Sugar and spice and all things nice? Is there really all that much difference between girls and boys? And how should we parent little girls to make the most of their natural strengths and abilities?
If you are the parent of both a daughter and a son, you have probably been quite surprised at the differences between them. Knowing the genetic differences in boys’ and girls’ brains is useful – not to reinforce gender stereotypes, or to suggest that boys and girls should be treated differently and shouldn’t be encouraged to play together – but because it can ensure greater understanding and nurturing of your daughter’s natural strengths and abilities.
In this century, we have an in-depth understanding of the distinct biology of females and how it affects their lives. While 99% of male and female genetic coding is the same, the differences (although subtle) are profound. From birth, the female brain structure is different to a male in that the communication and emotional memory centres are bigger and they are wired with a greater ability to read others’ social cues. The female brain has unique strengths including verbal agility, the ability to connect deeply in friendship, the capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotion, and the ability to defuse conflict. A girl’s brain is effectively built for social connection.
Research has determined that sex-specific behaviours are predominantly influenced by nature, but experience, practise and interaction can modify the brain’s wiring. The Nature vs Nurture debate is no longer relevant, as studies have proven it is definitely both: biology is influenced through our interactions with people and the environment.
differences from birth
- Girls’ brains are more mature at birth than boys and develop one to two years faster.
- The brain circuits of girls for reading faces and tone of voice allow them to understand social approval from very early on.
- They can read their mother’s face and voice more astutely than boys, thus appearing to behave more compliantly.
- The female brain compels a baby to study faces and make eye contact, meaning that mutual gazing is more predominant in girls than in boys.
- The female baby is also born with an interest in emotional expression and girls create their self-perception from the looks, touches and reactions of others.
- Unresponsive faces are confusing to girls and they interpret them as having failed to do the right thing to elicit a response. This has a negative effect on their sense of self.
- Baby girls are quicker to soothe than boys, as their brains are hardwired for empathy and they readily detect distress in other people.
- It is thought that girls absorb their sense of stress or calm from their mother during their first two years of life and that this perspective becomes their lifelong view of reality, affecting whether they have an anxious or calm demeanour as adults.
- By 20 months of age, girls generally have triple the vocabulary of boys.
During age 2 to 6, girls are generally devoted to a best friend and usually don’t enjoy playing with boys. Scientists speculate that this is due to girls’ and boys’ innate communication and interaction styles being so vastly different. Girls generally retreat from rough play, take turns 20 times more often than boys, and play nurturing or caregiving scenarios. Little girls are programmed to keep social harmony and maintain interpersonal relationships and so are emotionally and socially sensitive. They avoid conflict and forge social bonds based on communication and compromise. They participate jointly in decision making and their language is often posed in question form, for example, “Let’s …” or “Shall I …” which serves to maintain social connection. Language is the glue which bonds female relationships; talking, telling secrets, and gossiping help ease the stress of life. Girls speak two to three times as many words per day as boys, and speak faster. This explains why girls are more talkative and use more forms of communication. Girls insist on being included in conversation and demand to be listened to. This is imperative to creating a perception of herelf as important and building self-confidence. Social exclusion is catastrophic for girls. Girls’ social agenda is about forming one to one relationship bonds, wheras boys tend to be more about the toy or activity itself. While girls don’t exhibit aggression by rough and tumble play, they use bossiness (also coined “pink aggression”) to ensure their goals are met, while still being aware that they must protect the friendship.
10 tips for parenting your daughter
- Accept that boys and girls have a preference to embody certain roles and conform to gender specific behaviours. Don’t blame yourself for allowing the Barbie obsession to begin and don’t expect your son to be as socially adept as your daughter.
- Persevere with discouraging negatively associated gender behaviours. Your 8-year-old girl should not be concerned about her weight and your 4-year-old should not use social exclusion as a way to rule the girls’ playworld.
- Interact with and look at your baby girl as much as possible.
- Facilitate relationships of all kinds for your daughter. Allow her to talk on the phone to grandma, to buy the bread at the dairy, play in sports teams and to have playdates regularly.
- Talk with your daughter and, perhaps more importantly, listen to her with all your attention. Even if it’s just for 5 minutes twice a day.
- Remember your own emotional states will influence your daughter, so try to exude a sense of calm whenever possible and be the role model you want her to mirror.
- Actively teach your daughter friendship and social skills to enable her to have successful relationships.
- Take any instances of your daughter being excluded from the social group seriously, as it is of monumental significance to a female child. Assist her to resolve issues.
- Actively work to ensure your daughter initiates and maintains a long-term relationship with a “best friend”.
- Keep your daughter’s bossiness in check. Guide her in using more socially acceptable ways of getting her needs met.
Paula Galey (M Ed Psych (hons) Hdip Tchg) is a teacher who specialised in working with students with learning and behaviour difficulties. She currently writes educational resources while raising her three children.