Are Boys and Girls Really So Different?

This post is by regular contributor Catherine Oehlman aka SquiggleMum.

Good educators are always asking themselves questions about what makes kids’ minds tick.  Over the years I have asked myself many questions about the differences between girls and boys, and been intrigued by the nature vs nurture debate.  My opinion on the issue has changed several times as I have taught children of different ages, in different countries, and now have a young pigeon-pair of my own.  I have asked questions like these:

  • Do girls play with dolls because we give them dolls, or do we give them dolls because they are intrinsically drawn to babies?
  • Do we speak to baby boys the same way we speak to baby girls?  What about boys and girls as toddlers?
  • Why is it that young boys and girls often play with the same toy or object in a completely different way?
  • Who decided pink was for girls and blue was for boys?  And why is it commonly acceptable for girls to wear blue, but rarely ok for boys to wear pink?
  • Should boys and girls in the early years of schooling have different uniforms? Why or why not?
  • Should different teaching methods be employed when teaching boys and girls?  And are co-ed or single-sex schools most effective in educating our kids?
  • Are boys and girls really so different???

Some of these questions I’ve come to a conclusion about, while others still puzzle me.  As I watch my own children play, I learn so much about the way they think and the way they learn.
gender differences children

I’ve spent plenty of time playing with both of my kids in the sandpit.  We have built castles together. We have used planks of wood to make roads.  We have created exploding volcanoes with bicarb soda and vinegar. We have dug tunnels. We have written our names in the sand. We have taken photos of sand art. We have buried our feet.  But just recently I watched my husband playing in the sandpit with our two year old son, and I looked on in amazement as my boys did things together I have never done!

They dug out an area of sand, smoothing the bottom to make a floor.  Then they used the planks of wood to line the floor, build walls, and add a flat roof.  Once they were sure it was secure, they covered the roof back over with sand to create an underground bunker!  The Little People moved in, freely driving their vehicles in and out of their secret underground bunker.  Very cool.

It was fascinating to watch them work.  I saw the way my son’s hands copied his Dad’s.  I listened to the way their conversation flowed.  Father and son were so focused, so engrossed in the task.  I learned so much from their interactions in the sand.

I still have many questions about the differences between boys and girls, but I am convinced that there are differences.  My husband and son think in a way that is foreign to me.  As I seek to understand the way they work, I know that it can only help me to become a better mother to my son, wife to my husband, and teacher in general.

What do you think? Do you have any questions or comments about the differences between boys and girls?  Do you have a story to share?


  1. I think these are great questions. I am the only girl and grew up with six brothers, and am now raising two boys (with another boy on the way). Most of the time I loved playing with my brothers, but there were some things that they would do that I never understood. Digging holes was one of them. They could spend an entire afternoon digging giant holes, and underground tunnels (much like you’ve just described) and then excitedly say “Jane, come see our hole!” It still makes me laugh to think about. I had no interest in digging a giant hole all day. 🙂

    1. Stephanie fulton says:

      Haha! It’s my oldest daughter that is my hole digger. Hours of digging and mudding sticks together. She’s very interested in how things are made, critters and things crawly, she’s not sure happy about yucky stuff (like worms and grease) but she will do it because she knows she can and is interested. I think for her it’s simply because she is always wondering about things. Who what where when and why? That and we have never once stopped her. We’ve encouraged her to do things, we’ve pushed her to carry through on a couple things, and never coddled her. We’ve never wanted fear to stop her from doing something we could she her longing to do. She’s girl enough to know to change her clothes and shoes. And every once in awhile willing to ruin her clothes if its worth the exploring.

  2. Love hearing thoughts on this. I have tried as hard as I could to present play opportunities to my 18 month old that have been “non-gender specific”. Because I only have one child so far I don’t have much to compare to however we had two little boys of similar age over last week to play. My little one is really starting to get into pretend play and loves feeding everything and putting dolls/animals to sleep. However the boys were much more boisterous and really still into using their bodies vigorously to explore the environment. I was left wondering whether this is a developmental stage or a gender difference or different parenting styles?????

