Boys vs. girls: Should parents apply same rules to both genders?

My daughter was a quintessential tomboy. Years ago, you would likely find her running through mud puddles with the boys in our neighborhood, rather than dressing up for a pretend tea party with her female counterparts. Today, she continues to enjoy days packed with activities as opposed to endless banter over the latest teen gossip.

When it comes to friendship issues, though, the female teen scene seems packed with melodrama. Evidently, there is something earth-shattering going on every day. On the other hand, my son and his friends have coasted through high school without the constant social drama.

Most can probably agree that we all possess both masculine and feminine characteristics. However, if there are distinct social or behavioral differences, should parents then raise the genders differently?

Behaviors and the social scene

“In recent years, there has been a great deal of empirical research that suggests there are real differences. Neuroimaging studies have been finding some interesting differences between teen boys and girls,” reports Michael A. Assel, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center.

Researchers have found that there are gender differences in the brain, such as girls having more serotonin and stronger neural connectors and boys having less oxytocin. In part, neurological differences account for characteristics such as boys being more impulsive and girls being more communicative.

“From a sociocultural perspective, girls tend to be seen as valuing communication more than males. I have clinically noticed that girls tend to be much better at holding grudges. Male teenagers often seem to want to escape an unpleasant situation,” says Assel. Of course, there are many exceptions.

“Old schoolers argue that girls are more social and boys are more physical,” says Susan Kuczmarski, EdD, author of “The Sacred Flight of the Teenager: A Parent’s Guide to Stepping Back and Letting Go.” She feels it is important to emphasize the similarities, and believes we shouldn’t focus on the stereotypes — sometimes boys are more social, and girls are more physical.

“It is unfair to paint girl or boy teenagers with such a broad brush stroke,” explains Assel. He also believes there are many exceptions.

Safety and sensibility

Parents are often cognizant of differences as they ponder safety issues.

Parents of boys tend to worry more about driving safety. It’s hard not to when one considers the statistics: According to a 2009 report published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the number of male drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 involved in fatal traffic accidents was more than twice that of female drivers in the same age group.

Parents of girls, on the other hand, worry more about personal safety issues, such as sexual predators on college campuses, stalking, and date rape.

Does this mean that parents should allow their daughters to have driver’s licenses at a younger age or their sons to go out on dates earlier than their daughters?

“All teens experience risk and parents should be observant,” Assel cautions.

Gender rules

“Having different rules for different sexes seems unequal to me — with one exception,” explains Kuczmarski. “Girls should be taught self-defense skills to protect themselves, as often their bodies are smaller.” She says parents should initiate frequent discussions to help teens, male and female, make safe choices.

Kuczmarski stresses that parents should give their teens equal responsibilities around the house.

“Chores should transcend traditional gender boundaries. Young men need to cook, iron and do laundry. Young women need to handle tools, change car oil, and maintain yards.”

Assel agrees.

“Having certain rules for one sex versus another is probably not the best idea,” says Assel. “The privileges a child earns should be based on how they have handled responsibilities in the past.”

Tips and tales

“I had the same expectations with my daughter and sons. I found that differences in their personalities affected how they responded to expectations, but I do not believe that these are gender differences.”

— Nancy Serdich Hulton, Staatsburg, NY

“For girls, it’s drama and melodrama. For boys, it’s adventure and comedy.”

— Arelene Boulware, Hyde Park, NY

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Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer and columnist specializing in parenting issues and child and adolescent development. She is the mother of two teenagers.

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