When you’re pregnant, questions and curiosities – everything from how big will my baby be to who will he/she look like to what will he/she grow up to become – are as commonplace as the urge (and need) to pee. And while some parents-to-be spend hours pondering their future tot’s name, others fill the span of nine months wondering if that growing belly will be a “he” or a “she.”
Whether we admit to succumbing to it or not, old wives’ tales take hold of the pregnant parents’ minds: Expectant mom is carrying low and in front so it must be a boy; her face has changed, indicating it’s a girl; cravings include salty snacks, like fries and pickles, so clearly a boy is in store; dad-to-be has put on a few pregnancy pounds with his glowing partner, signaling a girl.
But as any parent knows, these tales are nothing more than a source of laughter-a harmless way to help guess the sex. If you were to ask the pregnant parents’ prediction, based just on hunch and instinct, seven out of 10 times they would guess correctly.
To that point, there are a handful of parents who truly desire-or rather, feel more in tune with-one gender over another. For example, certain couples consider themselves more “feminine,” enjoying artsy and creative activities in lieu of sports, so a girl is a natural fit. Other couples may have grown up with only male siblings, knowing nothing outside the realm of a household filled with mischief, banging and clanging, and of course, broken bones, sprains and trips to the ER, meaning a boy is the natural fit. Yet we all know that A does not equal B when it comes to gender. And in the end, the arrival of a healthy, happy bundle of baby-boy or girl-is ultimately what all parents hope for.
It’s the next step, raising him or her, that poises a new set of harried hurdles and tremendous joys. That’s why we set out to give you the facts-and, of course, some fun-about raising boys and girls.
To start, a quiz (at right) for any parent, whether you’re expecting, raising or empty nesting.
The brain’s role?
For years, parents (and doctors, too) blamed the actual brain for differences in boys and girls. However, the culprit is not in the structure, per se, but rather in the sequence of development of the various brain regions. In fact, in 2007, the world’s largest study of brain development in children, led by National Institutes of Health neuroscientist Dr. Jay Giedd, published its most comprehensive study to date, demonstrating that there is no overlap in the trajectories of brain development in girls and boys.
What does this mean? Basically, if you teach the same subjects to girls and boys in the same way, girls will likely think “geometry is tough” and boys will believe “art and poetry are for girls.” The lack of understanding of gender differences-teaching the exact same thing in the exact same way to both genders-has the unintended consequence of reinforcing gender stereotypes, the study found. This is one of the reasons it’s important to understand that the brain functions differently, depending on the sex.
It’s been said that boys catch on “slower” than girls (another brain blamer). In reality, researchers found that while the areas of the brain involved in language and fine motor skills mature about six years earlier in girls than in boys, the areas of the brain involved in targeting and spatial memory mature about four years earlier in boys.
But it’s not just about the brain: sex differences are very real and may require different parenting skills, rules and styles. Girls tend to be more emotional, sensitive beings, whereas boys are all about action, almost all the time.* According to Laurie A. Helgoe and her husband Barron M. Helgoe, the co-authors of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Raising Boys, parents must be careful of this stereotype. “Boys are often considered older and more skilled than they actually are. And as fun as he may be, he still relies on you to teach him how to get along and to provide him structure and safety.” This is especially crucial considering that boys, in contrast to girls, relate best to action. They do more and speak less: They make sounds associated with action. They buy action figures. They keep busy by being active. Whereas girls respond to a verbal approach, talking things out often and easily, thanks to acquiring verbal skills at a faster rate than boys, which, in turn, allows them to fit more “naturally” into a school setting.
In their book, Helgoe and Helgoe draw upon the school experience, explaining that boys have a harder time with attention and focus in correlation to girls. And because of their higher activity level, boys are likely to get into more trouble than girls. As parents of boys, consider the old adage “actions speak louder than words,” and apply it to help communicate with your child. Use play-build with blocks, construct things, etc.-to teach and help discipline.
Biological and social dynamics aside, there are also physical differences-the most obvious to the eye, like height, weight, features and bone structure-that affect how we parent, explains Claire Sebastian, a Chicago clinical social worker.
