Nature vs. Nurture: Why Are Males & Females So Different?

Conflict bad relationships concept. Two people couple pointing fingers at each other
Conflict bad relationships concept. Two people couple pointing fingers at each other

I am the youngest of three girls. And my parents kind of had a gender role reversal of sorts. My mom was the disciplinarian, the one in charge, and the one who rarely showed emotion. My dad, on the other hand, was sensitive, emotional, and nurturing. Never having brothers, I didn't have any males other than my dad to see masculine behavior demonstrated for me.

Then, when I found out that my first child was going to be a boy I thought, "What the heck am I going to do with a boy?! I hate sports!" I had virtually no experience with being around young boys. What was I going to do?

And along came my second child. You guessed it -- another boy! In fact, I remember calling my sister after my ultrasound (when we found out), and I said to her, "It's another stinky boy!" Of course, I was being funny about the stinky part. But once again, I found myself thinking, "Oh God please help me -- two boys!"

I quickly calmed myself down. You see, I am a professor who teaches gender communication. I thought I had it covered. I was thinking, "Not a problem. Boys don't have to be animals -- they can be socialized to be gentle, kind, and empathetic." In other words, I believed that gender behavior was a result of how humans are socialized.

Well, I was partially right. I genuinely believed this up until the boys (who are exactly two years apart in age) starting hitting each other. I thought, "How can this be?! No one has ever laid a hand on them in their lives -- not even spanking! Where did they learn this aggressive behavior?!"

Then it dawned on me. But it should have dawned on me much sooner, but I guess you can say I was in denial. I studied this. I wrote about this. And most of all, I taught this for many years! So why was I so surprised?

You see, what I was surprised about was how much "nature" was at work. I was thinking, "Does nature really trump nurture? Is it really possible that because my kids are boys that somehow they are genetically programmed for aggression and competition?" I don't want to give you the wrong impression. They are really not aggressive kids at all -- especially now that they are older. And their aggression was only aimed at each other, which is actually very normal for siblings. But I thought my kids would be different!

And so it goes...the big "Nature vs. Nurture" debate in gender. In other words, why are males and females so different? No one can deny that both are at work. We are simply born with different bodies, different hormones, and quite literally, different brains. So there is a strong argument for the "nature" side of the debate.

But there is also strong evidence for the "nurture" part too. Social Learning Theory suggests that children model the behavior that they see in their environment. And that's why I was so shocked when my boys started to hit one another -- it contradicted this fact! But regardless, the theory does prove to be true, even in the case of my kids (they don't hit each other anymore). For example, let's say a parent smokes, but tells their kids not to smoke. Research shows that it's more likely that the child will end up smoking because they saw the parent do it. Therefore, it's like the saying goes: "Actions speak louder than words."

I don't know anyone who hasn't had a problem with the opposite sex -- simply because we're different. The topic of gender differences is so popular that it made the book Men Are From Mars Women Are From Venus one of the most popular books of the 1990s (it sold more hard copies than any other book other than the Bible). Although the book was very stereotypical, it obviously touched many people - its popularity proves this.

The "Nature vs. Nurture" debate will probably never be solved. Both are at play. It might be better to ask which one simply has more of an influence, because both are part of the formation of a person.

But here's what you need to know. It doesn't really matter. As human beings, we like to polarize everything. For example, "All men are like this. All women are like this. All white people are like this. All rich people are like this." You get the point. But that's obviously very stereotypical. Instead, we need to realize that regardless of whether someone is male or female, you have to experience them as an individual. Someone can be male but have more feminine behaviors than a woman, and vice versa (just like my parents). And gender behavior has nothing to do with sexual orientation either.

"Gender" and "Sex" are different. Sex is the biological characteristics of a person. And gender is a set of behaviors, attitudes, and psychology.

So if you're having problems with someone of the opposite sex, I encourage you to dig deeper and try to understand them as an individual. Ask questions about their parents and how they grew up. Although differences are difficult to endure, I always find that if you seek to understand the other person, then it's a lot easier to accept the way they are, whether you like it or not. There are many ways we need to understand each other, and gender behaviors are just one of them.