Science proves what parents have known all along: Boys really are different from girls.
By Amy Landsman
“I always say there’s no pink in my house,” jokes Jill Bers, a mom in Pikesville.
Can you guess that Bers is the mother of boys? Two in fact: Ethan, 6, and Jeremy, 8. Her boys love dinosaurs, space, bugs, trucks, mud flaps on trucks, and dirt.
“Things that I as an adult would never notice,” she says.
“They’ll sit at a construction site for hours. Boys are totally fascinated,” adds Randi Braman of Pikesville, mom to her 6-year-old son Sam and her 10-year-old daughter Maddie.
From the get-go, Bers noticed big differences between her boys and the girls she saw around her.
“How they learn…it’s obvious they are far more active. The activity level never stops,” she describes.
In fact, these observations are backed up by science. Before they’re even born, boys’ brains get a surge of testosterone in the womb, which trigger chemical reactions that make the male brain different from a female’s. For one, boys tend to be more hard-wired than girls to take risks.
“Who breaks their arms more often—boys or girls?” muses Thomas Baumgardner, Ph.D., a Towson neuropsychologist.
None of this is good or bad, just different. And understanding the differences helps parents transform their impulsive, on-the-go little boys into competent and caring young men.
Because of genetics, boys “tend to be by nature more physical, more impulsive, less sensitive to punishment,” says Baumgardner. “Girls tend to be more sensitive to harsh language. Girls, as a general rule, don’t need to be yelled at. Boys don’t seem to mind it too much.”
The neural connections that process social and emotional behavior mature later in boys than girls, explains Baumgardner. In fact, these systems “don’t become mature till a man is in his early 30s.”
“Boys remain more willing to take risks,” he adds.
When boys become teens, there is an influx of testosterone and hormonal changes. Their friends and peers become important influences in their lives. At this age, says Baumgardner, “boys are much more likely to commit petty crimes with groups [while adult criminals tend to act alone].”
Does this mean that teenage boys are all destined to become criminals? Of course not!
These are all general characteristics.
In addition, girls can be positive influences in the lives of young men. Research shows boys tend to behave better when there are girls around, Baumgardner points out.
It’s easy to feel intimidated when adults see sullen young men hanging out at the mall or at the park, notes Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D., a psychologist and co-author with her husband, Barron Helgoe, of the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Raising Boys (Alpha Books, 2008). It’s not unusual for teens to act tough, she adds, but the majority of young men are not troublemakers.
“I think that there’s a real danger in being afraid of boys. I see that alienation that teens especially can feel when their tough act is over-interpreted…My older son and buddies walked to the dollar store and they were doing their posture,” describes Helgoe. “My son [told me he was] aware of the looks they got, as if they were going in to rob the store. It’s so crucial that we don’t over-interpret their posturing and their playful teasing.”
Plenty of parents have banned toy weapons from their homes, only to find their sons picking up sticks and yelling “bang, bang” anyway.
Aggression, Barron Helgoe points out, is a huge part of how boys bond. Cops and robbers games, wrestling, punching and playful teasing are, within limits, very healthy.
“They don’t hold grudges,” agrees his wife, adding that, one minute her boys are fighting, and the next they’re best friends.
Parents should teach their sons healthy boundaries, so they learn to channel their aggression in a healthy way. Children raised knowing there are boundaries in the world tend to feel safe and in control. While girls tend to naturally share their feelings, that’s often not the case for boys.
In general, “reports indicate that girls have richer connections between the central part of the brain and the part that goes to the analysis of feeling,” explains Barron Helgoe. “The emotional template has fewer colors for boys, at least initially.”
So, while girls may chat merrily away about what happened at school, boys are a lot less forthcoming. To get boys to open up, Laurie Helgoe suggests that mom back off from the direct questions and give them a little breathing room.
“We should expect our boys to be respectful and civil, but there are some ways to promote conversations that are a little less intense…boys do better with side-by-side conversation,” she says, recommending taking a boy for a walk, where the focus isn’t directly on the verbal exchange.
As children, more boys than girls are diagnosed with ADHD or learning differences. Also, academically, girls tend to excel in the younger grades. This is “indicative of the more subtle ways boys learn,” says Baumgardner.
And, in the average school, there are often more boys than girls in the principal’s office.
“It’s hard to imagine there’s not a basic biological reason for that,” notes Baumgardner.
When Braman was a volunteer at her kids’ kindergarten, she recalls seeing the differences between the sexes all the time: “The girls would come to the craft table, and the boys wanted to hit each other with blocks!”
Should boys and girls be taught in same-sex classrooms? Baumgardner admits it’s a thorny issue.
Barron Helgoe says good teachers can accommodate the learning styles of both boys and girls in the same classroom.
“It goes to what strategies teachers are using to teach boys. Look for veteran teachers who seat boys in front, who use visuals to impress knowledge on their brains,” he says. “Younger boys need to run, be active…you want teachers who are very conscious about the differences between boys and girls and want to teach them each well.”
At every stage in their young lives, boys are exploring and testing limits. It takes a lot of guidance from Mom, Dad, and other important adults to guide them along the way.
“One of the biggest things he’s doing is observing you. That’s where most of the education comes from…how you treat other people,” Barron Helgoe says, adding that “for every parent there’s strengths and weaknesses. Parents have to acknowledge their weaknesses and forgive themselves and go on to the next thing and do a little bit better.”
Having two boys was something Bers, the Pikesville mom, had to get used to.
“I have two sisters and only girl cousins,” she says. “And this happens!”
But Bers is enjoying the adventure.
Laurie Helgoe says Bers has the right attitude.
“It’s not like we start out knowing the job,” she says. “We learn as we go. We learn from our boys.” BC
For more about raising boys, visit Laurie Helgoe’s website, www.wakingdesire.com.