Although physical appearance alone does not cause a child to relate better to one sex over another, Sebastian says children are likely to identify with same-sex models, parents and caregivers. So as early as preschool, children begin identifying with the values of their family as well as society. “In our society, girls conform less to gender stereotypes; a girl is more likely to play with trucks than a boy is to play with a doll,” notes Sebastian. Similar to the points made by Helgoe and Helgoe, Sebastian confirms the need for parents to help diminish these stereotypical messages.
Gender differences learned
Why is this so important? Sebastian explains: Biological differences are much less significant than most parents assume. When the child reaches 2, most gender differences are learned. Children are sponges, absorbing information-language and non-verbal messages-at a crazy pace; imprints of their identity in the world are being formed. So when they observe that girls are often told how pretty they look and boys are allowed to be more aggressive, beliefs about being a “girl” or “boy” are developing.
While it is good for parents to be aware of typical differences between boys and girls, it is important they ultimately focus on their child as an individual. “The job of the parent today is to be aware of the pressures our children face and to do our best to diminish those harmful pressures,” Sebastian says.
But perhaps the best advice for parenting any child, regardless of gender, stresses Chicago Clinical Psychologist Amy Robbins, is to stay connected, keeping lines of communication open, honest and nonjudgmental.
* The statements in this story do not apply to all boys and girls.
Robin Immerman Gruen is a freelance writer and mom to Charlotte.
Real moms (and dads) raise the bar on raising boys and girls
ot every parent has the first-hand joy of rearing a boy and a girl. We asked a few who do for advice, tips, tricks and truths about raising the two sexes under one roof:
“My little girl, Talia, is very active, just like her big brother, Hayden. But she is much more emotional: she definitely uses language, whether it’s crying, laughing, screaming, whining or just talking, to express herself.”
“Cole is crazy and very curious. He is much more mischievous that his older sister, Ellie. If I take my eyes off him for two minutes, it could be disastrous (or dangerous!)”
“I think the thing for all of us to remember when raising boys vs. girls-or any gender mix of children, for that matter-is that we must treat them as individuals. … Go for the separate-but-equal approach, paying attention to their individual needs and addressing them as equally as you can.”
“While there may be inherent differences in boys vs. girls, every child is an individual. My boys are very different from each other in many ways, and therefore need to be parented differently in a lot of ways. My girl is still a baby so I can’t say anything about girls yet, but yesterday she was crying in the cart in Target and she didn’t want the normal snacks, toys, etc., but she stopped crying when I gave her an outfit from a rack of clothes. Let’s hope it’s not a sign of things to come!”
“I don’t feel that boys and girls should be raised differently from one another. I have a son and a daughter and I am raising them both with the same values and family rules. I have and will continue to instill in each of them to treat everyone with respect. “
“Before children I would spend time with my niece. She would sit nicely on the floor and play with her dolls. If we went somewhere she would walk nicely. Now, two boys later I am a mom. They are the exact opposite of my niece. They don’t walk, they run. They usually don’t play quietly, they bump, they thump, they stump, they crash (toy cars that is). Boys by design are active and tough. I had to learn how to allow their natural tendencies to not make me think the worst of them, but find ways to channel such behavior into positive behavior. I had to allow playing in the dirt to be OK. Jumping and climbing became a necessity.”
“I think it’s important to look at your kids’ individual strengths and nurture those, regardless of the incredible amount of gender-related peer pressure that’s out there. … It’s a huge challenge these days to raise our kids of both genders to be who they are and not who the culture tells them they have to be.”
“I truly believe each child is different with their own personalities and interests. The only major difference I have noticed between my daughter and son is their level of energy. We nicknamed my 3-year-old son the Energizer Bunny, because he really does keep going and going and going. My tips on raising boys would be teach him not to be that stereotypical boy, teach him to clean up, do laundry and cook. My tips on raising girls would be to teach them about peer pressure early and being a strong, independent person. Mainly, enjoy them while they are young, because they do grow up so fast.”