    1. Stephanie fulton says:

      I don’t know. We have two girls and then a boy. We’ve always focused a lot on building toys, and pretend play in our house. We didn’t have enough typical ‘boy’ toys though. We didn’t have trucks and Dinos and trains. My boy came along and we still didn’t have that stuff until he was over a year. He puts on glittered hair bands, and sparkly shoes because that’s what the girls do. But he LOVES when daddy is working on a mower. Climbing on mowers, naturally making car noises.. He shows more interest in tools. There are a few books in the house that were here before he came along that have such things. I’m sure we probably contaminated him with our own ideas on gender associations without realizing it some. Now it’s either because he’s a third child or because he’s a boy. My girls are interested in this stuff but not to the point my son is. He’s just physical. 20 months old and he wants to go go go. He is loud. He does however behave in doctors offices and restaurants because as a parent I have expectations and he has been taught to follow them. Boys are suppose to be physical learners. I believe it.

  3. There are definitely differences between boys and girls and those biological and physical differences do affect they way they develop and their behaviour. I think to ignore that is to do a disservice to our kids. That said… the differences between boys and girls doesn’t mean that either sex can or can’t do something that the other can’t or can. Our children deserve to be given all the opportunities we can give them regardless of their gender….

    1. Stephanie fulton says:

      Agreed. Men and women can both preform the same types of work. While a girl might be interested in the same thing they might process the information different. I’m really trying to lend my children in what they are interested in no matter what. Although 2nd daughter is a bit more of a princess than I care for. Today…example- she was picking up leaves, she sad, ” I quit, I don’t want to” I’m sorry that’s a no go in my book. I said, “nope, you can’t quit, you’re too strong, you have to finish the job you started” I’m all for glittery dresses and fancy shoes. A girls got to learn to participate in family work and learn to be a productive member of society though.

  4. I am the mum of 3 boys. I also have 2 nieces. I think the differences, while they are certainly there, are more individual differences. My 2 older boys are very boisterous where my youngest is very cuddly. They all enjoy playing dress ups, pretend play with dolls, and kitchen’s and outside in the dirt/sand. My nieces are both into dolls, shoes, handbags but are equally into motor bike riding.
    As a Christian, I believe that we ARE created differently and are gifted with different things. Woman are more emotional and emphatic, where men are protectors yet it doesn’t mean that each person won’t have differing traits that will cross those ‘norms’. We need to celebrate the differences, applaud the individual, and not get stuck in the psychology of raising our children.

  5. Fabulosokids Bruce says:

    I think you’re on the right track. It became apparent to me a very long time ago that very young children recognize gender in adults and other kids, and that they know what their own gender is, even before they can talk. They pay attention to the differences in the ways that each gender interacts with them, and begin to develop their understanding of what it means to be their own gender. As an example, our children tend to whine for things with my wife and to ask and rationalize with me. My son has adopted my propensity to be annoyed by whining and to reject it from his sister, while my daughter will attend to her brother with sincere caring if he is whining or crying. They have adopted these as defining traits of maleness and/or femaleness, right or wrong, despite the fact that they are treated in the same way by each of their parents–in short, we didn’t try to teach them what they have learned, but simply by being diffferent (whether as individuals or as a result of our gender) we have instructed them in a way that will probably last them a lifetime.

  6. Narelle Nettelbeck says:

    The biggest gender differences are obvious here at pack-away time and when the need arises for self care (where are my shoes, I need to blow my nose…..)! Girls seem to just ‘know’ what to do whereas the boys need more direction.

  7. I have three boys and while I believe there are gender differences between how boys and girls play and learn, there are also huge individual differences. My three boys couldn’t be more different and I need to tailor their play and learning opportunities to their different personalities as much as the fact that they are boys.

