When it comes to raising kids, gender matters. But our own personality and expectations may count even more.
When Hannah turned 3, my Little Women fantasy came to an abrupt halt with the birth of Isaac, followed 16 months later by Benny. From the moment my first son was born, I was scared silly about the task at hand; I imagined wildness, loudness, adoration of trucks, and risk-taking behavior that would end in visits to the ER. I knew in my heart that boys were surely the tougher gender to raise.
Now, seven years later, I’m no longer certain. Not only have my boys turned out to be loads of fun, but my adorably chatty preschooler is now an adolescent girl who says things like, “Mom, you’re not really wearing that to a meeting, are you? You look like you’re going to yoga!” (If Hannah was easy in her early years, she’s making up for it now.) But I’ve realized that ease may be in the eyes of the beholder (the boy behavior that drives me nuts may evoke no more than a shrug from another mom, and vice versa), and also that it shifts over the years as children mature and change.
The Testosterone Connection
The differences between males and females are, of course, some of life’s great mysteries, and the debate as to whether these differences are hard-wired or result from gender bias in our child rearing has raged for decades. Recent research, however, makes a compelling case that just as there are clear-cut anatomical differences between boys and girls, there are differences in brain chemistry as well — differences that influence behavior.
Some of these “differences” may be stereotypes — the boy who’s so aggressive that he breaks everything he touches or the girl who bursts into tears if you look at her cross-eyed. But what is their basis in biology?
British psychopathologist Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, author of The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain (Perseus, 2003), has spent nearly two decades studying the topic. He has found that the average female brain is better at empathizing with others, while the average male brain is better at systemizing and predicting outcomes. (However, Baron-Cohen is adamant that the descriptions “male” and “female” simply represent averages, and that either gender can have either brain type.)
And indeed, in canvassing dozens of mothers, I found that many of their feelings about the challenges of raising each sex echo Baron-Cohen’s conclusions. Here are some of the things mothers said about their daughters.
Girls are emotionally high maintenance.
Many mothers noted that girls, even as babies, are more volatile than boys, who seem more apt to go with the flow. “My 5-year-old daughter can go from smiles to tears and back again in the time it takes to eat dinner,” says Lisa Young, a Chicago mother of two. “Every meal is high drama. Her 10-year-old brother, on the other hand, has never been interested in doing anything more than wolfing down his food and getting back to whatever he was doing.”
Moreover, Melissa Ferry, from Valparaiso, Indiana, believes the transformation from happy child to sullen adolescent is more abrupt with girls. “They seem to morph overnight from sweet, adorable, loving daughters to impossible teenagers,” says this mother of two girls, 14 and 1, and a boy, 9. “From what I’ve observed, boys give you a bit more warning.”
Girls talk back more.
Scientists have known for some time that the left side of the brain controls language. In the late 1980s, behavioral neurologist Norman Geschwind, MD, speculated that the more fetal testosterone there is, the faster the right side of the brain develops and the slower the left. This may account for the fact that baby girls — who also have the hormone testosterone but generally in far lower concentrations than boys — often speak earlier than baby boys and why, in infancy, girls show more activity in their left brain hemispheres than in their right when listening to speech. The good news is that “girls are more verbal, so you know what they are thinking,” says Jessica Finkbiner, a mother of a daughter, 5, and two sons, 2 and 4 months, from Northridge, California. The downside? “You have to deal with a lot more sass.”
Girls’ bullying can be emotionally harsher.
In Baron-Cohen’s research, both genders exhibit aggression, but in boys it tends to take a more conventional form (physical fighting), whereas in girls, it is usually more subtle, manifesting itself in gossip, social exclusion, and verbal meanness (such as cutting remarks, often made behind the victim’s back).
Perhaps girls are adept at this kind of bullying because they are more tuned in to the emotional lives of other people, and hence understand intuitively the impact — which, according to most moms, is more brutal than a simple blow. “I’ve dealt with property damage and a few broken bones while raising my three sons,” says Ann Douglas, the author of The Mother of All Parenting Books (John Wiley, 2002), whose four children range in age from 6 to 15, “but those things were a breeze compared to the odd-girl-out bullying my daughter endured as a preteen.” What’s more, Douglas says, the aftereffects of a verbal snipe linger far longer than those of a physical bruise.
Of course, raising boys comes with a set of challenges as well. Here are some of the common themes that came up numerous times among mothers:
Boys are aggressive and physical.
