Biology has a lot to do with how children behave and learn, but we can't ignore the qualities that make them unique.
When my first son, Liam, was about 3, I borrowed Leonard Sax’s book Why Gender Matters from a neighbor. It’s an amazing book, full of scientific facts about the way boys and girls differ biologically. It’s also mercifully free from agenda. Dr. Sax analyzes the way that biology influences children’s behavior and learning patterns, and offers guidance on parenting and teaching methods that account for and work with those biological differences.
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That book made a huge impression on me, and coming across this blog post at Deep Roots at Home last week reminded me of how miraculous it seemed at the time. Homeschooling mom Michelle Caskey distills Why Gender Matters into practical tips on how (and how not) to teach boys, predicated on her initial claim that:
The things boys can learn are very similar, but the way they go about learning is very different. Boys require a very different educational environment and teaching approach if we are going to help them reach their full potential.
The post is organized into four principles, each followed by a mini-biology lesson and the implications this biological difference has for teaching boys. As I read through the post, I realized why the book that had seemed so miraculous to me with a 3-year-old boy became unimportant, even obsolete, as that boy got older.
Take the first principle: boys see differently than girls. Males have more rods than cones in their eyes, and females have more cones than rods. Rods help humans see speed and distance, whereas cones help us see shapes and colors. This helps explain why little girls tend to like dolls and little boys tend to like cars.
This blew me away. For the first two years of his life, my son showed little interest in the toys he was offered — until the summer he turned two, when my dad brought him a giant box of matchbox cars from his own childhood. Liam played with those cars for hours each day, lining them up, racing them, putting them carefully back into place, even waking up in the middle of the night to adjust their configuration next to his bed.
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I was baffled but fascinated, since neither of my daughters had displayed anything like Liam’s undivided attention. I eagerly awaited the artistic manifestation of the “more rods than cones” phenomenon, which Dr. Sax calls “drawing verbs.” In Caskey’s blog post, she predicts that: “When asked to draw a picture, Sally will draw a house with people and flowers and lots of pretty colors. Steve will draw a tornado which is knocking down a house – and his picture will look like a large black swirl.”
Liam never drew verbs. Instead, he drew stick figures and race cars. Sometimes he drew lines to indicate speed, but the shapes were clearly defined and the images were colorful. I started to worry that he wasn’t acting like a boy, or boyish enough. Was it my fault? Was it because he only had older sisters? Did he need more “boy” stuff?
For several months, I drove myself (and my husband) crazy with doubt, fear, and paranoia, until my husband finally reminded me that I hadn’t freaked out when our oldest daughter asked for Legos and swords instead of dolls. Obsessing over the ways our son wasn’t acting like a “typical” boy would eventually pathologize the perfectly normal way he was acting like a specific boy — himself, Liam.
The disparity between my expectations of “boyish” behavior and the reality of Liam’s behavior have only increased over the years. He’s neither boisterous nor fidgety, neither daring nor reckless. He isn’t averse to hands-on learning, but he prefers a classroom setting. He doesn’t disengage from lessons — he listens carefully and completes his work eagerly. In fact, his favorite birthday gift last year was a Brain Quest book of worksheets from his grandmother.
Which is not to say that I disagree with the book or reject Dr. Sax’s findings — he is, after all, the expert. In fact, Liam’s little brother is a different story altogether — he fits the “boyish behavior” mold to a T. I suspect that re-reading Why Gender Matters now would provide more practical help than it did four years ago … provided I keep in perspective that no child can be reduced merely to his or her biology.
Children are individuals, and sometimes they behave in ways that defy our expectations or the latest research. That doesn’t make them “wrong,” it just makes them unique. I appreciate books like Sax’s and blog posts like Caskey’s for the ways they can broaden our understanding of how our children comprehend and interact with the world — but it’s important that we fit what we’ve learned to the child we have, not vice versa.