How Girls’ Brains Learn

How girls' brains learn

At one time, even hinting at the existence of any innate differences between girls and boys could make one a target of chauvinism. It was safer for many people not to question the then-conventional wisdom: that the best way to raise children was “gender neutral,” to treat girls and boys exactly the same. If we treat them the same, then they will have an equal chance, right?

Wrong.

Girls and boys are different, and a slew of scientific studies that affirm this cannot be dismissed.

“Boys and girls are different. This fact, obvious to every previous generation, comes as a bewildering revelation to many parents today,” says neuroscientist Dr. Lise Eliot, author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain. But Eliot notes that the sensational reporting of boy-girl differences highlights the extremes. “[The] reality is that the brains of boys and girls are more similar than their well-described behavioral differences would indicate… Just as boys’ and girls’ bodies start out more androgynous than they end up in adulthood, their brains appear to be less sexually differentiated than adult men’s and women’s. This doesn’t mean, however, that neuroscience can’t teach us something about sex differences in children,” Eliot says.

“During the first few months of life, infants undergo what endocrinologists refer to as a mini-puberty. Boys experience a surge of testosterone… Girls undergo an estrogen rise within a similar time frame…  Clearly, sex hormones are flowing early in life,” Eliot says. “Though there is little evidence of it in newborns’ behavior, boys and girls are undergoing their separate mini-puberties, which may have lasting consequences for how their brains and bodies develop further.”

Boys and girls are indeed different, and we need to be aware of how we teach boys and girls so that each can best learn. Leonard Sax, a Ph.D. in psychology and an M.D. has spent two decades as a family physician and has written extensively on “why gender matters.” He has noticed how often parents seek prescription medication for their sons to treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), a diagnosis often first made by teachers.

Troubled by how frequently boys were medicated, Sax began studying differences for clues to their attention difficulties in class. His curiosity led him to study gender differences and their origins, and to present evidence in terms that parents and teachers can understand.

Girls, it seems, are wired for “mutual gazing: from birth. They study faces, notice changes in expressions, and respond to emotional tones of voice. Boys are very different. Mothers of boys may feel that they’re doing something wrong when their baby boys don’t gaze with rapture at their faces. This gender difference doesn’t result from socialization. Studies show these behavior patterns are innate and universal. It makes sense when you consider the human experience in the millennia leading up to the twenty-first century. Evolutionarily speaking, preserving social harmony, calming conflict, keeping peace were once matters of life and death for females of primate clans.

Girl toddlers are more likely to seek signs of approval or disapproval before they act. In one study comparing 12-month-old infants, girls glanced at their mothers’ faces ten to twenty times more than boys did to check for clues on whether to touch a forbidden object. The boys rarely glanced at their mothers’ faces and touched the object despite being told “no!”

Does this sound familiar to you, if you’re a parent? I’d love to hear from you about your experiences in how the boys and girls in your life displayed their individuality. Was it different from what you had expected? Thank you for sharing!

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