The Truth about Boys and Girls

What prompts boys to play with trucks and girls to play with dolls? We sort out the latest thinking to help you raise an exceptional child.

Recent brain research seems to explain why "boys will be boys" and "girls will be girls." Does this mean our kids are destined to play out gender roles, or do we ultimately have influence over their choices of toys, clothes and activities?

When I found out that I was going to have a little girl, I did something that, frankly, is a little embarrassing given my profession. I ran out to buy a frilly dress with matching hat and booties. Secretly, I was so happy to be having a girl because of the clothes, the dolls, the shopping we would do.

But as an anthropologist immersed in the study of how people connect to their culture and environment, my behavior was a bit surprising. After all, my research caused me to veer away from boy/girl stereotypes and embrace gender-neutral rules of parenting-that boys can wear dresses if they want, that girls should play with trucks-because that's how children reach their unique potential. Even so, I gave in to many girly stereotypes when my daughter was on the way, painting her room peach and lining up dolls in their fluffy dresses. Was I wrong to treat my daughter like a-girl? Just how much can parents influence their kids to follow the straight and narrow, or the winding road, where gender identity is concerned?

I now realize that my actions were perfectly fine, because I have little control over how my daughter will ultimately self-identify when it comes to gender. Underlying some anxieties parents have when it comes to gender differences is the fear that if they do it "wrong," they could affect their child's sexual orientation. Relax: You don't have that power. Letting your son try on a tutu won't influence his future proclivities. Like gender identity, sexual orientation appears to be biologically determined, according to gender expert Helen Friedman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice and an associate clinical professor in the Department of Community and Family Medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine.

What we can do as our kids develop is give them space to explore different roles and decide what fits best. We can also model respect for differences when we see a boy play with a doll or a girl dress like a construction worker, so our own children can observe this without feeling the need to make fun of a twist on what is "supposed" to be. But even as we embrace gender variety, we need to understand how our kids' natural tendencies are formed and shaped.

Vive la Difference

Recent science shows that gender differences beyond obvious physical ones are evident from birth and give way to real variations in boy and girl thinking and behavior. These variations can intensify during the school years, when the majority of kids self-select to identify with their girl or boy peers. Yet it's clear that not every child sticks to the stereotypes: Some girls are into sports, some boys wants to draw and read, and some kids realize that they're gay and will never follow most gender rules. I saw the young sons of some friends of mine routinely paint their nails with glittery polish and dress up in glam clothes, yet once in school both self-identified as boys.

Because their parents sat back and simply watched as their kids crossed traditional gender lines, the kids didn't feel pressure to conform but were free to explore individuality.

Yet society was once content to let girls believe they weren't as smart as boys and women that they were too emotional to handle a corner-office career. Boys, meanwhile, were told not to cry and that they'd better get a decent job when they grew up. But during the politically and socially turbulent 1970s, gender rules and roles were blasted apart, and parents began to question their value and origin. Certainly there are physical differences-how else could humans make more humans-but did this mean male and female brains were also different? The subsequent research indicates that, yes, children's brains seem to push them into categories from birth.

By Meredith F. Small, Phd, Photo by John-Francis Bourke

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