Science is beginning to recognize what many parents have suspected all along—raising boys is different from raising girls. Care to guess who really is the more delicate sex?
Of all the balancing acts parents must perform perhaps none is more precarious than raising boys. A single misstep can have serious repercussions according to many psychologists and family therapists, who have documented significant differences between boys and girls.
Science appears to confirm what’s long been suspected, that boys lack the early cognitive skills of girls, placing them at a disadvantage. Dr. Michael Thompson, a Massachusetts-based psychologist specializing in children, and co-author of the best selling Raising Cain (available at Amazon.com), is among those helping to enlighten parents about the special characteristics of boys, (www.michaelthompson-phd.com).
Chief among his concerns is the difficulty they face at school.
“Boys are considered slow because they are, on average, a year behind girls in language development and the elementary school classroom is four-fifths language based. Boys are greater risk-takers than girls, more impulsive and more physically active than the average girl. The typical girl is more verbal, is better at small motor skills, and demonstrates more cooperative behavior toward others.”
Hormones affect every aspect of a child’s development, beginning in the womb, and account for the fundamental differences between boys and girls. There’s a growing body of evidence indicating prenatal testosterone slows development of the brain’s left hemisphere. Call it a working hypothesis, but a growing number of neuroscientists believe girls have more connections between the two hemispheres of the brain, providing them with better language and reading skills.
Testosterone impedes the growth of neural pathways, leaving infant boys dependent on the right hemisphere, a ready explanation for their cognitive problems. Unless special care is taken, they will likely falter at school. Boys are notorious for channeling their energies in non-productive ways, scoring points with friends but not teachers.
“You don't get graded on games and pranks,” notes Dr.Thompson. “I spent a week at a camp last summer, a boys' camp, and we woke up one morning to find the oldest campers spent all night re-organizing the dining hall so that the tables were replaced by upside-down canoes, which were all beautifully set with knives, forks and plates. It was wonderfully creative. At a nearby girls' camp, they were having ‘Valentine's Day’ in July. All the girls wore pink and wrote each other cards and held hands. It was very sweet, but not so inventive.”
With adults impeding their favorite activities, boys may begin to perceive the world as a girl’s place, causing many to turn inward.
“Boys in all cultures like to roughhouse and wrestle. When adults overreact to it, they lose credibility with boys. Boys feel misunderstood and unjustly condemned. For that reason, they usually take their play out of the reach of adults,” says Dr. Thompson.
It’s generally agreed boys require more nurturing than girls, but too often it’s provided by someone other than a parent. “For a complex number of reasons—divorce, welfare laws, increasing work hours— children are being left alone more,” says Dr. Thompson. “That's a change, and I would argue it hits boys harder than girls. I think boys may need more mothering than girls and without it they suffer and become prey to violence. Boys are often drawn to science fiction, space adventures and fantasies of power and violence. Girls tend, on average, to stay with more conventional stories of friendship. The issue of one-on-one dominance is more salient for boys than for girls, for evolutionary reasons I think.”
There’s a growing conviction boys should be held back a year from elementary school. Australian family therapist Steve Biddulph articulates the case in his parenting guide Raising Boys (available at Amazon.com) when he writes: “Eventually boys catch up with girls intellectually but, in the way schools work now, the damage is already done. The boys feel themselves to be failures, they miss out on key skills because they are just not ready, and so get turned off from learning …The slower development of boys’ fine-motor skills, and their cognitive skills generally, suggest they would benefit by starting school later...”
Cloning is forbidden but that doesn’t prevent many parents from attempting to mold children in their own likeness. This detrimental approach is especially harmful to boys, who are less inclined to emulate adult behavior. Better to prolong his childhood than shorten it. Here are other suggestions worth considering:
Rather than provide yet another lesson in responsibility, occasionally indulge his appetite for the absurd. If you really want to connect with your son, plan a Jim Carrey film marathon.
Ease off the lectures about homework. Guard against becoming a surrogate teacher.
Strive to justify his faith in you—boys are particularly dependent upon role models.