If you can momentarily overlook the sexist nature of the sentiment, there is some truth in the saying, ”Boys will be boys and girls will be girls.” Ultimately, my children’s mother was forced to reluctantly agree, although for quite some time it was extremely difficult for her to accept. As a charter member of the National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) and a die-hard feminist she was determined to fight the stereotypes and committed to what she referred to as a gender-neutral parenting philosophy. The practical manifestations of this approach seemed to consist of purchasing dolls for Keith (which he proceeded to strangle and beat) and trucks for Rachel (totally ignored). Alas, it was all to no avail. We simply had a Barbie Doll girl and a G.I. Joe boy, and no amount of manipulation or chicanery could alter Mother Nature. Rachel was pure sugar and spice. Meanwhile, Keith always lobbied for the same costume each Halloween — a mask and a weapon. Nope, no dress-up for him. Our children would be shooed out to play in the back yard on nice days and, after shuffling their feet aimlessly for a while, each would eventually pick up a stick. Rachel would declare her twig to be a baby doll, while Keith transformed his into an imaginary gun, chasing and pretending to shoot every living creature in sight.
After several years of her crusade resulting in nothing but frustration, my wife eventually had to face up to the inevitable and relented. “Okay,” she conceded with a heavy sigh, “I now believe in testosterone.” Shortly thereafter Rachel began her American Girl Doll collection, Keith was given a fire truck and his first plastic sword, and they lived happily ever after.
Now, I am in no way advocating the perpetuation of gender stereotypes. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am endorsing is acceptance. To illustrate the point I’d like to recall two patients, nearly identical in age, I saw in the office on the same memorable day about a quarter of a century ago.
The first was Henry, a boy from a solid, blue collar family. He was healthy, happy, doing well in school, and had no specific complaints. After the exam his parents asked to speak to me privately for a moment about a concern. Apparently Henry had almost no interest in sports, a crushing disappointment to his father who had had quite a storied schoolboy athletic career. (At least according to his perhaps somewhat rosy recollection…) Their son’s interest was music, specifically the piano. He played for hours and had a great passion for the instrument, so much so that he had retired from all organized sporting activities to devote more time to practice and study. His father was beside himself. “I wish we had never started those damn lessons,” he groaned.
Later in the day (the very same day, mind you!) I saw Josiah for his annual check-up. His parents both worked in a musical instrument store, and were each accomplished pianists. Having started on lessons before he could read Josiah had shown considerable aptitude and promise. Unfortunately, their son had no interest whatsoever in developing his genetic gift. All of those times when he should have been practicing the piano instead were spent watching ESPN or bouncing a ball against the wall. And there seemed to be no off-season, either. “The whole year long, it’s one of these sports after another,” his mother wailed. “It just never ends!”
Assuming that these two young men had not been separated at birth (fairly unlikely), the moral of the story is clear. Trying to jam a round peg into a square hole is never advisable.
Experienced pediatricians have a completely different set of expectations for boys and girls. Female children generally are advanced in all areas of development throughout childhood. They walk earlier, they talk earlier, they toilet train earlier, they learn earlier, they mature earlier. A girl can typically identify all of the primary colors by age three, write her name legibly and identify letters at four, and recognize simple words when she’s five, whereas for boys all of the above would be welcome but not specifically expected. By the time kids enter kindergarten boys are often so far behind in academic attainment, readiness, and maturity that they resemble lambs being led to the slaughter, especially in today’s environment.
The times have certainly changed. When I started school back in a prehistoric era (the nineteen-fifties) my best friend Robert and I, being quite observant little fellows, noticed a bunch of hieroglyphics high up on the borders of the classroom. After consulting with each other I boldly raised my hand and asked our teacher Mrs. White what they were. She informed us that they were the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, and furthermore she predicted that by the end of the year we would know all of them. As you can well imagine a collective gasp went up from the assembled five-year-olds, but by May most of us had indeed mastered them at least in the upper case which allowed us to begin our first “See Spot Run” lessons the following fall. Yes, reading began in first grade.
It is a fact that today’s children are more accomplished academically at a much earlier time than previous generations. It’s not that kids today are any smarter, they just have been trained and drilled at a younger age. But is this a good thing? Does being able to read a chapter book or play the piano before your fourth birthday really make one more likely to be admitted to Harvard or to become a concert pianist? These are fair questions. Studies seem to indicate this is not the case, and pediatric developmental specialists have been expressing grave concerns for quite some time about what is known as “The Hurried Child” phenomenon. This emphasis on early learning can lead to rigidity in thinking and has been shown in the long run to be potentially counterproductive. If your child is not learning his letters and how to read in the preschool years, then what could he or she be doing as an alternative? Well, playing might be one idea. In Scandinavian countries, where learning to read begins much later in the educational calendar than here, there is actually a corresponding decrease in the level of dyslexia. But the modern reality is heaven help the five-year-old who shows up for kindergarten these days in America and doesn’t know how to read, much less is unable to identify any of his letters.
If you have one of these little guys you may try to tell yourself he is doing passably well until he enters school and then is measured against his female counterparts. I remember Keith’s initial first grade open house, an experience that left me scarred and flinching on all such occasions for the remainder of his school years. His mother and I were drifting around the room along with the other parents waiting for the formal program to begin, examining the students’ pictures of their families which were hung on the walls for display. They were cute interpretations of their homes, pets, mommies, daddies, and siblings, drawn and colored with love and precision. All, that is, except for one, which stood out in stark contrast from the others like the proverbial sore thumb.
“Hey,” I chortled. “Get a load of this!”
My wife strolled over to join me in front of a picture featuring a grouping of poorly crafted, disproportionate stick figures drawn in pencil with a bunch of angry black slash marks ripping across their torsos.
“Boy, his parents must be proud,” I snickered under my breath as she studied it more closely, a frown appearing on her face.
“I wonder who this psycho belongs to?” I whispered, greatly enjoying myself.
She tried in vain to shush me, but too late. I was on a roll by then.
“As they say on Sesame Street, which of these is not like the others?” I chuckled, waving my hand in the general direction of the other much lovelier depictions of family.
“Shut up, you idiot!” she cautioned under her breath.
“Look,” she hissed, pointing to the bottom right hand side of the paper.
“What do you mean?”
“Look closer,” she demanded, glancing anxiously around the room at the other parents.
And then I saw it. Although difficult to interpret at first, in the end there was no denying the fact that the identifying scrawl was a backward “K.” Good lord, the psycho was mine!
“Mr. and Mrs. Barrett?” said a voice at my elbow. “Hi, there! Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m Keith’s teacher, and I was wondering if perhaps we could arrange to meet and talk about your son for a couple of minutes after the Open House is concluded. I have a few concerns.”
Early school is rough for these boys who are so commonly over-matched by their female counterparts. But somehow they manage to survive. Developmental differences and maturity levels between the sexes are truly remarkable. I tapped my wife’s expertise as an elementary school guidance counselor one evening regarding her experiences, and she agreed with my observations wholeheartedly.
“So, the question is,” I inquired at the end of our discussion, “just exactly when do we males catch up?”
“Well,” she replied, a smug look on her face, “the truth is, you never really do.”
Ouch. Stepped right into that one….
Gender differences do exist. Acknowledge them, and when comparing your child against another, make sure to use an appropriate yardstick. And if you happen to have one of these little guys who is not exactly on the fast track, be patient. Most of them do catch up sooner or later.
Never try to force your son or daughter to be something they’re not. Take it from one who’s been an eyewitness, this approach is simply not going to work. Save yourself the aggravation and accept them as they are. Your life, and theirs, will be a whole lot easier.