Equity & Diversity

Boys Start to Really Misunderstand Girls Around Third Grade

By Ross Brenneman — January 17, 2014 1 min read
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A new study shows that friendships aren’t as determined by sex as boys and girls think they are.

So found a team of researchers from Michigan State University and New York University, in a study released in the journal Child Development.

The study looked at how friendships formed among children ages 7-11, and how classmates perceived friendships among their peers. Classmates perceived sex to be a major indicator of friendship; sex was indeed a factor, but not nearly to the extent children perceived it to be.

Children, meanwhile, mostly rejected seating proximity as a determinant of friendship, which the study’s authors chalked up to a child’s understanding that seating arrangements, unlike sex, can change. Sex also mattered more in perception of friendship than intelligence (all the smart kids hanging out together) or athletics (children who played sports). Here’s how big the difference was:

“Sex similarity leads peers to be 50 times more likely to infer a relationship exists between two children, while other dimensions of proximity are associated with only a 2 to 3 times greater likelihood of such an inference.”

What this means is that children grossly overestimate the impact of sex on friendships, which the researchers say creates repercussions for navigating peer relationships. In short: Tommy thinks Sally and Jane are friends because they are girls, and he, being a boy, will have a harder time becoming a friend to either. Tommy settles for being friends with Scott instead.

Two interesting things, though: Girls were a little more perceptive than boys (ain’t that always the way?), and the misconceptions started in third grade; second graders didn’t show the same weakness.

Left unclear by the study are the long-term implications of this difference, which also stated that any conclusions would only apply to “hanging out” kinds of relationships. But it also seems to raise some suggestions about when children really start to take notice of each others’ sexes.

I kind of wonder if these misperceptions led to the original outbreak of modern “cooties.” Attempting to justify why they don’t hang out with members of the opposite sex, children invented an infectious disease.

And that’s why girls are icky.

Image: iStock/c.Paci77

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.