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Do Boys and Girls Play Differently? Does Gender Affect Play?

Young boys and girls have a tendency to show gender orientated behaviour during early infancy, this is then continued through childhood getting more profound as the child ages raising the question as to whether these behaviours are innate due to biological reasons or nurtured due to environmental/social reasons.

Even though it is not obviously apparent during early infancy there are some differences between the behaviour of boys and girls. These behaviours do not become apparent until their first birthday but even then they are barely noticeable; these behaviours then become more pronounced by the arrival of their second birthday, around the same time as the Ego develops according to Freud in his psycho-sexual development theory for behaviour. This suggests that gender differences comes from the development of the Id and Ego during the Oral stage where boys tend to express more aggressive behaviours such as biting and/or chewing whereas girls tend to express more docile behaviours such as suckling and/or tasting in order to satisfy the Id’s desire to taste everything in the external world.
Another theory comes from evidence based on Goldberg’s & Lewis’s 1969 study where they observed that infants at this age mimic the behaviour of the same sex parent, this would suggest that gender specific behaviour is not caused by the Id and Ego but by social learning as we observe our environment (family, media and peers) in order to develop our behaviour and personality. Although this study has been criticised for having a lack of validity since a number of others studies including; Clarke-Stewart 1973, Macoby 1973 and Brookes & Lewis 1974 have all failed to replicate the results found by Goldberg & Lewis.

It is unarguable that gender specific behaviours exist and this has been found via a number of studies including those by Fagot (1974 & 1978), Fein (1975), Smith & Daglish (1977), Ainsworth (1978), Feiring & Lewis (1979), Parke & Slaby (1983), Hartup (1983) and Turner (1991); there are others but they lack in supporting evidence and so remain unmentioned. The argument lies mainly within what are these behaviours and where do they come from?
Fagot in 1974 found that infants from the age of two start to play with certain types of toys depending on their gender; girls will opt for dressing up clothes, dancing, and toys that encourage mothering such as teddies and dolls, whereas boys will opt for transport orientated toys like trains, vans and cars but also building blocks and household items forbidden by the parents (household chemicals for example). This suggests that boys innately have a curious, constructive nature where girls have an innate nature to become mothers and want to look good. Fagot’s findings have also been supported by other studies mentioned earlier.

It has been found that boys play with more aggression than girls by Parke & Slaby and Turner (looking at research done by Ainsworth) noted that this is especially true if the boys have developed an insecure attachment and have been diagnosed as so during the strange situation. This aggression can be seen by watching boys play with building blocks they will construct towers or what they seem to be a magnificent height and then smash it with there hand or another object to hand and laugh at the whole situation of the tower falling. Also if you give an older boy a doll to play with a majority will sabotage it either by cutting off its hair or removing its limbs (much to the distress of the female owner). Again this aggression could be innate as an evolutionary throwback since in nature it is usually the males that fight for dominance, territory and hunt for food to provide for the rest of the family.
Another behaviour common of boys is they play in groups, found by Hartup in 1973, this would make since from a biological point of view as if gender specific behaviour is part of survival and is part of the evolutionary throwback then it would be safer to hunt as a group rather than go it alone where the hunter could become the hunted by larger predators.

In 1979 Feiring & Lewis found that girls are more vocal and are vocal earlier than boys in both play and interaction with each other, and are better at using their vocal skills to solve problems; this can be seen in a typical playground dispute. Girls will result to a screaming down of the opposition with a torrent of insults, bitchy remarks and attempts to shift the blame else where (or if all else fails result to the Vicky Pollard approach of “yeah…but no…but yeah…but SHUT UP!”). Whereas boys allow their anger to take control and exchange blows or threaten the other with violence of some description. This would also support the idea of biological causation since fighting would be part of defending territory and making themselves known as the ‘alpha male’ of the pack.

Turner, again looking at research by Ainsworth, noted that girls who are insecurely attached show dependant behaviours as well as compliance, constructive tendencies and less-dominating behaviours than securely attached girls. Insecurely attached boys on the other hand express aggression, assertiveness, dominance and attention-seeking behaviours whereas securely attached boys show more positive behaviours. Suggesting that gender specific behaviour has a social causation rooted within the maternal link during infancy. Huston, Lytton and Romney also support the idea for social causation of gender specific behaviours as they observed in studies in 1983 (Huston) and 1991 (Lytton and Romney) that parents treat children of different genders differently.

To conclude gender specific behaviours have both a innate biological causation and a nurtured social dimension. We all have an innate awareness of gender difference and of the behaviours necessary for survival and start to develop them from birth in order to survive and protect our families but also these behaviours are reinforced by the development of our maternal attachments, toys we are given to play with and observations of our same sex parent (assuming they are present to be observed). The idea of mimicking the same sex parent would only be reinforcing our innate behaviours since our parents would also be expressing the behaviours they ‘know’ are beneficial to the survival of the family; hence the father would show aggression as he knows this is needed to stop others attacking the family and so would the son, however the son just observes his father in order to gain reassurance that this is the correct way to behave going back to Freud’s idea of the Id, Ego conflict.

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Personality and Gender Effects on Stress Levels

In 1976 Frakenhaeuser (et al) conducted a study into how the difference between genders affects how stressors affect the body. Frakenhaeuser (et al) took a group of boys as well as a group of girls and as they went through a stressful life event, in this case a school exam period, they took urine samples from each group to record the levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline within the bloodstream.

The results of the urine samples allowed them to find out that boys would experience a larger increase of hormonal activity during stress than the girls, but also this increase would take a longer period of time to correct itself. They also were able to find out the results from the exams were the same for both groups, as was the levels of anxiety and stress. From these findings they were able to draw up the conclusions that males were able to react faster to stress, however it is females who are able to cope better with stress as their hormonal activity was hardly affected by the stressors; thus females tend to be more hardy to the effects of stress.

Although the study in not without fault. Frakenheauser’s conclusion suggests that males are more likely to develop stress-related illnesses, yet there is a lack of evidence in support this suggestion meaning that the results from the study may have been misinterpreted. Also stress management techniques has a tendency to differ between the sexes; males prefer to opt for the more active, physical approach to handling stress by using exercise. It is a well-known fact that physical exercise released increased levels of adrenaline into the bloodstream which would therefore account for the raised levels during the exam period. Whereas females prefer to opt for a more passive, social approach to handling stress by socializing with friendship networks, social groups and support groups, this option doesn’t have any affect on the body’s biochemistry but instead shuts off the sympathetic nerves in the autonomic-nervous-system allowing the parasympathetic to continue relay messages as the body remains in a relaxed state. Because of this the assumptions made from the study about how vulnerable people are to stress is risky.
On the other hand there is strength to be found in the study. Mainly it is a significant piece of evidence describing how individual differences, such as personality and gender can change the effects stressors have on us.

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