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Male violence exceeds female violence by a very significant margin. The origins of this lie in early childhood development, with the first differences appearing in preschool.
Two researchers in the USA, Paul Golding and Hiram E Fitzgerald, have identified three areas that influence male violence during early childhood development: (1) early relationships with caregivers, (2) biological differences between boys and girls, and (3) growing economic and social inequalities among families in the USA, particularly the growing number of single-parent families.
Male violence exceeds female violence by a large margin. Starting in preschool, boys in the USA are more likely to be disciplined and suspended for behavior problems. By adolescence, boys are four times more likely than girls to be arrested for violent crime. In adulthood, male violent crime is four times more common than female violent crime. And men are seven times more likely to commit serious violent crimes, such as murder, rape and robbery. Among major ethnic groups in the USA, only Asian Americans display little difference between male violence and female violence.
Early caregiving and the emergence of male violence
Research has shown that certain deficits in early caregiving are linked to worse outcomes for boys than for girls. For example, sons of depressed mothers score lower than daughters on measures of attachment at 18 months of age. Similarly, sons who experience maternal insensitivity are more likely to display poorer executive function and more behavioral problems in primary school than girls who experience the same deficit at home.
Similar differences appear in measures of fathers’ sensitivity. For example, when fathers fail to exercise dominance during rough-and-tumble play (that is, establishing limits so that the child feels safe), boys are more likely than girls to show aggression and poor control of emotions five years later.
But the question remains: Why are boys more affected by these caregiving deficits than girls are? The authors propose that the slower maturation of boys during infancy expands the scope for stress in the social environment to have a negative impact on their development. Girls are protected to an extent by their more rapid development in early childhood.
Biological and neurobiological factors
In addition to slower development, other biological differences between boys and girls could be linked to differences in the development of male and female violence.
- Boys are more likely to have lower resting heart rates than girls, on average. Lower resting heart rates in children are associated with uncomfortable mood states, seeking stimulation, and antisocial behavior.
- Boys are more likely to have the MAOA-L gene. This gene, when combined with abusive or neglectful caregiving in early childhood, is associated with impulsive physical aggression later in life.
- Boys are exposed to higher levels of testosterone in the prenatal and perinatal periods of development and also starting in adolescence. Children’s exposure to testosterone is associated with less empathy and more aggression.
- Differences in the neurobiology of boys and girls at birth are now being studied to see whether they may point to differential vulnerability to problems in early childhood development.
Social and cultural environment
Golding and Fitzgerald consider the expanding social, economic and racial inequalities in the USA to be a critical factor in increasing the risk of male violence.
The rise of single motherhood (4% of births in the 1950s, 35% 60 years later) is one factor. Single parenthood is associated with a wide range of pressures, for example, fewer economic resources, exposure to discrimination, more likelihood of exposure to conflict, and more mental health problems. All these incur risks for a mother’s ability to care for her children, to which, as described above, boys are more susceptible.
The absence of fathers in children’s lives is linked to developmental problems in both boys and girls, but the nature of the problems are different: boys are more likely to show behavior and social problems (externalising), while girls are more likely to show anxiety and depressive problems (internalising). This differential response manifests as more aggression among boys.
Studies have shown that growing up in poor, single-parent families has differential impacts on boys and girls . Boys from such families are less likely to be employed in their 20s than are girls from the same families. Boys from these families are more likely than girls to exhibit antisocial behavior such as low self-control and delinquency.
In the coming months, the Child & Family Blog will run a series of research updates that expand on the emergence of male violence, based on a collection of research articles published this year in the Infant Mental Health Journal.
Golding P & Fitzgerald HE (2019), The early biopsychosocial development of boys and the origins of violence in males, Infant Mental Health Journal, 40
Golding P & Fitzgerald HE (2017), Psychology of boys at risk: Indicators from 0-5, Infant Mental Health Journal, 38.1