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Ask parents who've raised both a son and a daughter to list the differences in their children's development and it's likely they'll tick off a whole list. "My son was a ball of energy all the time, while my daughter could spend all afternoon with a book," or, "My daughter was an early talker, but my son was too busy playing with his puzzles to chat up the other kids."
Boys and girls develop differently in a few ways, and researchers are always studying the genes, hormones, and brain chemistry that might explain some of these differences. Of course, an individual child's development may not fit neatly within gender lines, but learning about the general ways in which boys and girls differ as they grow can help prepare parents for early childhood and beyond.
Between the big growth stages of infancy and adolescence, boys and girls grow in height and weight at about the same slow but steady rate. There aren't notable differences between the sexes until late elementary school – that's when girls start to grow taller faster, although boys catch up and exceed them within a few years.
Boys' gross motor skills (running, jumping, balancing) tend to develop slightly faster, while girls' fine motor skills (holding a pencil, writing) improve first. For this reason, girls may show an interest in art (painting, coloring, crafts) before boys.
Boys are also more physically aggressive and impulsive, as revealed by studies of their brains. The pleasure center of the brain actually lights up more for boys when they take risks. That's not to say that girls aren't active risk-takers, only that, on average, boys are more so.
Individual variation and experience matter quite a bit. Boys raised in a household where art and music are appreciated may want to learn a musical instrument rather than play soccer, and girls raised in a physically active environment may love to go rock climbing. On the other hand, some boys raised in a sporty family may prefer drawing or music, while some girls raised in an artistic environment would rather play sports.
Researchers say it's possible that sex-related genes or hormones account for the different ways the brains of boys and girls react to human speech.
More boys than girls are late talkers, and boys may use more limited vocabularies. Girls tend to be better at reading nonverbal signs, like tone of voice and expression, which also makes them better communicators early on because they can connect feelings and words faster.
On average, girls are potty trained earlier than boys, though it's unclear whether this is due to physical or social differences. (Moms usually do the training, and it may be easier for a girl to identify with someone of the same gender.) Fewer girls wet the bed too.
Girls enter puberty about one year before boys. Girls usually begin to show the first changes – a tender, nickel-sized lump under one or both nipples (breast buds) and then pubic hair – between the ages of 8 and 13. These changes precede a growth spurt, which is followed eventually by menstruation. Most girls get their first period 18 months to three years after the appearance of breast buds.
Some girls begin to show signs of puberty before age 8, and this condition is known as precocious puberty. If your daughter's breasts are developing or you notice pubic hair at age 7 or younger, let her doctor know. In most cases it doesn't signal a serious problem, but she may need testing to determine the cause and possibly receive treatment.
In boys, puberty usually begins between the ages of 9 and 14. The first sign is usually enlargement of the testicles followed by thinning and darkening of the skin on the scrotum. The scrotal skin also becomes dotted with tiny bumps, which are actually hair follicles. Pubic hairs begin to grow at the base of the penis, and the penis lengthens then widens. Boys go through a growth spurt as they progress through puberty, with most of the growth happening during late puberty.
Though it's less common, boys can also experience precocious puberty, which is defined in males as the onset of puberty before age 9.
The bottom line
Researchers continue to study the developmental differences between boys and girls and what causes them, but it's important to remember that biology alone doesn't determine the kind of son or daughter you'll have. Exposing your child to a wide range of activities and experiences is the best way to support a well-rounded, active child.