Can we finally answer the great parenting debate over which sex is more challenging to raise?
I often say that I spend more time and energy on my one boy than on my three girls. Other mothers of boys are quick to say the same. Forget that old poem about snips and snails and puppy dog tails, says Sharon O’Donnell, a mom of three boys and the author of House of Testosterone. “Somehow it’s been changed to boys being made of ‘fights, farts and video games,’ and sometimes I’m not sure how much more I can take!”
Not so fast, say moms of girls, who point out that they have to contend with fussier fashion sense, more prickly social navigations and a far greater capacity to hold a grudge. And as a daughter grows, a parent’s concerns range from body image to math bias.
Stereotyping, or large kernels of truth? “I think parents use ‘which is harder?’ as an expression of whatever our frustration is at the moment,” says family therapist Michael Gurian, author of Nurture the Nature. “Boys and girls are each harder in different ways.”
Every child is an individual, of course. His or her innate personality helps shape how life unfolds. Environment (including us, the nurturers) plays a role, too: “There are differences in how we handle boys and girls right from birth,” says David Stein, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Virginia State University in Petersburg. “We tend to talk more softly to girls and throw boys in the air.”
But it’s also true that each gender’s brain, and growth, unfolds at a different rate, influencing behavior. Leonard Sax, M.D., author of Boys Adrift, believes parents raise girls and boys differently because girls and boys are so different from birth—their brains aren’t wired the same way.
So, can we finally answer the great parenting debate over which sex is more challenging to raise? Much depends on what you’re looking at, and when:
Who’s harder? Boys
Why don’t boys seem to listen? Turns out their hearing is not as good as girls’ right from birth, and this difference only gets greater as kids get older. Girls’ hearing is more sensitive in the frequency range critical to speech discrimination, and the verbal centers in their brains develop more quickly. That means a girl is likely to respond better to discipline strategies such as praise or warnings like “Don’t do that” or “Use your words.” “Boys tend to be more tactile—they may need to be picked up and plunked in a time-out chair,” Gurian says. They’re also less verbal and more impulsive, he adds, which is especially evident in the toddler and preschool years.
These developmental differences contribute to the mislabeling of normal behavior as problematic, a growing number of observers say. Five boys for every one girl are diagnosed with a “disorder” (including conduct disorder, bipolar disorder, hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder, sensory integration disorder and oppositional defiant disorder), says Stein, also the author of Unraveling the ADD/ADHD Fiasco. Some kids—most often boys—may simply fall on the more robust end of normal. They need more opportunities to expend energy and aggression, as well as firmer limits.
Who’s harder? Boys
“Much after-dinner wrestling here,” reports Michelle Mayr, the Davis, California, mom of four boys, ages 5 to 12. “I’m constantly fighting to keep my house a home rather than an indoor sports center. Their stuffed animals’ primary function is to be added to the pile of pillows everyone is launching into from the coffee table.” In general, boys are more rambunctious and aggressive, experts say. Taking risks lights up the pleasure centers of their brains. Many parents find they have to keep a closer eye on what a son is “getting into,” or use more bandages.
But letting kids explore—at the cost of a few scrapes and cuts—builds character, self-confidence, resilience and self-reliance, says Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Boys, being natural risk takers, may need encouragement to slow down a little, but maybe girls need to be encouraged to take more risks. Look for opportunities for your daughter to jump off a wall, swim in the deep end, or try the bigger slide.
Who’s harder? First boys, then girls
From birth, a girl baby tends to be more interested in looking at colors and textures, like those on the human face, while a boy baby is drawn more to movement, like a whirling mobile, says Dr. Sax. (These differences play out in the way kids draw: Girls tend to use a rainbow of hues to draw nouns, while boys lean toward blue, black and silver for their more verblike pictures of vehicles crashing and wars.) In a nutshell, girls are rigged to be people-oriented, boys to be action-oriented. Because girls study faces so intently, they’re better at reading nonverbal signals, such as expression and tone of voice. Boys not only learn to talk later than girls and use more limited vocabularies, they also have more trouble connecting feelings with words.
“While most girls share their feelings and details of events, my three sons honestly don’t see that as important. I spend my days asking, ‘What happened then?’ or ‘What did he say after you said that?'” O’Donnell says.
Important note: Because boys hold eye contact for shorter periods than girls, parents may worry about autism, since this can be a red flag. “It’s a relief for moms to know that this is normal and comes from the way the brains are set up,” Gurian says.
As girls get to be 8 or so, things can get harder: The flip side of being so adept at communicating is that girls exert a lot of energy on it. There can be a great deal of drama around who’s mad at whom, who said what and why, and more. Start when your daughter’s a toddler to establish an open communication, so she learns she can come to you for advice.
Who’s harder? Girls
Developing a healthy self-image is critical to all kids. But as the more compliant and people-oriented gender, girls tend to grow up less confident and more insecure than boys, researchers say. Famed gender researcher and psychologist Carol Gilligan, Ph.D., calls this “the tyranny of nice and kind”—unwittingly raising girls to be people pleasers.
“This cultural pressure to put others’ needs first, ignore one’s own gut feelings and avoid asking for what one wants has traditionally harmed girls,” says Jenn Berman, a California family therapist who wrote The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. “Despite the fact that she enjoys the positive attention and accolades that people pleasing brings, the more a girl pushes her own needs and desires underground to please others, the more likely her own self-esteem will suffer.”
“I see a natural nurturing instinct in my daughter and her friends,” says Tracy Lyn Moland, a parenting consultant in Calgary, Alberta, who has a girl, 11, and a boy, 8. “I find myself saying, ‘I can take care of that—you get yourself ready,’ when she’s trying to mother her brother.”
Make no mistake, helpfulness and nurturing are virtues for everybody. But this tendency in girls makes it smart to help her explore and strengthen her inner nature and encourage her to try new things.
Body image is a big part of self-esteem, and though there’s certainly body-image dysfunction in boys and men, it remains mostly a female issue. The natural rounding out of the body that happens in puberty clashes with the unnatural slimness girls see in the culture around them.
Be aware of the messages you convey about your own body, diet and exercise. “It’s painfully obvious that girls’ negative body image can come directly from seeing their moms look critically in the mirror and complain,” says Berman. “Teach your daughter to listen to her body’s signals of hunger and satiety. Girls who listen to their bodies tend to listen to their instincts in other areas.” Sports are a great way for girls to build confidence and a healthy appreciation for their bodies.
Who’s harder? Mostly boys
Boys and modern education are not an idyllic match. An indoor-based day and an early emphasis on academics and visual-auditory (as opposed to hands-on) learning ask a lot of a group that arrives at school less mature. In their early years, most boys lag behind girls in developing attentiveness, self-control and language and fine motor skills.
The relatively recent acceleration of the pre-K and kindergarten curricula has occurred without awareness that the brain develops at different sequences in girls and boys, Dr. Sax says. Music, clay work, finger painting, and physical exercise—early-ed activities that once helped lively kids acclimate to school—are vanishing. Few teachers are trained in handling the problems that result.
One area where girls do less well in school concerns spatial learning, such as geometry. Girls may use different parts of their brains to process space perceptions. The key is for parents to present both boys and girls with plenty of no-pressure opportunities to try out the areas that are challenging.
The bottom line? On balance, the general consensus seems to be that boys are more of a handful early on, and girls more challenging beginning in the preteen years. Which means that, as the mom of daughters who are 12, 9, and 7, I have the next ten years cut out for me!
Paula Spencer is the coauthor, with Jill Stamm, M.D., of Bright From the Start: The Simple, Science-Backed Way to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, From Birth to Three.