We have all heard that girls are made of sugar, spice and everything nice, while boys are made of snips, snails and puppy dog tails. I don’t know about you, but snips and snails don’t exactly evoke feelings of warmth and care for me. Instead, I think of rough and tumble, toughness, and frankly, a little bit of dirt. This contrast in images between boys and girls is not uncommon. It is evident in the stories we tell our children, the toys we buy for them, and even in the way we speak to them.
A recent study by the Infant Mental Health Journal found that our tendency to want to raise “tough” little boys may be doing more harm than good. Their research found that baby boys are more vulnerable to stress than girls due to their slower pace of maturity physically, socially and linguistically. Boys also show a greater reaction to negative stimuli and are more vulnerable to unresponsive caregiving and separation from their parents. Giving boys “tough love” may actually put them at higher risk of developing psychological disorders that could negatively impact them as they grow older.
It also limits boys’ capacity to verbalize and express their emotions. Judy Chu, a human biologist, conducted a study of four and five-year-old boys and found they were just as capable as little girls of reading other people’s emotions and developing meaningful relationships. But, by the time they reached the first grade, boys were learning to display stoicism instead of empathy in social interactions. Much of this could be attributed to the fact that moms and dads are less likely to interact vocally with their sons than with their daughter and when they do, they are less likely to use words with emotional connotations. A 2017 Emory University study also found that fathers sing and smile more to their daughters and use more analytical language with their sons.
These small and subtle differences in how we speak to and treat our boys and girls can have important consequences, including perpetuating the biases that keep women from feeling as though they can be tough and fearless and that keep men from feeling as though they can be emotional and soft. If we truly want to create an egalitarian society where everyone feels permission to be their whole selves, then we must start by re-examining the ways in which we raise our sons and daughters.
Some ways to do this include letting boys experience the full range of their emotions without judgment. Find ways to get your boys to talk about what they are feeling and help them explore ways to effectively deal with their emotions. Be responsive to boys and treat them with the same care and physical affection that you would with your girls. Give boys the space to explore their more "feminine" interests and most importantly, remind them that they do not to be afraid of their emotions.
Natalia Marulanda is a former practicing attorney who currently works on women's initiatives at a law firm New York City. She also runs The Girl Power Code, a blog dedicated to empowering women in the workplace and in their daily lives.