Boys and Girls: Are They Different?

Renée Fuller, Ph.D.

Copyright © 2007 by Renée Fuller

     The feminists of the 1960s and 70s were certain that "society" was responsible for the differences in personality and intellectual aptitudes of women and men – boys and girls. But the parents of the children I worked with thought otherwise. They were convinced that their little boys were born with greater aggressiveness, higher activity levels than their sisters or other little girls. And then there was the difference in toy preference. To the horror of many of the pacifist parents their little boys wanted guns, tanks and other warlike paraphernalia with which even angel-faced little boys played war games with great glee. These same little boys despised the dolls their sisters cuddled.

     Sometimes I think Andy was programmed to make war." Was the comment of one mother. The father indicated his unhappy agreement. For these parents there was no question that biological gender divergences were responsible for the differences in personality, intellectual preoccupation, and activity level. Even those parents who prior to parenthood had been feminists, on becoming parents were now convinced that it was nature not nurture that created the personality, interest and aptitude differences between males and females. After spending almost ten years examining and testing children for my research I found myself agreeing with these parents that nature was the driving force that was producing the gender differences.

     But that conclusion looked questionable when sometime later a group of young psychiatrists I was training in neonatal neurological examination manifested what seemed like highly prejudicial behavior. As I watched these young men and women chatter with the infants I was first astonished, then appalled. If the infant they were examining was a girl they talked to her in a high pitched voice. However, when the infant was a boy it was closer to their normal or even a deeper voice. Both the men and the women psychiatrists performed in this way: in what seemed both ludicrous and prejudicial.

     However, to my utter astonishment, when I listened to myself while I was demonstrating the testing of the infants, I too had a different voice pitch depending on the gender of the newborn. My psychiatrist students and I discussed our obviously biased behavior. As a group we made the decision that in the future we would make certain to use the same voice pitch regardless of the infant's gender. But as we concentrated on examining an infant we kept slipping back into a gender specific voice pitch. Even those psychiatrist who had no younger sibs, who had never dealt with infants, nevertheless had the high pitched voice for female newborns and a much deeper voice for the male ones. Were we already imprinting these infants into their subsequent gender roles? Did this imply that gender differences were indeed a function of nurture or "society" as the early feminists had claimed?

     At the time I concluded that gender differences must represent a biological feedback loop between nature and nurture. Nature, a function of our genetic makeup, was determining the hormone mix and resulting changes in brain organization that was acting as a driving force that influenced activity and aggression levels. Nurture in turn, with its powerful societal pressures, would then function to give specific shape to the gender role. And because human societies vary, different cultures would affect how the feminine and masculine roles are played out. On an individual level it seemed probable that our personal experiences with gender differences would lead to expectations which as parents and teachers would induce us to push children even further into their proper gender slots. But before long I was to find out that there are more, more intricacies, involved in the gender story.

     These greater intricacies arise because not only can experience (i.e. nurture) also produce changes in brain organization, but how great and the extent of these changes often depends on whether they are experienced in childhood or later on. As the ethologist Niko Tinbergen reported with numerous bird species, the extent to which nurture can determine what gives the appearance of nature frequently depends on the chronology, the age, at which the "imprinting" has occurred. A human example of a form of imprinting is the ease with which a new language is learned during childhood. In contrast after puberty this same task usually becomes a difficult chore. And so it is the rare individual who can readily learn a new language as an adult without having an accent that immediately elicits the label "foreigner."

     But according to present-day test data, nature lays a claim for the gender differences that are reflected in the ease and facility with which language is acquired during childhood. In general, females have a greater language proficiency at an earlier age than do males. To some extent this superiority in language communication appears to be maintained into adulthood. However, several centuries ago the reverse was held to be true. Females were presumed to have inferior language facility: and indeed there were almost no female writers. The explanation at the time, and contrary to present-day test data, was that the dearth of female poets and writers was because women lacked the language proficiency that would make it possible for them to express themselves in an advanced verbal or written format - with rare exceptions of course.

     Nowadays, aggregate female test results show females as having greater verbal facility than males. However, the reverse holds for visual-spatial ability, with males in the aggregate having higher test scores than females. The difference is presumed to explain why there are so many more men in fields such as science, engineering, architecture and spatial design. However, although men have higher test scores than women on spatial tests, these are the same skills that are required in Persian rug weaving – something which women in many oriental countries have done since childhood and in which they excel. My conclusion?: some skills learned early in life produce changes in the brain that alter the aptitude in the performance of that skill in later life. So the assumption that the difference in test scores are a simple reflection of genetic-based gender may be spurious. Instead such differences may reflect at what age something has been learned as well as hormones and brain organization that have a genetic base.

     I myself had an amusing experience with respect to the age at which various skills are learned. As an adult I had come to dread and avoid delivery items with the label "some assembly required." Even the simplest items were often met with confusion or failed construction. It led me to count on male colleagues who would laugh at my failures and fix them. And yet one of these same colleagues taking care of my dogs while I was away found that my extra simple can-opener was too mysterious to work for him. He had to bring in his electric one from home.

     On my return we had a good laugh. It was apparent that as a child I had had plenty of experience with female chores in the kitchen and dexterity chores such as knitting and crocheting. Although expectation would lead one to assume that these required the same abilities necessary for "some assembly required," such was obviously not the case. Similarly my colleague's ability with "assembly required" should have made the use of a simple can-opener self-evident: this also was not the case.

