We know this: The brains of boys and girls develop in distinctive ways. The latest techniques in neuroscience, such as brain mapping, have helped us get closer to understanding this complex organ. Using functional magnetic resonance imagery, for example, researchers have watched how various parts of the brain light up when girls and boys speak, do puzzles, or encounter distractions.
At the same time, we’ve also learned a great deal about neural plasticity; a child’s experiences affect every aspect of brain functioning. While inborn differences in brain anatomy may explain why boys get squirmy in class and girls tenderly rock their dolls to sleep, every child is unique and evolving.
Stereotypes are dangerous, of course. As adults, we have a responsibility to encourage technical aptitude and physical daring in girls and to appreciate sensitivity and verbal expressiveness in boys. But to do that, we need to be aware of how gender can affect communication, while also tuning in to a child’s individual traits and temperament.
Having worked with children and families for decades, I want to share my most successful techniques for connecting with sons and daughters.
Boys develop language skills more slowly than girls. Most of their speech is comprehensible by age 4 1/2. So avoid “constructive criticism” using abstract words such as inappropriate, focus, disruptive, or success. They can sound like the wah-wuh-wah-wah-wah of the adults in “Peanuts” cartoons to your son.
Girls develop language skills earlier than boys. Nearly all of girls’ speech is comprehensible by age 3. The corpus callosum, the nerve tissue connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, is thicker in girls’ brains, which facilitates communication. But don’t mistake your daughter’s impressive verbal sophistication for emotional maturity or interpret her meltdowns as regression or attempts to manipulate you. It’s strategically smarter to give her the last word in a heated discussion to prevent escalation and let her save face. You can always revisit the issue later if necessary.
On average, boys say fewer words per day than girls and speak more slowly. To make sure he understands you, speak at a relaxed pace, but don’t taunt him by speaking too robotically. (“Please. Put. Bowl. In. Sink.”)
On average, girls say two to three times as many words per day as boys and speak twice as fast. To help maintain your authority, talk quickly enough to hold her interest, but not as quickly as she talks.
A boy’s brain secretes less serotonin than a girl’s. This makes boys more fidgety and quicker to act on impulse. So think of your conversations as shooting hoops: You say a little something, then another little something, and sometimes it goes through and you get a basket.
A girl’s brain secretes more serotonin. This makes it easier for girls to modulate their moods and regulate their expression of emotions. But realize that the arguments—about rules, food, or your daughter’s messy room—won’t be resolved during a single, earnest, logical discussion.
A boy’s brain secretes less oxytocin and vasopressin than a girl’s. This makes boys less likely to perceive signs of pain or distress in others. So your son often won’t hear subtle differences in your tone, and your sighs or sarcastic hinting may be lost on him. Don’t let that make you feel insulted or ignored if he doesn’t notice that you’re upset about something.
A girl’s brain secretes more of those hormones than a boy’s. This helps girls respond quickly to signs of pain or distress in others. So know that your daughter is acutely sensitive to tone that reveals scorn, mockery, or indignation. To help diffuse the emotional aspect of what you’re saying and improve your tone, shift your focus first. Try singing along to her music for a few minutes before asking her to shift focus and listen to you.
To comfortably hear a speaker, boys require the person’s voice to be six to eight decibels louder than girls do. They also have a higher tolerance for background noise. So keep in mind that if you have to ask your son to do something twice, he actually may not have heard you. Try to use short sentences and speak fairly loudly but not at a high pitch.
Girls can discern voices at lower decibels and also can discriminate nuances of tone better than boys. They can hear better at higher frequencies but are also more easily annoyed or distracted by background noise. So be straight with your daughter—unlike little boys, girls notice stammers and silences. Not only will she hear your words, she can easily detect a sales pitch or a half-lie.
Boys don’t seek out eye contact as often as girls. They tend to be more verbally communicative when they’re sitting beside someone. So try talking in the car, while ambling down the street, or in the dim light of his room before bed. He will be more comfortable talking side by side, but you can help focus his attention by sitting face-to-face for important requests or reprimands.
Girls seek out and react positively to eye contact, smiling, and face-to-face verbal communication. So if you need clarification about an upsetting event, use open-ended rather than yes-or-no or leading questions. Instead of “Were you furious with her???” say, “What was that like?”
Boys experience greater separation anxiety and cry more easily before age 3 than girls. As they get older, their autonomic nervous system (which regulates heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion) causes them to react to stress or confrontation with excitement or exhilaration. So talk about feelings indirectly, such as by reading a bedtime story and talking about what happened to a character, or by asking about the details of his dreams.
Girls’ ability to read social cues helps them adjust to new environments. Their autonomic nervous system makes them react to stress by withdrawing or feeling dizzy, nauseated, or fearful. So if she comes home with a tale of grief, injustice, or anger, think of yourself as a compassionate aunt or camp counselor and listen without expressing pity or panic.
From Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen, by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. Copyright © 2018 by Wendy Mogel. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.