The Daily Telegraph, July 26, 2005
Boys and girls should be nurtured in different ways to achieve their full potential to achieve their full potential. Your child's health: growing pains. In the second installment of a five-part series covering everything from common ailments to tantrums, Lesley Thomas finds that boys and girls should be nurtured in different ways to achieve their full potential
There's no harm in letting your little son spend his time climbing trees and being boisterous, is there? Boys will be boys. He won't concentrate on anything for more than 30 seconds, but he can't help that. And why shouldn't your small daughter immerse herself in the sugary world of Barbies and copy her friends' outfits? They're just doing what they were born to do. Is that a problem? Well, yes, it can be.
A new school of thought among child psychologists and education experts argues that boys are indeed different from girls - though not always in the ways we assume - and that parents need to help strengthen the areas where their children are naturally weak. If we adjust our stereotypical attitudes towards the genders, we will raise confident children who will reach their fullest potential as adults.
For advice on raising girls, Americans turn to Sylvia Rimm, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio. Her book, See Jane Win: The Rimm Report on How 1,000 Girls Became Successful Women, was a New York Times bestseller and is the baby gift of choice among middle-class Manhattanites.
"If you want your children to do well," she says, "you have to recognise the differences but not necessarily accept them."
For her book, she examined the lives of thousands of high-flying women and found that there were many similarities in their childhoods.
"In general, young girls don't seem to have a strong sense of their individuality, and uniqueness isn't encouraged as much as it should be. It's a hangover from the days when women's identities were defined by their husbands - when they were just in a supporting role."
Dr Rimm found that the women she talked to - including Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle commander - were encouraged by their parents to search for their own identity early on. Mary Grandpré, the Harry Potter illustrator and another of her case studies, was called "the artist" by her parents from a very young age.
"She is a good example of someone who was encouraged to discover who she was and what her strengths were and who grew up to have confidence in them."
Many mothers assume that sacrificing their careers for their children is worthwhile, but in her study, Dr Rimm found that the successful women had mothers who worked or studied at least as soon as their children were in school.
"They admired their mothers for being able to do everything and they wanted to emulate them. Mothers have to remember they are role models. Mothers don't need to be at home, hovering over their children, their entire lives."
Encourage girls to take risks
You often hear parents bragging about how "good" their young daughter is and how "easy" it is to look after her. It's natural for girls to seek approval and praise by behaving well, but if their personality is to develop, girls need to take risks occasionally.
"Girls seem to have a natural reticence. They like being good and they like to model themselves on others. It makes life easy for parents, because they are not challenged by their daughters, but if girls spend their time trying to please others, they end up not knowing who they are. As a parent, you have to show them it's safe to challenge you." Girls' confidence starts to take a downturn as they head for their teens, and self-knowledge and independence will equip them well during these years.
"Girls playing with their mother's make-up is one thing," says Hartley-Brewer, "They are experimenting and reflecting their mothers. But make-up sets specifically made for girls of this young age is another thing entirely. They're being told who to be and how to behave at an age when they should be trying to find out for themselves."
Studies suggest girls start to lose confidence around the age of 14 - though parents of girls this age don't need proof.
"They need as much self-belief as possible in the pre-teens, because it's going to crumble during the teenage years. It's a good idea to allow them autonomy progressively, so they have a sense of being in charge of themselves later on. We tend to overprotect girls. Allowing them out of the home more and to have time on their own is important."
Learning and developing a personality is a risky business, but a child will learn very little if their parents are too paranoid to allow them those risks.
Dr Rimm cautions against fathers that treat their daughters as "pretty princesses" who learn at an early age how to impress their dads.
"You may end up with a daughter who is a brilliant people-pleaser and has excellent manipulation skills but her focus will not be to achieve something for herself." Challenging stereotypes should begin when children are babies, she says. "Encourage daughters to play with blocks and puzzles, to improve their spatial awareness. You go into a nursery and you'll never see girls doing this."
The trick is to treat girls a little bit more like boys and vice versa. "In some very recent research I've done on middle-school children, I noticed that boys' handwriting is very bad and it's accepted," says Dr Rimm. "It may be because that's natural, but wouldn't it be better for them if we raised our expectations? If you encourage a boy to take an interest in art, for example, it's going to help him.
"And there seems to be a trend for boys aged around eight to 13 to think it's cool to be lazy and we have to help them to see the benefits of completing a task - even if it's working in the garden or helping with the decorating."
The main issue with boys is their energy and lack of focus. They need to be steered regularly towards examining their tasks and the outcomes, without being nagged.
Boys need discipline
It doesn't matter whether boys and girls are born or made, they behave differently and we must use this information wisely.
Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer, a British education expert and social policy specialist, says: "Teachers shouldn't tolerate messy work from boys. They need the discipline, but they need understanding, too. They get bored easily and they lose concentration, so they need regular encouragement in this area. You need to help them focus and pin them down, without criticising.
"If a boy has turned in some schoolwork that wasn't his best, for example, you can ask him what he would do differently next time.
Boys feel less competent about completing tasks, but from the age of around eight to 10, they're very proud and physical. It's important to encourage this pride."
It's standard behaviour for boys to identify with their fathers around the age of eight to 10 and to seem less dependent. Mothers should resist the urge to hug boys to their bosom.
"They can start to be quite rude to their mums, but it's all part of them making sense of their world and their place in it," says Hartley-Brewer.
They want to play with fire metaphorically and often literally - and you can allow them to do so while setting firm boundaries. Boys' self-esteem, she says, peaks at the age of 14 and plummets at the age of 19 - which is hardly surprising when you consider the greasy, grumpy monster that is the average teenage boy.
· 'Raising and Praising Boys' and 'Raising and Praising Girls' by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer will be published by Vermilion in September
How to motivate your children
Appreciate that boys are full of energy and tend to act before they think. Encourage them to plan more.
Male pride and bravado can make boys dismissive of their errors. Reward them for being honest about their mistakes, so that they learn from them.
Young boys find it hard to concentrate. Allow for this by giving them short-term targets.
Don't over-monitor boys. Allow them some independence.
Self-belief is the most common problem with girls. Let them know what their talents are and what they're doing right.
Girls like to be people-pleasers. Encourage your daughter to praise and judge her own efforts, so she is not simply seeking your approval.
Don't over-emphasise your daughter's physical attributes. Praise her personality and abilities, too.
Praise her, too, for trying new things. Girls need encouragement to take risks.