Parents often wonder why their children behave the way that they do. Some parents blessed with a 'matched set' - a boy and a girl, may be particularly curious about why their son(s) and daughter(s) behave differently.
Defining clear differences between male and female children is a complex exercise because each child is an individual.
Personalities and individuality notwithstanding, recent studies have shown that there are, indeed, some differences between the way the brains of boys and girls are wired. That might help to explain the differences in behaviour often noted by educators and parents.
Is that all there is to the topic? A few differently-connected synapses and hormone levels?
This Superprof post lifts the covers on child behaviour and gives some insight into the world of childhood and for educators who work with the different genders.
New Findings on Gender Differences
Not terribly long ago - right around the time Boy George made his case for androgyny, many psychologists believed that changing the way we raised children (i.e. by eliminating established stereotypes) would lead to more uniform behaviour between the two sexes. They didn't just believe it, they advocated for it.
As recently as the 1980s, gender differences were often chalked down to artificial constructs of society.
However, through ongoing research, the scientific community has at least partially debunked this theory. A report published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that behaviour and personality traits generally broke along gender lines (in university-aged and adult subjects) across a multitude of cultures.
Some 26 distinct cultures were analysed during this study, including those from the USA and various countries in Europe and across Asia.
According to that study, women valued themselves more on the 'agreeableness' and 'openness to feelings' scales while men rated themselves higher in qualities such as assertiveness. Interestingly - and diametrically opposed to the social construct theory mentioned above, these and other gender differences were most strongly reported in the American and European cultures, in which traditional gender roles are minimised.
In younger populations, science points further to clearly defined differences.
In his report, Gender Differences in Personality: a Meta-Analysis, Alan Feingold notes some of these differences: girls put higher demands on themselves, for instance, and they are more critical of themselves and with their work.
They also obtain better marks across the spectrum of school subjects, in all age groups. Despite this fact, girls are generally less confident about their abilities and boys usually have higher self-esteem.
In an interesting report published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Eva Pomerantz notes: “girls are more vulnerable to internal distress than boys… girls doing poorly in school were the most vulnerable to internal distress. However, even girls doing well in school were more vulnerable than boys were.”
By contrast, boys often overestimated their achievements. The report noted that, while girls tend to take failure more seriously (i.e. poor marks mean that they have disappointed parents), boys often see the problem as being limited to the particular topic/subject they have failed.
Female students tend to generalise failure, relating a poor result to their general academic abilities regardless of how academically accomplished they are.
Where the Nature v. Nurture Debate Fits In
The debate rages on about how much of our psychological makeup is influenced by our environment and how much is actually the way we're made. A particularly dramatic instance of how environmental factors impact a child's ability to thrive in infancy is the sad plight of Romanian orphans.
The story exploded onto the global consciousness in October 1990, after an American television show reported its investigative findings. Children, deprived of even basic human contact and left to lie abed suffered from severe delays in their cognitive development. Some could not even feed themselves.
The orphanages made no distinctions between genders. All children, male and female, routinely had their heads shaved. They were usually left unclothed and, when bathed, were often bathed three or four at the same time. Because the children were routinely abused, as they grew older, they turned into abusers - no matter if they were a boy or a girl.
The Romanian Orphans case remains today the most extreme example of nurture - or, in this case, the lack thereof, and it's effects on child development.
Unfortunately, we need not look so far back in time for another pervasive example of (a lack of) nurturing impacting development.
The prevalence of smartphones and all of the fun to be had on them has given rise to legions of disconnected parents - those whose phones are apparently more interesting and engaging than their children.
In these instances, though, the way children respond depends on whether they are male or female. For girls, their parents' distraction reinforces their innate feelings of low self-worth while boys would be more liable to act out, thus securing for themselves some parental attention, even if it's the negative kind.
The difference between those orphans and children in modern society is that today's kids have been treated to at least some gender affirmation, if only passively, since birth.
Girls wear dresses and boys wear trousers. Girls toys tend to be packaged all pink and glittery; boys' toys tend to have more masculine themes. Girls wear their hair long and boys... usually don't. These distinctions can be seen everywhere - on the telly, on street adverts and in the way people act/respond to/treat any child of a given gender.
"Och, you're quite the bruiser!" one might say about a male toddler, which alludes to his physical qualities and disregards any mental/emotional capacity. Contrast that with "Ooh! Look at how sweet she is!" - a frequent response to the sight of a ribbon-bedecked little girl. Such a comment suggests her temperament and psychological makeup are agreeable while relating nothing about her mental powers or physical abilities.
As we mentioned before, previous studies have proven that such passive gender reinforcements have little to do with how males' and females' brains are wired - the nature part of the equation. However, they have a great deal of impact on how our children come to believe they should operate in society.
That's the nurture part that we can - and should all do something about.
The Need for Differentiated Approaches
Parents and educators are coming to a growing awareness that something needs to change. Teachers, especially, realise that they may benefit from varying their teaching strategies to boost a child’s grades. Girls may benefit from greater support and acceptance so that they can internalise that failure at one attempt is no reflection on their general ability.
Boys, on the other hand, may benefit from less permissiveness - that 'boys will be boys' attitude. Furthermore, helping them redefine their attitude from 'sure win' to 'work harder' is vital. In essence, they need to learn that all of their confidence will have little value if, in the long run, their grades do not reflect the abilities they profess to have.
In other words, they also need to make a greater effort in class and cultivate more effective work and study skills.
