Parents play a vital role in their children’s concepts of what is and isn’t genderappropriate behaviour. The problem with stereotyping the sexes is that it can limit or even restrain your child’s individual preferences and abilities.

When parents keep the sex of their baby a surprise until birth, it is the first piece of information they receive on the arrival of their bundle of joy, and it is the very first question most family and friends ask. According to the classic nursery rhyme, little boys are made of “Snips and snails, and puppy-dogs’ tails”, while the recipe for little girls combines a far softer and sweeter blend of “Sugar and spice, and everything nice.”  Even in modern-day reality, gender-labelling of babies normally assigns ‘tough’ metaphors to boys, such as ‘tiger’ or ‘big guy’ and parents are likely to comment on the vigour of his cries, kicks and grasps. By contrast, infant girls are more likely to be called ‘angel’ or ‘sweetie pie’. Gender coaching continues from early infancy onwards as children are provided with gender-appropriate toys, clothing and hairstyles. Parents also play differently with and expect different reactions from their sons and daughters.

Development of gender concept

According to clinical psychologist, Joanna Kleovoulou from PsychMatters Family Therapy Centre in Bedforview , “Even from a very young age, children seem to be predisposed to certain gender inclinations.”

The first step in gender-identity development is to identify males from females and to place oneself in one of these categories. By 4 months old, infants have already begun to match male and female voices with faces and by the end of the first year, they can reliably discriminate between photographs of men and women (if the woman in the photo has long hair). Between ages 2 and 3, children begin to tell us what they know about gender, as they acquire and correctly use labels such as ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ and ‘boy’ and ‘girl’. “By 2½ to 3 years of age, most children can accurately label themselves as either boys or girls, although it takes them longer to grasp the fact that gender is a permanent attribute,” says Kleovoulou. This is why 3 to 5-year-olds think moms can become dads, or a person who changes clothing and hairstyles can turn into the opposite sex. Between the ages of 5 and 7, children normally begin to understand that sex is an unchanging attribute.


Gender-role socialisation begins very early as parents provide their infants with ‘gender-appropriate’ clothing, hairstyles and toys. Gender typing, the process by which a child becomes aware of his or her gender and acquires motives, values and behaviour considered appropriate for members of that sex, is influenced by three factors: gender identity, gender stereotypes and gender-typed behaviour.

  1. Gender identity: development of the knowledge that one is either a boy or a girl and that gender is an unchanging attribute.
  2. Gender-role stereotypes: ideas about what males and females are ‘supposed’ to be like.
  3. Gender-typed behaviour: the development of gender-typed patterns or behaviour, that is, the tendency to favour same-sex activities over those normally associated with the opposite sex.
Age  Gender identity  Gender stereotype  Gender-typed behaviour
0 – 2½  * Ability to discriminate
males from females emerges and improves* Child accurately labels self as a boy or girl
 * Some gender stereotypes emerge, for example, boys like to play with cars and girls talk a lot  * Gender-typed toy preferences  emerge* Preference for same-sex playmates emerges
3 – 7  * Conservation of gender (gender permanence) emerges: realisation that a boy can’t change into a girl  * Gender stereotyping of interests, activities and occupations become quite rigid  * Gender-typed toy preferences become stronger, particularly for boys* Gender segregation intensifies


“Most sex differences are not biologically inevitable – culture and social influences play an important role in the development of males and females,” Kleovoulou says. The influences, which are as diverse as hormones to pop culture, all have an impact on how a child will develop gender identity.

Born to play with trains?

It is a blow to every parent who thought vigilance and encouragement could convince a girl to play as easily with a toy truck as a dollhouse, to discover that their child seems to be predisposed to playing with certain toys above others. Research indicates that toy choices are influenced by the level of testosterone in the foetus during pregnancy. Although amounts may vary individually even within the same gender, higher concentrations may predispose the majority of boys to behave more aggressively, enjoy rougher games and engage in more mechanical and mobile activities.

