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It’s a Fact: Brain Differences Exist Between Boys and Girls

The other day we wrote our letters to Santa and my six-year-old son’s letter broke my heart.

He is my “difficult child”, the one who gets labeled as “explosive” and “rigid”.

Like many instances in our family life, I approached the letter writing as an exercise of reflection for my sons. I asked them to think about the past year and consider their impact on our family and our community. I challenged them to come up with a variety of specific acts of “kindness” and examples of “goodness” they exhibited throughout the year such as “helping my baby brother when he was sick” or “getting a teacher when a friend fell and was bleeding” or “worked hard at school”…

…you get my point.

Here is the letter he wrote:

I lost my breath and my eyes stung with salty tears. “…if I’m on your naughty list, that’s fine…” His reflection on his year concluded that he had been “bad” and he was taking responsibility for that perceived behavior. I will be honest, we struggle with his behavior on a daily basis but he is a good kid with a giant, kind heart. His challenges will ultimately make him change the world.

So, what is a mother to do when she fears her child is depressed at 6 years old?

As many of you know, I am a proactive parent. I don’t sit and sulk, feeling bad for myself or my kids. I do something about it. I read. I research. I talk to people who know something about whatever topic I am currently obsessed with…

Which brings me to this podcast and this book…

On my quest to guide my son to a happier existence, or put it more bluntly, to steer him away from depression, I listened to an episode of The Art of Manliness podcast where the host and author, Michael Gurian, discussed the fact that the brain’s of girls and boys are different, not only during development but as a fact of life.

Brain Difference Between Boys & Girls Exist

Fact: Boys and Girls Learn Differently

The argument? We’re failing our boys, that they’re suffering because of an antiquated gender paradigm, and it is causing depression, a lack of motivation, poor performance, and an inability to function optimally as human beings in our society.

The podcast got me thinking about my parenting and what I am doing that is negatively impacting my son’s emotional well-being. Better yet, the conversation got me thinking about what I can alter about how I interact with, speak with, and discipline my son.

Saving Our Sons Brain Differences Between Boys and Girls

{Click on the book image to listen to the podcast.}

The author, Michael Gurian, argues that if we want to help boys and girls, we need to approach parenting and teaching from a “nature-based theory” that recognizes that “while boys and girls have a lot in common, there are biological differences that influence the way boys learn, socialize, and behave”. He then offers tangible approach parents and schools can take to capitalize on those differences in boys to help them thrive and become resilient men.

Brain Differences Between Boys and Girls

You will be glad to know that many of these approaches are Montessori-esque with an acknowledgment of different types of learning. For example, a young boy (like my son, for example) may need to move his body in some manner in order to focus on the task or assignment or conversation at hand. Another example is based on the way girls and boys process and develop language. Giving an elementary aged boy a “comic” strip to map out and create his story before writing it down will reap benefits and results never imagined by the adult. I’ve seen this result with my 8-year-old in 3rd grade who struggles with writing.

When it comes to emotional learning, Gurian says:

For instance, let’s say that we’re talking about protecting the emotional lives of girls and the emotional lives of boys…the emotional lives of boys works differently than girls. If we say to four-year-old boys in preschools, and four-year-old girls, if we say to them, “Use your words,” if every time they do something that we don’t particularly like, something impulsive, or they move around a lot, or they fidget, or they bop someone else on the head, or whatever it is, in their sort of affectionate way, if we say, “No, no, no, no, guys, that’s bad. You’ve got to use your words,” if guys can’t access the words as quickly as girls, we’re going to punish the guys.

The reality is their brains don’t access these words, especially words connected to feelings and emotions and impulses, as quickly as girls do. From preschool all the way through elementary school, of course, we just keep punishing these guys as if they’re inherently defective, and they fail, and they drop out, and they hate school, and all of this. We’re not realizing, “Whoa, we never trained preschool teachers. We never trained elementary, secondary school teachers, not even college teachers. We didn’t show them these brain scans.” In my lectures, of course, I’m showing all these brain scans and saying, “Look how different these brains are,” and that becomes life-changing. If we don’t show that stuff to people and don’t teach them this stuff, then they will be punishing boys, and they also won’t be teaching girls in the best ways.

None of this information is surprising, per se, but it does offer affirmation that how my husband and I are raising our sons are headed in the right direction. We’re by no means perfect parents but by getting our hands on the latest brain research we can equip ourselves with the proper knowledge and tools to help guide our sons. Notice I write, “guide” because I want them to lead their learning and their development, as painful as that might be for me, as a parent, to watch.

Related Read: 6 Books to Teach Mindfulness to Kids

I also appreciate the explanation on the different types of nurture and how we need both as a society to functional well.

He explains:

At the baseline, because of the testosterone-oxytocin differences and these other sort of hormonal biochemical differences, and then the cellular differences, and then, of course, which affects brain differences, this creates a baseline at which more females will use what I call “direct empathy nurturance”, and more males will use what I call “aggression nurturance” or “challenge nurturance”. Both females and males can use whichever type of nurturance wants, of course. We’re very complex. Males can nurture in the same way females do. Females, males. Absolutely. But, in general, we find this baseline different.

To give an example, there’s a street hockey game. It’s 10- to 12-year-olds, and they’re playing street hockey on their roller blades. This 11-year-old boy falls down, and a girl who’s on her skates comes right over and kind of gets to his level and says, “Are you okay? What can I do for you?” That’s direct empathy nurturance. The cells in her brain, especially in this part of the brain called the insula, fill up with these mirror neurons, so her brain and her body move toward what we call empathy, which is this getting at his level, trying to make him feel better right now. Well, another boy, a 12-year-old boy over here from the other side, comes rolling by and he ascertains that this 11-year-old is not hurt. He skinned his knee, but oh well, he’s not dead. He says, “Come on. Get up. Get up. We need you.” Well, that’s called “challenge nurturance” or “aggression nurturance”.

Both of these kinds of nurturance are crucial. We need to have people saying to the boy, “Are you okay? What can I do for you?” … guys can do that, too, of course … and we need to have people saying, “You know what, you’re needed as part of this team. You’re needed as a human being. You’re needed as an asset. I’m going to nurture you by helping you feel needed as opposed to by saying, ‘Oh, it’s okay. You’re okay. What can I do?’” Both are equally good. Both are essential. Males tend more toward challenge nurturance, even though males can be quite empathic. Females tend more toward empathic nurturance, even though they can be challenging.

This is actually a very, very good thing. That chapter lays out all the ways from empathy to aggression nurturance that males are nurturing and trying to get guys to tap into that nurturance, and then to get the communities and the families to understand that these are equally good ways of nurturing, that we have to stop thinking of nurturing as only being “How are you? Are you okay? What do you need? What can I do for you?”

So, armed with this information, I am at least more confident and feel more in control  of parenting my sons. I have specific “tactic” to which I will adhere to my parenting life.

How I Will Help My Sons Develop Emotionally and Socially

  1. No computer time (outside school work) during the week
  2. Not intervening when my sons begin to beat up on one another
  3. No iPhones until 14 (increased technology use = higher depression rates)
  4. Allowing my sons the space to express themselves with various means such as drawing and comic strip creating.
  5. Giving my sons the opportunity to move their bodies in order to get their schoolwork done
  6. Continue to be patient with emotional expression and find ways to help them communicate their emotions
  7. Begin collaborating with my sons’ school to make sure teachers and administrators are trained on how boys and girls learn differently with the most updated research

Resources for Learning More about How Boys & Girls Learn

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