How Does Gender Affect the Development of a Child?
With infants, the only concept of gender we have is of biological gender. The way they express their gender tends to develop over time and is generally a function of a child beginning to gravitate towards activities and toys that they are interested in.
Children are therefore gender flexible in the early stages of childhood development, at least before the age of 2, and the expression of their gender is not generally a contributing factor to differences in development. Their biological gender, however, may well play into differences in development.
Biological Gender Influences on Early Development
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus – right? While the book written by John Gray with this title purports to discussing the origin of common relationship problems, the cause of the issues he deliberates on is stated to be due to fundamental psychological differences between the genders.
According to neuroscience the male and female brains are not identical and electrical measurements reveal differences in the brain from birth. Male brains tend to operate more independently during specific mental tasks while for the same tasks females will use both cerebral hemispheres more equally. Another difference, even after correcting for differences in body size, is that males across all ages tend to have slightly larger brains than their female counterparts.
The effects of the differences in brain chemistry appear as early as 3 months with the genders responding differently to the sound of human speech. The earliness of the different response to external stimuli suggests that such differences are likely a by-product of sex-related genes and hormones. What we know is that testosterone affects the growth and survival of neurons in many parts of the brain. The rise in levels of testosterone in male foetuses occurs as early as seven weeks of gestation. The effect of female sex hormones is not currently well understood but they may also play a part in shaping early brain development.
Scientists have studied 4 main areas of difference in the male and female brain which commonly occur around the globe. These are:
The above are generalised differences as there are exceptions in the biological gender divide which indicate that there is likely not a single path of doing things better or worse.
You may have noticed that girls tend to transition quicker between tasks than their male counterparts. This is due to the differences in how they use their brain.
First, we need to understand two concepts: Gray Matter and White Matter.
Gray Matter areas of the brain are information and action processing centres which are localised in specific splotches in a specific area of the brain.
White Matter is essentially a relay messaging system of tissue which networks in a grid though the different areas of Gray Matter in the brain. This system therefore connects the different processing centres with one another.
The differentiation between these terms is quite important as male brains tend to use nearly seven times more Gray Matter than females, while females tend to use nearly ten times more White Matter than males.
For males, the above tends to translate into a kind of tunnel vision where, once they are deeply engaged in a task, they may not demonstrate much sensitivity to other people or awareness of their surroundings.
This also may be the reason why adult females are great multitaskers while males excel at highly task-focused projects later in life.
The neurochemicals that are processed are the same in both genders but are processed to a different degree in each gender. Dominant neurochemicals such as testosterone (our sex and aggression chemical), oestrogen (female growth and reproductive chemical), serotonin (the happy chemical which contributes to wellbeing and happiness), and oxytocin (a bonding-relationship chemical) all play a role in the body and brain connections.
The processing differences in the neurochemicals displays as differences in how physically impulsive and aggressive males are as compared to females and the ability of a female to sit still for longer than a male.
Different strategies for stress relief will likely be required for females versus males as a consequence of the chemical differences.
While a foetus is in gestation, the brain hemispheres of males and females tend to develop slightly differently with the overall right and left hemisphere setup being different.
The female brain will have verbal centres on both hemispheres while the male will have the verbal centre only set up on their left hemisphere. Females also have a larger hippocampus, i.e. the memory centre, and will have a higher density of neural connections into the hippocampus.
What this means is that females can absorb more sensorial and emotive information though all five of their senses. Females will therefore tend to sense a lot more of what is going on around them.
Another noticeable difference will be in how females describe and discuss things, using far more words than males, and they are likely to display more interest in talking about things.
Blood Flow and Brain Activity
Due to the differences in brain setup and the increased white matter processing which allows increased natural blood flow throughout the brain (and a higher blood flow in a concentrated part of the brain), females tend to revisit and ruminate on previous emotional memories more than males.
For a male, reflecting on an emotive memory will likely be brief and after analysing it they will move onto the next task. This gives the impression of boys avoiding feelings and moving into solution mode too quickly.
Cognitive Development in Early Childhood
The above is only some of the differences – scientists have discovered nearly 100 gender differences which cause males and females to think differently. These differences all play a role in the development stages of boys and girls.
Translating all the above brain development differences, what you are likely to see in regard to early stage develop is the following:
Female infants will likely be more attune to interaction – they’ll have a more acute response to faces or voices and be more sensitive to another infants cry – crying in response quite vigorously. They will likely be ahead of their male counterparts in speech and language development as well.
Because they are able to absorb more sensorial and emotive information from external stimuli, they are also likely to be more advanced regarding fine motor skills’ development and development of their vision, hearing, memory, smell, and touch.
The boys will however catch-up in many of these areas and will generally outperform females from about the age of three in spatial integration, i.e. the ability to assemble a puzzle, certain types of hand-eye coordination and the ability to visualize objects from different angles.
At all ages, however, on average females will be ahead of their male counterparts in verbal communication and emotive expression.
Nature vs Nurture
Not all children will conform to the norm. There are many girls with excellent visual-spatial abilities and boys with fantastic verbal communication skills. Understanding the different tendencies is only helpful to parents as a guide to development timelines but should not be considered a definitive rule book.
The x-factor in development tends to be experiences that a child undergoes. Initial strengths tend to be magnified in typical attitudes towards activities – a boy might gravitate towards activities which expand on his visual-spatial skills’ such as climbing a tree, while a girl might gravitate towards activities which encourage interaction such as playing with dolls and with other kids thereby expanding on their verbal and social skills.
Participating in gender stereotypical activities will play into the expanding brain functions which exist during early childhood development. This will act as a magnifier for naturally occurring differences, changing the small differences into those that are much more significant.
The extraordinary flexibility of a child’s brain during these early stages allows for a fantastic opportunity to compensate for natural tendencies in the genders.
Verbal interaction is encouraged during early development to stimulate speech and language skills. Knowing the nature of cognitive development tendencies within a boy may promote a proactive parent to engage a boy in greater verbal interaction – more talking, reading and singing to encourage greater development of his skills.
In contrast, a parent could spend additional time developing spatial awareness with a girl by engaging her in problem-solving activities like putting together a puzzle or building a tower.
While there are differences in the brain chemistry and make-up of the sexes which play into natural developmental tendencies, understanding these differences should not be used to discourage natural gender-typical play. It should rather be used to supplement natural inclinations with activities and experiences that will help your little one develop a broad-spectrum competency capability.