Boy Brain: Why Boys Are Wired for Shenanigans

As a work-from-home dad and the primary caregiver to my children, one of hardest things about parenting I’ve discovered is raising a son. It doesn’t matter that I, too, was once a boy; it is so difficult to understand the mind of a boy. And it doesn’t help that I was spoiled to have a daughter first.

I found it so hard not to say—and impossible not to wonder—“Why can’t he be more like his older sister?” She could sit and look through a book. She could sit and focus on completing a coloring page and give me the time it took to finish making lunch. With my son? Forget about trying to make it through a book with my son. He would do anything and everything BUT sit.

My son seemed to have some frantic need to pull everything from toy cars to every pot and pan in the kitchen out. Then he’d line them up. He would dash around any store we entered, exploring then climbing inside and hiding in a clothing rack—a power move to freak me out. When we went for a hike, he’d run as far ahead as possible and find a log or bolder to skin himself up on.

If I asked why he didn’t simply follow the path around the obstacle, he would look at me like I was speaking another language. When life puts obstacles in your path, why would you go around them instead of overcoming them? From time to time, I feel a tinge of sympathy for my own parents, wondering if I was like that.

Wanting to understand the matter better, I began to read about the research done regarding early brain development. As it turns out, to my son I was speaking a different language. We know boys and girls are equal … but that doesn’t mean they develop the same. Simply put: Boys are wired differently.

Bestselling author Michael Gurian points to brain and neuro-biology research that demonstrates how boys’ early brain development “hard-wires” specific traits. Because of male brain chemistry and the hormone testosterone, boys are apt, for example, to seek risk-taking opportunities and to engage in aggressive and competitive activities. Gurian warns us not to confuse aggression with violence. This, he says, is not hard-wired, but learned through culture.

In the early stages of brain development, the two hemispheres are separate and develop at different rates. When the time is right, a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum begins cross-connecting the right and left hemispheres. However, in males the appropriate cells don’t exist yet in the left side, so the connecting fibers turn to create connections back to the originating side. This enriches the activities that are the responsibilities of the right side of the brain, including spatial relationships and understanding of the manipulation of objects. No wonder my son was so interested in unloading the cabinets and stacking dishes. One side effect of later cross-connectivity of the two halves of the brain, is that boys often have more difficulty reading facial expressions and developing empathy.

Girls, though, typically have more (and earlier) “cross-talk” between the two sides of their brains. This leads, understandably, to girls often developing reading skills earlier than boys. Drawing on both sides of brain at the same time is a necessary skill in reading.

The results of this research urge us as parents to learn how to deal creatively with gender-specific needs. It is difficult not to simply label a little boy as hyperactive. And the goal is not to diminish a boy’s feelings, talents and interests. Rather, we should try to harness those things in a productive and constructive way.

Sports or chores that so often leverage those spatial and manipulative skills. My son, however, didn’t show much interest in sports, so I began involving him in active learning opportunities like cooking. A recipe is like a treasure map to my son. And cooking is an activity that includes so many of the things that attracted him: a list of ingredients, electronic devices that whir and a pile of pots and pans. These kinds of activities trigger those right-side brain skills while encouraging cross-brain development of things like focus and literacy skills.

Literacy, in regards to the education of boys, has become a greater hot-button topic. Too often teachers and parents see boys becoming the reluctant readers of the classroom. My son was no different. It was like pulling teeth to complete the assigned readings each week. He didn’t have any problem picking up a book as long as it was a collection of Calvin and Hobbes comics or a book of Guinness World Records. The trouble was that I was labeling these as not real reading. I was diminishing his interests. I had to be careful not to make reading a chore.

I think back to the books that I liked as a kid. Anything with a map in the front and non-fiction books with loads of bullet point facts, even the backs of baseball cards filled with statistics. These were leveraging those right-side operations. As a writer I began to see literacy as a perfect training ground for developing skills that are not as intuitive in boys with early brain development.

One of the best days for me was the day I walked past my son’s room and heard him laughing. I opened the door to find him not only sitting still but immersed in a book. “What are you reading?” I asked.

“Poetry,” he answered holding up the book. It was Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich by Adam Rex. “Listen to this poem,” he continued. “It’s called Godzilla Pooped on My Honda.” Not exactly Shakespeare, but if Adam Rex can be that “gateway drug” to my son becoming a lifelong reader, I’m all for it.

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