Blue is for boys, pink for girls: We often use this to express the difference between the sexes shortly after birth. Children usually adopt “gender-typical” behavior from their parents – and they do so at a very early age.
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Quiet and peaceful or loud and excited: girls and boys express themselves differently even as babies. Hormones are to blame, according to behavioral scientists. But upbringing or the expectations one has of the respective gender also affects children.
The fact is that genetics and behavior cannot be separated. No girl and no boy behaves “by nature”. Much of what separates women and men can be traced back to the first years of life. They shape how children identify with their gender and which role clichés they adopt.
An attempt to decode seven typical behavior patterns:
Boys are more impulsive than girls
Even as babies, many boys behave louder and more demanding than girls. The reason for this is the sex hormone testosterone. “The amount is significantly higher after birth than in girls,” says Reinhard Winter, gender researcher at the Social Science Institute in Tübingen. This ensures that the genitals develop according to biological sex. During the first year of life, testosterone levels fall again. Yet boys often remain the more impulsive, active children.
In addition to innate differences, upbringing comes from birth. “Many parents raise their children according to the gender they expect,” says Winter. If a boy shows his strength and is positively recognized for it, he will get more out of the experience. This works for girls too. Only: “Girls can regulate impulse control faster. Then they are automatically all the more sensible.”
car owner or doll mother
From the age of one, girls grasp dolls and boys grasp vehicles. “You can play in a much more differentiated way with a doll and a suitcase,” says Gabriele Haug-Schnabel, who runs the “Human Behavioral Biology Research Group” institute.
For boys who drive back and forth in cars, play is often limited. Boy expert Winter recommends expanding the game: “Then there’s not only cars crashing into each other, but also a hospital where the injured drivers are healed until they get home and cook together,” he says.
Craft scissors or football
There are also differences in sports and creative exercises: boys are more interested in climbing, football and body-oriented games. Girls love to design creative things with craft scissors. “This increases until school age, when gender stereotypes are promoted,” says child and adolescent psychotherapist Inés Brock from Halle (Saale).
In kindergarten, when the little ones have their first group experiences, alternative offers are important. This is how both train their weak points. To ensure play areas are exciting for both sexes, behavioral biologist Haug-Schnabel recommends adding them. “For example, combine the woodwork with decoration, letters and numbers,” she says.
Imitation ensures identity
Whether you are a girl or a boy, children only learn with time. “Children between the ages of two and three can sort adults by gender, only then do they classify themselves,” says Winter. From the age of three, gender becomes relevant to identity. “Children look for all the stereotypes in their environment that make it easier for them to classify them,” he says.
Adults of the same sex, such as mothers, fathers, educators, play an important role in this. “They try to secure their identity with their imitative behavior,” explains Inés Brock. It is more difficult for boys. “Due to the large surplus of female carers in daycare and school, it is much more difficult for them to feel at home in their masculinity,” she says. As a result, boys orient themselves more towards boys of the same age than girls, according to Winter.
“If there are male pedagogues, they must do needlework with the boys and not explicitly play boys’ things,” advises the psychologist. This is how they get to know a different type of man. This also applies to fathers: “The task of the new generation is to feel at home in new role models.”
Clothes as a gender marker
What children like, they also show with their clothes. Shirts in pink or blue, decorated with unicorns or dinosaurs, rainbows or fire engines: Researchers know that children use the task they have learned to identify themselves. “But we should be aware of it, so that a boy who wants to dress up as a princess is not criticized, any more than a girl who doesn’t want to wear a skirt,” says Inés Brock.
Girls learn from adults that clothes decorate. “If you tell them, ‘You’re well dressed,’ it shapes their affinity for beautiful looks,” says Gabriele Haug-Schnabel. Boys learn that clothes have a function. “They get to know a lot more that they’re wearing real workman’s pants,” she says.
Is fighting only for boys?
Little girls are often reluctant when it comes to a new challenge. The boys are different. They love competitions and enjoy winning. “Which makes the boy groups hierarchical,” says Brock.
The reasons can be inferred from anthropology: “Because of their physical stature, men were always the ones to protect and defend their families and people – it still has an effect today,” she says. This also explains their desire to fight and wrestle. “You can address the need, but where it goes in the direction of fighting and socially unacceptable macho behaviour, we must intervene,” advises Winter.
Girls orient themselves more equally. Gabriele Haug-Schnabel knows that if they show themselves to be combative, they have role models of the same sex. Above all, it is the grandmothers and mothers who want to achieve the best for their families.
“A man a word, a woman a dictionary”?
Girls behave somewhat more person- and relationship-oriented than boys and talk more. One reason is the somewhat faster maturation of the brain, another is the early study of humans. “Even as babies, girls linger longer on faces,” says Inés Brock. As a result, they perceive moods and speech much more clearly.
In order not to overwhelm boys, clear, short messages help. “Long explanations or relationship appeals rush past them, they can’t quite understand what’s meant,” says Winter. This also helps boys who are position or status oriented. “If mom lovingly but clearly positions herself as the boss, the attitude is clear: it’s worth following her,” he says. Long announcements, on the other hand, seem uncertain, so the resistance is worthwhile.