Should We Educate Our Girls as Girls and Our Boys as Boys? A word on gender differences

It’s a good question. Parents who lean towards “yes” (different genders = different education) may argue that girls are girls and boys are boys (true), so why not act accordingly. They may also say that this is what they (the parents) know, because this is this how they were educated. Parents who lean towards “no”, see the obvious potential issue with the perpetuation of gender stereotypes, some of which may work against our own kids and society in general, down the road. For example, some view the encouragement of “typically feminine” characteristics such as quietness, obedience, and passivity, as a reason why girls tend to like school better and perform better than boys in the early grades, yet those behaviors may be detrimental for their later success1.

Common sense should tell us that both points of view have merit. The “nature versus nurture” debate certainly plays a role in answering this question: the likely culprit of most of this heated debate may be a confusion between gender differences and gender stereotypes (reflected in gender roles). Gender differences are driven by biological factors, while gender stereotypes are the result of “children acquiring values, motives, and behaviors viewed as appropriate for males and females within a culture”1…so they are learned. Gender differences between the developmental behaviors of little boys and little girls do exist.  However, it is important to know that the overlap between the distributions is greater than the differences between them1. Furthermore, outlining the differences does not tell us why they exist1, yet the good news is acknowledging and leveraging these differences can help us improve how we educate our little ones.

Research shows us key differences in developmental and physical traits between little boys and girls. Boys’ brains, for example, develop at a different rate, time, and order than girls’ in the areas of the brain that affect language, spatial memory, and motor skills:  the language and fine motor skills areas mature about six years earlier in girls while the areas involved in targeting and spatial memory mature some four years earlier in boys2. Interestingly, boys’ eyes are physically different that girls’, specifically the visual cortices. Boys’ eyes are “drawn to cooler colors such as silver, black, blue, and gray, while girls’ eyes are drawn to textures and warmer colors—red, yellow, and orange”2. Girls hear better than boys, especially in higher ranges, and they also have a more sensitive sense of smell2. Also important is the nervous system: girls’ autonomic system is influenced more by the parasympathetic, while the boys’ sympathetic has a greater influence in the control of autonomic responses. This affects the reaction to threats or confrontations2.

So how do these differences matter in the development and behaviors of our children? Let’s start with girls. In general, girls have more sensory detailed memory storage, better listening skills, and better discrimination among the various tones of voice. They also have a learning advantage, especially in the language arts, and they tend to make fewer impulsive decisions than boys do. Girls tend to multitask better than boys do, with fewer attention span problems and greater ability to make quick transitions between activities3. Girls can discriminate between objects better than boys2. Compared to boys, girls focus more on faces and warm colors2. They can also better explain and describe their feelings2. Relatively speaking, girls do not deal with moderate stress well, and they may feel sick or nauseated when faced with threat and confrontation2. Also, compared to boys, girls show more positive emotions (e.g. happiness) and “internalizing emotions” (e.g., sadness, anxiety, sympathy)4.

Boys, on the other hand, tend to use more of the brain for spatial and mechanical functioning so that makes them want to move objects through space, like balls, model airplanes (…or just their arms and legs). Most boys will experience words and feelings differently than girls do3. They are more likely to be physically impulsive and less likely to sit still and chat with a friend3. Boys brains are structured to compartmentalize learning - thus girls are better at multitasking. When bored, their brains are set to “renew, recharge, and reorient by entering what neurologists call a rest state” (e.g. the boy in the back whose eyes are drifting toward sleep)3. Boys’ brains are better suited for symbols, abstractions, diagrams and pictures than for words3. They locate objects better than girls2, but find it difficult to talk about feelings2. Boys focus on movement and cold colors2. They deal with moderate stress relatively well and may “feel excited when faced with threat and confrontation”2. Also, compared to girls, boys show more externalizing emotions (e.g., anger)4.

Fine. But how can we leverage this knowledge to better engage our children while combating stereotypes?

Forget about gender roles and be aware of what really makes them different.  Embrace it and use it. Here are some broad tips.

When engaging girls…

  • Girls work well in groups facing one another2.
  • Choose activities that allow them to help you2.
  • Don’t protect them from activities in which they get dirty or scratch their knees a bit. Activities should provide opportunities for girls to take calculated risks2.
  • Girls don’t respond well to loud, sharp, short tones. They do respond to descriptive phrases. Loud and repetitive noises can be disturbing to them2.
  • Girls prefer a lot of colors2.
  • Use puzzles to support perceptual and symbolic learning2.
  • Activities should expose girls to math and science5, giving them plenty of opportunities to manipulate objects, build, design, and calculate3.
  • It’s best to incorporate music and art while they learn5.
  • Encourage physical games to promote development of their gross motor skills3.
  • Form teams to promote leadership roles and negotiation skills3.
  • Verbally “encourage the hidden high energy of the quieter girls"3.

When engaging boys…

  • Be brief - keep verbal instructions to one minute tops3.
  • Encourage them with quick praise, use models and instructions they can follow2.
  • Challenge them—boys thrive on competition2.
  • Use manipulatives like beadwork and others to promote fine motor development3.
  • Focus on what is challenging for them: language, and early literacy5.
  • Keep an eye on them, but let them play – they need a physical outlet2.
  • Provide large spaces for boys when possible2.
  • Educational activities should be “kinesthetic and experiential”2.
  • Boys verbalize more easily what they are doing than what they are feeling. They will talk more and use more vocabulary when they are engaged in a task. Also during a physical task, try to get them to verbalize their feelings3.
  • Let them nurture other boys through “healthy aggression and direct empathy”3.

A final word on children’s gender stereotypes. As parents, we can help reduce them by making gender equality a priority at home. Remember boys and girls are a lot more alike than they different. 

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Jorge Gallego
Jorge Gallego

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1 Response

Ana M Gallego
Ana M Gallego

March 30, 2017

Excelente artículo.

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