I know it’s 2015 and we’re all about gender equality and so on. However, we can’t stick our heads in the sand and be in denial either. Boys and girls are different. They always have been, and they always will be. In an attempt to understand my little boy, now six years old, I invested in a copy of the well-known best-seller Raising boys by Steve Biddulph.
It has been a fascinating read thus far. So, I thought I’d share some of it that I’ve found particularly useful, with other parents who might be in the same boat. Let’s start by looking at why there’s a difference.
“The brain of a baby before and after birth grows rather like a tub of alfalfa sprouts accidentally left in the sun – brain cells keep getting longer and making new connections all the time. The left half of the cortex grows more slowly than the right in all human babies, but in males it is even slower still. The testosterone in a boy’s bloodstream slows things down. Oestrogen, the hormone that is predominant in the bloodstream of baby girls, actually stimulates faster growth of brain cells,” Biddulph explains.
Understanding these differences in boys’ brains helps to explain some practical difficulties that boys may sometimes have, and what to do about them.
He goes on: “As the right half grows, it tries to make connections with the left half. In boys, the left half isn’t yet ready to take the connections, so the nerve cells reaching across from the right cannot find a place to ‘plug in’. So they go back to the right side and plug in there instead. As a result, the right half in a boy’s brain is richer in internal connections but poorer in cross connections to the other half. This is one possible explanation of boys’ greater success in Mathematics, which is largely a ‘right side of the brain’ activity.”
Understanding these differences in boys’ brains helps to explain some practical difficulties that boys may sometimes have, and what to do about them. “If your brain is less connected from right to left, you will have trouble doing things well which involve both sides of the brain – such as reading, talking about feelings and solving problems through quiet introspection, rather than by beating people over the head,” says Biddulph.
He also cautions at this juncture, however, that “to say that ‘boys are different’ can very easily turn into an excuse for saying ‘they are defective’ or worse still ‘they can’t help it’. The same sorts of generalisations were once applied to girls: ‘they’ll never be any good at science or engineering’ or ‘they’re too emotional to be in responsible jobs’.”
It is very important to remember that the differences are slight for most people. They are only tendencies and therefore don’t apply to every individual. Most importantly, we can help boys to overcome them. “We can work to help boys read better, express themselves better, solve conflicts better and empathise better – and so help them to be great human beings,” Biddulph continues. Schools can (and should) also help by tailoring education accordingly.
That brings me to my next point – starting school. Biddulph feels that boys should start later: “At the age of five or six, when children start serious schooling, boys’ brains are an astonishing six to 12 months less developed than girls’. They are especially delayed in fine-motor coordination which is the ability to use their fingers carefully and hold a pen or scissors. And since they are still in the stage of gross-motor development, developing the nerves to their bigger arm, leg and body muscles, they will be itching to move around – so they will not be good at sitting still.
“In fact, until they finish their gross-motor development, they will not gain fine-motor skills. For boys, one leads to the other. Girls do it in reverse: their brains go straight to finger coordination, and they often need help in body strengthening by bouncing on trampolines and playing basketball or swimming.”
Some studies show that children who are young for their year actually do worse in school right through.
The other delay boys experience is in using words well. “This affects being able to tell a teacher what they need, answer questions in class, and communicate verbally with other children,” explains Biddulph.
He goes on to say that for both boys and girls, the calendar is a terrible way of deciding who should start school. “Kids vary so much, and with a once-a-year intake, some will always be young for their year,” he points out. As a parent, I totally agree, and I can’t help wondering if this is one of the reasons we seem to be seeing so many children, particularly boys (my son included), being told they need occupational therapy and/or speech therapy to bridge the gap.
Some studies show that children who are young for their year actually do worse in school right through. In these cases, staying back for a year could be just the thing to make school more of a success in the 12 years following. Every child needs to be treated as an individual and the question to ask is not “how old?” but rather “how ready?”
“In boys’ cases the answer is often ‘not yet’,” says Biddulph. He stresses throughout his book that “boys are not inferior – just different”. Amen to that.
I am a frazzled working mom who loves her husband and her children. All six of them – two human, two canine and two feline. I spend most of my day managing the crazy chaos that is my awesome life, and what’s left, writing about it … Read more