by Leslie Klipsch
Gender 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.
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.