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The Parents' Guide to Boys
Help Your Son Get the Most Out of School and Life
By Abigail Norfleet James
Live Oak Book CompanyCopyright © 2013 Abigail Norfleet James
All rights reserved.
ARE BOYS DIFFERENT?
Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable.
This is not a book about parenting boys. This is a book about how to be the parent of a schoolboy. Plato recognized a long time ago that boys in an educational setting could be difficult, and that does not seem to have changed much in the intervening years. In fact, if you keep up with trends in education, you'll know that one of the major problems teachers are dealing with at the moment is boys. Specifically, they aren't doing as well as girls academically and socially and few people seem to know what to do about it. You will find disparate opinions on the subject ranging from those who are convinced the solution is boy-friendly single-gender schools to those who are just as sure that the only difference between boys and girls is socially constructed and so coed education is the answer. Neither extreme seems to meet all needs because children do not fall into two mutually exclusive groups; some girls are more like boys and some boys have the skills and interests of girls. What your boy requires to succeed is unique, and you, as his parent, must be there to support him and everyone else who is trying to help. He needs to trust you to be on his side, but he doesn't need you to make excuses for him.
Let's start by taking a look at what we do know about boys and girls before I get into more details about the current debate over the best way to educate boys.
Sex or Gender?
Sex refers to biology and gender refers to the way a person expresses his or her sexual identity. Sex is not a totally dichotomous term, however, as there are individuals who exist whose genes are not either XY (male) or XX (female). Their sex chromosomes might be unconventionally configured as XO (Turner's Syndrome), XXY (Klinefelter Syndrome), and XYY. Additionally, there are individuals who have conventional genetic configuration but whose physical expression of those genes is clearly ambiguous. These individuals may appear to be one sex when their genes are for the opposite sex and are considered to be "intersex." Without a genetic test, therefore, we can't be sure of someone's sex.
Gender, on the other hand, refers to how we feel about ourselves, and that can be even more confusing. Most adults will talk about the "male" and "female" sides of their personalities, admitting that they can and do have aspects of both. Throughout this book, I will always refer to gender because right from infancy there are so many environmental pressures on a child to behave in certain ways that it becomes difficult to separate out sex from gender.
The expression of gender is a serious issue for boys. The boys' schools I work with are very sure that part of the problem is that boys may not see a lot of men in their daily life. Girls see their mothers, female teachers, the lunch ladies in the cafeteria, and so forth. Many boys, however, live in houses without an adult male and, in elementary school, are unlikely to see male teachers. What it means to be male is a huge issue for these boys, one which you, as a parent, need to help your son face. Boys know they are male; they are just not always sure what it means to be male.
Are boys and girls different?
Boy or girl? is usually the first question asked when someone learns of a new baby. With the highly technical imaging tests available today, most parents find out the sex of their child before birth. But, what do we mean when we say a child is "all boy" or "typically girl?" Your child will probably be like the stereotypical male or female in some respects and not in others. Yes, I am well aware that every child is different, but most children are alike in many areas and that is why stereotypes exist.
The point is that individual children may or may not match the stereotypes. When you look at a lot of children together, you will see patterns of behavior that are considered typical for boys or girls. So when I talk about boy behavior and your son does not act that way, it does not mean I am wrong or your son is not a typical boy. It means your son's behavior is not stereotypical. A boy who is an early reader or who doesn't like competitive group sports may need a bit of help finding other children who share his interests, but they are certainly out there.
Children who don't fit the appropriate sexual stereotype can have trouble, but not necessarily. Girls who are tomboys usually have far fewer difficulties in life than do boys who are a bit feminine. What your son needs is your support in his interests. A boy who would rather take tap dancing at age six instead of playing in a soccer league will develop many of the same skills. Yes, he may get a bit of grief from his friends as they grow up because dancing is "for girls," but once those boys discover girls and find out that girls think a boy who can dance is really cool, they may come to the dancer for a few lessons. What your son needs is for you to support him in his interests, not to coerce him into doing things you think he should be interested in. A lot of my boy students admitted that they played sports because their fathers wanted them to play, not because they were interested in playing the game. Find out what your son wants to do and cheer him on, no matter what the activity.
Kevin Clash, the muppeteer who makes Elmo come alive, was interested in puppetry when he was very little. He made his first puppet out of the lining of his father's raincoat. His mother's remark was that, in the future, before he cut up family clothes, he should ask for permission, but she didn't get mad. In fact, she encouraged him to present puppet shows to the neighborhood children. His parents have been totally supportive of him even though his interest was unusual, especially in the working-class section of Baltimore where he grew up. His parents' support was a huge factor in his career and he originally named Elmo's parents for his own.