The urge to imitate

Biology can only go so far in explaining a child’s preferences. Studies show that most of us treat our children differently from birth, such as encouraging a son to be brave and strong, or talking to a daughter more frequently. “Inevitably, the social role Mom and Dad play also have a definite influence on defining gender roles,” says Kleovoulou. The boy whose testosterone helped hard-wire his brain also has a father and relatives who model male behaviour for him every day and unknowingly encourage it. The same goes for mothers, daughters and female behaviour. Sometimes our signals can be so subtle we hardly notice it. My son has a baby doll and male relatives in the family are quite comfortable with the fact that he has this little ‘baby’. However, they hardly ever engage in playing with it together with him. Invariably, they will instead encourage ‘boy’ games: tossing a ball, riding a bike or playing pretend-dinosaurs.

The culture factor

Television, movies and books tend to reinforce gender stereotyping of certain activities. Instinctively, a little girl watching a commercial in which boys delight over a toy train-set, will pick up on the subtext:
this isn’t a toy for girls.

A very young world-view

“From the age of 3, children instinctively figure out the world by virtually sorting everything they encounter into mental categories. And until they begin to develop more complex reasoning skills, usually by age 7, there’s little room for ambiguity in their way of thinking,” Kleovoulou says. For example: boys are dirty and wear shorts, and girls have long hair and throw tea parties. And everyone, including themselves, must behave in said fashion to qualify as a member of their sex.

The power of peers

The predisposition to viewing things without nuance is magnified by groups of similarly inclined kids, whether on the playground or in preschool. Most kids band together in same-sex groups, and tease those of the opposite group. “Girls are gross” and “Green is a boy’s colour” is how things go in a child’s world. Social taboos also kick in and children want to feel they belong. This also explains why boys may become more traditionally masculine in the company of their peers.


If you have a Superman or Buzz Lightyear doll at home, you have probably already learned that boys love action-adventure – both watching it and being part of it. “But surprisingly, boys are also more emotional than typical stereotypes give them credit for,” Kleovoulou says. Here are some of the milestones and traits you can expect.

  • They like motion: Boys prefer to watchmechanical motion over human motion. Research shows that given the choice between watching people talk or windshield wipers move, 1-year-old boys always chose the objects over the people.
  • They’ve got the moves: Boys are more likely to hit all the major motor milestones sooner than girls, ie. walking, kicking and jumping. During preschool years, boys also outpace girls in physical abilities.
  • They’re more emotional than you think: Recent research shows evidence that boys tend to be more easily agitated and harder at self-soothing than girls.
  • They love a crowd: Boys prefer looking at groups of faces rather than individual people. In fact, even a newborn baby boy would rather look at a mobile than a single face.
  • They’re comparatively fearless: Boys express fear later than girls, and less often. A recent survey revealed boys aged 3 – 12 months were much less likely to be startled by loud noises or stimuli than girls.


Raising a little lady? “Then prepare your-self for long chat sessions, as they love communicating with you,” Kleovoulou says. Here are other characteristics that will blossom in a girl:

  • Girls are made to mimic: As early as the age of 3, girls excel at imitation, a pre-cursor to interaction. As toddlers, little girls zoom ahead of boys on imitative behaviour such as pretending to take care of a baby, but interestingly, they are no different from little boys when it comes to pretending to drive a car or water plants, actions that are much less about human interaction.
  • They’re good with their hands: Girls exceed boys at fine motor tasks. They’re faster to manipulate toys, use eating utensils and also draw sooner.
  • They are better listeners: Girls are more attuned to the sound of human voices, and seem to prefer the sound to any other, a recent study reveals.
  • They love face time: Girls are more likely to establish and maintain eye contact, and are attracted to individual faces. They are also better at reading emotional expressions.
  • They are talkers: All the watching and lis-tening pays off – girls are quicker at using gestures, understanding language and talking than boys, reveals a study of children aged 8 to 30 months.


We are all aware that statements such as “All girls love dresses” are not necessarily true. Everyone knows at least one little tomboy who can climb a tree as well as any boy her age. There are, however, a few reliable differences between the sexes that can be consistently supported with research.

