Once Upon A Neuron
by Carolyn Abraham, TodaysParent.com

Science is confirming what parents have long suspected: Boys' and girls' brains are different. But does that mean we should teach and treat them differently?

Before her children were born, Megan Porter had made up her mind. Boy or girl, she would surround them with the same comforting toys, shoo stereotypes and not fall into the truck and Barbie traps.

Then along came Marshall. He glued fascinated eyes to the flash of moving vehicles before he was 18 months old. “Daddy — vroooom, vroooom!” was the first phrase to burst out of his mouth.

Porter decided she’d let Marshall’s interests guide the toy selection: “He drove me right into the world of diggers and backhoes,” says the Toronto mom. Like any parent who has watched a son turn cutlery into Formula One racers, or stuffed animals into missiles, Porter began to suspect that nature somehow shapes boys’ preferences for speedy mechanical contraptions.

A similar thought dashes across Catharine Doncaster’s mind at bedtime. Tucking in her daughter, Katarina, becomes a battle of real estate. The six-year-old insists on sharing her bed with no fewer than nine of her favourite dolls every night. “She practically falls out of bed to make room for them,” says the Toronto mother with a laugh. Yet neither she nor her husband ever forced dolls upon their daughter.

Child experts have endlessly chronicled differences in the way boys and girls play, learn and interact. Many have attributed the juvenile gender gap to environmental and cultural forces that kick in the moment that first soccer-ball mobile is hung over the crib, or the fairy-princess border gets plastered to the nursery wall. But increasingly, scientists are uncovering other explanations: Subtle physical differences in the brains of boys and girls suggest that biology predicts their distinct behaviours.

The notions are not revolutionary. Science has long collected evidence that men and women think differently. Men’s brains are bigger. But women’s are more densely packed with brain cells. Women tend to use both sides of their brains equally, while men tend to use the left half more than the right. Differences in the way their brains operate appear to give men slight advantages in mathematical and visual-spatial tests and women slight superiority in multitasking and verbally oriented skills.

With the latest scanning technology, scientists can actually watch a woman’s brain light up in multiple areas like a pinball machine when performing certain mental tasks, while a man’s looks more like a beacon. Researchers are now exploring the uncharted terrain deep inside the heads of children, and they are finding some marked differences, including a larger role for instinctive emotions in boys, and in girls a quicker maturing of the structures governing self-control. (See Your Child’s Brain: What Science Sees.)

Yet for those determined not to raise men from Mars and women from Venus, the observations can be enough to make them wonder if biology makes their efforts pointless. When Jack and Jill go up that hill — will Jill always be the one who stops to ask for directions?

Definitely not, says Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. “We know that boys and girls often act differently and so you would expect to see differences in the brain because the brain is where behaviour comes from,” Gopnik says. But, she adds, culture and experience work with genes and hormones to sculpt the architecture of the brain. As is well known, early experience and education actually influence the growth of neurons and the networks they forge.

Scientists themselves acknowledge that it’s too early to say exactly what these brain differences mean — whether they can explain why he tends to forget his coat at school or she passes gossipy notes among her friends. As well, there is more variation between individuals than there is between groups of boys and girls. Bottom line: No child fits any pattern perfectly.

Marshall Porter, for example, may have been a tractor-trailer-loving toddler, but he also dazzled his parents with artful conversation, a trait more often associated with girls, who boast more activity and neurons in brain areas involved in language and speech. “He was very mature at 3 1/2,” his mother says.

“The sensible thing to say is that parents must pay attention to individual patterns of behaviour,” says Gopnik. “We should not think of things as being gender typical or not gender typical.”

Joyce Benenson, an associate professor of psychology at McGill University, agrees that parents should work from the premise that boys and girls should be introduced to as many different toys and styles of play as possible. But she says that neurobiology can offer parents a certain level of acceptance in understanding a child’s behaviour and how to cope with it. Long before a child is born, she notes, sex hormones bathe the developing brain, masculinizing or feminizing it and, in a sense, hard-wiring certain responses, particularly when it comes to which activities they will find pleasurable. “I don’t think anyone will ever get boys more interested in dolls than physical domination,” she says, “unless you are going to change the brain prenatally.”

Parents should not discourage boys’ natural interest in competition and rough-housing, Benenson says. They should give them space and freedom, of course setting limits on any extreme behaviour.

“Boys are more active even in the first few days of life, their gross-motor skills more advanced,” she says. “By age four, most will be interested in physically dominating their classmates.” But, she adds, boys’ aggression should not be mistaken for insensitivity. “Boys may have even more need to be comforted.”

