Tag Archives: boy

Supporting Boys and Girls

When learning about the differences between genders or temperaments or learning styles and their effect on your child, try not to think of anything as “here’s what’s wrong with my child” but instead focus on:

  • here are things my kid is good at – I should give them plenty of opportunities to do those things so they have a chance to feel competent and successful and
  • here are areas my child may need extra support in developing – what are some ways I can gently challenge and nudge them in that direction on good days without pressuring them (especially not pressuring them on days when everything is already feeling hard)

Here are thoughts for supporting boys and girls:

Helping boys succeed

  • Physical activity is essential: give him active chores, ensure he has plenty of time for big motor play. If he has a shorter attention span, it helps to break big jobs down into smaller tasks, and switch things around when working, alternating activities.
  • While girls learn best with words (spoken or written) as their primary source of information, boys learn better when they can manipulate or view the material.
  • Take advantage of boys’ natural curiosity and desire to fix things by giving problems to solve. Take advantage of his desire to compete by issuing challenges.
  • If you want to connect with a boy, do something physical together. Especially if you want to have a “serious talk” with him: Do it while walking side-by-side, not sitting and looking at him.

Helping girls succeed

  • Encourage physical activity of all kinds. Treat her as a brave, strong, athletic child.
  • Encourage her to practice skills that build spatial intelligence – build with blocks, make and use maps, and play video games that let her “move” through spaces and put pieces together.
  • Play with toys that move – cars, paper airplanes, balls – these help predict motion.

Stress response

  • When boys are stressed, they have an adrenaline-fueled reaction – either moving toward a danger (fight) or running away from danger (flight). These outbursts are hard to miss, and may be seen as disruptive behavior. A stressed boy might do best to get up and move, especially outdoors where he can be loud. But, he can also be taught to take slow deep breaths to calm his response.
  • When girls are stressed, they have an oxytocin-fueled response (the collect-and-protect response, aka “tend-and-befriend”) – they are more likely to turn to other people for support and to help defend from perceived threats. Their stress may be quieter and go un-noticed until they begin to cry. A stressed girl may do best when someone moves in close to her, speaking in a calm, quiet voice, and offering support with problem-solving. source

Learn more on gender https://bellevuetoddlers.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/gender.pdf and gender identity: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2018/05/02/gender-identity/ 

Boy and Girl Toys

toysToy Selection

Every egalitarian parent has a story like “I bought my son some sweet little teddy bears – he had them roar and crash into each other. I bought my daughter trains, and she had the mama train take care of the baby train.” It is true that one of the biggest differences between boys and girls are in the toys they choose to play with, and how they play with them. “It’s bigger than [differences in] verbal skills, math, aggression and risk taking. [But] I think it is misleading because parents see the difference in toy selection and draw a line to everything else.” (Eliot)

The difference in interests may have some biological influence, but is also very much a product of culture. At 6 – 12 months, boys and girls are interested in the same toys. For example, both like dolls a lot, because all babies are enamored of the human face. Boys have a very slight preference for wheeled vehicles, but otherwise they’re mostly the same.

But by age 3, there are major differences in preferred toys, and even more so at 5, especially for boys. In an experiment, five year old boys would spend less than 10% of their play time with “girl” toys. Girls would split their time much more evenly between boy toys and girl toys.

Let’s look at how this developmental shift lines up with children’s growing understanding of their cultural gender.

When do children learn about gender? (Source)

  • 7 months. Start to tell the difference between male and female voices
  • 12 months. Start to tell the difference between male and female faces
  • 2 years. Girls begin to play with ‘girl toys’ and boys with ‘boy toys.’
  • 2- 3 years. Begin to label themselves and others as male or female
  • 3 – 4 years. Start actively categorizing things as boy things and girl things and talking about “boys like to do this” or “girls like to do that”
  • 4 – 6 years. Say “only boys can do this” or “only girls do that”
  • 6 – 7 years. Children understand that gender is constant: boys grow up to be men*; girls won’t ever be daddies; and that person up on the stage is a man even if he is dressed like a woman.