     In our present-day culture, the difference on intelligence and aptitude tests between most girls and boys are already apparent in kindergarten; becoming even more pronounced in elementary school. Testing in the elementary grades shows a difference in language and math performance between the genders. Because most little boys test more poorly in language development than girls, this difference has become the generally accepted reason why so many boys have difficulty learning to read. It is also the presumed reason why a larger number of boys rather than girls are diagnosed with dyslexia and learning disability.

     But need those dyslexia and learning disability diagnoses necessarily be predictive? Our findings with the Ball-Stick-Bird reading system demonstrated the fallacy of this assumption. In our research we successfully taught reading to 26 female and male research students, ranging in IQ from 30 to 68, even though they had previously failed to learn most of the alphabet after a minimum of ten years of special education schooling with Masters level teachers. These same students learned not only the alphabet, but more important, they had learned to read with comprehension in a surprisingly short time. Our findings were presented in a three-hour symposium at the Annual Meeting of the American Psychological Association. Since then the results have been replicated with students ranging in age from 4 to 40, including with numerous homeschoolers. Despite these findings, the educational establishment continues to hang on to dyslexia and learning disability diagnoses, as well as the belief that the test results reflect the poorer language ability of boys compared to girls.

     What is it about this particular reading system that has made learning to read such an easy learning experience, even for those boys who had been diagnosed as dyslexic, learning disabled or even retarded? Our research results demonstrated that it is indeed possible for a reading system to bypass the problems that the intelligence and reading tests have highlighted; test results that have served as the explanation for the large numbers of children, especially boys, who are having difficulty learning to read.

     The innovations of this teaching approach that appear to explain why the expected differences in who has difficulty learning to read failed to apply fall roughly into six categories. They are: (1) Demonstrating how the alphabet can be built with three basic forms, thereby facilitating alphabet recognition. (2) Showing how a word can be built already with the presentation of the second letter. (3) Building simple sentences with the presentation of the fourth letter. (4) Starting a fast moving action-oriented space odyssey with the simple sentences that have been built starting with the presentation of the fourth letter: (5) Further building excitement and curiosity as to what will happen next in the developing story. (6) From the first lesson on reading is for context. That way the student doesn't have to wait to learn to read, finding instead that reading has already happened.

     The fascination with building has long been presumed to have a special appeal for boys, almost to the exclusion of its appeal for girls. The fascination for the building aspects of the reading system did indeed hold for boys. However, contrary to the expected gender difference the same was also true for girls. They too, right from the start when shown how the alphabet is built, and then how to build words that help in building sentences that further the story, demonstrated a fascination with the building process. There were no gender differences in the rapidity with which reading was learned or the sophistication of story comprehension.

     Striking were the advances in intellectual development following our successful reading intervention in our retarded research population. Again there were no gender differences. In our retarded research population Chester was representative. He was the one who explained to me that the system had taught him how written language, and language in general, is built. As he explained: "It's like building a house." For Chester and for our other research students learning to read produced an explosion in the use of language and in their desire and ability to talk. How great such changes in intellectual development would be for a normal or superior IQ group following intervention with this system awaits further research.

     Finally, this leads to the importance of gender differences in presumed taste of early reading material. Boys frequently resist reading what many have called "little girl" books. They fail to connect with the sweet books about dolls or even little animals. Instead their interest lies in adventure, even conflict. To my surprise, the emphasis on conflict and adventure also appealed to our modern little girls. Have times changed? Does that mean that there is a diminished gender difference at least with respect to story content?

     Since both girls and boys were immediately fascinated with one of the main character of the series, Vad of Mars who has rockets for feet, that seemed like the logical conclusion. However, when asked why they liked Vad so much the responses showed a definite gender difference. The boys sought to identify themselves with the hero Vad. In an almost stereotyped fashion they imagined themselves as a similar rescuing champion. One of our homeschool students, who had been introduced to Vad at age four, years later, wrote a college paper with the title "What Vad of Mars meant to me." It was a veritable male rendition of the hero.

     Although the girls were equally fascinated with the adventures of Vad, they did not identify with him. Rather they expressed an interest, approaching a crush for this male figure that came to the rescue of those in need. One amused mother laughingly said: "Actually I agree with Sue. Vad is a real male. And real males are nurturers. We see him on the cover of HAPPY SACKS SPIN holding a large group of adoring Happy Sacks in a huge embrace. He had just rescued them. He's the opposite of the belligerent, abusive male. I share my daughter's taste in males." At that the mother laughed some more.

     Although there were gender differences in the identification with and the appeal of the various story characters, there were no gender differences with respect to the importance of immediate immersion in story reading – already with the presentation of the fourth letter. Retarded Bob pointed out the importance of story context, which he said taught him not only to read, but above all how to think. His emphatic explanation of the importance teaching reading through immediate immersion in story context led to my later development of "the story as the engram" theory.

     It is striking that the critical importance of story context has turned out to be gender neutral. Regardless of whether we are male or female, basic to our cognitive organization is the contextual structure of the story. And so the gender differences, which mean so much to us emotionally, turn out to be surprisingly superficial.


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© 2002 Renée Fuller
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