Long Live the Difference

Do you remember that old nursery rhyme describing the difference between boys and girls?  “What are little boys made of?

                                   Frogs and snails and puppy dog tails,

                                   That’s what little boys are made of.

                                   What are little girls made of?

                                   Sugar and spice and everything nice,

                                   That’s what little girls are made of.

Today that old nursery rhyme sounds pretty sexist and obsolete, doesn’t it?  We are supposed to have moved beyond such a caricature of boys and girls.  For some years now, much energy has gone into an attempt to wipe out such images of differences     between the sexes.  It was as if in order to establish equality between the sexes it was necessary to prove them identical.  In the push to eliminate sexist differences we have, at times, denied or ignored differences between the sexes.

But there are differences.  Research has pointed up sex differences in behavior as early as the beginning of social play at two, or two and a half years of age.   Mothers I have talked to see differences much earlier than that.  I, myself, remember the first time I took my nine month old son to visit a friend with a daughter the same age.  In no time he was all over the place, exploring and reaching for interesting looking breakable objects that my friend had never before found it necessary to remove.  She couldn’t wait for me to leave.  Both of us had a powerful introduction to differences between boys and girls.

Mothers often express amazement – at times even shock – when encountering the behavior of a boy after having had a girl first.  Some of these differences are biologically based, and others are undoubtedly shaped by social pressure, but the fact is that boys have a higher activity level and are more aggressive.  Differences in aggression between boys and girls have been noted in all cultures.

Boys tend to be more active, competitive and dominant.  In groups they stimulate one another to increased activity and pretend fighting.  But when boys have difficulty managing their bodies, in other words when they are acting like boys, they are often considered a discipline problem.  This is especially true in the classroom, where girls are generally more compliant and at least appear to be more accepting of the teacher’s directions.

Because boys are naturally more aggressive and have a higher activity level, they can seem like a management problem – especially if expectations are unrealistic.  Then they are too readily labeled, not only as bad but as being “hyperactive” or having “attention deficits.”  While it is true that more boys than girls are actually found to have such problems (four boys to every girl), nine times as many boys are referred for help on this basis.  This means that we are clearly too quick to label differences in development as either behavior problems or learning problems.  Unhappily, children at an early age begin to see themselves as others see them, and define themselves as they are defined by the significant people in their lives.

Vivian Paley, a former early childhood teacher and researcher, wrote a wonderful book she called, “Boys and Girls, Superheroes in the Doll Corner.”  In it, she reports on the journal she kept while teaching a nursery school class, in which she recorded the behavior of the children and her own reactions to that behavior.  She gradually became aware of her own disapproval of the boys’ behavior that at times made the classroom more difficult to manage.  She also noticed that the boys would also show interest from time to time in the housekeeping area and the girls’ domestic play, but that she was unconsciously directing them toward blocks and trucks instead.  She was astonished to discover how she was subtly influencing their interests and discouraging some of their natural aggressive play.

Observing in nursery schools as often as I do, the difference in the activities girls and boys gravitate to is striking.  It is interesting to note that there are almost always a few boys who drift into the doll corner and join the family play, accepting a role assigned them by the girls.  They play for a while, then drift out again, rejoining the other boys.  On the other hand, I have never seen girls in the block corner.  Paley’s work gets us to think about whether this behavior is shaped by biology or the environment.  Undoubtedly by both.  Adults in a child’s world may prefer sugar and spice to frogs and snails.  And surely sugar and spice make for an easier classroom.

Perhaps the most important lesson to take away is that there are values and things to be gained from the interests and behaviors of each sex.  The horizons of each can be broadened by the other, particularly if we as parents and teachers give permission through our own attitudes for boys and girls to explore the world of the other.  We can respect the differences without making negative judgments. 

As the saying goes, long live the differences between them. What would we do without them?

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