Boys go in for rough-and-tumble play, most moms say, and it’s not easy on them or the furniture. “We babyproofed our house when our daughter started to crawl,” says Denver mother of two, Camilla Hayes, “but we didn’t know the meaning of the term until our son came along three years ago. He climbs on every piece of furniture and treats every surface — including the door of the open dishwasher — as a trampoline. I’m constantly worried that he’s either going to kill himself or trash the house.”
In fact, science confirms that testosterone makes the average male brain more prone toward roughhousing than the average female brain. Baron-Cohen believes that here, too, males’ relative lack of empathy may play a role, since they’re less likely to grasp the harm that may come to the person on the receiving end of their high jinks.
Communication can be challenging with a boy.
While some boys talk a blue streak from early on (one of my sons never stops), studies show that in addition to developing verbal skills later than girls, boys generally have a more declarative conversational style, with less give-and-take, than girls. For example, your female-brain child might be more inclined to discuss which Saturday morning cartoon to watch, while your male-brain child may simply state that Pokemon is the better choice. Baron-Cohen also found that vocabulary development among 18- to 24-month-olds was slower for those with a higher level of prenatal testosterone.
Boys turn any activity into a competition. “Everything is a contest with my boys,” says Barbara Fleming of Atlanta, who has two children, “whether it’s who can take a flight of stairs more quickly or who can slurp a drink more loudly. And they don’t just compete with each other. They’re constantly challenging me to arm-wrestling matches or similar games of one-upmanship. Sometimes I try to turn their obsession with winning to my advantage — ‘hey, guys, which one of you can get his pajamas on first?’ — but most of the time I’m just exhausted by it.”
Testosterone figures into this equation as well. According to Baron-Cohen, boys’ disinclination toward empathy means that they have a burning desire to beat the other guy.
Stereotypes Don’t Always Hold Up
“Typical boy behavior” can manifest itself in either sex, and the same goes for “girl behavior.” How difficult you find it has as much to do with your own temperament as your child’s. The key to successful parenting, whatever your child’s gender, is to figure out what makes him tick and how to make his personality work with your own. You also need to recognize that behaviors you find challenging may have positive qualities. For example:
- Is he loud and rowdy?
The upside: Your son is physically active and outgoing, two qualities that will stand him in good stead when he’s older. To keep the behavior from driving you crazy in the meantime, kid-proof your house and make sure he gets a good airing out at the park every day. If you’ve got a backyard, require a certain amount of outdoor play time.
- Is she always wheedling and trying to talk you into changing your mind?
The upside: Your daughter is persistent, and her verbal adroitness may turn her into a very skillful attorney one day. Until then, try to maintain your cool and do not yield, no matter how fiercely she argues. Instead, engage her in conversations on topics that you both find interesting.
- Does she break her delicate toys or take them apart?
The upside: Your daughter may be trying to figure out how they work, a sign of intellectual curiosity. If so, there are toys designed just for this purpose. If it’s simply the joy of smashing that she’s relishing, box them up until she’s ready to keep them intact as she plays.
My Children, Myself
When it comes to assessing which gender is tougher to raise, one should never discount the “grass is always greener” hypothesis. Kathleen Crowley-Long, PhD, professor of psychology at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, says that in her experience, parents of girls often believe they’re harder while those with boys make the same claim of males. “When I meet parents with both, they respond based on which of their children was most difficult, and they often relate difficulty to the child’s gender. But clearly, there are many other variables involved.”
It’s also true that each mother’s tolerance for certain gender-related traits has as much to do with who she is as with who her child is. One friend of mine with a daughter complains that girls worry too much about appearance. Another friend is frustrated because she can never get her son to change into clean clothes. (She’d find a girl who insists on frilly dresses a welcome relief.) In my case, I’m a low-key person who is sensitive to loud noises, so I was initially thrown by my high-energy, weapon-loving sons (I’ve finally figured out that we do the best outside). I wonder, too, since so many of the mothers I spoke to seem to find boys easier, whether many of us see in our daughters the gender-based traits we dislike in ourselves and therefore tend to react more negatively.
The bottom line is that raising children is hard work, regardless of gender. “From everything I’ve witnessed, children’s unique characteristics stem from their temperament and how their parents raise them,” says observant mother Susan Prestel, of Boise, Idaho. “I don’t believe gender has much impact. Some kids are just more challenging than others, and for those, parents have to work together, adjusting their style accordingly.”
“Parents should be aware of each child’s abilities and dispositions and focus on developing them in positive directions,” agrees Crowley-Long, “instead of basing expectations on what they think girls and boys are like.” In other words, whether you’re raising a male or female, there’s always more than enough difficulty to go around. So every parent should look for the joy buried in the tough stuff and run with it.
Renee Bacher, a mother of three, is a Louisiana-based writer.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2004.