Why Gender Matters

by Leonard Sax, Doubleday, New York 2005

Are boys and girls really that different? Twenty years ago, most experts believed that differences in how girls and boys behave were mainly due to differences in how they were treated by their parents, teachers, and friends. Today, we know that sex differences are real, biologically programmed, and important to how children are raised, disciplined, and educated. The author leads us through the mystifying world of gender differences by explaining the biologically different ways in which children think, feel, and act. He addresses a host of issues, including discipline, learning, risk taking, and aggression, and shows how boys and girls react in predictable ways to different situations.


But there’s another basic reason why boys are more likely to engage in physically risky activities. Boys systematically overestimate their own abilities, while girls are more likely to underestimate their abilities…Why are almost all drowning victims male? They concluded that a major contribution was that men consistently overestimate their ability to swim.

Some scholars have suggested that the way we raise girls in our society may promote the learned helplessness that Dr. Seligman documented in laboratory animals. Parents in North America and Europe are more likely to shield their girls from risks and less likely to praise them for engaging in risky activities such as tree climbing or riding a bike hands-free.

Child psychologist Wendy Mogel has written a charming book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Without mentioning the theory of learned helplessness, she points out that shielding children from injury makes them more risk-adverse. And letting them explore the world- at the cost of a few scrapes and cuts-builds character and gives them self-confidence, resilience, and self-reliance. “What doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger,” Nietzsche wrote.

The basic premise underlying the arguments against dodgeball and throwing snowballs is: if you prevent kids from playing aggressive games, then kids will be less aggressive. In fact, there is no evidence that preventing kids from acting out their aggression in healthy ways will diminish or eliminate their aggressive impulses….According to psychologist and criminologist Edwin McGargee, three-quarters of all murders are committed not by overtly aggressive people, but by quiet, seemingly well-behaved men who have never found a safe or appropriate outlet for their aggression.

When most boys are exposed to threat and confrontation, their senses sharpen and they feel an exciting tingle. When most girls are exposed to threat and confrontation, they feel dizzy and “yucky.”

The situation is almost completely reversed for girls. Whereas boys typically bully kids they barely know, girls almost always bully girls within their social group.

That kind of confrontational, in-your-face approach would be precisely the wrong approach to use with most girls…Teachers report more success with girls when they use a supportive, non-confrontational approach.

Those are some of the paradoxes teachers face: the girl like Beth who gets straight A’s but has no real confidence in her own abilities; the boy who’s getting B’s and C’s but thinks he’s brilliant….You need to encourage girls and build them up. Boys on the other hand more often need a reality check. You have to make boys realize that they’re not as brilliant as they think they are and challenge them to do better.

Perhaps the most significant change in our society in those fifty years [1939 and 1989], according to [sociologist Norbert] Dr. Elias, was thetransfer of authority from parent to child.

Boys responded well to strict and authoritarian discipline, which included an occasional spanking. The stricter the parents’ disciplinary style, the better the boys’ social-cognitive skills. Remarkably, a “warm and fuzzy” parenting approach appeared to retard boys’ acquisition of social-cognitive skills. For girls, the results were just the opposite. The “warm and fuzzy” approach promoted social skills whereas strict discipline had a slightly negative effect on girls’ social development.

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