Having kids is, among other things, an interesting social experiment. Growing up, I was always interested in debates about gender: what is innate vs. what is learned.
Figuring that much of our identities are a social construct, I tried to give my two daughters a fair shot at developing their own by not jamming them into pink boxes from the get-go. I painted their room green (instead of cotton candy pink), gave them a variety of non-stereotypical toys, and read them stories that never centered on passive princesses doing nothing except looking pretty until a dashing prince rescued them.
And despite all of these efforts, I ended up with a pair of girly-girl toddlers who are obsessed with princesses and wearing dresses that look like exploded wedding cakes. Maybe some of this stuff is hardwired, after all.
And that’s okay. I think it’s fine for my girls to like princesses and dressing up, as long as it’s what they naturally want to do, instead of something forced on them by social expectations.
My two daughters represent only one gender, however, and a very small sample size. How could I be sure sons would act any differently?
Well, as luck would have it, I ended up enrolling my three-year-old in a preschool that may as well be one giant gender-observation experiment. It’s a unique, play-based type of preschool where they provide loads of different kinds of toys (everything from chickens, hardware tools and cars to baby dolls, costumes, and art supplies) and have very few rules.
The idea behind all of this is that toddlers learn best from a hands-on, exploratory approach. There is no rigid schedule and adults try not to intervene unless something dangerous is happening (to give children a chance to learn social skills by hashing out disagreements themselves). These kids aren’t even instructed to share, since the concept of “waiting your turn” is much easier for toddlers to grasp.
So, it essentially boils down to a hands-off approach of throwing a bunch of different options at kids and letting them do whatever they want. It’s about as close to watching how boys and girls act in a neutral environment as you’re going to get without raising them in a lab (which is unethical, for obvious reasons).
It’s also a preschool cooperative, of sorts. Every parent with an enrolled child must work a shift every week, rotating through the various stations, which increases parental involvement (while lowering costs. Win-win).
This means I now watch a group of about thirty toddler boys and girls for several hours, every week.
Here’s what I’ve observed about their differences:
- Boys tend to play outside more
This is a very general rule, because plenty of boys play inside and plenty of girls play outside as well. But at any given moment during my shift, more than half the boys are usually outside and more than half the girls are inside.
Or rather, the girls tend to play inside while coming outside for brief spells, whereas the boys do the opposite. I’m not sure what this means, except that maybe boys are a little more rambunctious on average.
ALL toddlers have tons of energy, don’t get me wrong, but the boys seem to get particularly aggressive when they don’t get to tear around enough, like a greyhound that chews your couch to pieces after being kept inside too long.
- Boys tend to play in larger groups
The girls usually play with a friend or two (in groups of one to four), whereas the boys tend to run around with a gaggle of other boys (up to ten or so at a time).
This isn’t always the case, of course. The boys and girls play together sometimes, and there are one-on-one interactions within the larger group of boys.
I’m not sure what this means, but it’s something I’ve noticed. It seems that boys have an easier time joining a social group in the first place, but once they’re in, they have to jockey for position (“I’m digging a bigger hole than you,” or “I can jump higher than you,” for example).
Girls, on the other hand, approach each other cautiously. They don’t warm up immediately, but once they do, they expect to treat each other as equals (at least, on the surface). Girls seem more likely to break off from boasting companions than compete with them.
- Boys punch you, whereas girls mess with your head
The kid that throws the most fits this year happens to be a boy. He’s a nice kid, but routinely has a crying tantrum about anything and everything. Sometimes it’s because a little dirt got on his arm, for example, and sometimes he wants to play with a shovel that another kid is using. The reasons change, but it’s always something.
Now, anyone who has ever had a toddler can tell you they are moody, emotional, and go through developmental stages of constant fit-throwing. Maybe this is just this kid’s time for throwing a lot of fits, and the adults understand that, but the other kids get tired of hearing it.
After this kid rolls on the ground, sobbing and wailing for half an hour or more, I’ve seen other boys walk up to him, embarrassed, and tell him, “Now that’s enough. You need to stop.”
It just makes him scream harder, and a couple of times, another boy has just had it with him and punched him. Or thrown something at him. At this point, adult supervisors will intervene, because violence is dangerous.
Yesterday, however, I saw this kid get on a teeter-totter with a little girl. They were teeter-tottering happily until he decided that he needed to have his shoes back on, so he starts whining and sobbing about how she needed to stop so he could get off and put his shoes on.
The little girl nodded, then put her feet on the ground and slowly stood up so she could lower the boy to the ground. But when he started to get off the teeter-totter, she pushed back down, popping him back into the air. He screamed louder and started flailing his arms.
