The Difference Between Boys & Girls
By Richard Laliberte
The Gender Game
Parents have heard it for decades: Boys play with guns and girls play with dolls because society
brainwashes them into rigid sex roles. Oh, really? Anyone who's raised both boys and girls can
tell you how different they seem from the get-go -- and there's not much you can do about it.
When my wife and I wouldn't give our son a toy weapon to play with, he made swords out of
fence slats and guns out of Tinkertoys. Our daughter, by contrast, was always too busy managing
the intricate social world of toy animals to have the slightest interest in hunting for anything.
Was this subconsciously our fault?
Probably not. Sure, parents can condition kids without realizing it -- cooing and talking more to
baby girls, for instance, or roughhousing more with boys. But a growing body of research
suggests that something deeper is at work. High-tech scans, for example, show that in both boys
and girls, certain areas of the brain are bigger or busier than in the opposite sex. In the womb,
these areas of the brain get higher doses of certain hormones, suggesting that girls and boys start
with natural tendencies at birth. "There's a strong relationship between differences we see in the
brain and the way children act," asserts Ruben Gur, PhD, director of the brain behavior
laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
As children grow, those inborn sex differences can guide what kids like to learn -- and what gets
reinforced. "Learning itself changes the brain," says Lise Eliot, PhD, assistant professor of
neuroscience at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, in Chicago. When kids
play and think, cells in the most active parts of the brain grow new, livelier connections while
cells that don't get much action are pruned. In other words, gender differences that are present at
birth become even more entrenched.
Such discussions, of course, raise all sorts of concerns and objections. Remember the furor last
year when Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, suggested that the shortage of female
scientists may be, in part, because of innate differences between men and women? Still, it's hard
to argue with science, and evidence is mounting that male and female brains are simply not the
same. Here are the key areas of difference.
One study found that parts of the female brain that process language are more densely packed
with nerve cells than corresponding parts of the male brain. This may explain why girls often
begin talking a few months before boys do and usually have better verbal ability. "Girls string
words together earlier, and their sentences are longer and more complex from preschool on," Dr.
Eliot says. In school, girls generally outperform boys in reading and writing.
The Math Equation
The part of the brain that handles space perception is bigger in males -- and this may explain why
boys are better at thinking about objects in three dimensions. In a French study, for example, 21
percent of 2-year-old boys could build a bridge of blocks, but only 8 percent of girls could.
"Spatial ability is one of the most noticeable sex differences, and it gets more pronounced
through childhood and adolescence," Dr. Eliot says. "In school, boys tend to do better at spatial
subjects such as geometry." Still, boys don't live up to their reputation as math whizzes: Though
more boys score better on math tests than girls do, enough score worse so that, on average,
females come out ahead.
Better 3-D thinking could explain why boys typically start walking three to four months earlier
than girls do and usually outperform them in motor skills such as running and jumping, says Dr.
Gur. However, parts of the brain responsible for fine motor skills mature more slowly in boys, so
girls outpace boys in finger work such as holding a crayon, zipping a jacket, and learning to
write the alphabet.
Girls and Dolls
Better spatial skills also appear to attract boys to toys that move, such as trucks, balls, and
anything that can be propelled through space. It's not just dads pushing guy gear at their sons:
Male monkeys also choose action toys in lab studies, so it appears to be a programmed
preference. Girls, on the other hand, really do prefer dolls (though not as single-mindedly as boys
go for wheels and balls). One reason may be that girls pay more attention to people while boys
are more enthralled with mechanical objects.
The Sensitive Gender
Girls' brains are bigger in an area that interprets events and triggers complicated feelings like
sadness and empathy. Boys' brains are relatively larger in a more primitive area that handles raw,
impulsive emotions like fear and anger. "That may be why girls often get upset at situations that
won't faze a boy," Dr. Gur says -- and why boys can become more riled and aggressive when
they finally do react. This brain-structure difference might also explain why girls are usually
better at predicting other people's feelings. "Girls are more considerate, even by ages 3 to 5," Dr.
