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The Truth about Boys (and Girls)

They really are different. Here's what to do about it

Snakes and snails and puppy dog tails? Sugar and spice and everything nice?

What are little boys and girls made of, after all? Before the sixties, this question sparked little controversy. You had a daughter, you raised a girl. You had a son, you raised a boy. But then along came the feminist movement, poking holes in all our preconceived notions of "girlness" and "boyness." "We need to raise boys like we raise girls," said Gloria Steinem?thus blessing "girl" behavior as the norm, and boy behavior as aberrant.

This philosophy, quickly embraced in academic circles, filtered down into the schools and throughout our culture, and finally to parents. According to a 1997 Newsweek poll, 61 percent of parents believe that differences in behavior between girls and boys are not inborn, but a result of the way they're raised. But are they?

As a teacher and mother of 11, I've been riding the nature versus nurture pendulum for years. In fact, I gave it a good push myself, prompted by the birth of my daughter Samantha in 1969. My feminist period began with our first trip to the library, when I noted with alarm the absence of girls in kid's books (thankfully, this has changed). Ever the conscientious mother, I spent hours replacing pronouns and feminizing male critters of every species (think curled and beribboned bird in Are You My Mother?). I firmly believed that boys and girls were different only because of parental programming. Fourteen years later, I had to admit I was wrong. Not because anyone persuaded me, but because I ran into evidence I couldn't resist.

I gave birth to a son.

The moment 9-month-old Josh scooted his spoon across his high chair tray making engine noises, I met my feminist Waterloo. When he purposely ran headlong into danger, wrestled with his sisters' dolls, and sidestepped my domestic disarmament policy by turning every stick and sausage link into a gun, I had to concede there must be something to this innate difference thing.

My experience reflects, in a small way, twenty years of confusion in theoretical circles where concepts like gender differences and sex role stereotypes are researched and debated. These debates grind on slowly. But those of us in the trenches?real parents raising real children?need answers that work today. Even with seven sons and four daughters I still don't have all the answers, nor do I feel qualified to end an age-old discussion on maleness and femaleness. But I do know this: God created our children and calls us to faithfully nurture them as they become men and women. Here's how.

Recognize the reality of gender differences

Our grandmothers told us and now science has given us the official word: Boys and girls are different. Even as infants, boys have higher levels of testosterone, which stimulates aggressive behavior, and lower levels of serotonin, which inhibits it. Researchers have found that infant boys cry more when unhappy while girls tend to comfort themselves by sucking their thumbs. Even at this early stage, girls seem to have more control of their emotions.

Newborn girls spend more time than newborn boys maintaining eye contact with adults. At four months, infant girls have better face recognition than boys. Conversely, infant boys are better able to track a blinking light across a TV monitor (a portent of adolescent video fixation?), and will gaze as intently at a blinking light as at a human face.

Take those incipient neonatal differences and add four years. Now the disparity is even greater, with girls better equipped for building relationships and interpreting emotions, and boys gifted with a better understanding of spatial relationships?knowledge greatly in demand in complex societies.

Then there are the differences in language. Dawn MacDonald, a California mother, says, "The most noticeable difference between my four girls and subsequent two boys has to be the vehicle-noise-imitation thing. In eleven years of raising four girls, I never once heard one of them make any noise that sounded like a vehicle revving up. But when Sawyer was 12 months old, he picked up a toy airplane and "flew" it complete with airplane sounds. At the same age, Kellen did the same thing?only with a motorcycle. And so for the past four years we've been treated to a constant assortment of vehicle noises provided by Sawyer and Kellen?a background to which none of my girls has ever contributed."

In one study, researchers found boys using words only 60 percent of the time and a variety of colorful noises the remainder, while girls use words almost exclusively?as anyone who takes kids to the playground knows.

Genetically, a child is a unique package of possibilities. Certain predispositions will be expressed if environmental conditions are right. And these may fade or flourish depending on how they're reinforced. Stanley Greenspan, pediatric psychiatrist at George Washington University and author of The Growth of the Mind (Perseus Books), compares the relationship between genetics and environment to a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance. "If either Fred or Ginger moves too fast, they both stumble. Nature affects nurture affects nature and back and forth. Each step influences the next."

While science keeps changing its mind, it's clear to parents everywhere that boys and girls truly are different creatures from the moment they arrive. It's what we do with those differences that matters.

What You Should Know

?Theory's one thing?parenting is another. Regardless of what researchers say about the nature versus nurture debate, the bottom line is that you know your children best. Whether your son and daughter are wildly different or very much alike, rest assured that they are created in the image of God.

?Every home's a mini-science lab. Be a good observer and look for ways your children express their differences. Give them opportunities to explore their varying interests.

?Children have a wonderful way of challenging our assumptions. Don't worry if your daughter shows no interest in dolls or your son likes purple. What's important is that they feel loved and accepted for who they are.

