The Wonderful World of Boys

August 26th, 2011
Image © by Stone-Hall Photography | Used by permission.

Brain research has revealed ways to interact, communicate, and learn recognizing gender differences. Please remember, there are always exceptions. And our goal is not to place boys or girls into boxes, but to challenge ourselves as teachers and parents to have experiences that can benefit both boys and girls. While this article focuses on boys, many of the points are applicable to working well with both girls and boys in Sunday school, in small groups, and as parents.

Physiological Differences

Boys and girls are made differently. This is not a bad thing. And it’s not necessarily a prejudicial thing if we pay attention to what this tells us. Let’s look at some of the differences between boys and girls that have been noted in recent years.

• Men and women determine directions differently. What is a stereotype regarding men, women, and directions? Many jokes have been written about men not asking! However, the way men and women navigate is based on the fact that they actually use different parts of the brain. Women use the cerebral cortex; men use the hippocampus. This means that males—starting as early as five years of age—are much more comfortable navigating by using absolute directions such as north, south, east, and west, or using absolute distance such as miles or city blocks. Females are much more comfortable using landmarks that can be seen or heard or smelled. How might that translate into Sunday school activities? Boys will be more intrigued in figuring mileage between Nazareth and Jerusalem. Girls will be more intrigued in what the land might look like that Jesus and his family traveled through to get from Nazareth to Jerusalem.

• The tones we hear best differ between males and females. From infancy, the girls’ hearing is more sensitive than the boys’, and this becomes more pronounced as we grow. On average, girls hear tones ten times softer than boys. Think about yourself. If you are a female talking in soft tones, the boys in your group may not hear all that you say. When boys don’t hear, they turn their attention to other matters and often become disruptive to the group. This can be particularly true when we move into worship moments or prayers and lower our voices to show reverence. Raise your voice so that all can hear clearly. Show reverence with body posture instead of body tone. Shout your prayers to God. Write your prayers to God so all can see.

On the other hand, if you are a male teacher, you may be talking at a tone that is perceived as yelling by girls in your group. Modulate your voice level for girls. We laugh about the cell phone commercial where the phrase, “Can you hear me now?” is repeated over and over again. It might just be that this humorous phrase can be put to good use in your group to make sure all are clear on instructions.

• There are gender differences in the way we see. Many females interpret the meaning of facial expressions better than males. The eyes of females seem to be wired to answer the question: “What is it?” So girls and women pick up more quickly on emotions, feelings, and colors like red, orange, and green.

When we expect the boys in our class to read our emotions in our faces, we may be disappointed. Boys are much more attracted to motion and their eyes seem to be wired more to answer the questions: “Where is it now?” and “Where is it going?” Boys are more likely to follow moving objects and to be attracted to colors like black, gray, and silver.

Think about these differences related to art. Perhaps in Sunday school you have studied the good Samaritan. If you ask boys and girls to draw a picture related to this story, you might see these differences. The girls’ pictures may focus on facial expressions and be drawn in brighter colors. The boys’ pictures might focus on the traveler being beaten up and be done in pencil instead of color. Both are valuable. And both reflect the visual reality of their gender. The problem comes when we determine one to be good or pretty and the other not.

• Expressing emotions can be difficult for both young girls and young boys. For both boys and girls, emotions are located in the amygdala. The part of the brain that does the talking is in the cerebral cortex. There are few neural paths connecting the two during early childhood. This means getting younger children to say why they feel sad or mad or glad is more difficult. They know they feel something; they just can’t tell us why. So when we talk about something like Passover and ask, “How do you think the people felt?,” we can expect general terms like “mad” or “sad” without accompanying explanations of why. To push hard on the why may cut off conversation rather than keep it going. And in fact, the brain shift that happens at adolescence where emotion moves up to the cerebral cortex so that we can explain why we feel as we do occurs only in girls. With boys, the brain activity associated with negative emotion remains stuck in the amygdala. So being able to explain their emotions remains difficult for boys even as they mature.

General Points for Working Successfully With Boys

We have learned that there are some general techniques that can be applied when working with boys. These are helpful to remember whether you are a parent, a pastor, a teacher, or a mentor.

• Boys talk more when conversation takes place shoulder to shoulder rather than face to face. Girls like eye-to-eye contact. Most boys don’t. Boys will talk much more freely if you are sitting side-by-side with them. Many parents have noticed that they receive much more information from their boys while riding in the car than they do in a face-to-face conversation. Sit with boys. Work with them on a project. Carry on a conversation as you do, and boys will respond much more openly.

• Both boys and girls can benefit from same-sex activities. There is a need to provide strong male mentors for boys and strong female mentors for girls. In childhood, both boys and girls look to adults to answer the question: “What does it mean to be an adult male/female?” Think about what is offered at church over a year’s time. When do boys have the ability to join with men in church to be involved in a learning time or a service project? These opportunities give an important message about how faith is not just a childhood activity, but one that is lifelong.

While gender differences are evident all of our lives, they are larger and more important in childhood than when we are adults. We do a disservice to all by pretending they do not exist or by ignoring them. This doesn’t mean that boys and girls can’t learn and grow equally. There are no differences in their abilities to grow in faith, to express praise to God, to respond to the message of God’s love, and to live out their faith in actions. There are big differences in the ways we teach and the opportunities that we provide to allow their faith to grow.

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