Is there a difference in bringing up boys and girls?

genderQ. I have one daughter and two younger sons under six. I come from a family of all girls and, in turn, my sisters have all girls. I am conscious that my sons have a lot of female influences (although their dad, who is very hands-on, was once a young boy!). I wonder whether there are any special tips you could give me about bringing up boys. They are both very happy little fellas, but I suppose I am a bit paranoid that between us all the girls will turn them into sissies. Not that it’s a bad thing, but the elder of the two is not really interested in football or any of that lark (he loves fire engines and Lego). I feel like I know already how my daughter is going to grow up, but boys are a bit of an unknown quantity. Maybe there is no magic at all, but essentially my question is: are there any general differences between bringing up boys and girls?

Whether there are innate differences between boys and girls, and whether these differences are nurtured in how they are brought up, is the subject of much controversy in psychology and sociology.

In her recent book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, neuroscientist Lise Elliot describes several studies that highlight differences between boys and girls in brain function and psychology. For example, at four months girls make more eye contact with adults and boys are more skilled at rotating objects. Girls tend to speak earlier and outperform boys at reading and writing when they start school, while boys tend to be more active and physical. Such differences grow as children get older. However, Elliot is at pains to stress that these initial “brain” differences are very small and tend to get exaggerated by social expectation and gender beliefs. In her view, how boys and girls are brought up is a much more powerful shaper than how their brains start out – nurture beats nature every time.

Many studies have found that female and male infants are treated differently from the outset by their caregivers. One study showed that a baby is even handled differently if the adult believes it is a boy or a girl, with girls being more softly held and told they are pretty and boys being bounced and told they are strong. Similarly, while boys and girls show different toy preferences (eg, boys choosing trucks and balls), these are considerably magnified by social expectation – with male toddlers quickly learning to avoid dolls and pink tea sets.

It is important to remember that these studies only indicate small average differences – there are always exceptions and individual variations. For example, Elliot points out, although at age eight the average boy is more active than about two-thirds of girls, this still means a third of girls are more active than the average boy.

In addition, differences can be overcome by opportunities and learning. For example, boys can succeed just as easily in a traditionally female area of strength such as empathy and communication, if exposed to the right experiences and learning and if supported in the same way.

Whatever the scientific differences, in practice parents’ experience of bringing up boys is very different from that of bringing up girls – and I think this is the basis of your question. This is as much to do with male culture and expectations of how boys should behave (and how parents should behave with them) as with innate gender differences. As a mother, this can be a challenge if you have less experience of boys – although the fact that your boys have a caring, involved dad will make a great difference. In particular, listening to his opinions and insights can give you a understanding of the male perspective for your boys.

Girls and boys face different challenges as they grow up. The more you can sympathetically understand your own boys’ individual needs and the male culture that they will grow into, the more you will be able to help them. Boys have their own vulnerabilities – they can be slower to talk and communicate, are more likely to be physically bullied as they grow older, can be more disruptive in school and are much more likely to engage in risk-taking and dangerous activities.

In a bestselling book Raising Boys, Steve Biddulph argues that boys have very specific parenting needs, and offers some good practical suggestions on how to address these challenges. For example, given that boys are less likely to chat openly, it can be useful to develop shared hobbies or interests with them that you can enjoy together as they grow up. Such activities can allow you to remain connected even in the hard times.

I worked with a family once where the teenage boy had serious behavioural problems. What kept him from going fully off the rails was a love of Manchester United which he shared with his father. No matter how difficult things were between them, neither son nor father could stop themselves from sharing the moment once the big match was on. Shared interests open a channel of communication that can last a lifetime.

In addition, some arenas of male culture value toughness and this can restrict the development of a boy’s caring or empathic side. This can be particularly prominent in schools. You can compensate for this by giving them “acceptable” caring opportunities, such as letting them mind a pet, or by cultivating their relationship with a grandparent or an elderly neighbour with whom they can express a caring side of their personality.

The key to raising children, whether boys or girls, is to tune into your particular child, to notice their unique personality as it emerges, while also being aware of your own expectations and gender beliefs. Then you can respond individually to what each child needs and support them in developing their full potential.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, August 2010.  John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.