The difference between raising boys and girls

Smiling young kids

Photo: Martin Yaffe

Marge and Phil have two children­ Ryan age 12 and Natalie, age 8. While Natalie seems to respond to a reasoned approach, discussing her behaviour, using a critical tone, firmness, this doesn’t work at all with Ryan and he’s 4 years older. They don’t understand how two children can be so different.

Sex differences are very real and I believe we need to parent our daughters differently than our sons. It has taken me many years to understand fully why such a marked difference in parenting styles is necessary for boys and girls. What I have learned so far is that boys and girls value different things, or at least have prioritized their values differently. For girls, the most important thing is relationship, while boys respect action. I used to think boys cared more for things and objects, while girls cared more about people, which was somewhat derogatory towards the male sex and which always left me with some degree of discomfort, until I realized it was not things they valued but action and somehow this was infinitely better.

The difference between boys and girls may seem obvious but with respect to parenting it is not always as clear as one might think. Most people seem to prefer the parenting style more appropriate for girls­ that is, talking. The prevailing view is that one should just have to speak in rational tones and at most sharpen your tone and the child will comply. Well, when this works, it seems to work much more frequently with girls. Most boys require a different approach. This, I believe, is one of the reasons that boys turn up at counselling centres at a rate three times higher than girls.

I need to preface any discussion on sex differences with a disclaimer that statements about the differences between boys and girls does not apply to all. For the most part, studies on sex differences suggest that about 2/3 of all boys behave in the manner used to describe male behaviour and about 3/4 of all girls behave in the way most girls behave. Thus, when we are describing the differences between boys and girls we are making statements that apply to most but not all boys and girls. Since these statements do apply to a wide segment of the population they are still useful to make but there will be exceptions.

In a study on sex differences a video camera was placed on the playground watching 4th graders. What was seen was that boys and girls rarely played together primarily because their style of play was so different. The girls made good eye contact with each other and they were much easier about making concessions and accommodations in order to “just be together.” It didn’t seem to matter to the girls what they did, as long as they were with the people they wanted. On the other hand, the boys rarely made eye contact with each other; in fact, they actively avoided it. They liked to jostle each other and make a kind of random physical contact, brushing each other’s shoulders in a playful jocular way. They show a lot of interest in each other’s toys and accomplishments. For boys, it’s the activity that’s going on, the sport, the action that’s important. In my office, when the parents and I are trying to convince a socially isolated young boy to call up a friend or engage with someone socially, the first question which comes to his mind is “What will we do? What kind of toys will he have at his home?” The girls, on the other hand, will ask “Who will I call?” and “Will she be busy playing with someone else?”

It is very clear from all studies in the field that girls acquire verbal skills at a faster rate than boys, and in fact, by the time they enter school are one to two years above boys. This is one of the reasons they adjust more easily to the school environment. It is not surprising then that girls respond more to a verbal approach­ talking things out. On the other hand, from very early on boys are more involved in the action of life. They simply do more and speak less. They play with action. They make sounds associated with action. They buy action figures. They respect the deed more than the word. As adults we often say that Actions speak louder than words.” Boys are simply playing out or dramatizing this bit of human wisdom.

In the book A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving a young boy accidentally kills the mother or his best friend and a woman who was more a mother to him than his own mother. This is a horrible, unspeakable act. The words “I’m sorry,” hardly suffice. The young boy travels to the orphaned boy’s home carrying a stuffed armadillo, which both boys had fought over and cherished. In fact, the young boy had also taken this object because it was so cherished and he wanted it badly. He rides his bicycle over to the orphaned boy’s house and deposits the armadillo on his porch and leaves. In this one action he says much­ I admit to stealing your armadillo. I know how much you value it. I am giving you something that we both value greatly in order to say how sorry I am. The words alone, I am sorry, do not even come close to conveying all the meanings embedded in this one action. The world of action is rich with meaning and the examples too numerous to mention here.

So what does this all mean with respect to parenting? A great deal. Boys respect action because mere words often “go in one ear and out the other.” It’s just a bunch of meaningless words to them and one is wasting one’s breath and energy if that is your only tool. We must think action. Unfortunately when parents think of action too often our thoughts turn to spanking or hitting of some form. There are many intermediary steps between talking at one end and spanking at the other.

