Sugar and Spice and Everything nice vs. Frogs and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails? The gender differences aren't exactly that clear-cut. But by preschool, children identify themselves as male or female, and gender differences in their behavior may already be apparent. Four-year-olds tend to judge others’ genders based on superficial characteristics – assuming, for example, that anyone with long hair must be female, and that perhaps that person’s gender might change with a haircut. Because they don’t understand that gender is constant, they tend to identify with stereotypical male and female activities, says Sharon Carver, Ph.D, Director of the Children’s School and Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

Boys this age love trucks, tools and weapons, but there’s as much nature as nurture in the way they learn and play. Here's what's going on in that little head of his:

  • Because they are hard-wired to enjoy spatial-mechanical play, boys require more physical space than girls, and will bounce off the walls when confined. They need to run, to spread out their toys, and to sprawl. 
  • Boys don’t hear as well as girls, and may require you to speak loudly or tap an arm to get their attention. If your son seems to ignore your instructions, ask him to repeat them back to you.
  • Give him time to finish his activity before moving on to the next. 
  • Don’t worry if you notice your son good-naturedly roughhousing with his friends; mock fighting is natural at this age and seems to be a form of early male bonding.
Are you getting tired of frills? Preschool girls can be very “girly,” insisting on pink clothes, princess stories and playing house. Here's the low-down on the minds of girls:
  • Even at this age, higher levels of the hormone oxytocin (which helps bond mothers to their babies) encourage girls to love and care for their dolls, while boys see them only as inanimate objects to be thrown around. 
  • For girls, verbal skills develop early.
  • Girls tend to use all their senses, while boys rely primarily on visual cues. 
  • Girls of this age may flirt with their fathers; this shows not only their love for their fathers, but also their healthy identification with their mothers.

Experts agree that exposing your preschoolers to a variety of playmates and experiences will help them bloom into self-confident adults.

Further Reading:

  • "Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development" by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D.
  •  "The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life" by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens