Of boys and girls

National Post, Thursday, February 24, 2005

The Post's Anne Marie Owens spoke with Dr. Sax.

When Leonard Sax noticed the parade of boys being marched into his family medical practice with notes from school seeking medication for Attention Deficit Disorder, he realized something was out of whack.

A trained physician and psychologist, Dr. Sax found most schools refused to recognize innate gender differences. He became an impassioned advocate for gender-segregated classes through the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

His new book, Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences (Doubleday), pulls together his wide-ranging findings on everything from how girls respond negatively to stress, to how anti-drug ads actually encourage teenage boys to do drugs and how all of these differences are hard-wired from birth. The Post's Anne Marie Owens spoke with Dr. Sax this week

Q: In the book, you suggest that educators have made a virtue of ignoring gender differences, but isn't that changing?

A: There is much more to the emerging science of gender differences than just education. One of the longer chapters in my book is about the many differences in drug use by teenage girls and boys.

Ads which effectively discourage drug use by girls have actually been show to promote drug use by boys: for example, ads which stress how harmful drugs are, and how they can ruin your brain. Girls don't want to ruin their brains. But risk-taking boys -- who are exactly the boys who are most at risk for using drugs -- will see an ad like that and think: "Way cool! Drugs fry your brain! Where can I get some?"

The United States government announced two years ago that its five-year, US$900-million campaign to discourage teenage drug use had been a total failure. Boys who saw the ads were more likely to use drugs subsequently than boys who had not seen the ads.

Likewise, girls who smoke cigarettes often say they smoke to lose weight. Boys almost never say that. Talking to a girl about the risks of smoking won't be effective unless you address her concern about her weight. I tell mothers, Why not join a fitness club with your daughter? Make a bargain that as long as she doesn't smoke, you'll pay her membership.

There are also big gender differences with regard to sex. Girls and boys have sex for very different reasons. High self-esteem decreases the odds of a teenage girl having sex, but increases the odds of a teenage boy having sex.

Participation in competitive sports such as soccer and basketball decreases the odds of a girl having sex, but increases the odds of a boy having sex. Et cetera. Et cetera. There's much more to this than just the educational angle.

Q: Other experts say things like, "Girls are more emotional."

A: Girls are not more emotional than boys. Most girls are more articulate about their emotions than most boys are, but when you assess emotionality by other, non-verbal measures, you find that boys are often more emotional than girls.

Likewise, boys are not innately more gifted in math and science. Girls can perform as well or better than the boys in those subjects, if teachers know how to teach it to them.
Girls are not innately more gifted in art, music, or creative writing than boys are. Boys can perform as well as girls in those subjects, if the teacher knows some of the techniques.

Q: You raise some fascinating gender differences in your book -- on brain development, on hearing, on the way the brain is hard-wired, on reaction to stress, even on art.

A: Let's just focus on one of those topics: Reaction to stress. There is now very substantial research showing that the right type of stress enhances learning in males, while it impairs learning in females. That finding has implications not only for the classroom, but also for the home.

Consider how parents discipline their children. Most parenting "experts" advise parents to use a discipline technique known as "induction" -- i.e. "How would you feel if someone did that to you?" That approach works well with most girls. It's a total failure with many boys. With boys, a more confrontational approach to discipline is more effective -- provided that it's done in a loving way. The same is true in the classroom, incidentally.

Q: I'm also the mother of four boys, including five-year-old triplets, so that's a big reason behind my interest in this. I think that's why the stuff on children's drawings is really fascinating to me.

A: I open that section of the book by describing a study done by scientists at Cambridge University on newborn babies. They offered newborns -- all less than 24 hours old -- the choice of looking at a human face on one side of the crib or a swinging, dangling mobile on the other side. The girls look at the human face. The boys look at the swinging mobile.

I then explain why this difference is present. The bottom line is that the visual system -- beginning with the retina -- is wired very differently in girls compared with boys. [In girls, the visual system is derived primarily from the retina's P-cells, which are designed to detect colour and texture. In boys, M-cells predominate in the retina, which are designed to detect motion and velocity.]

As a result, girls draw nouns, boys draw verbs. If you give a five-year-old girl a blank sheet of paper and a box of crayons, she's likely to draw pictures of people, or pets, or flowers, using 10 or more crayons, with a predominance of red, orange, yellow, green, beige and brown. If you give a five-year-old boy a sheet of paper and a box of crayons, he's more likely to draw actions -- a rocket smashing into a planet, an alien eating an animal, two cars smashing into each other. He is likely to use fewer crayons, with a predominance of black, grey, silver and blue.

Kindergarten teachers are seldom aware of these hard-wired differences. Nobody's ever told them about P cells and M cells. The result of that lack of awareness of gender differences is, ironically, a reinforcement of gender stereotypes.

After one year of coed kindergarten, boys will tell you, "Drawing is for girls." In all-boy kindergartens, though, boys never stop loving to draw with crayons.