Girls and Boys. They'll Fit Some Stereotypes But Defy Others

As a mother of a boy and a girl, and having worked with thousands of families over the course of fifteen years, I'm convinced that the old adage is true: girls and boys can be as different as chalk and cheese.

Part myth, part reality

But like all stereotypes, the oft-noted characteristics of boys and girls are partly myth and partly reality. Individual personalities, strengths, weaknesses and interests, as well as birth order, parental expectations and educational options come together for every boy and girl.

I noticed these archetypal differences between my son and my daughter at a very young age, and they are still there even today. However, each child also assumed attributes which some might typically associate with the 'other gender'. Their personalities emerged as they tried one interest or peer group before finding their actual places in the world.

I describe my children in detail below to illustrate that, typically, while girls and boys will fit some stereotypes, they will defy others. And for context, I should note that what I experienced with my own children was echoed, without fail, with the families I worked with at School Choice International.

Marching to different beats

My daughter Sarah seemed to be born with these. At four years old, she said, "Grandma can't stand the mess and I can't either". She lined up her shoes in rows. From as early as I can remember, Sarah worked diligently, neatly, and proudly to complete school projects on time.

However my son Dan created the mess as fast as Sarah organised it. When it came to schoolwork, he did as little as possible. In primary school he needed to be reminded to do his homework, to get it into his rucksack, to get the rucksack on and off the school bus, and into the teacher's hands. Parenting Dan was a constant challenge.

Suddenly, in secondary school, Dan's behaviour changed dramatically. Once he could choose his own elective courses and was placed into classes that challenged him, he pursued his interests with a vengeance; he never again needed a reminder to do his work. From the outset, Dan's life was defined by asking questions. Sarah defined herself by answering them. She was rule bound and a teacher pleaser. He marched to the beat of his own drum.

Conforming - and doing quite the opposite

As their natural abilities became manifest, some conformed to gender stereotypes and others showed quite the opposite.

At age six, when we got our first family computer, Dan read the complex instruction manual until he understood everything about how it worked. That was his mantra: "How does it work?" After he 'fixed' my sewing machine we had to make a rule that he couldn't fix something that wasn't broken. This typical male behaviour led to an interest in maths and science, and he became an engineering major at University.

On the other hand, whereas Sarah was the captain of the football team. Dan didn't know why anyone would chase a ball around. In addition to his prowess in maths and science, he loved music and drama. At university he studied music as well as engineering. Today Dan is a sound designer in theatre, using both backgrounds.

Sarah is a lawyer. She is someone who chose to learn rules and to enforce them in society. Her athletic ability has remained and she has become a marathon runner.

How to help your children

Here are some tips I have learned from both my children and clients:

  1. Let children express themselves and let them know that you accept them unconditionally.
  2. Expose them to everything; this gives them options.
  3. Support their interests. Whether conventional or unconventional, allow them to explore their passions. Trying to change them will only cause conflict.
  4. Allow children to change and grow; take your cues from them.
  5. Help your children and, if necessary, provide outside help if they struggle with disorganisation, shyness, or characteristics commonly associated with gender. Provide help in a non-judgemental way.

Thoughts on schooling

There are many theories about educating boys and girls. Here are some different ways of thinking about their schooling in terms of single-sex edication versus co-education. My advice is to adapt these to what seems right for your children, making mid-course adjustments when warranted.

Advantages of boys' schools

Teachers understand their quirks and are accustomed to boys who are disorganised, call out, or need to move around a lot. In a co-educational school these boys may be considered trouble-makers. Every boy needs to participate in the arts, music and drama. In co-educational schools, these are often considered more "feminine" activities, which may discourage boys who would enjoy them.

Advantages of girls' schools

Research indicates that girls do better in maths and science when not intimidated by boys in the classroom. Evidence is inconclusive. Girls have every opportunity for leadership positions in an all-girls' school.

Advantages of co-education

Co-educational schools simulate real life and give students early practice in navigating stereotypes and inequalities. Many boys like to play with girls and many girls like to play with boys. Co-educational schools give them a chance to know each other in a natural setting.

Accepting your children

Boys and girls are as different as chalk and cheese, but no single set of characteristics applies to every boy and every girl. These will be mixed in each child and will evolve as they mature.

Successful parenting and educating boys and girls requires support, letting them know you will love them as they are, providing experiences for them to develop their passions, and assistance when behaviours cause difficulty. Understand the advantages and disadvantages of single-sex vs. co-educational schooling and make decisions based on factors appropriate to your child at each phase of life.

Accepting your children whether they manifest masculine or feminine qualities will allow them to develop into happy, well-adjusted, and successful adults.