Gender Differences in Babies and Toddlers

'Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails' May Have Some Validity

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For many years no one questioned that significant differences existed between male and female. Little girls were sugar and spice, while little boys had to make do with "snips and snails and puppy dog tails." That was before the cultural upheaval of the 1960's, however, when we rethought a lot of our cultural assumptions.

For a good while after the 1960's, experts said that gender differences were largely created by culture rather than being tied to X and Y chromosomes.

Recent years have seen the pendulum make a move in the opposite direction, with the publication of books and research studies that claim innate differences between boys and girls, other than the obvious physical one.

Still, cultural pressures are clearly at work. Parents and grandparents are more likely to respond positively to behavior that they see as gender-appropriate, and that approval naturally reinforces certain behaviors. Researchers have found that adults interact differently with babies depending upon whether they are told they are boys or girls, regardless of the actual genders. Even highly trained researchers have to be careful about gender bias in reporting results.

If you have had the chance to observe children of both genders, chances are that you've noticed those differences in your infants and toddlers. If you're lucky enough to observe twins or multiples of different genders, you've had your own little laboratory for observation.

What Researchers Say

Here are some that researchers have documented. Needless to say, these are generalities that will not be true of all individuals. Most of these conclusions are supported by multiple studies.

Boys are:

  • On average, taller, bigger, and with larger heads
  • More physical and rambunctious
  • Better at gross motor skills (after walking about the same time as girls)
  • More interested in mechanical movement and quicker to understand the rules of motion
  • More likely to take risks
  • More likely to visit the emergency room
  • More likely to be diagnosed or misdiagnosed with an attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder
  • More likely to be considered unruly and to be labeled with a conduct disorder
  • More interested in mechanical movement
  • Less acute of hearing, especially in the frequencies of human speech
  • Slower to talk and to build vocabulary.

Girls are:

  • More likely to hold eye contact
  • More adept at anything requiring fine motor skills
  • More interested in human faces and more likely to imitate other humans
  • More compliant with adults
  • More interested in human speech
  • Earlier to understand speech
  • Better at understanding non-verbal cues
  • Earlier talkers, although boys catch up around age 2 ½
  • More fearful.

Along with these fairly important differences are a couple of interesting ones: Girls are more likely to use a variety of colors in their artwork, while boys are often happy with neutrals. Also, boys may be team players from the very beginning. When looking at pictures of people, boys prefer group pictures to individual ones.

It's also important to realize that observing actions will only take you so far.

Although humans tend to stereotype girls as more emotional, as infants boys demonstrate more volatility of emotion. And, as they grown, boys may not demonstrate the emotional upset that they may be feeling. One study that measured frustration through heart rate and respiration found that boys were just as distressed as girls even when they appeared calm. Other studies have shown that temper tantrums or meltdowns occur equally often in boys and girls, but girls may be better at self-soothing or distracting themselves.

What This Means for Parents and Grandparents

The bottom line is that understanding gender differences can make you a better grandparent. You may be more tolerant when your son or grandson acts as if he didn’t hear you — he probably didn’t — and more understanding when your daughter or granddaughter is frightened of the toilet flushing.

On the other hand, you'll need to be wary of gender-typing — that is, expecting and even rewarding one type of behavior for girls and one for boys. Many parents are striving hard not to limit their children to traditional expectations that are tied to gender. 

Rowdy granddaughters and sedate grandsons are well within normal gender variations and are no cause for worry. The best parenting and grandparenting practices focus on grandchildren as individuals.