Even though there are plenty of rough-and-tumble girls and sensitive boys, there still may be something to the old "sugar and spice," "snails and puppy-dog tails" stereotypes. "Researchers have discovered over one hundred brain differences between males and females that contribute to the behavioral differences you notice in boys and girls," says Michael Gurian, author of Boys and Girls Learn Differently (Jossey-Bass). Boys tend to be more physically impulsive because they have less serotonin (a calming brain chemical). Girls, who have higher levels of oxytocin (a hormone that leads to emotional bonding), tend to create more intimate webs of relationships. When you add in the messages kids get from our culture about what a boy or girl should be like, it's no wonder that they have different ways of behaving, thinking and expressing themselves, says Gurian.
"The ways of boys are often completely foreign to a mother — their activity level, their interests, their ways of communicating, their emotional makeup, even how they move," says Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D., co-author of "Trust Me, Mom — Everyone Else Is Going!" (Penguin). Research published in the journal Child Development shows that boys' quest for action and more aggressive, competitive nature land them in trouble more often than girls, who are generally eager to please, have better impulse control, and usually resolve conflicts verbally. As a result, you expend a lot of energy trying to get boys to control themselves, which may shortchange them in the sensitivity department. "Boys need help recognizing and maintaining access to all their emotions, but the feeling most commonly discussed with them is anger and how to restrain it," says clinical psychologist Nikki Fedele, Ph.D., codirector of the Mother-Son Project at Wellesley College's Stone Center in Massachusetts
Girls face a different dilemma. Their tendency to bond and tune in to feelings — traits that society and parents encourage — can lead to greater sensitivity and better behavior, but there's a downside. "Girls may be so awash in emotions that they need help sorting through them to understand how they really feel. Or they may become so responsive to others that they lose sight of who they are," says Dr. Fedele.
What a Son Needs
Boys are bombarded with cultural messages to be dominant, win at all costs and never cry. Who better to counteract the negative effect than Mom? You can give your son an ongoing course in valuing and sharing feelings.
Early on, boys are just as open to this information as girls, says Dr. Fedele. For a young child, the lesson can be as simple as telling your dejected son, "Being sad is hard, but I'm glad you can tell me how you feel." In one sentence you recognize the emotion, validate it and teach him that sharing it helps, Dr. Fedele points out. But social pressures to "be tough" grow right along with your child, so keep reinforcing those lessons throughout his adolescence.
Regular, unhurried opportunities to talk — an after-school chat, while riding in the car, time spent together at bedtime — will give your son a chance to open up. Or join him in an activity, such as working on a puzzle or playing catch. It's often easier for boys to talk when the focus is on something else.
You're also the perfect person to teach your boys about the opposite sex. Being able to talk to your son about what real girls and women are like, and not shying away from discussing sex, can head off the upcoming "locker room" culture your adolescent son will be exposed to. For instance, you can remind him that sex involves people, not just body parts.
Daughter Déjà Vu
Sharing the same gender gives moms and daughters a head start on intimacy. Their knack for expressing feelings helps them grow close, says Dr. Cohen-Sandler. And since mom has experienced firsthand much of what her daughter is facing, like navigating social cliques, empathy comes with the territory.
It makes sense that you get along so well, at least until adolescence, notes Dr. Fedele. During the early years, when a girl is establishing her gender identity (usually between ages four and six), she watches your every move so she can be just like you. But this can lead to what Dr. Cohen-Sandler calls the number-one problem in mom-daughter relationships. "When you identify strongly with a child, it's tempting to assume you know exactly how she's feeling," she says. "You may not be as attentive a listener and it may prevent you from truly understanding her."
As your daughter approaches adolescence, the loving observation she used in order to be "just like Mommy" may turn to critical scrutiny. It helps to remember that this is normal behavior, not a personal vendetta. When your daughter suddenly thinks everything you wear is wrong, it may be simple preteen self-consciousness that spills over onto you. With puberty comes the painful but necessary process of forging one's own identity. For a girl, that means making sure you know she's not like you, says Dr. Cohen-Sandler.
It's a mistake to view this as rejection and withdraw, says Dr. Cohen-Sandler. She needs you now more than ever. Try to deal with criticism matter-of-factly: "I'm sorry you don't like my hair. I think it looks nice." But don't accept abuse: "I can't hear you out until you stop calling me names."
Hard as it may be to believe, there are positives amid this turmoil. If girls bottle up anger and avoid conflict, they can hurt themselves and their future relationships. Battling with you, the person she feels closest to, helps your daughter learn that strong emotions, when expressed appropriately, aren't bad and that good relationships can withstand conflict.