Nearly anytime I see a report that trumpets some great discovery about how males and females are different, I have to laugh. Does it really take a scientific study to tell us something that any trip to the park or the mall would make abundantly clear?
However, some of the information about why there are differences really is interesting. One of those has to do with the way a boy’s brain is wired. It helps to explain some of the difficulties we as parents might face in raising a young man.
To those of us without a medical degree, the brain has “gray” and “white” matter in it. Doctors have very fancy terms, but I can grasp the two colors! A study by Richard Haier and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen “discovered that male brains utilize nearly seven times more gray matter for activity while female brains utilize nearly ten times more white matter.” (1)
What does that mean?
The gray-matter parts of our brains are very localized, almost like cubicles in an office building. Each one does one task and focuses on that task. So, when a boy is doing something, these “localized” portions of his brain are focused on that thing. It is one reason why, if your son is playing a game and you try to talk to him, he may not even notice you. It could be that he is not being unsympathetic or uncaring. It could just be that his brain really is “tuned in” to what he is doing.
White-matter portions of the brain, in the other hand, are far more interconnected. Think of a major interstate exchange in a big city, and you’ll have some idea of the picture. Girls use these parts of their brains more, which is why they can usually transition more quickly from one thing to another than boys. Simply call your children, who are playing a game, to the dinner table, and usually the girl will come more quickly than the boy. The reason is because her brain is more wired to make such quick “switches” between thoughts and activities.
What does this mean for our sons? Of course, every child is different, but let’s look at some general applications from this simple knowledge.
Focus on One Task. This is not a bad thing. The typical boy can focus on one thing, but will often work at it for-seemingly-ever to figure something out. He may be impatient when he can’t do something well, but he’ll stay at it more often than girls. This is a good trait for his future, because he will be more likely to stay with a job until it is done.
Fear of Failure. This is a negative of this almost “tunnel vision” approach boys have. He may give up very quickly on a task because he thinks he cannot complete it. He would rather use this strong work ethic in something he can “win.” By the way, this helps to explain why so many boys are virtually (or literally) addicted to video games. Once they find one they can improve on, they will play for hours. However, if he doesn’t finish “level one” in a try or two, he may give up. Obviously, we must work with boys to help them overcome this fear and to learn that failure is okay, so long as he gives his best effort.
Patience. Obviously, all children need patient parents, but boys are often picked on because they don’t “drop what they are doing” and “get here right now.” Of course, they need to learn responsibility and the need to see the desires of others, but boys naturally will be slower at transitioning from one task to another. Give him a moment to come out of “his world” and into what you need him to do. Work with him in getting quicker at these transitions.
Relational Struggles. Boys can seem, and can literally be, oblivious to what others are doing, even in the same room. Because they have this tendency, we jump on them and can fail to help them develop the ability to be more aware of not only the presence of others, but the needs of other people. This is a struggle that will continue, but it can be improved. It has to be molded, however.
We never want to “excuse” a boy’s behavior, simply because this is part of his natural makeup. Parents do need to understand his mind, though, so they can know not only what they want him to become, but also where they are starting.
QUESTION: What are some other positives and negatives of a boy using his “gray matter” so much?
(1) This post is based upon some research found in the book Raising Boys by Design by Gregory L. Jantz and Michael Gurian. It is a book I highly recommend for parents or for those who counsel families. You can get a copy from Amazon here. (The quotation above is from page 21.)
Photo credit: Nathanial Burton-Bradford on Creative Commons
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