As a good postfeminist-era mom, I certainly didn't push my son toward trucks and my daughter toward tutus. If anything, I went out of my way to avoid giving them gender-stereotyped toys, offering glittery finger paint to my son and trains to my daughter. But it didn't matter: My son turned his doll's crib into a race car and my daughter was obsessed with shoes.
Even though I'm a psychologist who specializes in early education, it took having kids to make me realize that sex differences aren't just the stuff of Brady Bunch reruns. In fact, one study found that when 18-month-old boys and girls were shown pictures of a doll and a vehicle, for example, most of the girls opted for the doll, while the majority of the boys chose the vehicle. And while 18 months is old enough to have been influenced by stereotyped gifts, research suggests that many of the differences we see are evident from birth, and may even be hardwired. And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gender research. To see what else I unearthed, read on. Do you recognize your little XY or XX babe in what the science says?
It's a Boy!
If you've got a James or Brian at home, you've probably already learned that boys love action -- watching it and being a part of it (hint: stock up on Band-Aids!). But they're also more emotional than the stereotypes give them credit for. Here, some of the milestones and traits you can look forward to as your little man grows:
They like motion. According to psychologists at the University of Cambridge in England, boys prefer to watch mechanical motion over human motion. When they gave 12-month-old boys the choice of looking at people talking or windshield wipers moving, you can guess which the tots picked. And it turns out that baby boys are more adept at keeping track of moving objects; recent research shows that boys are about two months ahead of girls when it comes to figuring out the laws of motion (that if you roll a ball under a couch, say, it will take a few seconds to pop out on the other side).
They've got the moves. You know that old saying, "Girls are talkers, boys are walkers"? Well, it's only half true. Girls do talk first, but boys are likely to start walking -- and hit all the major motor milestones -- around the same time as girls. It's easy to see how this misconception arose: Boys squirm, kick, and wiggle more than their female counterparts. To wit, according to new research, infant boys are more likely to end up in the ER for injuries. But all that activity does not pay off in meeting early-childhood milestones any sooner. (Boys' gross motor skills do take off, however, during the preschool years, at which point they outpace their female peers in most measures of physical ability.)
They're more emotional than you think. There is some evidence that boys tend to be more easily agitated than girls and have a harder time self-soothing. According to one study, even when 6-month-old boys appeared as calm as the girls in the face of frustration, measures of heart rate and breathing suggested that they were actually experiencing greater distress.
They love a crowd. Boys prefer looking at groups of faces (future teammates, perhaps?) rather than individual ones. In fact, given the choice, newborn boys would rather look at a mobile than a single face.
They're (comparatively) fearless. Boys express fear later than girls, and less often. According to a recent survey, the parents of boys ages 3 to 12 months were much less likely than the parents of girls the same age to report that their child startles in response to loud noises or stimuli. Another study revealed that when moms made a fearful face as their 12-month-olds approached a toy, the boys disregarded the mom and went for the plaything anyway. Girls slowed their approach.
It's a Girl!
Raising a little lady? Then prepare to gab with your girl. Whether they're trying to maintain eye contact with you as newborns (research shows they excel at this more than infant boys) or saying their first words sooner, girls thrive on communicating with you. You can expect all or some of those characteristics to blossom in your baby girl:
They're made to mimic. As early as three hours of age, girls excel at imitation, a precursor to back-and-forth interaction. In a study conducted last year, newborn girls did better than boys in trying to copy finger movements. As toddlers, girls zoom ahead of boys on imitative behaviors such as pretending to take care of a baby but, interestingly, are no different from little guys when it comes to pretending to drive a car or water the plants, actions that are much less about human interaction.
They're good with their hands. Infant girls exceed boys when it comes to fine motor tasks, a head start that will stick with them until preschool. They're faster to manipulate toys; they use eating utensils sooner; and they write sooner (and more neatly), too.
They may be better listeners. Recent research shows that girls are more attuned to the sound of human voices and seem to actually prefer the sound to other sounds. Shake a rattle and you'll see no difference between newborn girls and boys, but when you talk, the girls will be more likely to become engaged.
They like face time. Girls are more likely to establish and maintain eye contact, and are attracted to individual faces -- especially women's. They're also more skilled at reading emotional expressions; if shown a frightening face, for example, they'll look at Mom or get distressed, but they'll be fine if they see a happy one. Boys take longer to notice the difference, according to a meta-analysis of 26 studies on kids' capacity to recognize facial expressions.
They talk sooner. All that watching and listening pays off: Girls start using gestures like pointing or waving bye-bye earlier than their brothers, and they play games like patty-cake and So Big sooner, according to a study of children ages 8 to 30 months. Girls understand what you're saying before boys do, start speaking earlier (at around 12 months versus 13 to 14 months for boys), and will continue to talk more through the toddler years. At 16 months, they produce as many as 100 words, while the average boy utters closer to 30. Although girls remain somewhat ahead through toddlerhood, the gap does begin to narrow, and at 2 ½, both boys and girls have 500 words, more or less.
Speaking of words, my daughter's first was "shiz" (as in "shoes," lots of them). But despite her obsession with fashion, she always surprises me with a confidence that often makes her tougher than her brothers. And my boys can be incredibly sensitive when I least expect it. The truth is, gender is only a part of what makes them who they are. If only science could study, and I could understand, the rest of them so well!
Babytalk contributing editor Anita Sethi, ph.d., is a research scientist at the Child and Family Policy Center at New York University.