What’s The Difference Between Raising Girls & Raising Boys?
Emily Hourican writes about her experience raising her little girl and how it differs from raising her little boys.
My youngest child is a girl, now aged four, with two older brothers. When she was born, everyone told me how different girls are to boys. “Less affectionate,” said one or two. “Bossy,” said a third. “Adorable, but head wrecking,” offered someone else.
All the advice from the veterans seemed to be the same: basically, variations on a theme of ‘boys wreck your house, girls wreck your head.’ But for years, I couldn’t see any difference at all. As a baby, my daughter was somewhere between the two boys in terms of being ‘good’. Less demanding than the first, more so than the second; perfectly average, really.
As she grew up, she was clearly just as affectionate, communicative, and independent-minded. Apart from a great love of dolls, she had pretty much the same interests as her brothers. The trampoline, kicking a ball around, climbing things, jigsaws, pointing at dogs, playing with water. No difference I thought happily. The early feminists were right; its how you bring them up that matters.
Then, last September, she started Montessori. The same Montessori as her older brother went to, with the same teachers, and some of the siblings of kids who were there when the older brother was. As controlled experiments go, this one is pretty good. And, to my astonishment, the differences began to announce themselves, thick and fast.
Every day she comes home with a running update of who was nice and who was mean to her. This is a microscopic examination of a fluid social situation, on a minute-by-minute basis. “Sarah was nice to me in the morning but then she wouldn’t let me sit next to her for colouring but she was nice again at library and at playtime but when it was circle time she wouldn’t let me sit next to her…’ It goes on and on, a detailed examination of the triumphs and slights of every single day.
Her older brother, a most boisterous child, was, during his time there, pure poison to some of his gentler companions, but he was also utterly unaware of the effect he had on them. The reports that came home with him were entirely about the teachers, and the class projects (he particularly enjoyed the continents and the solar system). I doubt he could have named most of the kids in his class, certainly he wasn’t obsessing over their reaction to him.
For my daughter, this stuff, the social stuff, is the Alpha and Omega of Montessori. She has only a passing interest in the solar system and none at all that I can see in the continents. No, it’s all about the who-did-what-said-what.
There are two girls in particular – let’s call them Sinead and Maria – who, as my daughter tells me wistfully, are “best friends.” The mystique and intense desirability of having a “best friend” is something I remember well from my own early days. There were two girls in my class, Elizabeth and Alison, who were “best friends” from the first day of junior infants, and to the rest of us, this was a magic bond, one to be venerated.
My daughter’s longing to be on the inside of the magic bond is immense. She is obsessed with the doings of these two little girls, and able to give a blow-by-blow account of all her dealings with them. “Sinead wouldn’t play with me at lunchtime but then Maria said to let me so she did…” Her constant analysis is so detailed that I’ve begun to think she’d make an excellent spy, or a writer; the Jane Austen of nursery school, full of sophisticated social deconstructions.
Even my husband has noticed, and he would be more inclined to the lofty views of the older brother – all solar systems and continents, not who lent who a pencil. “Are all girls like this,” he asked in despair one day after listening to a longer-than-average account of the social one-upmanship. I wasn’t sure, so I asked around. “Just wait for secondary school,” said one friend with three daughters, with a shudder, “it only gets worse.” “It’s constant,” said another friend, mother of two girls, “girls can be so mean to each other.”
“They learn the power of social exclusion very early,” agreed a psychologist friend, “and they use it. But,” she added, “on the flip side, they are also very good at being kind to and comforting, each other.”
It is, apparently, a double-edged sword. The sophisticated emotional understanding that girls display can be wielded as a weapon – they slay, not with the blow of a fist, but with a slightly-turned shoulder and a quiet ‘you can’t play’ – but also deployed to care for and mind each other. Because they are more intensely aware of emotions, they are capable of extraordinary acts of kindness, too. Like giving up a favourite doll because another girl is sad, or letting her having the purple hair clips because that will restore harmony. I have seen this in action, just as much as I’ve seen the ‘you can’t play with us’ stuff.
The boys, as they got older, formed friendships with large groups, within which they have a couple who they are particularly enthusiastic about, but never, I have noticed, to the exclusion of others. Liking one boy more doesn’t, for them, mean liking another less. Girls, on the other hand, I am starting to realise, often consolidate friendship between two, by excluding a third. And not just little girls either. Be honest, who hasn’t forged a strong bond with a female friend by furiously bitching about a class mate/ colleague/ boss? Indeed, in some relationships, once that third person is no longer around, the heart falls out of the friendship.
That said, it is that same emotional awareness that also means we are good at noticing when a pal feels down, even before she has said anything; when a workmate is struggling with something; when a child or a loved one isn’t quite themselves. These are the instincts that can be killer, but are more often kind.
Watching small girls be subtly cruel to each other is unbearable, particularly when it’s your child on the receiving end (although honesty compels me to admit that she is perfectly capable of dishing it out too). However, the upside to that is an abundance of the sort of emotional intelligence that will stand them in good stead and eventually, hopefully, turn them into compassionate adults.
Are you raising boys & girls - do you notice a difference?
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