  8. This is personally one of my soap box issues. I am a mom of 5 children 2 boys and 3 girls. I don’t believe there are gender differences categorically. I believe children behave differently and to group them by boys/girls behaviors, attitudes, play styles and the like really confines them to a particular set of expectations. Our language itself is also very gender specific. A friend of mine and I had a disagreement on day at dinner. My daughter walked over to a table of children and was trying to figure out where to sit when my friend said, “The girls are on this side and the boys are on that side.” I added, “but you can sit where ever you want.” My friend was upset that I had added that. We got into a discussion about what her statement implied. She said she didn’t intend that my daughter had to sit with the girls she was just stating the facts. Much of our language – which isn’t intended to – suggest sterotypic responses. “Boys will be boys.” It’s also in our expectations. Go watch a co-ed youth sporting event – soccer games. Boys and girls are generally treated differently. When boys get hurt they are held and comforted they are told to tough it out, you’re okay, brush it off etc. When a girl gets hurt everyone runs over to immediately pick her up and comfort her. This occurs even if the boys “injury” was more severe that the girls. There are many more examples of language sterotyping that most of us aren’t aware of and we just say things we are used to but we are pigeon holing our children.

    All of my children love to dig holes. In fact one of their favorite things these days is to dig channels, lakes and dams in our playyard and let the water run and continue to build to “save the city.” There are also differences between them and some I see between the girls and boys but mostly I see them between the individual children.

    @Fabulousekids Bruce – the different reactions in your children could simply be how you and your wife react to the children. Not all women are going to accept whining as a communication method. I much prefer when my children rationalize with me.

    Stepping off my soap box now. I really enjoy your site!

    1. Lets stay with the facts, 1 year old boys have a developed testosterone level of a 25 year old. Testosterone is directly linked to agressivity. Testosterone is also the main reason why boys pick sports like boxing, car racing and similar adrenaline filled activities.

  9. What a great, thought provoking topic.
    My thinking leaned strongly towards nurture playing a leading role in male/female development until I had my own children. With one girl and two boys, the differences are remarkable. My daughter is 4 and one son is 2, and while they love playing together, inside and out, their preferred play styles couldn’t be more different. My daughter is so imaginative and incorporates make believe, talking and stories into all types of her play, even the active times. My son is just so active, he loves cars, doors and exploring how things work. Both regularly play traditional boy and girl games, together and individually.
    I am still at a loss as to many of your questions but have definite ideas about others. Ultimately I think children’s differences are more individual, although gender does play a role.
    Great post Cath, and love the site Christie. Keep up the fantastic topics.

  10. You’ve brought up an interesting topic. Historically, the expectations of boys and girls change as well. Early 20th century American infant boys would have been photograph wearing dresses. Even today, infant boys are often put in long gowns for christening. Also, at at the turn of the last century in American history, boys wore pink, and girls wore blue. The magazines of the time even showed this as the style during that period. Currently I see many business men in pink dress shirts. Styles changes as do the expectations of what a boy is and what a girl is.

    1. Stephanie fulton says:

      They saw pink as a strong odor back then, baby blue was delicate. As a woman I say the girls have earned their pink. Maybe I’m a product of my generation but I do not find a man in pink attractive. Other than my husband in hot pink for my daughters daddy daughter dance. A great daddy is always hot.

  11. Great post Cath. Like Jenn, I thought it was probably a nurture issue until my own pigeon pair arrived. I have an imaginative, creative daughter and a physical, vehicle loving boy. My boy also reads to his dolly and my girl loves building cities with lego, but they do seem to have an essence of maleness and femaleness that I am a little surprised by – and it’s always been there.

    My answers to a couple of your questions… I am definitely in favour of the unisex uniform in the early years. I think we speak to our children according to how they best respond, and the pink / blue thing is completely mysterious to me!

  12. I am in the middle of reading Cordelia Fine’s book “Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences” and I really recommend it. I have typed out the following passage (from page 209-210) which had the most impact on me and really made me question whether I do in fact minimise gender differences with my children.