Verbal ability

Research done by Bornstein and Haynes in 1998, ‘Development in Infancy: An Introduction’, which studied vocabulary competence in early childhood, by measurement, latent construction and predictive validity, shows girls have greater verbal abilities than boys. “Girls acquire language and develop verbal skills at an earlier age than boys and display a small, but consistent verbal advantage on tests of reading comprehension and speech fluency throughout childhood to adolescence,” Kleovoulou comments. Studies also reveal that parts of the femalebrain that process language are more densely packed with nerve cells than corresponding parts of the male brain. This may explain why girls often begin talking a few
months earlier than boys do and usually have better verbal skills. “Girls string words together earlier and their sentences are longer and more complex. They also generally outperform boys in reading
and writing”.

Visual and spatial abilities

The part of the brain that handles space perception is bigger in males – and this may explain why boys are better at thinking about objects in three dimensions. A French study recently revealed that 21% of 2-year-old boys could build a bridge of blocks, but only 8% of girls could.

A US-based study revealed that boys outperform girls in visual and spatial abilities, that is, the ability to draw references about or to otherwise mentally manipulate pictorial information. The male advantage in special abilities is not large, although it is detectable from as early as age 4 and persists across the lifespan. Better spatial perception could explain why boys are attracted to toys, such as trucks, balls and anything else that can be propelled through space. Girls generally prefer dolls (although not single-mindedly), possibly because girls pay more attention to people, while boys are more enthralled with mechanical objects. Better 3D thinking could also explain why boys typically start walking two to three months earlier than girls do and outperform them in motor skills such as jumping and running. However, parts of the brain responsible for fine-motor skills mature more slowly in boys. Girls tend to outpace boys in finger work such as painting, holding a crayon, zipping a jacket and learning to write.

Mathematical ability

Beginning in adolescence, boys show a small but consistent advantage over girls in mathematical reasoning. According to research done in 1997 entitled ‘Sex Differences in Intelligence: Implications for Education’, girls actually exceed boys in computational skills, but boys acquire more mathematical problem-solving strategies that enable them to outperform on complex word-problems, geometry and mathematics.


Boys are physically and verbally more aggressive than girls, starting as early as age 2, and are about 10 times more likely than girls to be involved in antisocial behaviour during adolescence. However, girls are more likely to display covert forms of hostility towards others by snubbing or ignoring them or trying to undermine their relationships or social status, shows a study done in 1997, ‘Relational and Overt Aggression in Preschool’.


  • Activity level: Even before they are born, boys are more physically active than girls and they remain so throughout childhood, especially when interacting with peers, shows a 1996 study: ‘Foetal Neuro-Behavioural Development’. In fact the heightened activity boys display may help to explain why they are more likely than girls to initiate and to be receptive to non-aggressive, rough-and-tumble play.
  • Fear, timidity and risk-taking: As early as the first year of life, girls appear to be more fearful or timid in certain situations than boys. They are also more cautious, less aggressive and take far fewer risks than boys do.
  • Developmental vulnerability: From conception, boys are more physically vulnerable than girls to prenatal- and perinatal hazards and the effects of disease. Boys are also more at risk of displaying a variety of developmental problems, including reading disabilities, speech defects, hyperactivity, emotional disorders and mental retardation, reveals the ‘Sex Differences in Intelligence: Implications for Education’ study.
  • Emotional expressivity and sensitivity: Females appear to be more emotionally expressive than males. Two-year-old girls are already using more emotion related words than boys of the same
    age. Parents and teachers also talk more with girls than with boys about emotions and memorable emotional events – which could possibly explain why girls and women characterise their emotions more intensely than boys and men do, reveals a study done in 1998, ‘Labels and explanations in Mother-Child Emotion Talk: Age and Gender Differentiation’. The evidence for sex differences in nurturance and empathy is mixed. Girls and women consistently rate themselves as more nurturing and emphatic than their male counterparts. Yet boys often appear no less empathetic or compassionate than girls in naturalistic settings, and show at least as much affection towards pets and older relatives as girls do.
  • Compliance: From as early as pre-school, girls are more compliant than boys when requests and demands are made by parents, caregivers and teachers. When trying to persuade others to comply, girls are inclined to rely on tact and polite suggestions, while boys are more likely to resort to demanding and controlling strategies.

