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Gender Differences in Children: Inborn or Learned?

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To paraphrase Shakespeare, some gender differences are inborn, some are acquired, and still others are thrust upon us. Some gender differences do seem to be sex linked. Girls, on the average, talk earlier than boys and are generally more verbal. Boys are more likely than girls to engage in aggressive play. While girls seem to socialize on the basis of personality and appearance, boys tend to socialize around activities, mainly sports. Although both boys and girls are comparable in over-all intelligence, boys on average do better on tests of spatial ability and girls on tests of verbal facility. It must be remembered that these are not absolute but overlapping differences so that some boys may have exceptional verbal skills and some girls have really extraordinary spatial abilities.

Other sex differences seem to be acquired rather than innate. Differences in mathematical and scientific aptitude appear, in part at least, attributable to traditional child rearing practices. Despite the efforts of the Women’s movement, gender differences are socially marked at birth. Girls are dressed in pink, boys in blue. Girls are given dolls, while boys are given blocks and Lego. One consequence is that boys have more experience with combining and taking apart units than do girls. This early unit experience may well account for why boys, on the average, do better than girls on math tests. Contrariwise, doll play may well enhance girl’s social and caring skills while these are less developed in boys. Strong innate ability or counter-culture parenting practices help explain why some women are powerful mathematicians while some men are superb nurses. Again while there are overall differences, they are overlapping and far from absolute.

Last of all are those gender differences which are thrust upon us. First and foremost among these is the socially constructed, and historically recent, cult of thinness for women. Particularly today, with the power of the mass media, the ideal of female thinness is as virulent in small towns in the west as it is in the big cities of the east and west. Some eighty percent of college women are on one or another diet, least often prescribed by a doctor and most often taken from a book or a magazine article. Likewise, and though it has abated a bit, is the cult of the Macho male. Our movies and TV series are still dominated by the stereotype of the strong male hero ala Rambo, Indiana Jones, or Batman.

Gender differences are important, but they should not blind us to the character traits of kindness, fairness and generosity which are not sex linked, and which are the ones that make us truly human.

By Professor David Elkind. Renowned child psychologist David Elkind Ph.D. shares his experiences, opinions and insights on children’s perceptual, cognitive and social development. Read his blog to learn more about how early experiences in infant development impact growth into adulthood, and how you can support your child’s healthy development every step of the way.

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