Nature and nurture: why do boys and girls behave differently?

Children’s brains are plastic and sensitive to their environments. annagarcia

New evidence is emerging that confirms what parents and children have reported for generations: boys and girls behave differently, and parenting practices vary depending on the gender of the child. Boys seem to have more behavioural problems than girls, and this difference appears in early childhood.

The results come from the latest round of data released from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC), Australia’s first nationally representative long-term study of child development involving almost 10,000 children from birth to nine years of age.

But before we delve into the findings, there are a few important points to remember when examining the differences between boys and girls.

First, the findings are based on caregivers (usually mothers) completing behaviour report forms. Of course, it would be ideal to have observational-style data on children in a range of settings, but this is just not practical when following up large numbers of children over an extended period.

Second, the overall results reflect averages or mean scores, generated from a wide range of individuals who participated in each wave of the study. The implication for the individual child, therefore, is much harder to pin down than implications for the population as a whole.

Differences

Between the age two and three, the boys displayed a higher rate of behavioural problems than the girls. Boys were around 10% more likely to show what we call “externalising behaviours” such as destructiveness and aggressiveness.

Girls, on the other hand, were more likely to have “internalising problems” such as anxiety. Girls were also more likely to have higher scores on measures of “competence” such as following rules or caregiving behaviours (helping when someone is hurt, for instance).

Having no siblings or three or more siblings, being in groups of lower social advantage (calculated on a scale based on information such as parents’ education, income and occupation) and living in metropolitan areas also contributed to a higher risk of behavioural problems, irrespective of whether the child was a boy or a girl.

At age four to five, another parent-completed questionnaire asked if these symptoms persisted. Again, boys had higher scores of hyperactivity, emotional problems and peer problems, although their scores on conduct problems were not different to those of girls. Few boys had extreme symptoms that indicated clinical disorders.

Girls were again more likely to have emotional problems. Girls also had higher scores on measures of “competence”, such as being kind or helpful.

Pro-social behaviours (where the child acts in a way that’s intended to benefit another) were the norm, rather than the exception, for the vast majority of children, both boys and girls.

Other risk factors such lower social advantage and having no or three or more siblings once again were associated with higher rates of reported problems.

Boys tend to be more troublesome in their early years but very few have clinical disorders. JPott

Parenting techniques

Data were also available on the differences in parenting style. But as this was an observational study, it doesn’t give us enough information to enter the ongoing debate about nature versus nurture.

For younger children, mothers of boys were less likely to feel that they were able to parent effectively and fathers were less likely to show warmth to their sons compared with their daughters. Both mothers and fathers tended to be more overprotective of their daughters compared with their sons.

For the older children in the study, both mothers and fathers reported higher rates of hostile parenting practices towards boys and were less confident in parenting them, compared with girls. At some ages parents of boys reported using more “inductive reasoning” (discussion and problem solving) than with girls.

Wider view

While these results give us a snapshot on what’s happening in the Australian population in general, they are not as helpful in pinning down exactly what’s happening in the brains of individual boys and girls, and in their households.

We don’t know, for example, whether a boy with reports of behavioural problems at the age of two – whose parents go on to access parenting resources and change their parenting practices – will continue to show behaviour problems when they reach school.

Researchers have shown that there are biological differences between boys and girls in-utero, such as exposure to testosterone, that can affect behaviour in childhood.

Other experts in the field have shown that cultural expectations shape and encourage certain behaviours in boys, such as competition and taking chances, and encourage different areas of expertise in girls, such as cooperation and nurturing.

However the early childhood development literature tells us that all children’s brains are plastic and exquisitely sensitive to their environments. Stable, consistent and nurturing parenting, especially in the early years, is vital for all children to give them the best possible start to life.

The results from this important study are helpful to Australian parents, teachers, health professionals and policy makers. They tell us that differences between boys’ and girls’ behaviour can be identified early in life and that parents can identify and report on their own parenting practices.

But these results should not be used to conclude that boys are more troublesome and less competent, and clearly show that most children growing up in Australia are doing well.

Instead, they should be used as a starting point to identify at-risk children and the risk factors in their environment as early as possible. Once identified, parents can access early intervention to optimise their child’s developmental outcomes.