Several years ago, Irene Shere, director of the Early Childhood Consultation Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, walked into a preschool classroom "where the boys were tumbling and wrestling on the floor like puppies and the girls were seated at the tables doing art projects." She says, "Sometimes the stereotypes do ring true – and not [only] due to exposure." If you've been wondering why your boy rough-houses at every opportunity, while your little gal is content to play fairy princesses, you may be surprised to find out there are a whole lot of factors behind developmental differences at this age.
Long before the age of 3, boys and girls show differences in language acquisition; infant girls typically begin talking earlier than boys. This trend continues during the early years, and boys' language abilities generally lag behind girls until 4 or 5 years of age, writes Leonard Sax in his book "Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences." So don't be surprised if your little guy's language skills don't seem quite up to par with the little girls you know just yet. Language acquisition is dependent on the ability to put feelings into words, and each of these is processed on different sides of the brain. "Starting in utero, boys' brains have fewer neurological connections than girls' brains in connecting feelings to words," Shere says.
Sax writes that while neurological differences are the predominant cause of the language acquisition gap, social norms and parental influence may contribute as well. For example, he says, during the first year of life, baby girls generally get more face-to-face time with mom and dad, whereas parents are often more physical with boys. The face-to-face time that girls get in comparison to boys may account for some of the gap; girls have more opportunity to see parents form words up close; they listen intently and attempt to imitate, Sax writes.
From an early age, boys show more acute spatial skills than girls. Part of the difference may develop from the different type of play encouraged by parents, other caregivers and society. Parents often encourage their boys to play with blocks and trucks, thus providing them with more practice solving physical problems. Conversely, girls are often encouraged to dress their dolls and string beads more often than boys, thus offering a partial reason why girls develop fine motor skills faster. However, DNA plays a role in the difference in development as well. Shere says she sees "boys' fascination with cars and trucks as a modern day carry-over from the important skill of tracking and hunting animals needed in earlier days. Tracking moving things was an important survival skill for men and boys. For girls in earlier times, those whose DNA fostered nurturing and connecting were busy gathering herbs and focusing on their children."
When boys are upset, they're more likely to show their aggression physically, whereas girls are more likely to show it verbally, Shere says. (Think about that high-pitched scream your daughter can belt out when she's angry.) In society, anger and aggression have just been more acceptable in men than in women. Rough play or "horsing around" is accepted as part of parenting a boy, while it's tolerated less in young girls. Parents often encourage their son to "tough it out" when they're hurt, whereas girls are encouraged to express their feelings and get hugs and kisses for boo-boos, Shere says. This may offer some explanation behind the aggressive response to anger, too -- it's actually a pent-up response. Fortunately, if you encourage your little guy to talk about his feelings from a young age, he'll become more aware of other's feelings and less aggressive than children who are discouraged when it comes to expressing themselves emotionally, Shere says.
From infancy, girls are more interested in the people around them and their feelings. (Remember back to those baby days when her eyes would follow you everywhere you'd go?) Because of a girl's more acute interest in people and feelings, she's more likely to compromise when playing with others than a boy and takes turns more graciously, Sax notes. Girls generally play in relatively small groups and usually prioritize the group and cooperation over individual satisfaction, Sax adds.
Many of these differences may be explained by the different treatment they receive from parents and other caregivers. A boy encouraged to be more aggressive is likely going to be more self-concerned, whereas a girl encouraged to serve her teddy bears and baby dolls tea and crumpets is more concerned with keeping the group happy, Shere says. While society is moving toward a more gender-neutral parenting style, it's still uncommon for parents to encourage their boys to play with dolls or host an imaginary tea party. When they do, she says, the inherent differences between boys and girls come through still, suggesting you can't escape DNA entirely. Boys will play with dolls in more aggressive ways – arresting them or readying them for combat. On the flip side, girls who are encouraged to play with trucks and blocks, build hospitals and rescue people.