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December 18, 2017

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...

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 boys 

Parents can help nurture the brains of baby boys by talking to them right from birth,” says Whitcombe-Dobbs. “Engaging with children face-to-face and responding to their verbal cues with imitation and smiles helps them learn to regulate their emotions. Nursery rhymes and songs are also great for speech development.”

As boys venture into toddlerhood, it’s important for parents and caregivers to be encouraging of their emotions and show them sympathy and comfort when upset, just like with young girls. This all assists in developing their emotional intelligence.

“Labelling emotions and giving children time to cope with them helps them understand their feelings,” adds Whitcombe-Dobbs. “As babies grow into toddlers, parents can help by listening to them, describing to them what they are doing and repeating their words back to them, which supports language development and predicts how easily children learn to read and succeed at school.”

The key point to remember, however, is to consider each individual child and their personality. Discover their interests, regularly offer new age-appropriate experiences and allow them to freely explore your world. 

It’s a daily practice of which Wanaka mum Alice Mason is mindful. Exploration and adventure are top priorities for her two little lads, three-year-old Riley and 14-month-old Monty. 

“The boys are always very busy and full of adventure, fun, noise, mess, laughter and sandy, muddy, wet laundry – lots of it!” she says. “I feel like the boys bring out my silly, crazy side. They’re great mates and Monty certainly looks up to his big brother. I’m constantly in awe of their creativity, imagination, determination and warm hearts.” Alice and her husband Blake find that keeping the boys amused usually requires physical activity of some description. They love to be outside and enjoy going for walks with their dog, riding bikes, throwing rocks in the lake, playing in the sandpit or jumping on the trampoline. But they’re also big on offering indoor fun such as baking, building forts and creative or imaginary play.  “What I’ve learnt from being a mum to boys is that sometimes it’s the simplest things that create the most joy. Dirt equals fun!” she says. “There’s also not a lot of drama with them – everything is pretty clear-cut. They do really love adventure and the outdoors, but they’re also very empathetic and affectionate and love cuddles with their mama too.”

Families with girls 

We’ve come a long way since the old nursery rhyme in which girls are “made of sugar and spice and all things nice.” These days, the cornerstones of caring for baby girls and boys in their first three years are same-same: they all need loving, responsive parents, full tummies, a warm, dry home and a consistent routine to nurture them into capable and happy children and adults. 

“Playing games with your children and giving new experiences helps them to develop their social, emotional, physical and cognitive abilities,” explains Whitcombe-Dobbs. “Get to know your child’s personality and preferences. Parenting based on responding to your child’s individual needs and temperament is much preferable to parenting based on something as broad and non-specific as gender.”

Christchurch mum-of-three girls, Andrea Cawthray, knows a thing or two about parenting children of the same sex, but with different personalities. She describes her eldest girls, Addyson (6) and Bonnie (5) as “chalk and cheese.”

“Addy  isn’t into pretend play at all and never has been – she spends all day and night doing gymnastics, she lives for it,” she says. “Whereas Bonnie can play for hours on end on her own in her room with anything and everything. Her imagination is huge!”

Andrea says there’s a maternal streak already emerging in both girls – they enjoy looking after their one-year-old sister Hannah and are excited to be welcoming a new baby later this year. Likewise, they’re super-interested in what Mum does on a day-to-day basis and are always keen to get amongst it. 

“They watch me do housework and this obviously seems enjoyable to them so they help out with cleaning the windows and making the beds. I guess with me being their main role model they feel like a ‘big girl’ when they are capable of doing what I do,” she says.

Andrea and her husband Chris have always exposed their little ones to a wide range of hobbies, sports and activities, not just what is traditionally deemed as “girly”. Instead, they are led by what interests the girls. And yes, often that is painting their nails, dancing or doing Mum’s hair, but it’s also motorbike riding and kicking balls around too.  

“Someone once said to me, ‘The great thing about having daughters is that they can do everything that sons can do’,” she says. “The best part about having girls for me is the fact I know I’m in for a lifetime of best friends and constant companionship. I love knowing I will never be lonely as my girls grow into young women.”

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 advo-cate 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.” ′

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