Additional differences which have been observed between boys and girls include boys’ preference for physical activities - the 'little bruiser' trope. Psychologists at Cambridge University have noted that boys actually prefer to view mechanical (rather than human) motion; they also tend to intuit and/or devise mechanical solutions faster rate than girls. Nature? Nurture?
How likely is it that daughters are invited into Dad's workshop, as sons often are? Wouldn't it stand to reason that if young females gained such exposure, that they too might become more mechanically inclined?
Boys are said to be more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour and less likely to be fearful of loud noises or stimuli. How much of that is due to boys being encouraged to take risks while still toddlers - something girls are generally discouraged from doing, is not known.
On a rather interesting note - as if all of this weren't already interesting enough, scientists have observed that, in adolescence, the connections between the emotional and language centres of the brain in girls result in more developed language, reasoning and reflection abilities. This process occurs later in boys, which could be one of the reasons for their greater physicality.
On the other hand, consider that, from a young age, girls are often encouraged to sit quietly and entertain themselves while boys are more often praised for engaging in physical activity. How much of this aspect of brain development is attributable to nature and how much is due to nurturing?
Can Gender Differences Wholly Explain Behaviour?
The difference in physicality mentioned above can manifest itself in more ways than the academic one – i.e. boys may be less vocal in expressing their concerns, frustrations or happiness but they get into physical fights more often. They also tend to resolve conflicts quicker.
Girls, who already have the jump on communication and the ability to define their thoughts and feelings more concisely, may take longer to think things over before talking an issue out or letting it go. They are also more likely to need to talk their thoughts through - maybe with a friend or school counsellor before any steps can be taken toward conflict resolution.
Another area of difference that manifests often in the classroom is girls' penchant for thoughtful, considered replies. Generally speaking, that is a good quality to develop; unfortunately, in our fast-moving curriculum, teachers and students both need to think quickly. Boys' penchant for blurting out answers - whether they're unsure of correctness or not, fits the male profile of assertion and establishing dominance and works well to keep the lessons moving.
Their tendency to disrupt class more often does not, though.
Here again, differentiated teaching and effective classroom management can solve many such mini-crises as they arise. By grouping students of varying academic and personal strengths together and adopting student-led instruction initiatives, you will pave the way for a positive learning experience for all.
A Quick Look at Matriarchal Societies
Despite Finland recently making headlines for being governed by females under 30, overwhelmingly, every country on the planet is patriarchal - led and/or influenced by males. Still, within those countries exist societies led by women.
These matriarchal societies have vastly different personality profiles for males and females.
From a young age, females are encouraged to be assertive and adventurous. They are imbued with a sense of responsibility toward their values and mores and are more prone to reasoning conflicts out than allowing belligerence to rule the day.
Males in such societies do not necessarily play a lesser role; their functions are seen as vital to the continuation of the society and, while their input might not have as much weight in government or legal matters, it nevertheless does.
In matriarchies, female children are trained to assume leadership roles from an early age. They are also indoctrinated in their legends and lore; they are responsible for seeing the continuation of traditions and the establishment of new ones.
Here again, we see how the difference in nurturing and one's early-life conditioning can help shape future actions and capabilities - indeed, one's entire self-perception.
The Need to be Wary of Discrimination
It is important to note that gender disparities are strongest in primary school.
Over the past few decades, during which 'culture wars' - for lack of a better term - have moved to the forefront of political and legislative agendas, gender differences (and, as a whole, gender identification) have intensified.
An interesting article in TIME magazine noted that boys are graded lower than girls, even in subjects such as maths and science, even when their test scores are equal to or higher than those of girls.
If that were all to the story, it would seem a clear-cut case of discrimination against male students... until the article goes on to disclose that teachers assigned boys who behave well in class higher grades than the girls get - even though they scored lower on exams!
That would indicate that boys' behaviour is given out-sized merit, especially when you factor in that those boys who earned lower overall grades despite scoring as well as female students on exams were constant class disruptors. Either way, girls got no more - and no less merit than was warranted.
This focus solely on male students harms everyone. By rewarding boys who behave civilly without according that same privilege to girls - who would likely earn higher marks, teachers send the message that boys matter more and girls are just incidental.
Various studies indicate that more boys than girls have learning disabilities and exhibit problem behaviours. They also generally obtain lower grades than girls in all subjects. Therefore, it is vital for educators to exclude behaviour as a grading criterion and rely solely on the students' performance.
If need be, a separate grade category could be established to reflect students' behaviour in the classroom.
In the same article, the authors make another crucial point: differences within the same sex are far more pronounced than differences across the genders. That suggests that boys with a positive attitude toward learning receive more favourable grading than boys with a less positive attitude but, in general, the grade disparity between boys' and girls' academic performance does not depend on behaviour or attitude.
Therefore, educators should focus less on gender and more on individual children - i.e.: well-behaved boys should not be rewarded unless comparatively-behaved girls will be, too. Moreover, there are many other important considerations educators need to take into account when teaching a group of children. These include learning styles and preferences, different home environments, special educational needs, etc.
How does all of this play out, in the long run?
A report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) analysed the results of students from a number of English Universities. They found a noticeable difference by gender: some 79 per cent of female students who started their undergraduate course studies with AAB in their A-Levels achieved Upper Second Class Honours or higher, compared to 70 per cent of male students.
However, on the upper tiers of honour in academics, things levelled out: 20 per cent of both women and men who obtained those A-Level scores achieved First Class Honours. What conclusions should we draw from those statistics?
Studies into gender psychology, physiology and academic performance have certainly yielded some interesting findings. Do these insights resonate with you? If so, please feel free to tell us what you think via the comments box below.