If you have been blessed with being a parent to two or more children, I am sure, much like myself, you naturally make comparisons between their development, their mannerisms and their character. The contrast between siblings can be marked, but these differences, in my own experience, are no more stark than between a son and a daughter. I personally think it is a given that children, whatever their sex, will develop at differing rates, be it in a physical sense or notable from their language development, but I have been staggered by the contrasting approaches our own children take to exploring the world, the diverging paths which their minds and memories choose to follow and how their imaginations can be so vivid, yet with different focal points.
As parents, we hear much about the virtues of providing a loving and nurturing environment for our children, of the importance of spending time with our offspring; of being present, physically, mentally and emotionally, in regards to their individual needs. Consequently, over the four years since the birth of our daughter, and the two years since our family became complete with the arrival of our son, my husband and I have striven to provide just that, treating each child with respect, recognising their potential and their individuality. In doing so, we did not however, during these early years, expect to be able to remark upon the distinct ways in which each of our children speak, act and think.
Reflecting on some of the traits which already distinguish our children…
- a thinker and an observer
- guided (and sometimes limited) by her emotions
- expresses herself creatively
- sensitive to how others perceive her
- favourite colour is pink
- a natural tendency for princesses and art related activities but also interested in learning about the immediate world around her
- outwardly confident in all situations
- a risk taker; explores in a physical way
- an affinity for music
- a natural performer; develops new characters with accompanying voices
- favourite colour is red
- drawn to the physicality and mechanics of objects and shows an interest in learning about far reaching ideas, such as space
I have no doubt that our children’s personalities and interests will continue to develop at a speed comparable to the rate of their perpetual hunger cycle, but for now, let’s consider whether nature or nurture is truly the dominant force in determining their particularities.
Historically, parents were led to believe that socialisation and attachment were key to a child’s development, but the introduction of brain imagining technology has allowed scientists the opportunity to see children’s brains in a new light.
Margaret McCarthy, a professor of physiology at the University of Maryland who studies early brain development, tells us that the high level of testosterone in a male baby’s brain, compared to that of a female, shapes their development. This contrasting hormone level between boys and girls might go some way to explaining certain of the behavioural differences we, as parents, often see in how boys and girls play, the approach they take to exploring the world and how they express themselves.
There is also a growing body of research which points us to girls having a head start on the language front. During infancy the left hemisphere (the brain’s language centre for most people) develops before the right for girls whereas the order is reversed for boys. We also understand that females have at least 20% more neurons than males in the brain’s Broca area (the place where we produce language), and likewise have as much as 18% more volume in the Wernicke’s area (the place where we interpret language).
Research informs us that in girls, the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is generally more active than that of boys and develops at an earlier age. For this reason, scientists believe girls tend to make fewer impulsive decisions than boys do. Furthermore, girls have more serotonin in the bloodstream and the brain, which is believed to make them biochemically less impulsive.
Awareness: emotional versus spatial
Girls generally use more cortical areas of their brains for verbal and emotive functioning whereas boys tend to use more cortical areas of the brain for abstract spatial and mechanical functioning, such as watching and manipulating objects that move through physical space and understanding abstract mechanical concepts.
The brain is however only the beginning, meaning that it is not hard wired to achieve a predefined outcome. The brain is flexible and so, as children grow, they build and prune neural connections between synapses.
Although breakthroughs in neuroscience tell us that the brains of baby girls and boys are distinctly different, the environment we each grow up in is equally important. As parents, I believe we have an ongoing role and we can potentially have the greatest impact on the way in which each of our children develop.
Observing and taking note of the differences between our children, whether they be boys or girls, is I believe, the first step towards recognising the importance of individuality. The next step is taking time to understand these subtle differences so that we can take a positive approach to meeting every child’s needs. We can do this by allowing children to participate in new experiences and by exposing them to a rich learning environment, giving them an opportunity to refine and hone newly developed skills.
It is equally as important for parents to acknowledge that certain types of misbehaviour might be linked to biology rather than deliberate disobedience. We should therefore avoid labelling or categorising what our children do since we risk restricting our child’s capability or interests. Instead, we should ensure we give our children new ways in which to express themselves and by doing so, we validate what they have to say, allow them to develop in confidence and enable them to fulfil their natural potential.