Nature or Nurture?
The discussion of whether genetics or environment play a larger part in the development of our personality is a thorny one. No one actually knows which factor has the greater influence although most of us hold strong opinions on the subject. Some believe that children come into the world as "blank slates" and are the sum of all of their environmental influences. Others believe that children bring with them certain temperaments and abilities which are obvious early and influence how they respond to environmental factors. Most believe that there is a balance between both genetics and environment and that is the approach that I will use. Consequently, I will start with a discussion of what is known about biology and then introduce what we know about how upbringing shapes us all. You may find the explanation of the relative effects of genetics and environment somewhat extensive, but this subject is complex, and I want you to understand this: neither side can be sure that what they say is completely right. Yes, that includes me, and for this reason I will often say "most" or "many" rather than "all" children.
WHAT MAKES BOYS AND GIRLS DIFFERENT?
The real answer to the question "what makes boys and girls different?" is that we don't actually know. And to further complicate the matter, it is hard to measure whether they really are different. Yes, I know that your son is different from girls of the same age, but part of that is because you have raised him to be a boy. When he was a baby, he got trucks and balls for presents and he was dressed in blue jeans and baseball caps. He got a stuffed bear to cuddle, not a doll. We don't know if he likes trucks because boys like wheeled toys or because he got lots of them as presents. Some research shows that children prefer gender-specific toys and certainly the toy manufacturers believe that to be true. Color alone will alert you to the different types of toys available for girls and those for boys.
It is nearly impossible to raise a child in a gender-neutral environment, although a few families have tried. The number of such children is small, however, and their experiences cannot be guaranteed to be free of gendered influences. Consequently, scientists are limited in their use of information from those families to figure out which behaviors associated with boys are due to biology and which are due to the way the boys are raised. You may have seen a discussion of this issue in the press, with some experts confident that children exhibit gender-specific behavior strictly as a result of the way they are raised and others just as sure that it is all due to biology.
Part of the problem in trying to raise gender-neutral children is that the parents may inadvertently give their children the impression that gender-typical behavior is not correct. In these situations, the children will exhibit gender-neutral behavior because they want to please their parents, not because that is how they would like to react. I think the gendered behavior we see in children is due both to biology and environment. I know with certainty no one taught my son to make motor noises when he was playing with toy cars, but he did. On the other hand, he was very happy to wear a coat and tie when he dressed up because his father and all of the big boys at the school where I taught did so. He had learned that was gender appropriate attire for men.
Most of the research available on neuroscience and gender comes from scientists who look only at one portion of the brain or one set of behaviors. That makes it hard to know with any certainty if a particular part of the brain is responsible for a specific behavior or not. Another complication is that the technology involved in brain imaging is changing so fast the data from a brain study might not still be correct in a year or two. So why bother at all? Because much of the information validating gender differences is reasonably sure, and a growing body of research in education indicates that gender-specific educational approaches help both boys and girls.
I believe that boys and girls are different, but I'm also aware that a lot of what we see is based on differences in developmental rates and processes. For example, in late elementary school, due to the differences of the onset of puberty, most of the girls are taller than most of the boys. However, by the time they get to be 18-year-olds, most of the boys will be taller than the girls. Society says that boys should be taller than girls, and thus for little boys, it can be confusing to be the shortest kid in the class. The last child in a class to enter puberty is likely to be a boy, and by the time he hits his growth spurt, he may be very defensive about his lack of stature. Even though he grows rapidly through high school and overcomes the original height difference, he may still feel somewhat inadequate. His behavior is based on a difference that no longer exists, but habits die hard.
It is the educational information that interests me, particularly because boys have so much trouble in school. It doesn't seem fair that just being a boy would put a child at risk for academic failure, but the overwhelming number of children identified with learning issues and who are in academic jeopardy are boys. Because that is true all over the world, it would seem as if the issues that boys have in school are biologically based, or at the very least, their biology does not promote success in a traditional school environment.
EVIDENCE FOR BRAIN DIFFERENCES — NATURE
The differences in brain development between boys and girls are most obvious at birth and gradually diminish as children age. Whether or not those differences are the cause of the behavior that we associate with males and females is under a lot of scrutiny at the moment. Also, whether or not those differences disappear by adulthood is not agreed upon. For example, one of the most robust findings is that at birth, the left portion of the brain dedicated to language is developing a bit faster in girls than in boys. That has generally been cited as the reason why 20-month-old girls have twice the vocabulary of 20-month-old boys. Of course, some girls have small vocabularies and some boys use lots of words, but on average, this is true.