Toy Culture

It is telling that, in our modern culture, girls are still happy to play with “boy toys” even after they begin to internalize gender roles, but the boys avoid “girl toys.” This reflects a broader cultural reality that we now tell our girls they can do anything – wear pants, do math, climb trees, etc. But we still discourage our boys from doing “girly things”.

Parenting Choices

Each family makes their own choices about how to handle gender based toys. Some parents choose to buy only gender neutral toys, but then are surprised that their boys may play with them in “boy” ways – crashing them together, and their girls may play with them in more “girl” ways – cuddling them and creating characters.

Some parents only buy toys that are marketed to their child’s gender. So their girl’s room is filled with dolls, ponies, and pink. Their boy’s room is filled with balls, cars, and superheroes. If their child plays with toys aimed at the other gender, they may be surprised by this.

img_20160909_083736558_hdr-2 Others follow their child’s interests. My son is in many ways a stereotypical boy, and leans toward many “boy” toys – trains, cars, balls, Legos, and space toys. But he’s also wild about a toy called Shopkins – little anthropomorphized household goods that are very much marketed as “girl” toys. Here he is on the first day of kindergarten, confounding gender expectations with his combination of Lego astronaut t-shirt, and sparkly pink Shopkins backpack.

As a parent, you can choose your own path, and adapt it as you go along. There’s no right answer. It’s about finding a balance of what pleases your child and what fits in with your family values, and with the culture of peers that your child will encounter.

Learn more

For more on gender differences, click here. For more on how to make classes more gender inclusive, click here. For more on gender identity, and gender non-conforming children, click here.

Source: Big Think interview with Lise Eliot.

Photo credits: Action figure JD Hancock via photopin cc; Doll http://www.freeimages.com/browse.phtml?f=view&id=356461


* Note: transgender women and men are the exception to this general “rule.” For example, a transgender woman was born with male genitalia and labelled a boy, but at some point in childhood or adulthood, identifies herself as female. Estimates are that perhaps 1% of people are transgender, but it’s often very hard for cisgender people to understand this. Perhaps because we form this idea of gender as a constant at this young age of 6 or 7. It is easier for a child to understand things as absolutes… either a boy or a girl. But as they get older, we can help them understand that many things are not quite so binary.

Gender Differences: Nature then Nurture

genderNature: boys and girls do develop differently

There are lots of anecdotes about how different boys and girls* are. And, for any point that you are trying to prove about gender differences, you’ll be able to find at least one study that supports it. But, when experts do a meta-analysis of all the studies, these are the main differences that show up consistently:

  • Emotional Development: Boys may get upset and explode more easily, and have a harder time self-soothing. Girls show fear earlier: they’re more likely to startle, and more likely to become cautious when their parents look worried about something.
  • Spatial Learning: boys are better at the ability to turn objects around in their mind to see how they could fit together differently (puzzles), and better at keeping track of moving objects and predicting motion (where the ball will land).
  • Physical Skills: Boys may be more physically active (although girls reach large motor milestones at about the same age). Boys may have shorter attention spans.
  • Language: Girls are better at perceptual speed tasks: identifying matching objects and pattern identification. They pay more attention to the human voice than boys do. Girls also talk earlier.

However, although those differences are observable patterns, the differences from all boys to all girls are small. When we look at individuals, there is just as much variation from one boy to another as there is from any one boy to any one girl.

It is true that girls’ brains develop faster. At birth, a full-term girl is about one week “more mature” than a full-term boy. Girls reach the halfway point of their brain development before 11 years, and their brain is fully mature between 21 and 22 year old. Boys’ halfway point is 15 years, with full brain maturity by 30 years old. Source. This delay can make boys seem “not as bright” or “not as good at academic skills” as girls, but that’s not the case in the long run.

