Gender parenting tips
What you need to know about bringing up girls and boys
It may sometimes seem like sons and daughters are from different planets and even though their brains are incredibly similar at birth, at the age of two when they first realise they are a boy or a girl, it can be a different story.
The old cliché goes that girls love talking and sharing emotions whereas boys are wilder, more physical and less tameable. It’s often true, but sometimes not. Every parent will want to give each child the same opportunities, but it’s worth recognising about the particular pressures and challenges girls and boys can face so we can work out the best ways to help them achieve their potential.
First up, here’s our top tips for bringing up boys
Encourage ‘girl’ toys
The ‘male brain’ is stronger on understanding the rules of how things work, according to Cambridge University neuroscientist Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. But that doesn’t mean your son will conform: he reckons out of 10 boys, 6 will have a classically male brain, 2 will have a ‘balanced’ brain and 2 will have a ‘female’ brain (good at language and empathy). Boys need exposure to all kinds of toys and play, not just the ones they naturally gravitate to, to give the ‘female’ side of their brain a chance to develop well. So encourage role-playing, dressing up and pretend play, where they have to focus on feelings, imagination and language. Of course, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t play with construction sets or diggers – it’s just about getting a balance.
Telling them off
Boys often get told off more because they can be noisier and are more of a presence in the room – and things can get accidently broken in the fray. We should be careful we don’t tell them off endlessly, particularly for things that are accidents, because they will stop caring and end up flaunting their bad behaviour because they know a telling-off is coming anyway.
Let them take risks
Tests show that boys are more natural risk-takers than girls, which makes it important to let them practise their own judgement from an early age so they can be safe later on when risk-taking has bigger consequences. Give them plenty of practice in risk-assessment, so rather than saying, ‘right, that’s high enough up that climbing frame. Come down now’, stay nearby and say something like ‘have you worked out how you’re going to get down?’ Interestingly, studies show that they only tend to go a tiny bit further than the level their parents would have stopped them at, anyway.
Hunger can cause acting up
Because boys’ play is often more active in the pre-school years they burn more calories. And when they’re hungry they’re more likely to be badly behaved as testosterone, the male hormone, makes them externalise their behaviour. Carry snacks.
A daily run
Parents of pre-school boys often joke that they need to run in the park every day like a pet dog. This huge desire for physical activity is thought to be because the testosterone in their bodies doubles at the age of four, leading to a surge of energy. Boys also do more large-scale motor movements than girls, so they need access to big spaces.
Don’t humiliate him
Boys like to feel powerful, and it’s important when disciplining them not to make them feel powerless, otherwise their anger may make them aggressive. So avoid sarcasm, lengthy criticism and humiliating punishments. They also like to have reasons for the rules; they’re more likely to obey.
Don’t write him off at school
It’s rarely a good idea to compare your son’s early school or pre-school work with the girls in his class – so it’s best not to peek in girls book bags during playdates. Boys fine motor skills, language and concentration are often a bit behind girls, so they tend to take longer to get going at school, and their writing is often way behind. Don’t despair – he will catch up in his own time.
Encourage him if he likes tutus
Quite a few pre-school boys go through a stage of wanting to dress up in girls’ clothes and totter round the house in your high heels. It’s all part of exploring his imagination and is nothing to worry about (would we worry about our girls dressing up as cowboys?). The fact he feels safe enough to do that shows you’ve provided him with lots of opportunities to play how he wants
And some tips for bringing up confident and happy girls:
Encourage ‘boy’ toys
The ‘female brain’ is stronger on empathy, emotion and language according to Cambridge University neuroscientist Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. But that doesn’t mean your daughter will conform: he reckons out of 10 girls, 4 will have a classically female brain, 4 will have a ‘balanced’ brain and 2 will have a ‘male’ brain. Girls need exposure to all kinds of toys, not just the ones they naturally gravitate to, to give the ‘male’ side of their brain a chance to develop well. So encourage construction toys, bricks and blocks and puzzles right from the start. Of course, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t play with dolls or tea sets – it’s just about getting a balance.
Don’t call her ‘good girl’
Well, not all the time, anyway. Girls tend to look for our approval more than boys, and they love to please us. But we don’t want them just pleasing us, we want them to succeed for themselves. Instead of ‘good’, try clever, thoughtful or kind. Praise for specifics (‘you’ve put those jigsaw pieces in really carefully’) rather than a catch-all ‘good girl’.
Keep pretty outfits for best
That way, her clothes won’t stop her enjoying lots of wet, sloshy, mucky, outside play – which are all brilliant for her creativity, brain development and spatial awareness skills (brain scans show girls are slightly behind boys on spatial skills, but they can be learned through practice).
Girls tend to be more fearful of risk than boys because they lack confidence and usually think more before they act (this is often a good thing!) So if she’s on the climbing frame, gently challenge her to go a little higher, while you stay nearby to praise her efforts. Also encourage her curiosity so she learns to take the initiative and be confident about herself.
If she’s struggling to work out how a toy works, don’t rush in too fast to rescue her. Give her time to see if she can work it out, which will boost her confidence.