Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Should parents treat sons and daughters differently?

I had a daughter prior to the birth of my boy-girl twins, so I was totally prepared for the female half of my newly arrived bundle. But as for the other half, I was clueless and bewildered. I felt like someone just handed me a new species of homo sapien.

I knew that girls tend to be verbal, complex and emotional, while boys are more reserved, clear-cut and physical, but I still bought and read all sorts of literature on how to raise boys.

In “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus,” John Gray says that a fundamental psychological difference is what sets males and females apart — whether it’s adults with marital disharmony or siblings sharing the same household. It’s almost as if they came from different planets with their own set of societal rules and customs.

But where and when do these fundamental differences arise? Should parents treat their sons and daughters differently? I wasn’t sure of any of these answers. While I thought I provided an equitable environment for my kids, I caught myself at times embracing different standards and expectations for my daughters and son. I also worried about different things. They are all smart, but would she be pragmatic? Would he be organized?

As a daughter of a Marine raised within a matriarchal culture, I expected my daughters to be organized and tough while I expected my son to be kind and protective. I expected 110% from them all, yet I think I demanded even more from my girls.

I wasn’t far off from the norm. According to Kate Hilpern of the Independent, 88% of moms admitted that they treated their sons and daughters differently, despite thinking that this was wrong. And on top of that, mothers are twice as likely to be more critical of their daughters than their sons.

Do we really do this?

Psychologist Crissy Duff points out that from the moment children are born, they are bombarded with gender-related messages. Toys, clothes and observations around the house — dad takes out the garbage, mom loads the dishwasher — all feed into what they think is expected of them.

Typically, boys are tumbled and bounced in the air, while girls are coddled and princess-ified. Kids learn their limitations when they are treated as “gender halves” instead of as individuals. Sending gender-related messages like girls are more nurturing and boys are more math and science oriented can also impact academic paths and career choices. There are more women in engineering and more men in the caring professions than in the past, but a huge gender imbalance still persists.

In his New York Times article, “Do Parents Have Different Hopes and Standards for Their Sons Than for Their Daughters?” Michael Gonchar determined through a Google search analysis that American parents do have different expectations for their kids based on gender. Overall, they were more concerned about their daughter’s waistlines than their son’s, and more concerned about their son’s brainpower over their daughter’s.

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who did the search, said parents of young children often wonder whether their child may be gifted. Of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old,” the most common next word is “gifted.” And parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?”

Ironically, girls at that age consistently have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences. In American schools, girls are 11 percent more likely than boys to be in gifted programs.

Moms tend to “type” their children according to gender. Boys are referred to as funny, playful and loving, while girls are viewed as argumentative, manipulative and serious. And one in five moms of sons and daughters admit to letting their sons get away with more — turning a blind eye to a behavior in boys for which they would reprimand girls.

Should we do this?

In her book, “Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps — And What We Can Do About It,” neuroscientist Lise Eliot, explains that there is little solid evidence of organic sex differences in children’s brains.

Yet the belief in blue brains and pink brains has real-world consequences. It encourages parents to treat children in ways that make the claims come true, denying boys and girls their full potential. Eliot says that children rise or fall according to what we believe about them.

Genders are different, but they posses equal potentials. So should parents have different expectations?

On one hand, rules and expectations should be the same for both sexes and we should avoid gender bias. From getting homework done to curfews, boys and girls should be held equally accountable. On the other hand, parents have to consider the subliminal messages that our society sends our children. They must look at their child’s personality, strengths, weaknesses and the way that society impacts them — and parent accordingly. Each child should be guided on a path toward meaningfulness and toward achieving their potential as a human being.

WHY do we do this?

Maria Bellos Fisher, in “Playing Favorites: Do We Treat Our Kids Differently?,” reminds us of the seismic message born of the women’s movement — girls and boys should be treated the same. Yet research shows that boys and girls emanate behaviors that cause us to relate to them differently.

To those that insist that the differences between boys and girls are biologically hard-wired, Lawrence Cohen, author of “Playful Parenting,” replies that while inborn differences do exist, they are quite small and then they are nurtured and exacerbated by our behaviors.

How we perceive children ultimately shapes how we treat them and therefore what experiences we give them.

Eliot recounts how many disguised-gender experiments showed that adults perceived baby boys and girls differently. In one study, mothers wrongly estimated how steep a slope their 11-month-olds could crawl down. Moms of boys got it right to within one degree but moms of girls underestimated what their daughters could do by nine degrees, despite the lack of motor skill differences in infant boys and girls. Prejudices like this tend to limit a daughter’s physical activity.

She also discusses the impact of gender conformity. Studies also show that despite popular beliefs, from 6 to 12 months olds both sexes prefer dolls to trucks. Sex-based play preferences occur around age 1, when they grasp their gender identity and conform to how they see older boys or girls behaving. Preschoolers, who are very much aware of what their peers are doing, develop these preferences, producing brains with different talents.

Other effects

From the color of the nursery, to the choice of toys and activities, to the types of emotions considered acceptable, society treats boys and girls differently. There are few — if any — cultures that treat girls and boys the same.

Parental gender stereotypes and expectations can also affect the way siblings treat each other. They pick up cues from their parents and run with it. If a dad doesn’t approve of emotional displays in his sons, siblings might call him a wimp if and when he does. Dad’s disapproval makes the teasing seem OK.

There are long-lasting and serious repercussions of gender-based parenting. Girls tend to carry parental disapproval into adulthood and are more self-critical than men, who often have a more relaxed attitude when it comes to making mistakes and moving past them. Boys often grow up thinking that they somehow deserve more freedom than women, and that women need to be taken care of.

What we should do

Parents need to help break gender cycles and even out the differences in how the sexes behave and think about themselves. We should try to treat our kids the same.

Everyone should have the same rules. Privileges can change, but rules shouldn’t. Chores can be different, but should be equal.

Here are some tips from We should teach our daughters that:

▪ trucks, trains, and fire engines are pretty cool;

▪ boys are not dumb;

▪ no one is allowed to hit them ever;

▪ they can be political and business leaders;

▪ math, engineering, science and information technology are great careers;

▪ no one should ever tell them to cover up or strip down;

▪ they can say no.

And we should teach our sons that:

▪ it is good to express your emotions;

▪ it is OK to like flowers and sunsets;

▪ girls are not sissies;

▪ violence is not an acceptable way to resolve disputes;

▪ women and girls are people, not objects;

▪ they can be stay at home dads;

▪ they should always respect no.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.