Lizard Or Snake? Fascinating Gender Research about Children

Boys love lizards.

“Mama, I’ve finally decided what kind of pet I want. Number 1 is a lizard and number 2 is a snake.” That was Daniel, my 10 year-old, the other day. By the phrasing of his question, you’d think I had inquired what type of pet he would like. You would be wrong. Since we are thinking of living abroad for a chunk of time, I’ve been actively avoiding anything near a “pet conversation” for the last 6 months. But that didn’t stop Daniel.

My first reaction to his comment was visceral, a kind of internal, repulsive shiver. If we were acquiring a pet, snake and lizard would be my second and third from last choices. Spider would be dead last. Daniel is clearly a boy.

My mind drifts back to the days when toddler Daniel, deep in his truck phase, would say, “Some day I’m going to drive a big rig that hauls Dorritos, the one with the picture on the side.  What kind of truck do you want to drive, Mama?” I’m about as much of a truck person as I am a spider person. It’s hard enough for me to climb behind the wheel of our minivan. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be driving a “big rig” in this lifetime.

It can be strange raising an opposite sex child. I love him so much, but there are parts of him that seem forever foreign to me. (Don’t even get me started about those scary, angry-faced Bionicles Daniel loved for years.)

When these issues arise, and invariably lead me to some guilt, I ask Todd how he’s faring raising our daughter, Annie. In our latest conversation Todd admitted that the aspects of girl culture he currently finds hardest are:

  • hair issues:  Brushing it, styling it, the way it can affect a person’s mood.
  • girl crafts:  Todd can hardly bring himself to enter Michael’s or JoAnn’s Fabrics.
  • role playing pet dog and owner:  This makes him want to run and hide.

I always feel better after talking to Todd. But then I was recommended a book which enlightened me even more, Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences, by Leonard Sax. When I finished reading it, I’d used half a stack of tiny post-its, marking pages I wanted to read again or share with others.  All of the findings Sax describes are from current research.

For example, girls hear better than boys. Who knew? Sax recommends that boys sit near their teachers, especially if they are women and naturally talk more quietly because they hear more acutely. He suggests there are cases of misdiagnosed ADHD, which simply involve a boy being distracted due to his inability to hear what’s being said in the classroom.

Then Sax makes this noteworthy statement about girls on the home front. “I can’t count the number of times a father has told me, ‘My daughter says I yell at her. I’ve never yelled at her. I just speak to her in a normal tone of voice and she says I’m yelling.’”

Here’s another good one. The eyes of males and females contain vastly differing distributions of rods and cones, and M and P ganglion cells. The male eye is organized to answer the question, “Where is it?” and thus is skilled at tracking objects in the visual field. Whereas a female’s eye is quite different, according to recent science, and is set up to answer the question, “What is it?” The female eye has a superior ability to gather information about texture and color.

These optical findings have numerous ramifications, but one I found fascinating as a child psychologist was related to kids’ drawings. A researcher in this area gave a beautifully succinct summary: Girls draw nouns and boys draw verbs. Thus, it’s evidently quite normal for young boys to create frenzied scribbles described as something moving fast, crashing, or exploding, using colors such as grey, black, and blue. This is what male optical ganglion cells are wired for, writes Sax.

Most of us are aware that young girls’ drawings, on the other hand, tend to utilize a pallet of warm colors which often make fairly coherent humans or animals. Again, female eye structure makes these types of pictures much more likely.

Why Gender Matters lists so many useful research findings (such as why boys are drawn to risky behavior, how to train girls to be more daring, and what teacher characteristics and strategies boys and girls respond best to) that I can’t describe them all here. But I simply can’t end without offering one more example.

In Sax’s words:

“Boys as young as two years of age, given a choice between violent fairy tales and warm and fuzzy fairy tales, usually choose the violent stories. Girls as young as two years of age consistently choose the warm and fuzzy stories.  Researchers found that five- and seven-year-old girls who prefer violent stories are more likely to have significant behavior problems than girls who prefer warm, nurturing stories. However, among boys, preference for violent stories is not an indicator of underlying psychiatric problems. A preference for violent stories seems to be normal for five to seven-year-old boys.”

I don’t know about you, but this finding brought me relief.