One 1994 experiment shed light on this idea. When six-year-olds listened to a tape of a crying baby, more girls than boys spoke gently to try and quiet what they assumed was a real baby; over twice as many boys turned off the speaker. Their response might have been mistaken for a lack of sympathy, but heart monitors picked up racing pulses, which suggested the boys could not tolerate their own anxiety at the infant’s distress.

Benenson’s studies with girls, meanwhile, indicate that it’s not just nurturing they are interested in when they coddle their dolls — it’s helplessness. “They have a very strong desire to be interested in vulnerability and this is true across the world, across different classes,” she says. There is hormonal evidence that suggests girls derive pleasure by tending to dolls that are sick, or princesses who are lost or scared, she says. “It may be because this is what moms have to do when taking care of children.”

Michael Gurian, a family therapist and educator from Spokane, Washington, feels most parents have already accepted that innate differences exist between boys and girls and are hungry for strategies to make the most of their natural strengths and counter weaknesses. Gurian, a best-selling author of 15 books who has made a booming career of translating neurobiological research into practical parenting advice, believes that people have to adjust the way they parent and teach to accommodate the distinct learning styles of boys and girls.

“It’s not about changing the brain, but changing the way something’s taught. That’s how you level the playing field,” he says. When coaxing a high-energy boy to sit down and do his homework, Gurian says, you should regard his fidgeting not as wilful disobedience but rather an active brain in search of stimulation. “He’s restless, he’s tapping his pencil and he’s doing that to keep his brain stimulated,” Gurian says. “Give him a Nerf ball in his non-writing hand, let him squeeze it while he works.” Even the white noise of background music is not necessarily bad if the work gets done, he says.

To improve boys’ fine-motor skills, an area in which girls more often excel, Gurian suggests teaching them to sew or do beadwork (an idea that might be easier in theory than in practice, given the tastes of most preteen boys). On the other hand, girls improve their gross-motor and competitive skills playing sports. They also respond well to visual aids when learning, particularly when it comes to abstract mathematical concepts. Catharine Doncaster’s husband, Paul Marsiglio, sensed their daughter’s frustration when she tried to rhyme off numbers from her multiplication tables. “I got some toothpicks and made bundles with twist-ties, and showed Katarina a bundle of five, and then did three times five and counted the toothpicks,” he says. “Then she got it.”

In his most recent book, Boys and Girls Learn Differently!, Gurian writes that teaching math to girls with objects they can touch, or through word problems that include concrete examples, fits the mechanics of their brain system.

Gurian also takes the unorthodox view that it can be constructive to discuss with children what research suggests about sex differences and where their strengths lie. He says reluctance to do this stems from the idea that “you can never say anything negative to your child. It’s not saying that biology is destiny,” he says, “but understanding your own nature.”

He offers the example of his own 12-year-old daughter, who enjoys playing soccer but never earns a spot on the higher-level teams; she understands that her natural talents run more to academics and basketball. “Parents have been afraid that they’re pegging kids, but if we don’t help them peg themselves they will be 30 and still wondering about themselves,” he says. Still, Gurian acknowledges that “bridge brains” exist, in which girls display behaviours more often associated with boys or vice versa. The important thing, he says, is that parents should recognize a child’s individual traits, which may not fit general sex differences.

Gopnik agrees, saying that it all comes down to paying attention to the specific nature of your own child. It might be, hypothetically speaking, that 50 out of 100 boys do well at spatial tasks, and only ten of 100 girls, she says. “But if your daughter is one of those ten girls, you are not doing her any favours if you do not recognize this.”

Catharine Doncaster and Paul Marsiglio are determined to help both their kids explore the full range of their potential, unencumbered by stereotypes. They’ve encouraged Katarina to take up soccer and cycling, so along with her penchant for dolls, she’s a champ on the bike, outlasting her older brother, Joshua. “I think I pushed her toward that a little bit,” says Marsiglio. “But she really seems to enjoy it.” Seven-year-old Joshua, meanwhile, who excels at most sports and math, sometimes plays with his sister’s dolls — he’s even argued with her over pushing her baby stroller. His mother believes these tendencies reflect the world that Joshua sees, where his father, grandfather and uncles coddle and cradle the babies and children in their extended family.

Marsiglio puts it this way: “Nature may hard-wire boys and girls somehow, but if you are very conscious of what areas need work, you can make them both stronger — like Kat and her soccer and cycling, and both of them are now trying the violin and chess. I think children can be like Plasticine, they can be moulded.”