Gur says. Boys are more direct and confrontational, yet they don't take verbal -- or physical --
jabs as personally. In some ways, that makes boys better at handling conflict. "When boys fight,
they quickly make up," says Dr. Gur. "Girls remain enemies longer."
Little Men on the Move
By age 2, boys are noticeably more physical than girls: They're more likely to run, jump, and
play rough-and-tumble games and less likely to stand around and chat. Don't misread
roughhousing as aggression, though: Boys who tussle are more likely to be friendly with each
other, says W. George Scarlett, PhD, deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child
Development at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts. In studies of make-believe play,
Dr. Scarlett found that girls tend to act out domestic themes and boys tend to act out death and
destruction. "Boys play at power," he says. "That's why they love superheroes."
The Safer Sex
Because they're sharp analyzers of what goes on around them, girls are better at anticipating the
consequences of their actions -- which keeps them safer but also makes them more cautious than
boys. Boys are more likely to feel exhilarated by danger and overestimate their physical abilities,
while girls are more likely to sell their abilities short. That's why a boy will think it's cool to try
riding a skateboard down a metal stair rail and a girl will think it's crazy.
The Stress Effect
In animal studies, short-term stress improves memory in males but impairs it in females,
suggesting that boys learn better in tense situations such as contests and timed exercises. Female
brains, however, appear to weather long-term stress better, which may make a girl more resilient
during, say, a bitter, dragged-out divorce between her parents. Just as important is what girls and
boys tell themselves about failure. "Elementary-school girls say they failed to solve a math
problem because they lacked ability," says Dr. Scarlett. "Boys say they didn't try hard enough."
Preliminary studies suggest that girls tend to have better hearing than boys have. The differences
are too subtle to pick up in early auditory tests but may make a difference in classroom behavior:
Experts say an inability to hear clearly could explain why boys have a hard time focusing on
what the preschool or kindergarten teacher is saying.
An Eye for Color
Animal research finds that cells in the retina are primed to take in sex hormones, indicating that
eyes may develop differently in boys and girls. Other studies suggest that male retinas are better
at detecting motion, while female retinas are better at seeing color and texture. As a result, girls
tend to draw flowers and butterflies using bright colors, while boys draw cars and spaceships
using drabber hues. It's also well documented that boys are more prone to color blindness than
girls are. High-tech scans are letting scientists observe gender differences in parts of the brain
responsible for emotions like sadness and empathy.
Some advice from Professionals
Don't Dismiss Conditioning
As a pediatrician, I can see early differences between boy infants and girl infants just by tracking
their developmental milestones. But I think these differences are reinforced by the way we raise
our kids. It would be impossible to create a study where a child isn't affected by societal notions
of gender roles. So we can never really assess how these innate differences might play out if we
could raise children without any conditioning or expectations.
Ari Brown, MD, author of Baby 411
Push Girls to Take On a Challenge
I'm convinced parents reinforce a lot of gender behavior. For example, when a girl backs away
from a challenge, especially a physical challenge, parents don't encourage her in the way they
might encourage a boy. Without that push, girls end up not learning some of the things they're
perfectly capable of learning. I don't think this serves girls very well at all.
William Doherty, PhD, author of Putting Family First
Focus on Boys' Emotions
You must always remember that gender research compares the "average boy" with the "average
girl." If you forget that for a second and start saying, "Boys need this, girls need that," you
neglect that there are many different kinds of boys, and many different kinds of girls, and all of
them have a wide variety of styles and needs.
In my work, I've come to the conclusion that boys need two things that we tend to forget about
when we focus only on their physical abilities and their high activity levels: They need more
touch and more conversation.
Boys like to be hugged, held, and cuddled -- and they like this for much longer than we think
they do. When a boy is little, he'll ask for a hug whenever he feels like it. But if his parents seem
uncomfortable with it as he gets older, he'll stop asking. Then he'll get his physical contact
through something which appears aggressive, but which is, deep down, a need for physical
Michael Thompson, PhD, author of Raising Cain