Almost from the moment she could reach one tiny hand forward, my daughter, Layla, preferred all things pink and sparkling. Her twin brother, Nolan, veered toward trucks and anything else that beeped or moved. Pretty stereotypical boy and girl behavior -- except when it wasn't. Because my husband, Scott, and I would just as often find Layla building intricate bridges and towers while Nolan strapped on ladybug wings and raced around the apartment pushing a baby stroller.
Five years later, Layla remains the girlie girl, encircling herself with Barbies and bling. Nolan loves to watch his cars speed through the living room and builds imaginative machines with his Tinkertoy set. But the gender and behavior lines are often blurred: Layla is also a complete daredevil on the monkey bars, and Nolan is my biggest helper when it comes to baking. Still, I have to wonder: How much of our children's gender identity really comes from the way we treat them (outfitting them in pink or blue outfits, showering them with loads of superhero or princess paraphernalia), and how much is straight from nature?
Turns out, it's a bit of both. "There are different hardwired tendencies that we see in certain boys and girls, but by far the most potent effect is how we as parents relate to them," says William Pollack, Ph.D., an associate clinical professor in the department of psychology at Harvard University. "We each have our own template for how a boy or girl should act that's largely based on how we ourselves were raised. But the wider the range of acceptable behavior we allow, the more comfortable they will feel as they grow and develop into men and women."
Science shows there are intrinsic differences between boys and girls. But in many ways, we're also very much the same. The key to successful parenting, experts say, is to embrace our kids' feminine and masculine sides.