In my article, "Will Boys Be Boys?" I raised the question of whether some of our stereotypes about boys are justified. Are they more aggressive, more prone to have language, reading, and attention problems? And if so, do these patterns reflect an inborn genetic predisposition, or are they due to the different ways that we interact with boys and girls from infancy on? I drew the conclusion that, like everything else, these gender patterns undoubtedly reflect biological and social factors—that is, that there are underlying differences in the makeup of boys and girls that predispose the patterns, but these differences are intensified and enlarged by how we treat our male and female children.
Now, what about girls? Are they sugar and spice and everything nice? Are they easier for parents to handle? Throughout history they have been perceived as "the weaker sex." However, in terms of longevity and survival, they are unequivocally the stronger sex. A much higher percentage of girls make it through their uterine journey, and fewer of them succumb to unfavorable conditions at birth and shortly thereafter. And we know that, on average, women live about seven years longer than men. In spite of their verbal precocity in comparison to boys, and in spite of the fact that they tend to outpace boys in early reading achievement, the mythology labels girls as less capable academically. A patronizing description that purports to pay lip service to facts while nonetheless putting girls down is that they start the developmental race with a spurt but slow down before reaching the finish line. Maybe those stereotypes are no more of an onus than some of those loaded on to boys, but they have been difficult to overturn.
What Are Little Girls Like?
There seems little question that, during the early months of life, baby girls fuss less and are more easily comforted than baby boys. This type of interaction between baby and caregiver leads to subsequent pleasant interactions, and the cycle continues. The eminent pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton has found baby girls to be more socially oriented than baby boys just minutes and hours after birth. They keep their eyes open and stare directly at a smiling adult for a longer period than newborn boys do. The frontal lobes of the brain, the seat of reasoning and judgment, seem to develop earlier, and facilitate more efficient self-control. Also, girls seem to begin to use the left side of the brain sooner than infant boys do. That's the lobe containing the speech center, so it should come as no surprise that infant girls verbalize more and earlier than infant boys do. This early language supremacy continues throughout early childhood and even into the elementary years. Girls give up tantrums earlier than boys and are typically rated by teachers and parents as easier to control. Also, they're easier to toilet train and achieve this milestone earlier.
Implications for Parents
As I indicated in the earlier article, we need to accept the fact that there are irrefutable biological differences between boys and girls that go beyond the obvious ones. As with parental guidance of boys, parents need to determine how they can take advantage of these differences to foster certain skills and compensate for apparent deficiencies. For example, the fact that girls excel in language does not mean that parents should forego boosting that skill in favor of improving their daughter's performance in a sport, for example. Rather, it would be wise to encourage language competence to allow our girls to continue to excel in this area. Since we know that girls tend to fare worse at math in standardized tests, we can encourage these skills from a young age. Starting early in the preschool years, parents should provide toys that teach their daughters concepts like shape and size. Divide a cookie unevenly and ask, "Which one is bigger? Which one is smaller?" Play games with small blocks and count how many she has and how many you have. Ask, "Who has more blocks?" Take one away and ask, "How many do I have now?"
Encourage your daughters to try new things and to take risks. Those behaviors represent assertiveness, which is not the same as aggressiveness. And by all means reward her with smiles and extravagant praise when she shows so-called "feminine" qualities, like being nurturing, sympathetic and helpful. Throughout the world they're in short supply, and we need them.
So the answer to the question in my title is: Yes, girls will be girls. And what a glorious time it is to be a girl. Stereotypes are losing their power, opportunities are opening everywhere and glass ceilings are cracking. In Western society, girls never had it so good. As you raise your daughters, it's up to all of you to keep it that way.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.