She responded with “Okay, okay…” and started standing up again so he could get off the teeter-totter. But just as he was doing so, she threw her feet up, giggling, and thrust him back into the air.
At this point, he was going into hysterics, so I came over and helped him off the teeter-totter before handing him his shoes. He put on his shoes, got back on the teeter-totter, and then the little girl slammed her weight down so hard that she not only rocketed the boy into the air, but sent his shoes flying off his feet.
He started screaming bloody murder and the little girl couldn’t control herself anymore. She busted up in a hysterical laughing fit, so intense that tears were streaming down her face. She started lowering him back down, before popping him up at full force again, at the last minute.
He started wildly kicking the air, with every ounce of energy he had, and she grabbed her stomach because, I can only assume, she was laughing so hard at him that it was beginning to hurt.
And the worst part? I was secretly enjoying it the entire time. It was one of the funniest things I had ever seen.
I don’t know if it’s because I’m also a girl, so her machinations made sense to me, but I couldn’t help noticing how she managed to punish the kid without getting herself into trouble. I like that moody boy, I really do, but deep down, I had to wonder if she did him some good.
Lesson learned: boys may be more directly aggressive, but girls will dream up a multi-step humiliation plot at your expense. And get away with it.
- Boys and girls like self-adornment
The type of preschool we selected obviously tends to appeal to more liberal, be-what-you-are kind of parents; the kind of parents that are okay with a lack of rules and rigid routines, preferring to let kids openly explore.
So, I’ve noticed that a few of the boys’ fingernails are painted. I’m assuming they showed an interest in nail polish (like my daughters have) and have parents who are open-minded enough to not respond with something like, “Boys don’t do that!”
These boys also play in the costume room, sometimes wearing very unusual get-ups. One time, this little boy ran around shirtless, wearing nothing but a pink poofy skirt (to give you a better idea).
I imagine previous generations would’ve freaked out about something like that, wondering if the boy would end up gay if people let him run around in fluffy pink skirts.
Not this place, however, where they value free expression. It brings up a number of interesting issues.
On the one hand, is it inherently effeminate in the first place? The idea of pink being a “girl” color is fairly recent in human history, and walking around shirtless with a skirt is kind of like playing a Highlander.
When you think about it, these rules have changed over time. Lots of men have worn dresses (Romans, Arabs, and Biblical shepherds), long hair (pirates, Scots, and Age of Enlightenment thinkers), and makeup (18th century aristocrats), depending on the period and place. These kids are too young to grasp fashion expectations in fine detail.
On the other hand, if it is effeminate, then it’s kind of an argument for pre-wired gender identity. Just as it’s hard to argue that homosexuality is a choice when so many gay people say they had strong preferences for as long as they could remember, it’s also tough to argue that everything about gender is a social construct while maintaining that some people are different from the start.
My take? I think we should just give people the freedom to be who they are and let the chips fall where they may.
- Boys like to pretend to cook
Even though I come across an endless array of pink kitchen sets, clearly marketed to little girls, more boys at this preschool pretend to cook.
Yesterday, I had trouble convincing a whole gaggle of boys to stop putting on a pretend picnic. About five of them were intently stirring various mud-and-water combinations with wooden spoons, while a couple of others were laying out plates on a giant stump.
It was adorable, but I needed to clean up, so I tried to convince them to close shop. They weren’t having it. A little four-year-old Asian boy told me, “Wait, wait! You HAVE to try my tacos. Everyone loves them.”
It made me wonder why we market kitchen sets to girls, exclusively, when these little boys were obviously enjoying themselves. Scenes of mafia movies, where one of the gangsters talks about how to slice garlic so thin it evaporates in the pan, bounced around my head.
When you think about it, there are loads of celebrity male chefs, so why do we think of cooking as a female activity? I wondered if more boys play with the kitchen toys at this school because they don’t have these kinds of toys at home (much like I used to love playing with the neighborhood boys’ Star Wars figures, since I didn’t have any myself).
Thing is, there’s undoubtedly some confirmation bias at play. Whenever people notice a boy doing a stereotypically boy activity, or a girl doing a stereotypically girl activity, they nod in approval because it supports their world view. Whenever the kids don’t, it’s thought of as an aberration–a strange exception to the rule.
My conclusions after observing all of this? I think there are some different tendencies between boys and girls, but they aren’t as extreme as many people believe,and they don’t apply to every kid.
So we can stop pretending that we’re all exactly the same.
On the other hand, be careful about going from the general to the specific. You wouldn’t want to dive headfirst into a swimming pool, just because the average depth is nine feet.