If science shows it's both nature and nurture at work, why then do we hear so often that differences are innate?
The brain’s sex differences — most of which have been found in adults only - are innate, but that does not necessarily mean born that way. The brain has plasticity — it can be and is molded by its environment. In other words, your brain wires itself to the experiences it has beginning in the womb all the way through adolescence.
Many of the characteristic differences that are seen as distinctly male or female -- activity levels, physical strengths, emotional reactions, interests, attention spans, ways of relating, and intellectual abilities -- are way (way!) smaller than we think. And we're not necessarily born with these differences.
How Might I be Magnifying These Differences?
Your brain is what you do with it (or what your child does with it), explains neuroscientist Lise Eliot in her book Pink Brain Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It.
She says, "every task [we/our children] spend time on - reading, running, laughing, calculating, debating, watching TV, folding laundry, mowing grass, singing, crying, kissing and so on, reinforces active brain circuits at the expense of other inactive ones. Learning and practice rewire the human brain…”
So...How we view, talk to, encourage, and play with our children has a powerful impact on development.
Studies show that infant girls, who are generally smaller in size than boys at birth, are picked up more quickly when they cry and are held longer than boys. Infant Boys, on the other hand, tend to be fussier than girls -- more crying, less stable sleep -- yet parents are more likely to “shush” or ignore their sons' crying more than their daughters'.
Furthermore, girls are told “no” more than boys while exploring their environments while boys are encouraged to investigate their surroundings more than girls. Boys also get tossed in the air and played with more physically than baby girls.
It makes sense then that girls become more social and boys more physical. So-called innate differences don't bear out in the research. In other words, there is nothing specifically about femaleness that causes girls to be more delicate and social, but social interactions quickly make this true. After puberty, males tend to be larger and stronger, but in infancy and childhood, there is very little difference.
Children Exacerbate The Differences Too
Importantly, children themselves exacerbate the differences by playing to their strengths. As Eliot says: “They constantly exercise those ‘ball-throwing’, ‘doll-cuddling’ circuits”.
Instead of encouraging kids to stray from their comfort zones and develop more fully, adults often assume these comfort zones are a delineation of their kids' skills and behave in ways that motivate them to remain in that initially pleasant, but ultimately constricting, box. Show them the path out (-:
The Skinny: The real issue isn’t how different boys and girls are, but how parents react to those small differences that turn them into the much larger differences society associates with boys and girls.