I will never forget a car ride I shared with my 4-year-old daughter, Kara. Usually talkative and inquisitive, that day she looked straight out the car window from the passenger side. She appeared to have something on her mind, so I asked, “What are you thinking about?”
I wasn’t ready for her answer. As quick as I popped the question, she turned toward me, smiled wide and said, “I’m thinking you’re handsome!”
Her quick, clever response captured my heart. In fact, I’ve asked her the same question many times since then, just to make sure she remembers the first time she said those dad-affirming words.
A few years later, I was on similar drive with my son, Rob, who was about the age Kara had been when I asked her the question. As we drove, I noticed that Rob was staring out the window, apparently pondering something, so I decided to ask the question again: “Hey, Robbi,” I said. “What are you thinking about?”
“C’mon, Robbi. You must be thinking about something,” I prodded. “Batman or baseball or something … what are you thinking about?”
“Nothing!” He turned sharply this time and said it with a scowl.
I suddenly realized that my daughter and son were very different.
One of the greatest opportunities — and sometimes challenges — parents have is keeping the lines of communication open with their children. An important variable in this equation is related to gender. Understanding the neurological differences between men and women can make a big difference in how effectively we communicate with our sons and daughters.
Here’s an example: Generally speaking, women desire face-to-face interactions, while men tend to prefer side-by-side exchanges. This was made clear to me a few years ago, when my wife, Pamela, and I visited a Christian elementary school we were considering for our children. When we walked into the third-grade classroom we noticed that the desks were arranged in an unusual way. “Please excuse us,” the teacher said. “I told the kids that they could set up their desks any way they liked today, and this is the way they chose.”
The desks were separated into two distinct groups — boys and girls. All the boys had lined their desks up — you guessed it — side by side, one seat next to another along the back wall of the room. The girls had arranged their desks to face one another, two by two, right in the middle of the room. This underscored one difference between boys and girls, and how they prefer to communicate.
Understanding our children leads to better communication, and their gender is part of that. We must learn how to communicate with them, not just as children, but as boys and girls — young men and women in the making. We must take into account how God has designed them male and female (Genesis 1:27).
Since the advent of neuroimaging, numerous studies have confirmed gender differences in the human brain. Recent research affirms distinctive traits and tendencies for boys and for girls. Scientists have discovered several differences in the shape and size of the brain between men and women. And tissue studies suggest there is an anatomical difference even during maturation, and differences exist at every level of brain activity.
Ragini Verma, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told WebMD, “Our studies are finding significant differences in the brain circuitry of men and women, even when they’re doing the same thing: It’s like two people driving from Philadelphia to New York, who take different routes, but end up at the same place.”
Here are a few of the differences in brain function of boys versus girls that can assist parents in understanding and communicating with their children.
- A girl’s corpus callosum — the connective tissue between the hemispheres of the brain — is larger than a boy’s. This enables her to engage in more “cross talk” within the brain. In essence, a female utilizes more dimensions of her brain at once than a male.
- Many girls have superior social cognition skills and memory. They are more attuned to emotions and view them as an opportunity for connection.
- The female brain receives more neurological “rewards” for pro-social behavior. Girls have more oxytocin than boys. Oxytocin is the primary human bonding chemical. So, physiologically, girls are designed with more natural connecting powers.
- The male brain receives more neurological “rewards” for independent behavior.
- The brains of boys function optimally amid coordinated action.
- Male brains have more connections from front to back. This may heighten their physical perception and aid them in taking action. Also, in general, boys outperform girls on physical spatial processing, motor skills and sensory-motor speed and reaction. Males tend to have better hand-eye coordination and spatial tracking.
Communicating effectively with your child
While male and female brains are quite different, research reveals something else — “adaptive complementarity.” While boys and girls may be wired differently, as they grow and mature these differences predispose them to work well together.
In light of these insights, how can we as parents communicate more effectively with our sons and daughters? Here are a few things to keep in mind:
Watch your setting. For deeper discussions with your daughter, find a setting to talk face to face. Take her out for a meal or ice cream, where you can sit across the table from one another. Or play a board game or do a craft at the table. For good conversations with your son, choose a side-by-side setting, such as a game of golf, hiking or fishing.
Watch your words. When talking with your daughter, use thoughtful questions to draw her out and invite her to ask her own. When talking with your son, add activities or experiences to enhance your communication.
The understanding way. Husbands and wives are urged by Scripture to live with each other “in an understanding way” (1 Peter 3:7). Similarly, parents who understand the ways in which God has designed their children are better prepared for effective parenting.
On her wedding day, I asked Kara my question again: “What are you thinking about right now?” Dressed in her wedding gown and holding my arm, she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said: “Oh, Dad. I’m just so happy and so excited about this moment.”
“You’re not thinking that I’m handsome?” I joked. We both laughed through tears.
As King David observed, all of us are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14), including our children. And God created humans male and female with unique characteristics according to gender (Genesis 5:2). The informed and equipped parent will learn to understand and use these differences to their own, and their children’s, benefit.