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He is active, he likes to jump and climb, and he can't stay focused on anything other than the computer, game system or his skate board and seems too distracted to listen. He gets into things and he takes things apart, he likes to pick at his sister. He dislikes his school work and can be disruptive in the classroom. He loves noise and finds sitting still to be the ultimate challenge. Is he attention deficit? Is he hyperactive? Or could it be that he is simply a normal boy?
The behavior of boys is of growing concern, particularly when you consider that a significantly larger number of boys are medicated to control their behavior, males make up the overwhelming percentage of our prison population, that a larger number of boys are failing at school and are dropping out and there are more women than men in degree programs after high school. What is going on with boys and why does he act the way he does? What drives male behavior?
A growing body of evidence suggests that male behavior is driven by his biology as much as it is shaped by his socialization. Research into the development of the male and female brain is beginning to yield interesting results which suggests that the development that occurs during pregnancy goes a long way in shaping male and female behavior. Briefly, all children start off anatomically identical. It is the introduction of additional male hormones (Androgens), triggered by the Y chromosome, in the child after about week 8 of development that begins the development of males. This introduction of androgens at particular levels is not only responsible for development of the sexual organs in males but also the differences in male and female bodies in terms of muscle mass and fat disposition. The presence of these hormones is also responsible for changes in the brain in terms of structure and possibly how the brain is "wired". These changes in the developing brain suggest that the reasons that boys and girls act so differently is partially due to the biology of the brain. Some differences between boys and girls are: boy's attention span is shorter than girls, boys are more adept at learning spatially than girls, boys need more physical movement to learn than girls do, and boys brains need more rest than girls. An interesting piece of research showed that male and female toddlers respond to a problem differently. Toddlers were placed on one side of a clear wall approximately three feet tall and their mothers were placed on the other side of the wall. When the toddlers wanted to get to their mothers they ran into the obstruction. Girls had a tendency to cry and verbalize towards their mother in response to this dilemma while boys had a tendency to try to climb the wall, push at it or try to find a way around or under the obstruction.
This demonstrates a tendency for girls to use interaction as a way of solving the problem while boys wanted to do use some form of action to solve the problem. In the absences of socialization to explain this difference, this is supportive evidence that male and female biology influences behavior. Another piece of medical evidence that supports this notion of biology influencing behavior is a medical condition known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia or CAH in which the fetus is exposed to unusual levels of androgens during development. Girls that suffer from this disorder have behaviors that we typically associate with boys and end up expressing interest in male typical activities and careers.
This evidence supports the notion that the presence of a particular level of male hormones in development influences the behavior of boys including the types of toys they play with, the types of activities they typically enjoy and the career choices they make.
Differences between males and females in visual-spatial ability, word usage and recognition and different brain activity during problem solving also suggest that there are fundamental differences between how the brains of males and females work. This difference can also be seen when particular areas of the brain are damaged. When the same area of the brain is damaged in men and women the effects of the damage is different in men and women. But this is only true of certain parts of the brain. Damage other parts of the brain and the effects are the same in men and women. Subtle differences in brain structure between males and females can be noted in a very few parts of the brain. These subtle structural differences coupled with the differences in brain activity during problem resolution would suggest that the differences in male and female behavior is a function both of how the brain is structured as well as how it is wired or how it functions.
There is also evidence that when it comes to academic performance that the distribution of girls along a bell shaped curve show a greater tendency to fall towards the average while boys distribution curve has a tendency to fall along a greater distribution along the curve, the average is the same for boys and girls but the distribution is different. In other words, more girls have a tendency to be clumped more around the average point while boys have a tendency to spread out more evenly. This means that more boys are going to be at the head of the class but there will also be more boys with difficulties than girls. Applied to behavior, this would suggest that we can expect more girls to act in a way that is considered average for children that age and that there is going to be a certain level of homogeneity with girls. With boys we can expect to see more variability among boys, some behaving in an average fashion, but more that struggle than girls. What this does is that it has a tendency to really isolate the boys that fall in the "struggle" category because there is a body of boys in the average group and a large number of girls in the average group.
What this difference in brain development is that boys act the way they do because they are built to act that way. A boy's development is a central aspect of a boy's behavior. Boys are built to be more active, to test the limits of their physical strength, to throw things to see how it flies, to explore the woods or the insides of the computer, to seek new things to grab their interests, to take on a challenge, to compete with one another, to learn by doing and by experiment, and to try to fix problems. Take that boy and put him into a setting in which he is expected to sit still for long periods of time and to learn through having someone talk to him, want to have him play quietly in the house and pay attention to his homework, to express himself by talking and you begin to see the dilemma that is being created for that boy and for those who are trying to enforce this structure. This structure is not allowing for how this child is created to operate, it pushes him towards "girl" behavior. Have enough of this constraint and you will begin to get school failure, school resistance, disruptive behavior and possibly rebellious behavior. So what can we do?
1. Appreciate that boys are built for activity. This activity must be accounted for when we are creating structure for our boys. Give boys an opportunity to move, make activity a part of a task as much as possible. Provide time to be active at regular intervals to keep the wiggles under control. Give the boys the more active chores to do at home and in the classroom.
2. Recognize that the attention span of a boy is going to be shorter when he is not particularly interested in a subject. When teaching boys, keeping tasks and subjects as short as can be and still achieve the objective of the task will help. Breaking things into parts with intervals of activity between can also be useful. Keeping homework to a limited amount can also be very helpful in terms of compliance and completion.
3. Take advantage of his natural curiosity to help him build his strengths. Build into his exploration topics or lessons in which he may not necessarily be interested. Appreciate that his natural curiosity will serve him well in his life.
4. Help him find appropriate ways to test his strength as well as his desire to compete. Don't try to train this out of him, this will only damage him. Instead, help him to see that there can be fun and beneficial ways of demonstrating his capacity to others and to himself.
5. Encourage the efforts he makes, not his ability or his talent. Some recent research shows that encouragement of effort is far more effective in development of perseverance and a positive self image than praising a child for his intelligence or raw ability.
6. When talking to him recognize that being active during that talk helps him absorb what you are saying (providing the activity is not too engaging). Taking a child on a walk or allowing him to color while you talk can be very helpful. Don't always expect a boy to look you in the eyes when you are disciplining him, he finds this embarrassing. By doing these things you are teaching him to express his feelings through talking rather than always by action.
7. Recognize that boys bond by doing things with other boys, and with you as well. Don't expect a boy to want to simply talk to you for the purpose of enjoyment and growing closer to you. He will come to you to talk to you about a problem. Keep it brief, talk too much and he will tune you out. If you wish to get closer to a boy, do things with him.
8. Don't compare him to other boys, either directly to him or even in your own mind. Remember, there is greater variability among boys than there are girls. Learn to appreciate the boy for who he is created to be.
Troy L Parrish, MA LCPC is a therapist in private practice in the Columbia, Maryland area. He has been in practice for over 17 years and has significant clinical experience working with children who have either behavioral or attention problems. In his years of working with this population he has developed a system that helps parents and students organize, keep track of and maintain accountability for their homework. You can read more about this system at his web site Home Keeper
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