    “Imagine, for a moment, that we could tell at birth (or even before) whether a child was left-handed or right-handed. By convention, the parents of left-handed babies dress them in pink clothes, wrap them in pink blankets and decorate their rooms with pink hues. The left-handed baby’s bottle, bibs and dummies – and later, cups, plates and utensils, lunch box and backpack – are often pink or purple with motifs such as butterflies, flowers and fairies. Parents tend to let the hair of the left-handers grow long, and while it is still short in babyhood a barette or bow (often pink) serves as a stand-in. Right-handed babies, by contrast, are never dressed in pink; nor do they ever have pink accessories or toys. Although blue is a popular colour for right-handed babies, as they get older any colour, excluding pink or purple, is acceptable. Clothing and other items for right-handed babies and children commonly portrays vehicles, sporting equipment and space rockets; never butterflies, flowers or fairies. The hair of right-handers is usually kept short and is never prettified with accessories.

    Nor do parents just segregate left and right handers symbolically, with colour and motif, in our imaginary world. They also distinguish between them verbally. ‘Come, on left-handers!’ cries out the mother of two left-handed children in the park. ‘Time to go home.’ Or they might say, ‘Well, go and ask that right-hander if you can have a turn on the swing now.’ At playgroup, children overhear comments like, ‘Left-handers love drawing, don’t they?’, and ‘Are you hoping for a right-hander this time?’ to a pregnant mother. At preschool, the teacher greets them with a cheery, ‘Good morning, left-handers and right-handers’. In the supermarket, a father says proudly in response to a polite enquiry, ‘I’ve got three children altogether: one left-hander and two right-handers.’

    And finally, although left-handers and right-handers happily live together in homes and communities, children can’t help but notice that elsewhere they are often physically segregated. The people who care for them – primary caregivers, childcare workers and kindergarten teachers, for example – are almost all left0handed, while building sites and garbage trucks are peopled by right-handers. Public toilets, sports teams, many adult friendships and even some schools, are segregated by handedness.

    You get the idea.

    Its not hard to imagine that, in such a society, even very young children would soon learn that there are two categories of people – right-handers and left-handers – and would quickly become proficient in using markers like clothing and hairstyle to distinguish between the two kinds of children and adults. But also, it seems more than likely that children would also come to think that there must be something fundamentally important about whether one is a right-hander or a left-hander, since so much fuss and emphasis is put on the distinction. Children will, one would imagine, want to know what it means to be someone of a particular handedness and to learn what sets apart a child of one handedness from those with a preference for the other hand. “

    1. Stephanie fulton says:

      What’s the answer to all this though? I believe that we as a society have created gender identities and tend to show are children by our way of life sexuality.

      I’m far from a girly girl. Blue jeans, tennis shoes, and plain tees here. I magically have a pink girl though. I dressed her in yellow, purple, and blue because they looked good on her.

      I have another, the oldest, I dressed in pink and purple. She likes lime green (yuck!) and aqua (which I love)

      I’m not so certain. Honestly, I think our identities are based on a lot of factors, our name for one (it’s how people perceive you, since we have preconceived personal expectations associated to a name) , our social abilities, our personalities, our parents roles in life and their interactions with us (my mom was an electrician in an all male field, my dad raised me) I am a homemaker , my husband a diesel mechanic. My husband made a decision to expect no less from girls than he would from a boy.

      There’s a lot more than just stereotypes, grouping and dress codes that drive the input into a child’s development. We’ll never be able to perfect it across the board

  13. Wow, what an insightful post and there are some really passionate responses too.

    I also believe there are differences. In 2008 I spent a lot of my professional development learning about boys. I had 3 sisters and 1 brother and never really understood boys. I struggle to work with them or understand their humour, in particular. I was forced to learn about them this particular year because I had a class of 21 boys and 5 girls. The research and the strategies were spot on. They worked for me like magic- right down to physical elements like fluorescent lighting.

    I think being in a long-term relationship with someone of the opposite sex also highlights the differences too, especially as you get to know each other. I’d love to mother a boy Cath. I think he’d teach me a lot. I admire what you got to see between your hubby and son.

    Having said all of that, I think society has a lot to do with it. As Worldplayhouse said it was the norm for boys to wear pink up until the 1920’s. It was associated with the colour red so was seen as strong and royal. I have no idea what happened and why it changed but I assume it would be something to do with society. Isn’t that why white is a common colour for weddings now (prior it was blue) because Queen Victoria wore a white wedding dress and set a trend?

