For every time you hear, “It’s a boy thing,” or “She’s all girl,” and you think, “Yeah, but why?” — we’re here to tell you it’s a brain thing. Scientists can literally see the differences between boys’ and girls’ brains. “It’s important to understand the distinctions but different doesn’t mean good or bad, better or worse; it just means different,” says David Walsh, Ph.D., psychologist and parenting expert who has been studying children and brain science for decades. “You can’t generalize to describe every boy or girl — there are millions of exceptions.” Dr. Walsh, author of Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids: The One Brain Book You Need to Help Your Child Grow Brighter, Healthier, and Happier, talks brain science with SheKnows below.
In your book, Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids, you cover the differences between boys' and girls' brains; what differences do you think parents need to be especially aware of?
Dr. David Walsh: Language is one of the clearest brain differences between the sexes. Girls arrive with a brain built for language. During infancy the left hemisphere — the brain’s language center for most people — develops before the right for little girls whereas the order is reversed for boys. Even more convincing, females have at least twenty percent more neurons than males in the brain’s Broca area where we produce language, and they have as much as eighteen percent more volume in the Wernicke’s area where we interpret language. That’s why besides talking earlier than boys, girls have larger preschool vocabularies and use more complex sentence structures. Once in school, girls are one to one-and-a-half years ahead of boys in reading and writing. Boys are twice as likely to have a language or reading problem. Girls do better on tests of verbal memory, spelling, and verbal fluency.
There’s no difference in intelligence between boys and girls. There are some gender differences that show up in several cognitive domains. Just as there’s evidence that girls’ brains give them a verbal advantage, likewise there’s data showing that boys’ brains favor spatial skills that make it easier for them to visualize three-dimensional objects from different angles.
The differences between girls’ and boys’ brain chemistry — hormones and neurotransmitters — help us understand the differences in their emotional brains. Girls’ brains make them more socially aware while boys’ brains make them more action-oriented.
What stages are the differences most significant between boys' and girls' brains?
Dr. Walsh: The differences become more significant when children enter school and again at puberty. Girls mature faster than boys. They talk earlier, potty train a half year sooner and reach puberty two years ahead of their brothers. The same pattern holds true for their brains. Girls leave boys in the dust in the race to brain developmental milestones. This puts a lot of boys at a disadvantage in school. I think it’s important to recalibrate some of our expectations and rethink some of our teaching methods based on brain differences between boys and girls.
Puberty brings major changes for both genders, but there are male-female differences driven by their respective growth hormones. Testosterone laden boys become surly while their sisters have to deal with the dramatic mood swings triggered by the ebb and flow of estrogen and progesterone.
Should brain differences affect how we parent?
Dr. Walsh: It’s good for parents to be aware of the differences so they can support their children’s natural strengths while helping them avoid some gender specific weaknesses. For example, while parents should foster all children’s language skills, it makes sense to pay special attention to their sons. It will also be helpful to encourage their sons to name emotions and help them interpret social cues. Similarly parents should encourage their daughters to find solutions when they are sad.
Parents should be aware of the differences without letting brain-based expectations limit how they see each child. It’s important, for example, not to communicate brain-based biases with statements like, “Girls just aren’t that good at science.” Parents should encourage their sons and daughters to get involved in a wide range of activities.
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