Are Boys Harder to Raise Than Girls

Listen, I hate gender stereotyping and generally believe them to be false. For every woman who is “catty,” there are just as many men… for every man that is competitive, there are just as many women… I could go on. However, no matter how hard I attempted to raise my first born ignoring gender differences and dressing her in her OP shorts, making sure she had as many “boy” friends as girls and buying her as many trucks to play with as dolls, the dolls won, by age 3 she refused to wear anything but dresses and she favors playing with girls these days. Point being, I have learned that for certain individuals, following particular stereotypical gender roles can come naturally. Along those lines, Breezy Mama spoke to Dove Pressnall, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, to find out if boys — many who seem naturally inclined to be rambunctious — are harder to raise than girls and the solutions to their nature.

Aren’t boys generally pre-wired to be more rambunctious? Why is that?

The jury is out on this one. Some studies have found gender differences in levels of aggression and physical play but others have found minimal differences between girls and boys in childhood and attribute behavior differences to socialization.

I spend time in my kids’ various classrooms from early preschool to elementary school and girls are noticeably calmer and better listeners (definitely, not all, but a much higher percentage). What’s going on with boys at these ages?

Whether it’s socialized or hard-wired, though, parents and school professionals can attest to girls seemingly better abilities to sit and focus in class. This may be more related to development than overall temperament. Girls’ brains finish developing earlier than boys’ and so it may be that boys’ impulse control lags behind their female peers.

How can parents prepare boys to “sit still” in the classroom?

Rather than thinking of this as an issue of discipline, think of it as a part of your child’s development. Just as throwing and catching a ball are skills, focusing and listening are skills. Unfortunately, many common things in boys’ environments do not encourage those skills to develop.

Electronic media, in particular TV, literally trains us to focus in short bursts. Think about a TV program. It is broken up into bits, with separate, hyper-stimulating mini-stories (commercials) in between. The science is still out on how this affects brain structure and function over time but it makes sense that training the brain to focus in short bursts would result in kids who do that very well but have more difficulty sustaining attention. So, limiting TV, video games, and other activities that develop intense, short-burst focus rather than sustained attention skills might be helpful,

Parents can also support boys’ development of the skills of attending and focusing by encouraging play activities that require attention and focus. For younger children, building block towers, drawing, and doing puzzles are some activities that can be helpful. Older children can enjoy coloring, drawing comic strips, board games, and cooking are great. Reading together and, as the child gets older, independently supports the development of sustained attention and focus. As when one teaches a child to play toss, activities can be broken down into smaller steps, with progressively increasing difficulty. Praise effort more than results, “I really like the way you keep trying until you get it.” Rather than getting frustrated with your child’s frustration, show empathy and then encourage them to keep trying anyway.

Again, with my experience with kids, girls need to GENERALLY be told something once or get hurt by doing something once and never do it again. Boys tend to not listen, and, even if they fall and hurt themselves from climbing on the table, they’ll get right back up and do it again. Why can’t they learn the lesson in the same way girls can and how can parents keep them safe?

Thinking something through–from idea to execution to consequences–is also a skill. Boys can respond well to coaching. When your son does or is obviously contemplating doing something dangerous, get his attention and ask him questions to help him think through his decision.

At what age are boys able to process learning a lesson and knowing to make a smarter choice?

There is no magic age, for boys or girls, where learning from experience kicks in. Some children learn this very young and others are still struggling well into adulthood (we all have those friends, right?). Again, it can be helpful to think of this less as an accomplishment and more as a process. Our job as parents is to help our children increase their abilities over time. Look for the tiniest bit of new learning, a shift into more awareness.

For boys who are bouncing off the walls, how can moms contain their energy and get them to be a bit more mellow

Redirect that energy into something else. Help them learn to manage their physical impulses by teaching them focused breathing techniques or yoga. This is one place where a DVD can be helpful. Young boys, especially, respond to this kind of thing and can learn early on the skills of calming themselves down.

Also, remember that their little bodies need physical activity. We adults may be able to tolerate sitting at a desk all day. Kids need physical activity. So, build in physical activity into your child and family’s schedule.

Since boys tend to play more physically, when they start kicking/hitting/wrestling how do you stop this type of play before someone gets hurt? Also, since they appear to have a need to do it, how do you get it out of their system?