?Let language happen. Your sons are likely to use words later and less often than their sisters. This difference in development is rarely indicative of a problem. Keep talking to your son and eventually, he'll start talking back.

Let boys and girls express their innate differences

Anyone still needing a dose of reality concerning gender differences will find it at school recess. Boy/girl differences show up in the middle-class suburbs and tough inner-city schools, crossing all racial and economic lines. Girls tend to hang out in groups of two or three, in intimate discussion. They make eye contact, listen intently and work at building relationships. As often as not it's relationships they're discussing?with parents, teachers, siblings, other friends. They choose games like hopscotch and jump rope where everyone gets a turn. Differences in skill are minimized and the atmosphere is supportive. Girls want to be liked.

Boys, on the other hand, freshly sprung from the enforced immobility of the classroom, are often raucous, rowdy and rambunctious. They play in large groups, in a constant struggle for one-upmanship which serves to reveal the leader of the pack. Their games are structured, complex and focused on scores. Boys want to win.

And that can present a problem. Nowadays, many educators regard the normal play of boys with disapproval. Picking up on the Steinem theme, they have done their best to disrupt boys' natural patterns of activity, attitudes and behavior. Many schools, disregarding boys' need for decompression time, have scrapped free-play recess for more structured activities with no competition.

Competition is out in the classroom as well. Games with winners?even musical chairs?have been replaced by more cooperative activities. If that sounds good to you, it's because you're a woman! Studies consistently show boys do better in competitive environments, so the competition-free atmosphere of some classrooms can actually cause them to become frustrated and aggressive.

Despite past research to the contrary, new studies have found that today's elementary classrooms are more geared to the success of girls than boys. Coming into kindergarten, boys are more immature: besides needing plenty of gross motor activity, they learn to read later and their fine motor skills (such as finger grasp for writing) usually lag behind those of girls. One way to compensate is to have boys start school a year later?an option many parents choose.

Some "experts" read the active, more assertive behavior of boys as indicating a propensity to violence. But this line of thinking shows a lack of respect for the unique qualities God has built into boys?the qualities that will someday make them men.

Better to take a second look, as Dawn MacDonald did. Though at first she felt uncomfortable with her sons' attraction to weapons and war games, she began to believe that in some ways their instinct for battle was preferable to the way her girls fought. She says, "With the boys, the fights are 'play' fights, just done for fun with fake weapons. Whereas when the girls engage in battle, it's with words and it's for real."

For mothers, it's often difficult to understand our sons' attraction to physical and aggressive play. With seven sons, I've done a lot of biting my tongue as I watched my sons roughhouse and wrestle. But I've learned to respect that they are who they are, and they need to express themselves without constant interference from women.

The truth is, we need to respect the right of girls to be girls and boys to be boys. Some experts push for "integrated" play between boys and girls, though many studies show children between kindergarten and sixth grade prefer same-sex play. Our kids aren't sexless. They have distinct needs and preferences. We owe it to them to let them be who God created them to be.

What You Should Know

?Elementary age boys and girls typically prefer same-sex play. If your child wants to play with the opposite sex, that's great, but don't push him into relationships he doesn't want.

?Boys thrive on competition, girls on cooperative activities. Trying to go against these tendencies is asking for a frustrated child. Give your child opportunities to play both competitive and non-competitive games.

?Male behavior is no better or worse than female behavior?just different. Do your best to accept your child as he is. While you don't want to encourage dangerous or disrespectful behavior, remember that being rambunctious or loud isn't necessarily bad behavior. Help your son find appropriate outlets for his energy.

?Teachers who don't respect boys for who they are can be harmful. Make sure your son's teacher has reasonable expectations for all the students. Most of all, check in with your son to assess his feelings about his teacher. If you sense a problem, talk with the teacher and work together to find ways to help your son get the most from his class.

Relax and enjoy your children as individuals

In reality, we parents know that the differences between boys and girls are far from absolute. Each boy is somewhere on a continuum of maleness and each girl on a continuum of femaleness. There is certainly crossover. Some boys are more relationship oriented than some girls, some girls more competitive than some boys.

The best approach is to be on the lookout for ways to encourage your child's unique gifts and personality, regardless of gender. If that means signing your son up for tap dancing lessons or helping your daughter build a tree fort, do it.

Most importantly, look for the godly character traits behind your child's interests. A boy who prefers dolls to trucks probably has a strong nurturing side, a fantastic quality in any child. A girl who is a strong leader on the soccer field probably has the self-confidence to influence her peers in other positive ways.

Even if the scientific community changes its tune tomorrow, the essential truth in the gender discussion is this: God created us to complement and complete each other as males and females. Wherever your child is on the male/female continuum, you can delight in knowing that his or her placement is part of God's perfect plan.

Barbara Curtis is a writer and the mother of 11. She and her family live in California.

NOTE: For your convenience, the following product, which was mentioned above, is available for purchase: ? The Growth of the Mind : And the Endangered Origins of Intelligence, by Stanley I. Greenspan

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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