GEN­DER DE­BATE

When it comes to boys and girls, how much of their be­hav­iour is na­ture and how much is nur­ture? As RE­BECCA WIL­LIAMSON ex­plains, our par­ent­ing styles play a big­ger role than we re­alise

Little Treasures - - NEWS -

Does your par­ent­ing style have more in­flu­ence than you think?

Gen­der-spe­cific be­hav­iours are pre­dom­i­nantly trig­gered by a child’s par­ents

From the minute our sec­ond daugh­ter was born, the com­ments started rolling in. “Bet­ter start sav­ing now, guys – you’ll have two wed­dings to pay for.” “Get your­self some ear plugs – the scream­ing will drive you crazy.” “Sis­ters so close in age, they’re bound to be trou­ble as teens.” Or the hi­lar­i­ously in­ac­cu­rate, “Girls are so much eas­ier, they just sit qui­etly and draw.” We haven’t quite made it to the wed­ding stage, with them only be­ing two and four years old, but so far these state­ments haven’t rung true. What I do know is that, yes, our life with a house­hold of girls (mi­nus Dad and the dog) can be rather fem­i­nine, with a lot of ban­ter about uni­corns and Justin Bieber over the din­ner ta­ble. Cook­ing uten­sils have dis­ap­peared from my kitchen for their pre­tend bak­ing ever since they could walk. They’re big fans of danc­ing and dress­ing up, but they also get a kick out of play­ing in the mud. Clichés aside, I’m sure many par­ents of boys can re­late – a home steeped in testos­terone no doubt has its own unique day-to-day dy­namic. That’s be­cause there are nat­u­ral, un­con­scious dif­fer­ences in how we par­ents care for our girls and boys from birth, and chil­dren ob­serve mes­sages about gen­der from their par­ents’ ap­pear­ances, man­ner­isms and be­hav­iours right from the get-go. Sarah Whit­combe-dobbs, a child and fam­ily psy­chol­o­gist and lec­turer at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury, says gen­der-spe­cific be­hav­iours are pre­dom­i­nantly trig­gered by a child’s par­ents and care­givers, as op­posed to bi­ol­ogy. For­get the myths that boys are bet­ter at climb­ing and girls are bet­ter talk­ers – it turns out we’re the ones en­abling these stereo­types to emerge in the pre-school years. “There is no clear ev­i­dence that there are con­sis­tent dif­fer­ences be­tween the brains of boys and girls born at full term,” she says. “While there are some dif­fer­ences be­tween girls and boys in terms of their de­vel­op­men­tal av­er­ages, there is much more vari­a­tion be­tween in­di­vid­ual chil­dren. Boys and girls have more in com­mon de­vel­op­men­tally than they do dif­fer­ences – any par­ent of two boys or two girls will tell you that their chil­dren are vastly dif­fer­ent de­spite be­ing of the same sex. “But what we also know is that adults some­times treat chil­dren dif­fer­ently based on whether they think the child is a boy or a girl. Some stud­ies show that more lan­guage is used when in­ter­act­ing with girl in­fants than boy in­fants. Words like ‘strong’ are used to de­scribe boys more of­ten, and they’re praised more for their gross mo­tor skills. Girls are more likely to be praised or re­in­forced for en­gag­ing in stereo­typed ‘girly’ ac­tiv­i­ties. These dif­fer­ences in re­sponses by adults are likely to shape how chil­dren be­have, just as much as chil­dren have dif­fer­ent pref­er­ences for play ac­tiv­i­ties.” When it comes to par­ent­ing our young ones, it’s wise to be wary of en­cour­ag­ing cer­tain types of be­hav­iour over oth­ers or un­con­sciously lim­it­ing play ex­pe­ri­ences based on their gen­der.

Fam­i­lies with both

As a mother of two boys and two girls, Whit­combe-dobbs wants to make it crys­tal clear that all chil­dren are in­di­vid­u­als, ir­re­spec­tive of gen­der. But there are cer­tain nat­u­ral dif­fer­ences be­tween boys and girls that par­ents should be aware of to avoid fall­ing into stereo­typ­i­cal traps. “We do know that the preva­lence of boys with ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour is higher than girls, and the preva­lence of girls with anx­i­ety and de­pres­sion is higher than boys. This is par­tic­u­larly true for chil­dren as they move into their teenage years,” she says. “For this rea­son, it’s im­por­tant to chal­lenge im­plicit be­liefs such as ‘boys will be boys’, or ‘girls should al­ways be quiet’. Teach­ers can some­times be more re­spon­sive to a girl act­ing ag­gres­sively than to a boy act­ing ag­gres­sively, be­cause it’s seen as nor­mal for boys. Or more sym­pa­thy is shown to a girl who is hit or hurts her­self on the play­ground than there is for a boy.” Sim­i­larly, a com­mon per­cep­tion Whit­combe-dobbs has en­coun­tered is that it is nor­mal for boys to have poorer hand­writ­ing than girls. This may mean that both par­ents and teach­ers ac­cept a lower aca­demic stan­dard, which has con­se­quences later in life, for ex­am­ple, when boys sit NCEA ex­ams. The same goes for girls and math­e­mat­ics – it’s a myth that boys are nat­u­rally bet­ter at maths than girls, and this can ul­ti­mately in­flu­ence a girl’s per­for­mance in the sub­ject and, in turn, her ca­reer choice. “For girls, it can be seen as less usual for them to en­gage in rough games or put them­selves for­ward for lead­er­ship po­si­tions. Just like for boys in other ar­eas, this can have un­in­tended con­se­quences, with girls’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in sports de­creas­ing in their teenage years, de­spite its ben­e­fits for con­fi­dence and self-es­teem. We need to ad­vo­cate for our chil­dren to de­velop to their full po­ten­tial and get the en­cour­age­ment and sup­port they need, re­gard­less of gen­der.” Palmer­ston North mum-of-two Alice Miles shares this phi­los­o­phy. Her daugh­ter An­nie, three, and son Tom, 17 months, have sim­i­lar in­ter­ests and play to­gether well. Alice and hus­band Dave fo­cus on what ig­nites the fire in each child. “I think you have to try to ex­pose them to as much as you can and be aware of their na­ture and in­ter­ests,” says Alice. “The great­est thing about hav­ing a son for me is the af­fec­tion, while I love watch­ing my daugh­ter grow up with her dad. He loves tak­ing her out and is con­stantly telling her she’s strong, beau­ti­ful and smart. It makes me feel con­fi­dent that she’ll grow up with a pos­i­tive self-im­age and will have high ex­pec­ta­tions for any male who is in her fu­ture.”

It’s im­por­tant to chal­lenge im­plicit be­liefs such as ‘boys will be boys’, or ‘girls should al­ways be quiet’

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