Sugar and spice? Puppy dog tails? Revisiting gender roles

By Jane Brown, director of Early Childhood at Hathaway Brown School

Being a politically correct parent of two little girls in the mid-1980’s, I was mightily influenced by the theory that innate differences in how children play are simply the result of societal expectations. We were told as parents (and taught as educators) that boys and girls have sorted out traditional gender roles by around two years of age, and reflect that in their choice of activities as well as in their behavior.

Determined that my daughters would not be so easily brainwashed, I did what any forward-thinking parent would do and stocked up on a generous supply of cars and trucks. The dump trucks chiefly ended up as transport vehicles for Barbie dolls (who fit nicely in the back) and were otherwise neglected. My equally forward-thinking friend Rita supplied her son Zachary with a dollhouse which ultimately became, as I recall, a hide-out for his action figures.

Hathaway Brown stock shoot on Wednesday, April 26, 2017.

We shouldn’t have been surprised. Girls do play with trucks, and boys do play with dolls—they just play with them differently. An avalanche of brain research over the past twenty years has helped to explain why. Follow-up studies have shown ways in which these differences may be impacting learning and behavior.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Boys, in fact, may not be able to.  Studies have found that even in newborns the hearing of girls is substantially more sensitive than that of boys, especially in the 1,000 to 4,000-Hz range— critical for understanding speech.  In a study conducted by a group of pediatric audiologists published in the Journal of the American Academy of Audiology (1997), the acoustic brain response of the average baby girl was in fact 80% higher than for their young male counterparts.  Other studies have demonstrated that the difference in hearing actually increases as children get older—even into adulthood (fodder for many a TV sitcom).

The consequences for both genders can be significant. In a study of premature babies, for example, the girls were found to thrive when a Brahms lullaby was hummed to them, gaining weight faster and ultimately being discharged from the hospital sooner (twelve days earlier, in fact, then the baby girls who were not hummed to). Humming a lullaby made no significant difference to the boys. Down the line, however, girls have been found to be much more easily distracted by extraneous noise levels than boys are—I remember my own daughter complaining that she could not concentrate while taking the SAT’s because of pencil-tapping in the room (thankfully, she got into college anyway).


Do You See What I See?

Even as infants, girls are more interested in figuring out what an object is. Boys want to know where it’s going.

A group of researchers (whose findings were published in Infant Behavior and Development, 2000), determined to eliminate social bias once and for all, decided to study newborns on their actual day of birth. The infants were offered two choices for their viewing pleasure:  A smiling young woman (in person) or a dangling mobile. The girls were much more likely to watch the woman, while the boys overwhelming chose the mobile (results that would be predictably different in the adolescent years).

Subsequent studies have found significant variations in the anatomy of the eye resulting in a visual system that is organized differently in girls and boys. Girls are generally better at object discrimination, which means they are also better at interpreting facial expressions. Boys are better at tracking and locating objects, which probably meant back in the day that they were better hunters.  It also may be why boys generally prefer to play with trucks (they move around) and girls with dolls. Researchers have even found that male monkeys prefer to play with trucks and female monkeys with dolls—clearly not the result of social conditioning.

Even color preferences are determined in part by the hardwiring of the retina—girls tend to chose bright colors, while boys gravitate to black, gray, and silver. I once had a class of four-year-old boys who drew exclusively pirate maps—elaborate intersections of heavy black lines with the occasional scribble (always signifying, I was told, some dangerous junction) ultimately leading to the treasure. The girls, entering into the spirit of the fantasy, drew princesses wearing the treasure.

These bright, creative boys too often get the short end of the stick in preschool when they are encouraged by well-meaning teachers to “draw a person” or “add some color.” I have even heard teachers express concern about underlying issues of anxiety or depression in their male charges, all stemming from abundant use of the black crayon.

How Do I Get There From Here?

Hathaway Brown

My father was a natural navigator, negotiating unfamiliar territory with ease when traveling. I once asked him how he did it (getting lost is a fact of life for me), and he told me that he always saw the terrain from above—literally, a birds-eye view. My reference points, on the other hand, were landmarks—the church on the corner, the fuchsia house, the Starbuck’s.

