Raising boys or raising girls: which is harder? Is it different? Aside from the obvious, how fundamentally different are boys and girls? How does that affect our parenting?
These are truly loaded, complex questions without easy answers. On one hand, most of us know that a lot of our ideas about gender are culturally constructed. We learn about gender from movies and TV, from advertising, from the ideas of our friends and families. We learn about gender from the toys that are marketed for boys and for girls and from the clothes that are available in the department stores. Someone has apparently decided, for instance, that girls like and should have pink, and that boys like and should have blue.
Most of us also suspect, however, that there are some real differences between boys and girls that go beyond cultural influences. What are those differences, and how do they shape our roles as parents?
Boy and Girl Brains
According to PBS.com, there are significant differences between girls’ brains and boys’ brains:
- Male brains are larger
- Female brains have more connections and a larger connecting area
- Females tend to use both sides of the brain more often
- Gendered differences are found in about 80% of the population. The remaining 20% is “wired” like the other gender.
- These differences lead to variations in developmental milestones between girls and boys
These brain differences aren’t destiny, however. And, as noted above, only 1 in 5 boys or girls demonstrate “typical” wiring. But, this research does point to some trends that researchers have noticed among boys and girls. One is that girls tend to develop language skills earlier and can also make the connections between language and feeling. They also tend to be earlier readers and writers. Boys tend to have early interest and skill in spatial tasks.
Most of us who have worked with or raised children of both genders know there is a difference between them. I think some of it is culturally supported, and some of it, like the above research suggests, is wired.
When I taught high school, I had a few classes that were always predominantly male. For whatever reason, 90% of those enrolled in my Sci-fi Literature class were male. This was true every semester. I always wondered what caused that. What about science fiction was so male-centered? The authors? The subjects? Were there really more females interested in the subject who didn’t register for the class because they thought it was too boyish?
As a teacher, I tried to encourage more girls to take the class. I was occasionally successful, and the girls who took it always enjoyed the course. But no matter how much I promoted my class, Sci-fi was viewed as predominantly a “guy thing.”
So why did I continue to try to get girls to take my class? It’s one thing to recognize cultural and biological differences between boys and girls. It’s another thing to be ruled by them. There are gender differences, sure, but there are also individual differences. Children grow both by embracing their differences…and challenging them. If we don’t push the boundaries, we are prone to stereotyping, and I don’t think anyone should feel limited by their genders.
Parenting Boys and Girls
I have one boy and one girl. I was given a lot of advice about parenting boys and girls. “Better get lots of band-aids for your boy! He’ll be into everything!” “Start stocking up on skirts and pink paint for your little girl!” This is where the cultural influence on gender identity comes into play. The little shirts with trucks and footballs for my son. The sweet, delicate tops with princesses and fairies for my girl.
Really, they are bombarded with gender ideals from Day 1. As a parent, I try to be aware of these influences, and while they are not necessarily negative in and of themselves, they can be limiting. So, I try to counter them.
Yes, my daughter has dolls. So did my son. Yes, my son has trains. So does my daughter. Did my son generally prefer his trains and trucks to the dolls and stuffed animals? Yes. My daughter… it’s hard to say. She’s only a toddler and at the moment, more interested in the contents of kitchen cabinets than toys, but she currently plays with both equally. She did, however, gravitate to babies much more intensely than my son, and likes to role play more than he did. Gender difference or personality difference? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, as long as both children have ample opportunities to explore their worlds.
In some ways I have a typical boy and a typical girl. But in many other ways, I do not. My son was and is timid. He doesn’t like rough play, he isn’t aggressive. He was an early reader. My daughter is the family’s dare devil and mini-engineer. At 21 months, she has mastered the art of creating stepstools out of toys to help her climb onto ever higher surfaces. She likes mess and mud and bugs. She’s a ball of energy who rarely sits still…except for a good book.
At the end of the day, gender is just one of the many things that make our kids who they are. It doesn’t define them, any more than their temperaments, or their aptitudes, or their appearance.
For Further Reading:
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson
Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different – and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men by Steve Biddulph and Paul Stanish
Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons by Margaret J. Meeker
Raising Girls by Melissa Trevathan and Sissy Goff