In our work at the centre we typically have family meetings where the worker meets with the family and the supervisor and myself are a part of the meeting. We have a large blackboard which the children often use when they are bored or when we want to talk about things that don’t pertaint to them or don’t require their participation. We also use this board to explain things, draw simple scales or graphs to make concepts clearer. I am always amazed at what happens when the worker stands up and goes to the board. Remember many more of our clients are boys. The adults have been talking and the children are usually bored and restless, fidgeting in their seats. Then all of a sudden, from the child’s point of view, something happens. Someone gets up and goes to the bored and starts drawing something ­- something novel and interesting. The children’s behaviour usually changes from disinterest to rapt attention. They sit up and everyone is focussed on the board. It is quite a transformation. The worker has the children’s attention. She also has the adults’s attention so they often don’t notice the change in the child’s behaviour unless it is pointed out to them. So, simply a shift to something concrete and visual, as opposed to something abstract and verbal, makes a huge difference.

Another form of action is stickers or stars or check marks or anything which is concrete. Instead of talk talk talk, the adult says “O.K. that means you get a sticker, or you don’t get a sticker, or you lose a sticker.” I know, I know, giving or taking away stickers is not exactly as interesting or entertaining for the adult. We want to find the right things to say that will make a difference. That’s more fun for us. But it’s not what works for the kids, especially the boys. Giving or taking away stickers is not only an action, but it is an action which endures. If one gives a sticker, it remains a visible sign of merit, of accomplishment, for as long as that sticker remains in view for all to see. Words evaporate and disappear, leading to the classic refrain, “You didn’t, Yes I did, No you didn’t, and on and on.” And since there is no record of the event, there is no proof and children know this, it seems, better than most adults.

As well, if you say you’re going to do something and then you don’t, one’s credibility goes down the drain. Why? Because boys respect the action more than the words and when you don’t follow through, by doing what you say, then you haven’t acted and hence you have done very little and you are ignored or dismissed. From the adults perspective you feel unloved and disrespected. This is in fact true but not for the reasons you think. Change your behaviour, or behave more and talk less and you will be respected more. Many parents run into difficulty when they have a girl first and their preferred style of parenting worked well with the girl. Then they have a boy and find it doesn’t work at all. They tend to blame the boy for not responding to their tried and true parenting approach- see, it worked for Susie. Boys need different parenting approaches than girls.

When the idea of a behaviour chart is introduced in sessions, the children typically become very enthusiastic and positive. I believe, from their point of view, they think, At last, someone is going to do something instead of just talking and shouting.” They typically offer helpful suggestions and want to get this thing started as quickly as possible to introduce some clarity into their world. Chart systems typically seem to work for a while with families and then they are discarded. But what I have observed is that it is parents who give up on them, not children. The parents get bored with them and find them a dull, bank clerk manner of parenting. True the children try to manipulate the system, but instead of seeing that there is a system in place which was working but needs to be changed and evolve so that everyone continues to benefit from it, like changing the rewards or making it more difficult to attain more interesting rewards, the parents often give up on the system altogether.

To the adults who say that a system of rewards is using “bribery” I say, do you feel that getting paid by your employer is bribery? Why don’t we get tired of working for money? Because the material world is always coming up with more and better things for us to want and buy. If it didn’t we would have all that we need by the time we are 30 and money would become less important to us? I don’t want to get off on a tangent here about our materialistic values and whether they are serving us or not, but as long as we live in a world where money is valued and we continue to work hard for it, we cannot complain that a similar system works well for our children.

With girls it all works quite differently. If we express that we are cross with them and even get to the point where we “don’t want to see them until they can behave better,” they are often so worried about the relationship itself that they will get their behaviour under control. They may try to use their superior verbal skills to defend themselves and argue their points and their merits, try to blame another sibling, but in the end if we maintain our position, they will comply because relationship is everything to them. Girls maintain the belief that talk alone can change the nature of a relationship. Many more women girls enter into psychotherapy as adults, willingly, than men, and it is more often the mothers who bring their sons. If psychotherapy is to be successful with the boys, we must be more action oriented and less verbal.

Fathers, in general, use a more action oriented approach­ “Show me by your actions you are sorry,” hence they are often more successful gaining compliance from their sons. I believe the explanation offered here makes more sense than the one often given, which is that fathers have a deeper voice. It is also more hopeful, in that few mothers have considered altering their voice box. One can, much more easily, begin to think from a male perspective and use the language of action and hence be more understood by our sons.

In summary, boys respect action and not words. Maybe it’s because they’re not as good with the words as the girls are. Maybe it’s because actions simply speak louder and more clearly. For whatever reason, if we want to have their respect we have to do what they respect and act more clearly so they get the message. Girls do respect the words because through words we express our relationship with others.