The Roles of Nature and Nurture in Competition
If my own microcosm experience of raising 3 sons and a daughter isn’t enough indication for me, recent research shows that there is a distinct gender gap between the competitiveness boys and girls demonstrate as early as three years of age. In Gender Differences in Competition Emerge Early in Life, by Matthias Sutter and Daniela Rutzler, the results of several major experiments show what I have seen in my own home – boys turn almost anything and everything into a competition.
“Mom, watch and see who does more crunches.”
“Mom, I can do 4 more pull-ups than he can do.”
“Who wants to race me to the mailbox?”
“Where is the scoreboard?”
If you’re raising sons like I am, these phrases are probably pretty familiar to you, as well as others that distinctly raise the competition bar between my boys and their testosterone laden friends who come over and hang out for the afternoon. They will find opportunities to compete in the most unique ways – who can catch the most grapes mid-air with their mouth, can belch the loudest, can climb the highest, yell the longest without taking a breath, and on, and on, and on. The girls, on the other hand, can spend 12 hours straight together and never once challenge each other to a popcorn eating contest, home-run derby, or to see who can beat their chest the loudest with their fists. It just doesn’t happen. Why?
How Does Gender Influence Competition?
The research conducted and analyzed by Sutter and Rutlzer reveal that
- There is a strong difference between the willingness of boys and girls to engage in competition.
- Even when girls are equally or more qualified, they shy away from competition if given a choice.
- Boys tend to increase their performance success rates when they are competing.
- Boys are more likely to choose competition versus non-competitive activities, even when they do not have a great likelihood of success.
In studies that looked at children between the ages of 3 and 18 years of age, the gender gap in competitiveness persisted at all age levels. However, the reasons for these differences are not as easy as just boy vs. girl. There are definitely nature and nurture components to the roles that gender plays when it comes to competitiveness.
- Hormonal fluctuations for females have been shown to dramatically impact their competitive choices.
- Students who attended girls-only schools were not as likely to decline competition opportunities as those girls who attended co-ed schools.
- Conversations observed between parents and children specifically showed differences as to how parents related to their daughters as compared to their sons when it came to competition.
- Studies show that there are structural differences in the brains of boys and girls, meaning that there is a strong likelihood that nature impacts the drive for competition among boys.
How Can I Minimize Negative Nurturing?
I’m one of those parents who believes that for the most part, my boys are biologically different when it comes to their natural drive for competition, yet I do recognize that the social components and framewords in which I raise my sons nurtures their attitudes. I am also honestly pretty competitive myself – I was the only girl on my elementary baseball team, still love to give it my all playing games, and don’t tend to back down from a challenge. I just don’t have an innate need to create competitions out of the mundane. Researchers and child psychologists say that it is important for parents to
- Give girls opportunities for competition.
- Encourage girls to compete.
- Make sure that boys know they can choose not to compete, and give them tools for declining competition.
- Treat children equally when it comes to competition – and not react negatively or overly positive for either choice.
- Find fun ways to include competition, especially for girls.
Parenting boys and girls does require different skill sets, but we can’t let gender determine everything. Those biological differences when it comes to competitiveness can’t be ignored, and we can make conscious decisions to offer balanced opportunities.