Monday, October 4, 2010
Gender Characteristics and Research
When I taught in a lab school child care center for infant through pre-kindergarteners it was emphasized that we “maintain a gender neutral classroom at all times.” So toys, activities, curriculum, room décor, color choices, etc. were all scrutinized to maintain the gender neutral directive. The concept was that if offered the same choices and activities children would not show gender preferences. Research was pointing that gender choices started early and were due mostly to expectations of parents, teachers and the child’s environment.
Now the research is pointing to many gender differences being hardwired and evident from birth. Researchers followed newborns through to the preschool years, observing behavior under a variety of circumstances. This is just a few of some of their recent findings.
Boys love motion – watching, tracking and being part of the action. Boys showed a preference for watching mechanical motion over human activity. They were more adept at keeping track of moving objects. Typically boys were walking before girls of the same age and showed more movement as infants with kicking, wiggling or squirming actions. Some researchers noted that boys tended to be more easily agitated and had a harder time self-soothing – this was noted by their heart rate and breathing during times of frustration. Boys also showed a preference for groups of faces over faces of individuals, and sometimes had difficulty “reading” the emotions on the face of adults close to them. As the boys matured this face discrimination and emotion recognition began to catch up with the girls.
Girls look for personal contact and communication. Researchers noted that girls excelled in maintaining eye contact with parents as newborns. They were shown to speak their first words sooner and were excited in communicating with parents or caregivers. Imitation starts early, copying facial and finger movements. Girls in general exceed boys in fine motor tasks up to preschool when they seem to even out. Research as also shown that girls are typically more attuned to the sound of human voices and prefer voice sounds over other sounds, for example; shake a rattle and you’ll see no difference in a newborn boy or girl but when someone speaks girls are quick to engage. They also typically are more skilled in reading emotional expressions.
Researchers agree that many of these differences fade as children mature and start school. They also note that by that time often parents, caregivers and other adults in the children’s lives unconsciously have responded to them in ways which often solidifies gender roles and differences. While gender differences may be hardwired they are also influenced, especially if we are labeling children’s behaviors with their gender.
In my experience, all children thrive when offered a variety of experiences in a rich learning environment promoting growth and development. The goal is to encourage and support them to be all they can be and interact with them as unique individuals. There is no doubt that you’ll see differences between children and some of those are gender related. Accepting these differences is paramount to a healthy self-esteem for the growing child.