ARE BOYS HARDER TO RAISE THAN GIRLS?

In an era of gender equality, the question of male/female differences is often a source of contrasting controversy. Employers are warned to treat the sexes the same or pay the price of litigation for the failure to do so, while an American author makes quite a good living out of telling us that men and women are from different planets.

For some parents, the question is not so much academic, as very real. I have often heard from stressed mothers sentences beginning, “The trouble with boys ...”

So what are the facts?

The science of psychology shows us that the individual differences seen between people, including between the sexes, are a result of both biology and upbringing. From the moment of birth, parents and other adults may treat boys and girls in different ways. Interactions with baby boys are often more physical and exuberant than for baby girls.

Perhaps the strongest factor playing a role in childhood gender differences is the developmental factors that affect children. Girls develop language skills and fine motor coordination earlier than boys inclining them towards such things as a quiet social tea party. Meanwhile, boys develop their large motor skills sooner than girls and thus rush around kicking and chasing footballs and the like. The male hormone testosterone also lends an aggressiveness and fondness for physical activity to a young boy’s daily routine.

The result of all this for parents is that raising boys is not about having a quiet life.

In my experience many mothers in particular find boys noisier than girls. Many of the things boys do are active and necessarily loud. Dads can be more accepting of this noise level and are likely to dismiss it as a simple case of ‘“boys will be boys.”

But this biological tendency doesn’t negate the need to encourage boys to learn necessary adjustments to their behavior. Whatever a child’s gender, it is important for parents to be able to communicate with their children and to help them develop skills such as emotional control, patience, taking turns, and sharing.

For boys, the core social skills of communication and the regulation of emotions are often ones in which they lag behind. Because girls tend to be more verbally adept at an earlier age, this puts them in touch with their emotional world. They are better able to express their own feelings and understand the feelings of others.

It is therefore especially important for parents to help their sons learn that there are acceptable and appropriate ways of expressing anger, hurt, sadness and so on, without hurting themselves or others.

Boys are also subject to mixed messages about what it means to be male, which can cause them confusion and worry. For example, often sporting prowess is valued but an interest in art or music is not. For girls, it is generally okay to be good at sports, schoolwork, and to be artistic. But for boys, this flexibility is not an option.

As a result, some boys end up in emotional straightjackets, prisoners to a narrow vision of what it means to be a competent male. We need to be sensitive as parents to what our sons’ real interests and aptitudes are so that we can offer them diversity, not restrictions.

However it’s also the case of course, that in some social situations boys may be punished by their peers or even by mum or dad when they express exactly the communication skills we would want them to —”Big boys don’t cry.”

It is important to remember that while boys might indulge in loud rough behavior, this doesn’t mean parental discipline needs to be rough. Discipline should be about helping children learn that there are consistent consequences for their actions that will be enforced within a predictable, nurturing, and loving environment.

For a young daughter that might translate into a disapproving look or an explanation that what they are doing is hurting someone else, but for a boy who has not yet reached such a communication skill level you may need to immediately remove them from the situation, explain what they should be doing instead and give them time to behave well before returning them to play.

All of this doesn’t necessarily mean that boys are harder to raise than girls, but that for certain families, the natural differences between the sexes may cause particular difficulties. Single moms need to find strong male models to help their sons develop important gender-based skills and behaviors. And while not always possible, it also helps if boys see some level of role-sharing and gender equality around a household so they are able to learn that men as well as women do housework, washing, cooking and ironing.

 
Dr. Matthew Sanders is a clinical psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and founder of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program.