This may be hard to believe today, but not too long ago, parents viewed their newborns as blank slates upon which virtually everything — including gender identity — could be imprinted. Little boys preferred trucks and little girls preferred dolls, said the experts, only because those are the toys their moms and dads gave them.

How long we ‘80s parents bought into that message depended upon which came first: watching real-life boys and girls up close or absorbing the most up-to-date brain-science research.

With apologies to Marlo Thomas and her iconic album, “Free to Be You and Me,” most of us discovered quickly enough that — surprise! — boys and girls are different. As Seattle child psychiatrist Diane Stein notes, “Yes, some girls played with trucks, some boys played with dolls. But then the girls figured out they could make truck families.”

In his book Boys and Girls Learn Differently! author (and ParentMap advisory board member) Michael Gurian highlights the latest findings in neuroscience and explains the way brain-based differences affect boys and girls.

The evidence, he finds, reinforces what parents and teachers commonly observe in elementary school classrooms: Female brains mature faster than male brains, girls communicate verbally better than boys, boys are more spatial, girls tend to be social, and boys tend to “manage social energy through dominance or pecking order.”

But Stein cautions against drawing clear gender distinctions across the board. “Beware of generalizations,” she says. “There’s a large spectrum within the category of boys and girls. There’s also more overlap within each group than differences.”

In other words, look closely and you’ll find girls who like to climb trees and play pick-up basketball and boys who choose fantasy play over roughhousing.

Oversimplify the male/female divide and you run the risk of stereotyping children, according to Karen Dickinson, associate superintendent for school support for the Tacoma School District. “Not everyone fits into a definition. If you put 20 boys and girls in a room, 10 of each gender would comply with the research. But if you stick with that, you ignore the individual.”

And while today’s theorists seem to favor nature in the never-ending cultural and scientific nature-nurture debate, don’t underestimate the effect of a child’s environment, Stein says. “I don’t think parents realize the extent to which they emphasize or reinforce certain kinds of gender behavior.”
For example, aggression is much less tolerated in girls than in boys, she says. “We do so much of this reflexively,” she says. “Parents and teachers need to be honest with themselves and be aware of this.”

Alike — except when they’re not

Whenever Susan Small hears people talk about brain chemistry and male-female traits, she takes it, she says, with a grain of salt. Small, director of student services at Educational Tutoring and Consulting on Mercer Island, tells parents to consider every child unique. Yet, she acknowledges, “some things do stand up.”

Girls, she notes, don’t like getting into trouble and boys seem to accept it more; girls stand back and figure out the rules and boys are more aggressive about exploring their world; girls communicate with detail and boys communicate quite well with one or two words.

How do these differences show up in the elementary school classroom? Boys can be more global, says Small. “They see that big-picture thing, but they can miss the details.” Girls, she contends, often pay attention to the details.

And boys don’t particularly like to elaborate, a characteristic that might work to their disadvantage when writing an essay.

Once they identify their son or daughter’s individual strengths and weaknesses, parents can help build their child’s skills in areas that need a boost, Small says.

“The boy who gives a one-word response might need some coaching,” she says. Discuss with him the reasons why elaborating in his written work might be important. Then offer him tools that will help him learn to use description, she suggests. “Tell him to think of categories such as size, color and emotion. If he’s describing a dog, ask him: ‘Is the dog happy or sad?’”

Your daughter, she says, might write “more than you need to know.” She needs to learn to edit. “Ask her to tell you the most salient point. Teach her to narrow down and highlight the important parts of her essay.”

Parents should also pay attention to what’s going on at school. How do teachers relate to the students? Are they aware of male/female brain differences and current brain gender research?

The “ultimate classroom,” according to Gurian, is “a gentle place during elementary school, but intense as well, and infused with the charge to teach not children but boys and girls.”

Linda Morgan, ParentMap’s associate editor, writes frequently on education issues.

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