Boys, Girls...Different from Birth?

by Leslie Klipsch

toddlers on a garden benchGender difference is a hot topic today. With a lot of attention surrounding single-sex education and gender neutral toys, it is a subject that seems to fascinate everyone.

As soon-to-be parents, the issue is especially interesting and urgent. We cannot help but daydream about ruffles and dolls, or balls and bats. We try to decipher the cryptic codes of pregnancy in order to determine the gender of the baby brewing inside before it makes its debut, either in an ultrasound or on its birth day. (We know the tales: extra meatball sandwiches equals hearty boy; extra pimples equals lovely girl.) Our expectations are loaded and everything from the color of the nursery to the books we buy is influenced by chance and a single chromosome.

What Are Your Expectations of Gender?

As you prepare the nursery and test drive strollers, it may be wise to also spend time reflecting on your attitude regarding gender and how it might impact your parenting experience. Think about the following and analyze your response to each question...

• Have you grown up believing that girls are "difficult"? Where did this idea come from? Were you told that you were difficult yourself?

• Do you subscribe to the theory that "boys will be boys"? How have you seen this attitude played out?

•  What are your expectations for your offspring as a toddler, a teenager, an adult? Examine these notions .where do you think they stem from? Are they fair?

• How will you respond to the behavior that is most typically shown to baby boys versus baby girls? Would you be comfortable giving your son a doll to play with? Your daughter a toy truck? Is such distinction important to you?

• Revisit these questions as your child grows and take an honest look at how your attitude and behavior influences your son or daughter.

Teachers, pediatricians, and veteran parents alike will tell you that boys and girls play differently, speak differently, and react emotionally to situations differently. But the question remains...why?

The difference between the genders has been studied for decades and though there are definite gender-based neurological differences in the brains of newborns (babies are born with brains that are distinctly male or female), it is difficult to make a connection between that and behavior in infants. Not many parents are willing to subject their young ones to an MRI for research purposes, nor are scientists eager to suggest such a thing. However, there is tremendous value in studying gender differences within the brain, even in utero.

Dr. Margaret McCarthy, a professor of physiology at the University of Maryland, researches brain development by using an animal model to study the basic cellular mechanisms that determine how boy brains and girl brains become different in utero. Part of the reason she is drawn to this sort of research is because of her interest in the etiology of mental illness.

When you look at your relative risk of developing a mental illness or a neurological disorder, your gender is a very strong predictor of that risk.

Though the brain of a boy and girl start out the same, we know that during the second and third trimesters, they become different as a result of exposure to hormones, such as testosterone. In fact, according to Dr. McCarthy, a newborn male has the testosterone equivalent to a 25-year-old adult. However, when it comes to behavior and the make up of the brain, Dr. McCarthy says a confident connection cannot be made between the emotional reaction of infants and what the hormones are doing.

There is good reason to believe that the hormones are having an impact on that. There certainly are studies in children as young as 3-5 years old that show that their problem solving strategies are different and their emotional responses are also varied.

While she believes it is important to recognize that these biological differences are important, we should also keep in mind environmental factors. Babies are little sponges and they are having a different experience in life already, based on the way other individuals are interacting with them.

A much-cited study done in the 1970s by psychologist Phyllis Katz called the "Baby X" experiment exemplifies how the way we treat children, even infants, influences their behavior and shapes who they are. In her study, adult subjects were brought into a room to interact with a baby dressed in yellow. Some adults were told the infant was a girl while others were told the infant was a boy. The way they interacted with the children and the toys they selected for the child differed greatly in response to the identified gender.

Sara Sladoje, a mother of two with a master's degree in child development, has witnessed this sort of phenomenon first hand. She remembers introducing her newborn son, who is now 3½, to a friend. The friend's response was, "You're tough! What a tough guy!" She now has a three-month-old daughter who she observes is more often greeted with coos from admirers saying, "What a beautiful girl" or "What a pretty girl." She feels it is much more important for people (and parents) to feel they are acknowledging beauty in a girl and strength in a boy.

Sladoje believes that even if you find studies that support certain biological differences, it is important to remember that the environment is just as big of a factor, if not more so, in how much that biology is going to be expressed. As a parent, when you look at raising your boy baby or raising your girl baby, one of the most important things to look at is really yourself and your reaction to how you feel about a boy or a girl, and knowing that your behavior is going to influence them and their acting in a certain way. That's much more of a predictor of their gender identity than biology is.

With this knowledge, Sladoje is conscious in her own parenting of how she speaks to her children and the toys she surrounds them with. She provides her daughter with toys that encourage good spatial skills, which relate to math skills, an area that girls have traditionally not done as well in. She also does not want her daughter to get wrapped up in the more conventional "girl" toys that focus on looks and appearances, something our culture emphasizes in women. In her son, she tries to encourage the development of language skills, countering the notion that boys are not as verbal as girls.

Research abounds in the subject of gender differences. And although new parents can be overwhelmed by all of the advice and information available, the relationship between biology, the choices you make as a parent, and your child's behavior may be something to explore. It is obvious that no parent is perfect, but by being prepared and intentional in your thoughts and actions you may find that you will have a more rewarding experience.

About the author: Leslie Klipsch is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer. Before joining the ranks of motherhood, she taught high school English. She, her husband, and their eight-month-old son live in Chicago.

Copyright © Leslie Klipsch. Permission to republish retained by Pregnancy.org, LLC