Gender and stereotypes

Although you may not realise it, your child is constantly bombarded with gender stereotypes – oversimplified ideas about how males and females are ‘supposed’ to act. These messages come from the
media through television, movies, books and even things such as children’s clothing and toys.

The problem with gender stereotypes are that they limit children to gender-based roles that often don’t account for a child’s individual likes and abilities. “As early as 2 – 3 years old, little boys are often told they shouldn’t cry. Stereotypes like this can prevent your son from developing softer elements in his personality which can benefit him as a human being,” says Kleovoulou.

Avoiding gender stereotypes

The first step for parents is to be more thoughtful about gender roles and to consider what messages they want to send to their children. What values do you want your son and daughter to have? Once you have a clear idea of what message you want to send, you can make smarter, everyday decisions based on whether they support that message.

  • Worry less about what other people think. Focus more on your child’s individual needs and abilities and don’t fret about whether he’ll be teased for his choices. For instance, if your son wants to take dance classes, don’t let your fear of him being teased stop you from signing him up.
  • Avoid making stereotypical statements. Saying things like, “Big boys don’t cry”, or “Little girls shouldn’t race around on bikes” may seem harmless, but they do perpetuate unhealthy gender stereotypes.
  • Minimise emphasis on appearance and maximise emphasis on skills. Girls get more compliments on their appearance than anything else. Be sure to recognise your daughter’s achievements and abilities. If your daughter shows you a drawing, instead of just saying how pretty it looks, say something like, “Wow, I can see you really put a lot of thought into that”.
  • Monitor your child’s media consumption. Be aware of what your kids are watching and listening to, and the messages they are getting. Talk to them about what they are hearing and seeing.


  • Emphasise intelligence, hard work, independence, sensitivity and perseverance. Downplay the importance of appearance and looks.  Allow your daughter to develop real interests, abilities and skills.
  • Set as high expectations for your daughter as for your son. Encourage determination, ambition and goals.
  • Teach healthy competition. Encourage the exhilaration of winning, but don’t always let girls win. Winning builds confidence, losing builds character.
  • Encourage your daughter to seek role models in successful women. Help her to be comfortable with maths from preschool by including counting, measuring and scoring activities into play. Teach spatial skills through puzzles, games and building activities.
  • Be an active role-model for learning and developing your own career. Encourage leadership opportunities, responsibilities and make time to talk with and listen to your daughter daily.


  • Tenderness is learned by receiving it. From babyhood and onwards, show and teach your son tenderness, sensitivity and affection. The real lessons about relationships are already learned by
    age 3.
  • Communicate with him often. Spend time engaging in conversations with your son. Speak to him about his experiences, emotions and day-to-day activities. Encourage him to talk to you and to nurture social skills.
  • Spend lots of time together. Make time to organise family outings, holidays or even simple activities such as playing a game.
  • Encourage your son to help with chores around the house. Allow him to help you in the kitchen and give him simple tasks such as mixing ingredients.
  • Find ways for him to release physical energy. Allow him to play and run outside. Engage in ball games and outdoor activities. Give him an outlet for his testosterone and encourage sport participation.
  • The crucial thing to remember for parents of both sexes is: “A parent plays a vital role in the development of a child. Providing a safe and secure environment, in which he or she can safely explore his or her gender, personality, interests and abilities, is more important than any stereotypical ideas of what boys and girls are ‘supposed’ to be like,” says Kleovoulou. Provide them with the setting to explore and grow as their own unique little being. Who knows? Your son who loves pottering around in the kitchen with you might just be the next celebrity chef!

Resources and recommended reading

  • Developmental Psychology by David R. Shaffer, Wadsworth Group, 2002
  • Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different – And How To Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men by Steve Biddulph, Finch Publishing, 1997
  • Raising Girls: Why Girls Are Different – And How To Help Them Grow Up Happy and Strong by Gisela Preuschoff, Finch Publishing, 2004

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