Here, then, are some ideas for evening up boys’ and girls’ social-emotional differences:
- More people, fewer toys in infancy. Babies—both male and female—are instinctively social and do their best learning through interaction with those who love them. It hasn’t been proven, but I believe that the proliferation of toys, bouncy seats, and electronic entertainment is actually depriving babies of social interaction at the age they need it most, perhaps even tipping a few into the growing pool of children (mostly boys) diagnosed with autistic-spectrum disorders.
- Talk about feelings. Empathy may look instinctive, but the evidence from children who are highly neglected or abused proves otherwise. It is learned, largely by example but also from parents who recognize, discuss, and help children identify emotions in themselves and others. There’s no shortage of teachable moments here. Every sibling squabble, birthday party, football game, and water pistol battle presents an opportunity to see things from another’s perspective. Parents who talk more to children about feelings raise more sensitive children, but this is an area that can go sadly neglected, especially for some boys.
- Don’t banish the boys. Parents often direct their children, especially boys, outside or to the basement when company comes or when they are interacting with other adults. But interpersonal skills need as much practice as anything. Why not use such opportunities to teach boys to stop and say hello, make eye contact, shake hands, and try conversing with the guests?
- Co-ed partners in early primary school. While boys and girls start segregating themselves beginning in preschool, they can still interact comfortably through most of the primary school years. Teachers will probably have to assign such pairings for various academic projects, but, especially for children without opposite-sex siblings, this may be the only opportunity to work with a peer of the opposite sex, exposing both boys and girls to a wider range of intellectual strengths and working styles.
- Babysitting for boys. Parents with sons love to hire responsible boys to babysit, and it’s a great opportunity for older boys to foster their nurturing and leadership abilities. Many communities offer babysitting classes to train teens in basic skills and safety, but be sure to get a group of boys to sign up together, so they won’t feel out of place in a sea of girls. (Or offer separate classes for boys and girls.)
- Co-ed sports. It would be hard to argue in our sports-saturated culture that there’s some better way to find and develop the best athletic talent. And given the intensity of early training, most sports are likely to stay single sex at the elite levels. But what about everyone else? Most kids these days need more physical activity and may enjoy games like football, volleyball, basketball, tennis, softball, field hockey, and lacrosse on co-ed teams. An equal blend of boys and girls can help tone down the hypercompetitiveness that drives some boys away from sports while at the same time help girls learn the value and joy of team-based competition. Psychologist William Pollack notes that co-ed sports emphasize wider participation and more confidence building than typical sports programs and argues they can be “wonderfully transformational” for both boys and girls.
- School uniforms. This idea gets trotted out every now and then as a panacea for every educational problem—academic performance, discipline, truancy, drug use, you name it. I doubt uniforms can do all that, but they certainly prevent teenage girls from turning themselves into sex objects every morning before school and help stem the consumerism and material-status issues that infect boys and girls alike. On the downside, most uniforms are made from horrible poly-cotton blend fabrics, so some improvement in comfort and design will probably help sell this idea.
- Balance competition and cooperation. Clearly, children need both skills to succeed in our free-market society. In recent years, schools have de-emphasized competition, judging that too many running races, and spelling and maths contests unnecessarily discourage the majority of children who don’t win anything. Instead, children today often work in groups, learning to collaborate and cooperate in ways that more realistically prepare them for adult work environments. Still, many children are highly motivated by the prospect of winning, and competition is a fact of society that everyone has to cope with at some level. So it’s a delicate balance, but not an impossible one. The beauty of our two-gendered species is that boys and girls can serve as role models for one another in these opposite but equally crucial ways of interacting. For those who are turned off by competition, co-ed teams may coax them into the spirit of striving for excellence and recognition. And for those who seem to be motivated only by the opportunity to beat their peers, teamwork can cultivate more prosocial consensus building. Like all things, moderation is the key, and teachers should strive to keep both types of interac tion in balance, even in single-sex classrooms, where the tendency may be to let girls cooperate and boys compete.
- Teach organizational skills, especially for boys. Girls are typically more conscientious about schoolwork, a big reason why they earn higher marks than boys. Part of their advantage comes from planning and organization skills, frontal-lobe abilities that seem to mature earlier in girls. Girls may also work harder because they’re more fearful of disappointing their parents and teachers. Nonetheless, a few organizational tricks, taught early and enforced by teachers, mothers, and fathers, can help boys out. Early on, boys should be given homework notebooks (or electronic organizers, which may be especially appealing) and taught to copy down every homework task and deadline, giving them points toward marks, if necessary, to reinforce the habit. Separate folders for each subject, with to-do and completed slots, can help them keep track of important papers. Timetables and micro-deadlines can help students stay on track with big projects. Finally, parents should think about how they model planning and accountability: if mums are the only ones keeping track of family members’ schedules, this is going to look like a female task that boys will have less incentive to master.
- More exercise. This applies especially to girls, to ward off depression and help maintain a positive body image. Recent research keeps uncovering all kinds of benefits of exercise for the brain and mental function. Neurochemically, depression involves overactivity in the stress-hormone system, which regular exercise can help buffer. Girls, as we’ve seen, are about twice as vulnerable to depression as boys. Then again, many boys today also don’t get enough of the exercise that is just as beneficial for their moods and attention spans. Schools can help by reinstituting daily physical education and break time and by offering more intramural and afterschool sports opportunities to non-elite athletes. Children’s fitness—and not just their weight—should be assessed and targeted to certain standards, just like their academic work. It may sound like boot camp, but the obesity epidemic is a serious matter threatening children’s physical and mental health.
- Limit media exposure and teach media literacy. One reason kids don’t go outside to play is that they have all those indoor thrills accessible on TV and their various electronic de vices. Many parents struggle to stem the flood of inappropriate images, language, and lyrics in children’s wide-ranging media exposure. Heavy TV viewing is associated with stronger gender stereotypes in children, while exposure to violence on TV, in films, and in video games has been shown to exert a real, albeit weak, influence on children’s real-life aggression. It’s hard to see how so many boys can spend so many hours gunning down virtual opponents without rewiring their brains in decidedly non-empathetic ways.
Nor is mass media doing girls many favors. Although female characters are getting more assertive, they’re still a small minority of the strong, heroic decision makers in most films and cartoons. Worse is the growing sexualization of girls, typified by the miniskirt-and-fishnet-clad Bratz dolls and TV cartoon characters that are marketed to girls as young as four. A recent report by the American Psychological Association describes “stunning” negative effects on girls’ problem-solving abilities when they were distracted by their appearance and blames sexualized cultural ideals for the seventy-seven thousand cosmetic surgeries American children under eighteen (mostly girls) were submitted to in one recent year alone.