologists Eleanor Maccoby and Carol Jacklin analyzed thousands of research studies and concluded that physical aggression is one of the few areas where there’s a difference between girls and boys.
In European American culture, parents discourage aggressive behavior in children of both sexes (Pepler and Slaby, 1994), and in nonviolent households, boys and girls show about the same level of aggression (Gulbenkian Foundation, 1995). Nonetheless, boys are at greater risk for aggressive behavior than girls, perhaps because of the male sex hormones they are exposed to before birth and the fact that many families tolerate their aggressive behavior more easily (Berk, 2000). In the 1996 National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth in Canada, boys scored higher than girls on physical aggression in every age group (Offord and Lipman, 1996; Tremblay et al., 1996a). Boys hit and insult each other more, respond to hits and insults more quickly, spend more time in rough-and-tumble play, and accept aggressive behavior more readily than girls.
Now that they are finally studying aggressive behavior in girls, researchers are redefining it to include indirect aggression, where girls score higher (Offord and Lipman, 1996; Tremblay et al., 1996). By the age of 4 or 5, girls who use physical aggression find themselves disliked by their peers, who prefer exclusion, backstabbing, gossiping, belittling, and the like (Pepler and Craig, 1999; Pepler and Slaby, 1994). However, recent research shows that physical aggression is becoming more normative and acceptable among girls (Pepler and Slaby, 1994).
Like boys who don’t renounce physical aggression before they enter school, girls who continue to act aggressively face the prospect of school failure and rejection by their peers. They often join groups of boys and get into fights with boys, and eventually they date—and marry—boys who act aggressively. As the boys grow bigger and stronger, these girls may find themselves in danger because they haven’t acquired the social and problem-solving skills to sustain an intimate relationship (Pepler and Craig, 1999).
Girls who behave aggressively are also more likely to become single teenage mothers (Pepler and Craig, 1999). Unprepared for their adult roles, they don’t provide their children with many appropriate play materials, and they aren’t very emotionally or verbally responsive. Their children show early signs of psychosocial difficulties and make frequent visits to hospital emergency rooms—which has made the researchers worry about possible physical abuse (Pepler and Craig, 1999; Pepler and Slaby, 1994; Serbin et al., 1991).
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