So here’s my thinking about Daniel’s proposition. I will never live in the same house with a snake.  I would perhaps consider a lizard, but only if my “new and better” proposal is rejected. A hermit crab. Barbara Kingsolver wrote a gorgeous essay about her daughter’s pet hermit crab in High Tide in Tucson. Did you know that, even hundreds of miles from the sea, a hermit crab follows certain oceanic rhythms daily? Sold me. We’ll see about Daniel.

Other stories or suggestions about raising opposite sex children?  Leave a comment!

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8 Responses to Lizard Or Snake? Fascinating Gender Research about Children

  1. Meg says:

    Great article, Suzita! Now I’m eager to hear about how to make girls more daring.

  2. lisa says:

    Of course, being the mother of 3 boys, this struck some chords with me. Jackson, my 10 year old, has been speeding like mad through a couple of fiction series. After exhausting those series, I have been trying to help him find something to read. Frustrated, at the suggestions he is rejecting, it makes more sense now. Boy brain. He wants action/adventure, and no matter how hard I try to get him interested in what I liked to read, he may not be wired for it. 🙂 Also, this also helps me understand why Tim doesn’t think he is screaming at me when we have a conversation. Do you remember our hermit crabs, Starsky and Hutch? I say, go for it.

  3. Annie says:

    Thanks Suzita, Not only helpful for the boys, but also helps make better sense of my husband and his action movie/video game obsession. Wiring.

  4. Emilie says:

    So you sent me mail because you know this is one of my hot button issues, right? I haven’t read the book and I’m glad that it gave you some peace to be reassured that if your boys like bionicals then they’re not going to grow up to be ax murders, but I get uneasy when I read about books like this. Some of this is based on personal experience, as a girl growing up who did not always like the things I was supposed to like and was good at things I wasn’t supposed to be good at, I bumped up against stereotypes about the innate capabilities and desires in genders far too often. One of my daughters’ male teachers had been very influenced by this book and another, by I think the author’s name is Guerin?, about the innate biological differences between boys and girls learning styles. I sat dumbstruck in a parent-teacher conference where he told me that boys are innately better at spatial reasoning than girls and so he was finding that the boys were having an easier time with geometry skills than the girls. You can NOT tell me that his belief didn’t filter down to the girls. In some ways, my kids follow societal norms about gender differences, but in some other very significant ways they do not. Maybe there are some innate differences between boys and girls if we look across the population as a whole, but really what does that tell us about how we should be parenting our individual children?

    Some studies that I’ve read recently that tend to reflect my worldview – so of course that means they’re right 😉 :

    Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us

    No Gender Gap in Math:

    As always, so much fun to read your blog!

  5. Shanie says:

    When my son was 3, I picked him up from preschool and admired a colorful arch he had drawn that day. I said, “What a beautiful rainbow, honey.” He looked at me like I was an idiot and replied, “It’s a race car track. See how the cars go around.” He gestured in fast circles off the page to show the full track.

    I find the research fascinating and helpful as a mom and a teacher, but I still think the generalizations about ability are exactly that, generalizations. Gender is more flexible than researchers often acknowledge.

    Hermit crabs…we have two. Not exciting pets, but very low maintenance. Maybe reading Kingsolver will help me grow some affection for them.

    • When I was in graduate school for psychology, we were taught how to assess children’s drawings. We were told to count the number of details a child included in their drawing of a person, for example, in addition to considering the overall presentation and “feeling” of the drawing (which included colors used).

      When I worked with young boys, I used drawings as one of many ways to help me understand them. Given the way I was taught to assess drawings, I’m glad I always used many other types of assessments too, because the vast majority of young boys I worked with didn’t look so good when these criteria were applied to their pictures. Sad but true.

      For me this research on male eye structure supported what I saw out in the real world for many years. Learning about some of the recent scientific findings has allowed me to appreciate my own sons and husband more, rather than be annoyed because they are sometimes so different from me. But as we all know, there is a huge range of humanity on this earth and gender characteristics are never all or nothing.

  6. thomas says:

    get a lizard i am getting one and around my area they are a very expensive craze! they are fun because you can handle them especially bearded ones and they mock you which is funny!

    however the set up for them is lots of money check out pets 4 homes you can find any pet with sometimes full vivariums and heat pads and uvb bulb etc for lizards… also on that site it can be expensive but almost always it is veryvery cheap for value definatly lizard snakes are scary and can escape into your beds!!! eurghhh! by thomas eyles 11

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