Again, slowing down the processing and helping them think things through can be helpful. It is also sometimes necessary for adults to simply set the parameters. “It’s all right for you guys to wrestle but you have to take off your shoes.” “We don’t hit people in our house.” And similar guidelines provide safety and the knowledge that the adults are paying attention and in charge. Sometimes, competition can be re-directed into other areas. “Let’s see who can pick up the most toys–ready, set, go.” “I want to see who can sit still, without saying a word, for the longest.”

Girls have a reputation of being more dramatic. I’ve seen very little distinction between the two genders and might even go so far as to say boys seem more dramatic. Do both genders have the same propensity for the drama at a young age (for example, barely stubbing a toe and launching into hysterics)?

At least initially, a child’s propensity to practice for a future Oscar at the slightest insult or injury is probably more a function of individual personality than gender. As children get older, boys likely get the message that such outbursts are un-masculine and girls are expected to be ‘more emotional.’

How can parents help boys (and girls) keep their emotional outbursts (a.k.a. when they are overly dramatic) at bay? In other words, how do you teach a child to not, well, overreact?

This really depends on the child’s age. The ability to contain, assess, and appropriately respond to emotions is another skill set that people master to widely varying degrees. It is simply not reasonable to expect a young child not to melt down, especially if they are tired or over-stimulated. Rather than telling your child to calm down or stop over-reacting, it can be more constructive to clarify or simply acknowledge what they are upset about and help them consider other possibilities for expressing this.

Preschoolers, especially, respond well to direct coaching. Recently, my three-and-a half year old son was telling a friend that Cars 2 was scary. His friend countered that it wasn’t scary, and little AJ SCREAMED in his face “Yes, it IS scary.” He was so upset. In the moment, I coached him to say, “Hey, it was scary to me.” Later, we had a conversation about how else he might say something along the lines of “Everyone has an opinion.” We practice these things when emotions are less heightened (time in the car is great for re-visiting these lessons).

Girls can pick up a book or an activity and be self contained. Boys tend to need more attention. How can parents encourage children to play by themselves?

This, again, is more a function of individual temperament and development than gender. Self-soothing and self- amusement are skills. Parents can help their children develop these skills by giving them time for free play, offering a limited selection of activities to do independently (too many choices can be overwhelming), and giving incrementally more time for independent play.

Girls are known to get difficult in the teen years and boys will get easier – is that true or do the same concerns over the way boys are wired hold true as they age?

As gender differences increase in adolescence, so do parents’ anxieties. Very often, I see parents being more worried about their girls and therefore more restrictive, giving the girls a lot to be difficult about. Boys, on the other hand, are perceived to be relatively more capable of looking after themselves, even as they lag behind the girls in social and cognitive development. In their teens, both girls and boys benefit from clear boundaries and expectations with consistent parental interest and involvement.

In your opinion, based strictly on generalizations of boy behavior and girl behavior, who is harder to raise: boys or girls and can you explain your answer?

Boys and girls are different. Each child is different. The hardest child to raise is the one who challenges their parent’s fears, who demands their parents grow up themselves. If you are challenged by the phase you and your child are going through now, you are in good company. We all struggle at times as parents. In my experience, it is the best parents who get some support–take a class, see a therapist–they realize that gender, age, personal history, individual temperament, and a host of other factors play in to their challenges with their child and that getting their own ‘coach’ can only help them better coach their kids.

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About Dove Pressnall
Dove Pressnall is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who loves helping people find ways to reduce the impact of problems on their day to day lives. She is particularly interested in times of transition and how people navigate them. Change can be disorienting, even when it is needed or desired. Whether it’s a new relationship, job, baby, or divorce, Dove works to help clients map their path to the life they would prefer. Her work with parents is informative, supportive, and respectful.

More about Dove’s Los Angeles practice and ways of working can be found at

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  1. What a great article.. Thank you!

  2. As a veteran elementary school teacher and a parent of one very, let’s say, “spirited” boy, I couldn’t agree more with this article. Thanks for the breathing and yoga techniques–works for parents, too!

  3. mommashane says

    Thanks so much. My son is 4 yrs old and I’m struggling with his behavior. I needed this article right now.

  4. You say you hate gender stereotypes yet this “article” is chock full of them – for example, stating that “girls can pick up a book or an activity and be self contained. Boys tend to need more attention.” A lot of the advice here could be applied to any child. Gender has little to do with it, and focusing on gender just ends up reinforcing the stereotypes.

