I read with interest recently a new study that has found that fathers tend to be more sensitive and less physically playful with their daughters than their sons. I am the father of girls and of course I treated them like princesses and regard them as gemstones in my care, however I don’t know much about raising boys. I am sure that sons are equally as precious to parents as daughters.
In this latest study, Australian researchers looked at how fathers behaved towards 81 premature babies and 39 full-term babies. The study, has been published in the Journal of Pediatrics. The results came as a surprise. The scientists found while prematurity didn’t make a difference to fathers, the gender of their child did. Fathers were less sensitive, more controlling and more hostile towards sons than daughters. Senior author Dr Karli Treyvaud, from La Trobe University, said the sample was small and more research was needed to assess if the results are replicated by all parents around Australia.
Researchers suggest the difference we play with boys and girls may be explained in part by different play styles in the western world.
“Specifically, fathers of boys have previously been found to be more likely to display higher levels of physical play than fathers of girls, whereas fathers of girls are more likely to be involved in their child’s imaginative play,” said lead researcher Grace McMahon from Victoria’s Monash University.
The study did however find that if fathers were more sensitive with their boys they did tend to do better in many areas. Greater father sensitivity at 12 months was predictive of better language at two years, and more structured fathering involving firm but fair rules was predictive of higher cognitive (or intelligence) development.
A more strict and controlling fathering style tended to lead to sons with more aggression, rule-breaking and behavioural problems later in life.
“Overall, our findings provide further support that fathers’ parenting is important for child development, in both very preterm and full-term children,” Ms McMahon said.
“Paternal parenting that adequately guides and structures the child’s play is particularly beneficial for cognitive and language development.”
She said the research findings suggest that it may be helpful to teach men how to be better fathers, so their children do better in life. I’m all for that.
What behaviour is taught and what occurs naturally?
But how many differences between boys and girls are taught and how traits occur naturally? I strongly support equality between the sexes but I also believe we should celebrate the differences. I did some research to find out more about the intrinsic differences between male and female children.
One study I looked at found that when 18-month-old boys and girls were shown pictures of a doll and a car, most of the girls went for the doll, while most boys opted for the car. At a year-and-a-half most children already know what gender they are so perhaps they have already been taught that traditional lesson – boys play with cars, girls play with dolls. I don’t support that, but it is what happens however research indicates that many of differences between boys and girls are evident from birth.
According to psychologists from the University of Cambridge, boys prefer to watch mechanical motion over human movement. When they gave 12-month-old males the option of seeing people talking or windshield wipers moving, they went for the windshield wipers. Baby boys are also better at keeping track of moving objects. Research shows that boys are about two months ahead of girls when it comes to understanding the laws of motion (ie if you roll a ball under a sofa it will take a few seconds to pop out on the other side.)
Girls are stronger communicators
Research has found that girls are more likely to talk first, while boys are likely to start walking earlier but arrive at other motor milestones at the same time as girls.
There is some evidence that baby boys tend to be more easily agitated than girls and have a harder time self-soothing. According to one study, even when 6-month-old boys appeared as calm as the girls in the face of frustration, measures of heart rate and breathing suggested that they were still experiencing greater distress.
Boys prefer looking at groups of faces (like sporting teams) rather than individual faces.
Girls are better at maintaining eye contact with their parents from birth and say their first words sooner. Baby girls also excel at imitation. A study last year found baby girls did better than boys copying finger movements. As toddlers, girls are better at pretend behaviour like taking care of a baby but are no different from boys when it comes to pretending to drive a car or water the plants – actions that are less about human interaction.
Boys are less fearful according to a survey
Boys express fear later than girls, and less often. According to a survey, the parents of boys aged three to 12 months were much less likely than the parents of girls to report that their child startles in response to loud noises or stimulus. Another study found that when mothers made a fearful face as their 12-month-olds approached a toy, the boys disregarded the mother and went for the plaything while girls slowed their approach.
Recent research shows that girls are more attuned to the sound of human voices and seem to actually prefer the sound to other sounds. Shake a rattle and you'll see no difference between newborn girls and boys, but when you talk, the girls will take notice.
Girls start using gestures like pointing or waving bye-bye earlier than boys and they play games like patty-cake and “So Big” sooner, according to a study of children ages 8 to 30 months.
Girls are bigger talkers
Girls understand what you’re talking about before boys, start speaking earlier (at around 12 months versus 13 to 14 months for boys), and will continue to talk more through the toddler years. At 16 months, they produce as many as 100 words, while the average boy says closer to 30. Although girls remain somewhat ahead through toddlerhood, the gap does begin to narrow and at 2 ½, when both boys and girls have 500 words, more or less.
Girls are attracted to individual faces, especially women’s – mummy’s. They're also skilled at reading emotional expressions. If they see a frightening face, they’ll get upset. Boys take longer to notice the difference, according to a meta-analysis of 26 studies on kids' capacity to recognize facial expressions. Some women may argue that we men are still failing to read emotional expressions!
It is no secret that boys and girls are different, but that does not mean they should be treated very differently as children. In fact the research suggests that boys and girls need loving, kind, patient parents and grandparents. Please try to show those kindnesses to the children in your life.
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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.