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:

  • Processing
  • Chemistry
  • Structure
  • Activity

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.

Processing

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.

Chemistry

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.

Structure

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.

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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.

Conclusion

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.

  1. I found your article incredibly interesting. I am more prone to believe that it due to social pressures, gender is defined.
    I have observed this with my great nephews and great nieces. Individuals tend to speak quietly to little girls, treat them gently, encourage play with dolls etc. The opposite with boys. Talk is raucous, playing is more rough, climbing trees is encouraged.
    It is the stereotyping of the colour blue is associated with boys and pink is associated with girls.

    But your article is certainly food for thought, and I will certainly be back for more of your very interesting posts and advice.

    Kind regards

    Renée

    1. Thanks for your comment Renee. I agree that the biggest component is probably others reinforcing stereotypical behaviour. While their are differences at birth, we tend to feed those differences through our own actions which makes something small into a much bigger difference. Absolutely nothing wrong with this approach – the post is meant to spread awareness regarding what may affect children and provide each individual with the choice on how to expand the skillset a child is naturally gifted with.

  2. This post is so well researched and informative.
    I really like the idea of parents encouraging greater development of each gender’s skills by greater verbal interaction for boys and encouraging spatial awareness for girls. We shouldn’t stick to the norms, instead, we should try helping our kids develop more skills.

    1. Thanks – I completely agree. We should all go up to be well rounded regardless of our gender. Hopefully the knowledge of what the base is that a child is working from will encourage parents to supplement with other development.

  3. Gender the way boys and girls are wired as children just to see them interact how they begin to differentiate on who they on and then they grow up and face the social influences all to say that what they are made or is it nature or the nurture that develops the most? In a day and age where this is getting some attention great to see some ground work on the topic with some stimulation for thought woven in there as I read this many things come to mind and just how that topic is being directed in today’s world of toxic masculinity. I have to believe that it is good for children to know and be identified by their gender how they dress as well makes who they are important developmental growth and necessary to this end.

    1. Hi Daniel

      Thanks so much for your opinion. Gender identity is something that I hope to tackle in a later post. I am still looking into how children develop their gender expression but I hope what you can gain from the particular post in some more information into the natural development that occurs due to how children are wired based on their biological gender.

      Tasneem

  4. I have personally found the differences in genders to be astounding just through personal experiences and it is so great to put some science behind these experiences. As you stated, this shouldn’t be something used to be discouraging, but to identify areas that can be improved upon at a young age based on the scientific facts about how the brain develops.

    Such a great read, thank you!

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