Nurture: Boys and girls are treated differently

So, there are, in fact, slight biological differences. But we as parents reinforce and amplify the differences. We tend to encourage our children to do the things that we expected they would be good at (boys to throw balls, girls to talk) and we don’t challenge them in other areas, because “well, girls are just not as physical, and we all know boys talk later.” Our assumptions “crystallize into… self-fulfilling prophecies.” (Eliot)

  • Emotional Development: Some believe that “girls are more empathic / tuned into people from day one – they are much more likely to establish eye contact.” But others point out that because newborn boys are fussier and harder to soothe (due to those less mature brains), their parents are less likely to establish eye contact, so boys don’t get as much practice at that skill.
  • Emotional Expression: Boys are seen as more likely to be angry and aggressive, but that’s considered normal. Angry girls are told not to be angry. When girls show fear, they receive empathic support. But fearful boys are told not to be scared.  Source.
  • Spatial Learning: Girls are, in fact, slightly less interested in puzzles and building toys. But when we give our boys lots of Legos, and give our girls toy animals, the skills they don’t have the opportunity to practice can turn into a bigger gap in spatial skills which influences learning advanced math later on.
  • Physical: Boys are expected to be more physical and more interested in balls and bikes, so when they show these interests, they are more actively encouraged. Boys are dressed in clothes they can move well in. Girls are dressed in “pretty” clothes, and assumed to be less physically capable. There was a study of 11 month olds. The mothers were asked how steep a slope their child could crawl down. Then the children were tested. Boys and girls did about the same. But the mothers of girls had significantly underestimated what their girls were capable of. Source
  • Language: Parents and teachers see a boy lagging in reading and verbal skills and shrug it off with, “But of course, he’s a boy.” It is true that girls talk younger. At 20 months a girl may know 200 words and a boy may know 30. But in a month he’ll catch up to where she was! She will always have gotten more practice than he has, though, so she will always seem further ahead. Girls may also read younger, which means parents assume they like to read. These girls are more likely to read for pleasure – which builds language skills, putting them further ahead. Meanwhile, the parents may focus on how slow their boy is at learning to read – when he over-hears this, he assumes that reading is not one of the things he’ll ever be good at.

Think about your expectations for the children in your life. What assumptions do you make about their capabilities based on their gender? Where do you “make excuses” for them based on gender… “well, I know that this is harder for boys to learn…”? When guessing which toys and activities they’ll be interested in, how colored are your assumptions by their gender?

Yes, I get that boys and girls can be different. My boy was obsessed with trains as a toddler – my girls never even played with the trains I got for them. My girls carried their stuffed animals everywhere and had a complex understanding of the social relationships of those animals and my son only occasionally plays with his stuffed animals. But I gave all of them an opportunity to interact with a variety of toys. And I tried not to make assumptions about which toys they would like.

Some parents believe that gender differences are set in stone, others see them as more malleable. Media has a big influence on parents’ perceptions of gender stereotypes. Politically conservative sources are more likely to explain gender differences as being based on biology rather than culture, and that means there readers were more comfortable to traditional gender stereotypes as “unavoidable.” Source

As with most aspects of parenting, I think the challenge is for us to:

  • see our children’s strengths (gender based or not) as strengths and give them plenty of free play opportunities to practice them and gain confidence and a sense of mastery
  • see the areas our children are less skilled in as areas for growth not as “unchangeable biological imperatives”. Provide gentle nudges in play-based learning, or more direct instruction to help them learn and grow, without pressuring them with demands for instant success


Over the next few days I will be posting about gender differences. Here are the major sources I used in preparing all these posts:

Pink Brain, Blue Brain. By Lise Eliot

Cognitive Gender Differences by Abigail James.

The Real Difference Between Boys and Girls. By Anita Sethi, PhD.

Boys’ Behavior: Why Boys Behave the Way They Do. By Troy Parrish.

Gender Neutral Parenting on Choosing Therapy

* Caveat: All discussions of gender are more complex than they seem. We know that not all children labelled as “girls” or boys identify that way. Read more about transgender children here: HRC.