If adults are given a test in verbal intelligence, the results cannot be sorted by sex, and some researchers believe this is an indication that the differences in verbal skills have disappeared by the time individuals finish formal schooling. However, there is evidence that as adults, males and females do not process verbal information in the same way. Additionally, the tests for verbal skills have been designed in part to reduce gender differences. Even though the test results appear to indicate that there are no gender differences in verbal skills in adults, the evidence does not give a clear picture of the situation because the test is not designed to reveal any gender difference. A lot of the difficulty in sorting out whether or not gender differences exist has to do with the methods that are used to provide the evidence: assumptions are made about the underlying cause for the data, which is not good for scientific conclusions.
You will find that verbal skill development is a major topic in this book. The reason is two-fold: first, we know a lot about verbal development and what part of the brain is activated when we are engaged in using verbal skills; second, verbal skills are essential to school success. Research indicates that at least part of the problem for boys early in school is that they are slower than girls to develop verbal fluency. This means girls are more ready when they enter school to begin to learn to read than boys are. Even if you believe those who say that the differences start to disappear around the time children enter school (I'm not one of those, by the way), boys do not enter school with the same facility with language as girls do. It's been shown that even small differences create problems for boys early in school.
Some experts believe that the differences in the brain are too small to account for the differences in behavior that are observed. They propose that behavioral differences are actually caused by the way parents and others in the infant's environment react to the child. We don't know what effect differences in the brain have on behavior; nor do we know how much difference must exist to result in behavior attributed to neurological differences. To say that the biological differences are too small to account for the behavioral differences is not supported by facts, only by supposition. Just believing something doesn't make it true. In fact, I believe that the biological differences are sufficient to support the notion that behavioral differences are due to brain differences, but I don't have any more facts at my disposal than do advocates for the other side. The difference is that the behavior I am referring to as gender specific tends to be seen in a wide variety of cultures as well as supported by data from primates. Culture does have an effect on the expression of behavior, but it would appear that the similar behaviors start with biology.
EVIDENCE FOR BRAIN CHANGES — NURTURE
As we grow and develop, our brain changes in response to our experiences. We know that as infants grow into children, their brains produce many connections, called dendrites, which expand the ability of the child to learn and to do all sorts of things. Then, as children grow and develop, the brain begins the process of removing dendrites that are not often used, which streamlines the brain's ability to function. The process called dendritic pruning enables us to simplify the thinking required to do repetitive tasks.
Think about the process of learning to drive a car. When you first got behind the wheel, it was all you could do to manage thinking about what you were doing with your feet and your hands at the same time to move the car forward. Then you had to pay attention to what was going on around the car so that you didn't run into other cars or a pedestrian. If someone was talking to you, you simply couldn't also pay attention to that as well. Over time, much of driving became a pattern of behavior that didn't require a lot of your attention. Now you can drive and do other things at the same time. (Not too many, please. You are less able to multitask than you think!) Dendritic pruning allows you to drive a car and do other things because the pathways for driving behavior have become routine and there aren't a lot of choices for you to make. When you are in heavy traffic or driving in bad weather, however, you find you need to pay close attention again because those situations require more than just the driving patterns you have established.
The experts who believe that the gender stereotypical behavior children exhibit is due to this sort of patterning assume that those behaviors exist because society expects boys and girls to behave in stereotypical ways. Children learn to behave in certain ways and then those patterns of behavior become set, just as your driving behavior is set. I would agree except that children with the same set of parents can behave in very different ways. For instance, I taught two brothers, one of whom was an athlete and the other — with a similar body type — was a computer nerd who never went outside.
Those who believe that gendered behavior is learned will explain such differences in siblings by saying the parents aren't being consistent in how they treat their children. The problem with this explanation is that we see similar patterns of behavior in children from very different families. For example, look at tomboys. Most of these girls don't like to wear dresses, prefer simple hairdos, and tend to be loud and rough in their play. If these girls come from widely differing families, why then is their behavior so similar, particularly when many of their parents actively try to suppress this behavior? It makes better sense to me that these girls share some biological predisposition to tomboy behavior rather than that they learned it from watching others or from their parents who wanted them to behave this way.
Excerpted from The Parents' Guide to Boys by Abigail Norfleet James. Copyright © 2013 Abigail Norfleet James. Excerpted by permission of Live Oak Book Company.
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