An article for the August '09 issue of Working Mom attests that yes, I have seen Mars and Venus in the playroom.
Talking about differences between boy and girl brains is treading on dangerous ground. No enlightened person wants to promote gender stereotypes. Yet I am now raising a 5-year old boy and a 3-year old girl who are different from each other not just as individuals, but in ways you could easily ascribe to being a boy and being a girl.
As I type this, my boy is running around the house with his friend, protecting the world from “bad aliens” holding zooming spaceships, barking commands. The boys are loud and make the floor shake. There’s a lot of testosterone-fuelled, competitive rocket-firing.
My little girl just wants to “stay near mama” while I work. She is an earshot away pretending to read a book. She says things like: "you're my best friend Charlie Bucket" and "Mister Willy Wonka, Veruca is not so very nice!" She goes on for quite some time entertaining herself this way.
So there. I have a girly-girl and a boyish-boy. And this actually has some science behind it.
Did you know that we all begin life with a female brain? At around eight weeks, the male fetus gets a wave of testosterone that changes how his brain will develop in the next months. This testosterone wave alters centers for communication and emotional processing while boosting cells for sex and aggression in the male fetus. Consider this in light of a study that shows the average woman uses about 20,000 words a day to express her thoughts and feelings. The average man? About 7,000 words.
Of course, there are exceptions. There are boys who can express themselves quite eloquently and there are girls who are not the chatty, giggly types.
Still, compelling data shows that males and females are different in ways beyond basic body parts. These gender differences have a bearing on how young people learn and develop. US Virginia Tech researchers found that areas in the brain involved in language and fine motor skills mature about 6 years earlier in girls. When it comes to areas of visual-spatial memory, boys are ahead by about 4 years.
This is probably why boys are often the ones who like working with blocks, mazes and puzzles. The girls usually like dramatic play and tend to talk and read earlier. Boys are supposed to be good with numbers and girls are good with words and handwriting.
This is not to say boys can’t grow up to be great poets and girls can’t grow up to be great engineers. What the data tells us is that the understanding of math versus language doesn't progress at the same rate for boys and girls -- not that one gender is smarter than the other, or that one is better at a certain skill set. It’s just that boys and girls take different paths to learning, but both eventually reach a common threshold.
Now there’s also evidence that once males and females get to that threshold, there is still a difference in how our brains process information. Research scientists at the Kennedy Krieger Institute asked adults to perform a set of language and visual-spatial tasks. While participants performed equally, MRI data showed male and female participants used different parts of their brains to do them. Lead study author Amy Clements says: “…future studies on these findings may help illuminate more about improved special and mainstream education techniques for males and females.”
So I realize acknowledging these gender differences does not make one sexist. Far from it. We need to embrace these differences so we can put our children’s behavior, learning and development in proper perspective. Acknowledging them can actually stop us from passing unfair judgment on our kids. How many times have we heard: “our girl is so much better in school, our boy can’t even sit still”. The subtext being girl is smarter than boy. But little Ms. Wordsmith is not necessarily smarter than Mr. Antsy. His brain is just hardwired differently.
Findings on male and female brain disparities have even pushed advocates for single-sex classrooms to better cater to the needs of both genders –- particularly boys whose hardwiring are often at odds with traditional school set-ups.
I wouldn’t go that far. I think gender differences only emphasize the importance of teaching and caring for children as unique individuals with varied learning styles, interests and traits. They can still sit inside the same class, just don’t put everyone in the same mold.
I appreciate our little girl loving pink and our little boy digging blue. When I introduce longer books to them, I’ll hand her Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and maybe get him Jon Sciezsca’s See you Later, Gladiator. It’s a little tougher for most boys to hit the books, so let’s not force them to sit still for hours in school to read The Secret Life of Bees. It’s a wonderful coming-of-age story, but pondering how to find the universal feminine divine is not likely to resonate with many 13-year old boys.
We have different parts, proclivities, balance of hormones and now science tells us -– different methods in brain processing. One day my kids may be interested in understanding all this Mars and Venus stuff. But I would like to send them the message that no one is better than the other and we don’t have to be limited to gender stereotypes. Actually, bucking the norm can be cool, if that’s what they choose to do.
The visiting playmate is gone and the “bad aliens” have been defeated. My 5-year-old boy has joined his sister in her play kitchen. He is quiet and serious about what he’s doing. Later, he presents me a carefully arranged plate of play food that would impress Martha Stewart. He says sweetly: “Ma take a break, I know you love sashimi.” My 3-year-old competitively pipes in: “My sashimi tastes better!” Which is when I smelled a bit of testosterone from my dainty little girl in pink.