Thursday, 17 April 2014

Budding baby feminists

I always assumed that the differences between boys and girls didn't become apparent until they were a few years old, non-anatomically speaking.

When my brother and I were growing up, our parents were careful to treat us the same and didn't steer us towards any particular type of toy. My brother was soon requesting guns and cars, while I favoured more sedate pastimes. But we were past infancy, and so subject to wider influences than just our parents - might not our ideas of what toys we wanted to play with come from our observations of the world around us?

Since I had a baby girl, I have started to notice apparent differences between the genders from the very first days of life.

Crying like a girl

After my baby was born I began to pay attention to the way babies cry. Within 24 hours of her birth I could identify my daughter's cry with my eyes closed in a busy hospital ward. I didn't have confidence in this ability, so I still kept checking, even when it wasn't her. But when she wailed, I knew it.

I learnt that not only do babies' cries vary hugely, but that boy and girl cries are very different. The baby boys I know have much more masculine cries, usually deeper and louder, than the baby girls, who can be much more shrill.

While it's difficult to tell the sex of some babies (when they're dressed, obviously, and in neutral colours!), others look distinctly like boys or girls.

The baby girls I know tend to be more curious about the world, insisting on sitting up and looking about them, and less cuddly than the boys, who are more content to lounge about in their mothers' arms.

Differences between the genders shown from research include:
  • Boys like mechanical motion and are better at keeping track of moving objects
  • Girls understand language and start talking before boys
  • Boys express fear later than girls, and less often
  • Girls are better at making eye contact as newborns 
  • Girls are better at imitating, and are better with their hands
You can read more detail about these differences in 'The real difference between boys and girls'.

What does this mean?

The nature-nurture debate about what makes us who we are, whether it is ingrained in our DNA or learnt from our upbringing and experiences of the world around us, will rumble on forever. And I'm sure that our gender - the way we style ourselves as men or women - is a mixture of nature and nurture.

But these differences between baby boys and girls suggest that traits of masculinity and femininity are ingrained in us from birth. A baby girl is not just anatomically female when she is born, she already carries with her traits of her gender. Her brain is as female as her body. And from the moment she comes into the world, she is learning not just to be a human being, but to be a woman.

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