  5. Thank you Kareen, Alison and Mommashane! I learned a lot, too!
    Lois, I suggest re-reading the article because Dove points out just that — that it really depends on the child not the gender.

  6. I agree with Lois. Your questions are insulting to wonderful little boys everywhere. Ridiculous. The answers were great though. It isn’t about gender.

    From the mother of 3 sweet, smart, polite, calm, wonderful BOYS.

  7. Karen- You mean you have all boys and nothing to compare the difference in raising girls to? Interesting to get your unbiased input-lol. But I definitely agree that both good and bad behavior can come from both genders and found this topic very interesting to explore.

  8. I didn’t say that I had only boys, just that I have 3. And they are nothing like you describe. And would it matter? I happen to be a daughter and have intimate experience with being a girl as well. I truly don’t believe in stereotypes about either gender. I hope that you did learn something valuable.

  9. I have 2 boys and 2 girls. My boys especially my first does not fit into any of these stereotypes. I am surprised people keep talking about them and writing about them it just perpetuates the continuation of them. Its is the child not the gender that varies. My eldest has always been smart responsible and dedicated to task and also loves sport, my eldest girl is one who struggles with school and finds it hard to focus.

  10. Ally — very interesting. Your comment reminds me of an article on birth order Breezy Mama did —

    Back to this topic — I found it interesting that although the behaviors are considered stereotypes, “parents and school professionals can attest to girls seemingly better abilities to sit and focus in class.” I just read recently that Mark Zuckerberg’s sister was always given dolls to play with and that he was given video games… made me think about Dove’s suggestion of “limiting TV, video games, and other activities that develop intense, short-burst focus.” Could it be that stereotypical boys “toys” contribute to such behaviors? It’s definitely made me think — may even have another topic to explore -lol. That being said, going back to “Karen’s” comment that her boys are “wonderful”, I want to be clear that boys who do fall into behaviors that are stereotypical are still “wonderful” boys!!!! I was interested in exploring techniques to nurture those behaviors for moms who do find certain behaviors a challenge. I thought Dove had some great advice for that!

  11. Taking the “boy” out of the questions, you give great advice on how to handle my strong-spirited, table climbing, repeatedly doing the same undesired thing again and again DAUGHTER.

  12. Lol Paige! I’m sure there are MANY moms who can relate.

  13. I have 4 boys and 2 girls. They’ve always had the same toys available (dolls, books, crayons, paper, hammers, wood, animals, lego, trains, trucks) and I have actively discouraged any type of gender stereotyping. As examples, my youngest boy has pink sheets on his bed and pink PJs and slippers, because it’s his favourite colour. When my younger daughter was 4, everything was pink and purple, when she was 8, everything had to be blue!
    I have found though that while they all play with all the toys, they play with them differently. The girls loved to build the train tracks; all 4 of the boys loved to watch the train wheels go round and round. The boys made guns and swords out of bits of wood; the girls made photo frames and houses.
    Oh and we really encourage rough-housing in our house, within limits, because it teaches self control. We listen in, and teach the kids when it’s time for a 1 minute break to cool things down. The ones who need the cooling down are 1 of the girls and 2 of the boys 🙂
    All my boys need to push the rules to failure where the girls are more prepared to accept that there’s a good reason.
    The girls and one of the little boys love to cook, and gradually one of the older boys is getting into it as well.
    I think we just try and offer as many opportunities to each of them as we can and see what they’re into.
    I liked this article, it’s well-presented and I do think it emphasises the individual child.

  14. I think that boys just need not be held to the standards set by girls. I don’t think that stereotypes or honest questions are offensive at all, and it isn’t wrong to say that one gender is harder or easier than the other. I have a baby and I love that he is already a rough n tumble ‘typical’ boy.

  15. I think that if we recognize that there are different hormones running around in boys and girls bodies, and these hormones have different effects on the brain, it allows us to create an environment that is understanding and nurturing of both genders.

  16. Well said Joanna! Absoutely true and I wish I had made that same point myself. As I mentioned in the intro, I tried to live as though there isn’t a difference but I’ve since come ful circle because, as you say, boys and girls are made with different hormones. Period. Wonder if I’ll change my mind again in a few years- lol. Thank you again!


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