I Can Be A Progressive Parent And Recognize The Biological Differences Between Boys And Girls

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
differences between boys and girls
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My sons have a weaponry box. It contains a near-innumerable amount of swords, guns, light sabers, axes, flails, and something called “pirate swords.” They use these weapons to beat each other, mostly weapon-on-weapon, sometimes weapon-on-forehead. When my aunt, unaccustomed to small children, came to visit, she was greeted with beatings and sword-fighting and Tom Cruise-worthy couch jumping. She started looking up hotels immediately.

“What, did she think they were going to sit and color peacefully?” I asked my husband. “My sister and I did, and I guess that’s the last time she was around little kids. Did she think they’d act like girls?”

I wasn’t trying to be sexist. I know girls can play with swords. Girls can beat people and scream and jump off the couch. Girls can play football. Girls do not have to wear dresses, or play with dolls, or paint their nails. I welcome my sons making these choices for themselves too, but the 1970s and ’80s conspired to tell us that since boys and girls could both wear pink and play football, they were essentially the same thing. That is, all the differences between boys and girls came from parenting.

This is not true.

You probably thought it was true. I thought it was true. I was careful to buy my sons dolls and stuffed animals. But the dolls were never played with. At most, the boys carted them around by their ankles and used them to fill chinks in the walls of their forts. They don’t want to nurture pretend babies even though their father nurtures them, even though they’re caring and sweet. They’d still sooner throw a doll across the room than give it a bottle. My godson is the same way. So is almost every other little boy I know — all raised by liberals who wouldn’t bat an eye if their son wanted to wear a dress. These are anecdotes, I know, but science also agrees.

According to Live Science, the majority of scientists believe that differences between the male and female brains are innate. “We do socialize our boys and girls differently, but the contribution of biology is not zero,” according to Diane Halpern, a professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California. She should know — she’s been studying gender cognition for 25 years. One study suggests that male brains are wired for motor skills (we parents call that “beating each other”) and female brains are wired in a way that combines analytical and intuitive thinking (for say, drawing).

This isn’t to say that boys can’t be good at drawing. My 3-year-old draws for hours. It isn’t to say that girls can’t be good at beating each other. I broke my sister’s finger when I was 8 years old. But on the whole, these tendencies help shape the way children behave.

Another study supports the much-vaunted claim that women have better verbal memory and social cognition, while men tend to have more developed motor and spatial skills. That’s why boys tend to talk later than girls, and in later years, girls are more likely to be chatterboxes than boys. Everyone knows the little girl who won’t stop talking, and everyone knows the little boy who communicates only in grunts. My boys all went through that phase.

Girls are also better at reading other people’s emotions, says What to Expect. After checking out over 100 studies, researchers found that “girls are better at figuring out people’s emotions based on their facial expressions.” That could be a reason girls are seen as better-behaved than boys — they read their caregivers’ emotions more easily and therefore take instructions seriously. Boys, who don’t read emotion as well, don’t pick up that, yes, you really freaking mean it this time. Again, this is just generalization — sometimes my boys listen, and sometimes they don’t. I know girls who are hellions and boys who are meek and mild. But on the whole, according to NEA Today, “At every grade, from kindergarten on, girls have better social and behavioral skills than boys, and they earn better grades.” Some of this is social. Some of this is biological.

Yes, we parent boys differently. We’re more likely to give them a football than a doll and to expect misbehavior. But in the end, little boys are biologically different from little girls. My sons want to watch Dinotrux and Dinosaur Train, not My Little Pony. And it’s not for lack of trying. They just…don’t like it. They’re more likely to beat people than draw people, and every little girl I know is much better at reading emotion than they are. I thought we’d done something wrong. We hadn’t. Biology kicked in.

So progressive, socially conscious parents can stop feeling guilty that their sons bash their baby dolls against the wall, and their daughters put their toy trucks to bed. We can give them all swords and princess dresses. But in the end, the boys will probably pick the swords, and the girls will probably pick the dresses. It’s biology. And that’s okay.

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