Why do boys play women

Boys and girls play differently. Is that in your systems - or is that something you have learned to do?

On the one hand, of course: why should we be surprised? From the point of view of evolution, men and women have different tasks in life (for example, it was always the women who had children and at least fed them at the beginning of life). No wonder that the development of boys and girls is sometimes different - in their development, boys and girls also prepare for the life tasks to be expected in the typical context of the species. From an evolutionary point of view, the genders are therefore actually specialized in partially different challenges. No wonder that they differ not only below the neck, but also above the neck, as the American psychologist Steve Pinker once said.

These differences exist from the start. Nobody has worked this out better than the English psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, who has already found clear differences in behavior between the sexes in his research on newborns (if you are interested, here is an interview with Baron-Cohen)

So far, so banal. But from the point of view of evolution, the discussion does not stand still - the “gender debate” was often so unproductive because that was precisely what it did. Yes, boys are different from girls - but what does that mean? Does that mean that boys and girls have certain roles set are?

From an evolutionary point of view, this must be denied. From the point of view of evolution, the development path of girls and boys is biologically influenced, but not biologically determined. For several reasons:

First. People are different in all possible areas of behavior. Some are introverted, others extroverted, some shy, others are daredevils. There are always fluid transitions between these behavioral extremes. Most people are NOT particularly daredevils and they are not particularly shy either - they are somewhere in between. This also applies to gender-specific behavior. Not every boy exhibits the same level of “masculine” behavior, and not every girl exhibits the same level of “feminine” behavior - there are many boys who act like “typical boys”, but there are also many who just don't to do. And the behavioral differences within the sexes (i.e. from girl to girl or from boy to boy) are often greater than the differences between the sexes (i.e. between boys and girls as a whole). But if you look at the genders on average, you can see the differences: boys are on average More interested in "object manipulation" (playing with things), girls in social games. Girls are on average linguistically more competent and sensitive, guys on average physically more aggressive and gross motor skills. Guys are on average less "developmentally stable" (in German, there are more developmental problems, and that on all levels - physically, emotionally, linguistically, cognitively ...) than girls are on average "Socially more accurate", that is, more competent in dealing with others. But, as I said: none of that says much in relation to the individual child - there are boys who are more socially competent, more empathetic and more gifted in fine motor skills than most girls, and vice versa ... The “typically female” and the “typically male “Brain processes are, so to speak, in different forms in every brain.

Secondly. From the point of view of evolution, the innate predispositions are nothing more than a starting point for further learning. For Homo sapiens, this learning is the most important tool for survival - he does not get very far with his abilities alone! Only by developing and testing new behaviors can humans cope with their constantly new and changing environment. Every boy and every girl on earth is constantly learning new behaviors, and this also applies to their behavior as a “typical boy” or “typical girl” - this is redefined with every generation and with every cultural change. Even original cultures differ greatly in their assessment of the role a “typical man” has to play (in some tribes, for example, fathers are heavily involved in baby care, in others not at all). And 50 years ago, a man pushing a stroller was considered a poor wimp ...

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How “free” are children to define their gender roles? How open-ended is gender-specific learning? Not as free as some theorists of gender research assume. A core of our behavior cannot be erased through cultural learning. Because our systems also have a say in cultural learning. Some learning steps are - on average - easier for one sex than for the other. Boys and girls also differ in the way they learn and which learning goals seem attractive to them. There is no job that only girls or only boys “can” - and yet it is a utopia that we will one day have a gender balance in all professions! It will always be the case that some tasks seem more rewarding to the average male Homo sapiens than to an average female ... In short: From the perspective of evolution, gender-specific behavior is neither fixed nor freely malleable.

Third. Which STATUS is ascribed to the sexes in a society has nothing to do with biology. In human history, which was 99% a history of highly mobile, hunting and collecting groups, an egalitarian (equal) gender model prevailed. That changed suddenly, especially with the development of herding, which completely changed the previous division of labor - it was now the men who took care of the protection of the herds and the nourishment of the clan. The women (who now also had to leave their familiar family ties with the marriage) became powerless and reduced to their motherhood. Even today, the status of women in society is related to their socio-economic role. The role that the sexes play in a society is not a question of their biology but actually a question of their social power or options.

Back to the children playing. From an evolutionary point of view, you don't have to get cold feet when you see ancient patterns. Boys and girls sometimes have different preferences and sometimes different talents - so they play different games. And they should be allowed to do that too - a child follows an inner agenda when playing, this is the only way that games "work" at all. Yes, our boys today play (on average) like boys have always played, and girls (on average) have always played like girls. What role they play later in life is not mapped out - otherwise we would have far too many firefighters and police officers (and we would certainly have more offspring, as much as young girls play with dolls ...).

On the way to his adult role, the child will have to face many cultural crossings. These are created anew with each generation. The developing person is not entirely free in the choice of direction, but, as I said, not entirely determined either. As long as the child's learning environment remains open and flexible, children cannot learn all possible roles, but they can learn a wide variety of roles. This also applies to their gender roles.


This article is based on the book by the pediatrician and scientist Dr. Herbert Renz-Polster: “Children understand. Born to be wild - how evolution shapes our children ". It describes the development of children from the perspective of evolutionary behavioral research.