We were both true to form. Neuroscientists have established that men and women use different parts of their brain to navigate, and that this gender difference is well established as early as five years of age.  When assigned spatial tasks such as finding an undisclosed location, boys have been found to perform significantly better than girls when compass directions alone are given (“go north one block, turn east . . .”).  When only visible landmarks are given, the girls outperform the boys.

This becomes more than just an interesting neurological nugget as we consider the implications for both genders when being taught mathematical concepts. Even in the early childhood classroom, geometrical explorations proceed very differently. I have seen boys in the block area, for example, delight in stacking blocks as high is they can (“to the sky”, as one young architect told me), or linking chains from one end of the room to the other. For the wise teacher, these are opportunities to extend experiences of linear counting, recording, and measuring.

The girls on the other hand, tend to build restaurants, or houses, or barns, also great opportunities for introducing geometrical concepts. In classrooms where the boys are not allowed to build grandiose structures, however, or where girls are asked to problem-solve without (for them) a meaningful context, the learning is too often short-circuited.

Life in the Fast Lane

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When I watch our preschool boys on the playground, an old college joke comes to mind:  “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.” Boys (young and old) engage with gusto in chasing, grabbing, wrestling, punching, and karate-chopping. There are “good guys” and “bad guys.” There are super heroes. The play sometimes goes over the top and a real fight breaks out, which might well become the basis for a new play scenario (often with the antagonists teaming up). In any case, all is likely to be forgiven by snack time.

Not so with the girls. Birthday party invitations are serious business, and hurt feelings not easily forgotten. Social bonding takes place through complex play scenarios which rarely involve physically aggressive play (and the boys who try to enter in often end up in trouble for not understanding the need for a less hands-on approach).

Boys also engage in a much greater degree of risk-taking, thus scoring big social points with their peers on the playground. At the same time, boys demonstrate significantly less expertise in assessing risk than girls. Girls are more likely to emulate classmates who demonstrate good athleticism (negotiating the rings or learning to “pump” on the swings) rather than follow the risk-takers. The girl who routinely jumps off the high climber is likely to be viewed with suspicion by her female peer group for doing “crazy things”, although the boys will be mightily impressed.

There is compelling biological evidence that hormones, as well as gender distinctions in the autonomic nervous system, play a significant role in defining these behavioral differences. Social reinforcement takes over early on, however, and the boy who receives an enthusiastic response from the playground crowd for scaling the swing set in true Spiderman fashion is likely to repeat that behavior.

Good teachers learn to engage in a juggling act. A long list of playground rules squelching rough-and-tumble play is likely to hinder the social development of boys, yet their propensity to take risks cannot be overlooked. Channeling the play in a more safe and positive direction is sometimes called on, and I have seen teachers organize races, obstacle courses, and treasure hunts with that goal in mind.

Girls, conversely, may need to be encouraged to take a risk now and then. A more sophisticated understanding that the consequences of a high jump gone wrong could be unpleasant combined with a lack of social encouragement for risk-taking behavior can be a set-up for fearfulness and anxiety as girls mature.

The Best of Both Worlds

My two daughters had male cousins in their lives, and I always noticed that the play was much more varied and interesting when Mike and Alex were around—even when they weren’t directly playing together. Super heroes would slip into the otherwise classic dramatic play scenarios orchestrated by the girls, making for some rich side plots. Block structures tended to take on new dimensions (boys are more likely to build up, and girls to build out) and the combinations were uniquely impressive.

Creating a classroom environment that addresses the strengths of both genders is indeed a design challenge worthy of the Property Brothers—but well worth the effort, as the children begin to explore more deeply and share discoveries. As expressed by Kristen Wise, one of HB’s prekindergarten teachers, “Different energies combine to bring a unique quality to the classroom experience that enhances learning and strengthens community-building for both boys and girls. Together they begin to embrace new challenges, and become more adept at problem-solving as they compare strategies and share perspectives.”

Kristen also points out that there is no stereotyping among the children concerning gender roles—they are equal opportunity builders, makers, storytellers, athletes, and friends. As I watch the children discuss the finer points of using ramps to reach optimum speed on an improvised race course in the block area, I see future engineers—of both genders.


>Learn more about Hathaway Brown’s Early Childhood program.


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