Should Parenting Differ Depending on a Child’s Gender?

O 11 18 009

My daughter was a quintessential tomboy. Years ago you would likely find her running through mud puddles with the boys in our neighborhood rather than dressing up for a pretend tea party with her female counterparts.

Today she continues to enjoy days packed with activities as opposed to endless banter over the latest teen gossip. When it comes to friendship issues, though, the female teen scene seems packed with melodrama. Evidently, something Earth-shattering happens every day. On the other hand, my son and his friends have seemingly coasted through high school without constant social drama.

Most probably agree that we all possess masculine and feminine characteristics. However, if there are distinct social or behavioral differences between genders, should parenting differ depending on a child’s gender?

Behaviors and the social scene

Although there are many opinions on the subject, Michael A. Assel, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center, says research supports gender differences.

“In recent years, there has been a great deal of empirical research that suggests there are real differences,” he says. “Neuroimaging studies have been finding some interesting differences between teen boys and girls.”

Researchers have found that there are gender differences in the brain, such as girls having more serotonin and stronger neural connectors, and boys having less oxytocin. In part, neurological differences account for characteristics such as boys generally having better spatial-mechanical prowess but higher dropout rates in high school than girls, and girls making fewer impulsive decisions and multitasking better than boys.

“From a socio-cultural perspective, girls tend to be seen as valuing communication more than males,” Assel says.

He has observed that girls can use their language skills to hurt. “In addition, I have clinically noticed that girls tend to be much better at holding grudges,” he says. “Male teenagers often seem to want to escape an unpleasant situation.”

Susan Kuczmarski, author of The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go, feels it is important to emphasize the similarities and that we shouldn’t focus on stereotypes.

“Old-schoolers argue that girls are more social and boys are more physical,” she says. “Some boys are more social than some girls, and some girls are more physical than some boys.”

Assel agrees that exceptions exist. “It must be remembered that there are obviously many exceptions,” he says. “In some ways, it is unfair to paint girl or boy teenagers with such a broad brush stroke.”

Safety and sensibility differences

Parents often consider gender differences as they ponder safety issues. Parents of boys tend to worry more about driving safety. It’s hard not to, considering the statistics. A 2009 report published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that the number of male drivers between ages 15 and 20 involved in fatal traffic accidents was more than twice that of female drivers in the same age group.

Parents of girls, on the other hand, worry more about personal safety issues, such as with sexual predators on college campuses, stalking and date rape.

Does this mean parents should allow their daughters to have driver’s licenses at a younger age or their sons to go out on dates earlier than their daughters?

“I think it is unfair to try to pigeonhole males or females into certain categories,” Assel cautions.  “All teens experience risk and parents should be observant.”

Gender rules are generally unnecessary

“Having different rules for different sexes seems unequal to me — with one exception,” Kuczmarski says. “Girls should be taught self-defense skills to protect themselves, as often their bodies are smaller.” She says parents should initiate frequent discussions to help teens — male and female — make safe choices.

Kuczmarski stresses that parents should also give their teens equal responsibilities around the house. “Chores should transcend traditional gender boundaries. Young men need to cook, iron and do laundry. Young women need to handle tools, change car oil and maintain yards,” she says.

Assel agrees that having certain rules for one sex versus another is not the best idea. “The privileges a child earns should be based on how they have handled responsibilities in the past,” he advises. 

Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer and columnist specializing in parenting issues and child and adolescent development. She is the mother of two teenagers.

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