I was disappointed to see this article printed in a mainstream parenting magazine. Entitled “Boys vs. Girls: How to Tailor Your Parenting Techniques,” it lists several ways boys differ from girls and vice versa, and how these differences require responses tailored to your child’s specific sex.
Where to begin?
Well, first, girls and boys are more similar than dissimilar. Data on so-called masculine and feminine traits falls into a normal bell curve, like so:
The average boy and the average girl are pretty much the same. Gaussian distribution also means that a significant number of girls are more masculine than the average boy, and a significant number of boys are more feminine than the average girl.
Certainly, some differences do exist between the sexes, even at young ages. Biological differences cause girls on average to grow faster and hit puberty sooner, something that will change once the average boy hits puberty and surpasses the average female peer in height.
But most of the time, when people talk about the differences between boys and girls, they’re observing the extreme, outlying masculine and feminine traits — not the average boy and girl and not innate biological differences. These sociological differences may be statistically significant, but not significant enough to change parenting strategies on the basis of sex alone.
I don’t have the space to detail all the ways in which neuroscience tries to find psychological differences between the sexes that simply aren’t there, but Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference and Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes by Christia Spears Brown debunk or clarify many of the article’s claims about gender differences.
Even if the differences mentioned in the magazine article are accurate interpretations of correct research, those differences are made larger and more meaningful than they really are.
The first example in the magazine article demonstrates this: “Boys develop language skills more slowly than girls. Most of their speech is comprehensible by age 4 1/2. So avoid ‘constructive criticism’ using abstract words such as inappropriate, focus, disruptive, or success. They can sound like the wah-wuh-wah-wah-wah of the adults in ‘Peanuts’ cartoons to your son.”
The educator in me died a little. How does comprehensible speech indicate the level of boys’ verbal comprehension? Every language learner comprehends more than he can verbally express. Even if speech and comprehension develop at the same time (that is, slowly), the logical solution is not to avoid widening the child’s vocabulary but to familiarize the child with the meaning of inappropriate, focus, disruptive, or success. Ironically, the online article links to another, gender neutral parenting article on how talking, talking, talking is the key to developing language and widening vocabulary — not avoiding certain words because your child is a boy.
By following this gender-specific advice, we train ourselves and our society to perceive boys as more incapable of verbal expression and thus to treat them that way, resulting in — surprise, surprise — fewer verbally expressive men.
All of the advice in the article could just have easily been presented in a gender-neutral way: Certain children require louder decibels to hear, so if your child “ignores” you, she or he may not have heard you in the first place. Certain children have a hard time sitting still. This is because they’re kids.
It’s unnecessary to mention gender at all. In my work as a teacher, I’ve never found gender helpful in diagnosing problems or planning lessons. I assume all children need communication adjusted to their unique personality. I assume all children have short attention spans and a need to move after 15-30 minutes. My students ran the gamut of self-control and communication skills, and I’ve seen them go through all the stages of verbal and physical development that every kid, boy or girl, goes through.
I don’t treat children differently based simply on their sex. I treat them the way they need be to treated at that particular stage in their development. I try not to lower or heighten expectations based on their sex.
The article would have been wise to heed its own warning about gender stereotypes and, in its own words, simply viewed children as the unique individuals they are.