    My daughter has what I call a unisex name. I’m surprised by how many people say “but that’s a boy’s name” when told her name. If that’s not society influence then what is?

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    1. Stephanie fulton says:

      My oldest girl is Piper. I wanted a strong name for a girl. I honestly think people feel different when they interact with her due to her name. My second daughter, Jewel, was named after my grandfather Jewell. I never thought much of it, I swear that’s why she’s so girly. People are automatically soft and sweet when they say Jewel and look at porcelain curly blonde blue eyed girl. There’s a whole lot in a name.

  14. I really like Ann’s response. I don’t think I could make a better point than that and am excited to read the book she mentions. All the examples people have been giving to illustrate how boys and girls are different, it seems to me, are related to nurture rather than nature, as they claim. Even in the original post; I don’t believe the males of the family necessarily think differently and play differently in the sand because of their gender. It is because when the father was a boy, he was taught to like cars and building things and playing in the dirt, while the mother was taught to like dolls and toy kitchens and if she played in the dirt, it was to create art and pretty things. She didn’t learn how to make bunkers because she wasn’t supposed to learn how to make bunkers. So now their children, as she says, mimic their parents, “I saw the way my son’s hands copied his Dad’s.” Granted, I am making assumptions and generalizations about people I don’t know, but I think it is fairly reasonable to say that 30 years ago, boys and girls were definitely treated differently.
    I recently read this article
    about how to talk to little girls, and thinking back, I am sure I am guilty of commenting about a girls appearance, rather than asking about her interests. I plan to remedy this in the future.

  15. Hi. I am really loving the insights of this discussion with such brilliant people. I too have been reading up on this topic just to see where I stand with it.

    I’m a mom of three boys and the only sister to three brothers. My mom worked from sun up to sun down because my dad left us when we were all still in elementary school. There was never a parent home to show us how to differentiate between sexes and from sun up to sun down, I was one of the guys. We built forts, played outside (barefoot) with other neighborhood boys (never any girls), we dug holes, played pretend, and rough housed together. The only difference was the toys and clothes my mom bought for me were stereotypically for girls. I remember mutilating my barbies and making my own suitable toys out of found objects like aluminum foil and cardboard boxes. To this day, I still can’t seem to find a way to relate to girls as if I somehow ostracized myself because I didn’t form cliques with them early on. I don’t know what happened. All I know for sure is that I don’t real understand women even though technically I am one.

    And then there’s my best friend who is also the father of my children. We’ve been together (not married) since 1995. I’m 31 and he’s 33. Our relationship is very dynamic. I think there’s some real truth in the fact that “boys” are different from “girls” but only because of what we are exposed to throughout our lives from birth to present day. This guy really is my best friend in that there’s no threat of divorce because we’re both living under the assumption of friendship in it’s truest form. Either of us could pack up and leave right now. We understand each other in ways that regular relationships can’t identify with. I honestly believe this is because I was raised without boundaries, though not done on purpose, it still has blessed me with benefits that being raised gender-specific could not have done. And while I still have emotional spasms of the female brain, I can sympathize with how all that makes him feel. I find ways to “control” hormonal behaviors so that A) I won’t get on my own nerves with my feminine attitudes that even I dont understand and B) so I won’t drive him bananas with completely unwarranted and unnecessary confrontations. It’s weird to try to explain since I’ve never tried before, but it’s something that works. Maybe I should blog about it. Anyway just thought I’d share my point of view with you.

  16. Pingback: What Ultimately Happens When Little Boys Raise Little Girls at Prince of the Fort
  17. It is tempting to view any differences between girls and boys as entirely down to nurture as Cordelia Fine seems to in her book (quoted above by Ann), but this is to completely ignore the physcological and biological research that demonstrates that boys’ and girls’ brains are different even before birth, influenced by the release of androgens in male foetuses very early in their development. Of course, this has nothing to do with wearing pink or blue, but might help to explain some of the broader differences between boys and girls, always allowing of course that there are exceptions to every rule. Nurture does play an important part, but nature has its effects too. To use nurture to try to overrule the effects of nature as far as gender goes seems to me to be a very contrary way of raising a child.

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