When we were visiting colleges with our eldest son, a friend recommended a small liberal arts school nearby. They have a historic campus, top-flight academics, and just incidentally, an all-male student body. John was invited to sit in on a freshman economics class, and he came back fired up.
“It was great, Mom!” he told Melanie. “They were arguing every point, the professor called them knuckleheads, they were yelling back at him. It was awesome!”
Melanie’s response was, “And this is good, how?”
It really highlighted a fundamental truth–boys and girls are different, and that extends to how they respond to education. Welcoming our two daughters after six boys, we’ve had a chance to see just how different that can be. The challenge for us is to figure out how to best reach each one of our children, and somehow manage to teach them in the same homeschool!
Male and Female Created He Them
We don’t want to over-generalize, but we all know there are gender-specific traits our children are simply born with. There’s a full range of behavior and interests, of course; there are athletic girls and bookish boys, and some things they all share in common. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that the quietest young man has more in common with his boisterous brother than he does with his shy sister–and the same is true between active or retiring sisters. God made each of them individuals, with some characteristics they share with others of their sex. Our task is to understand what attracts them, what distracts them, and what could interfere with their learning process.
Take developmental differences–we hear a lot that says girls are often more ready for formal school than boys the same age. Actually, girls do develop small motor skills sooner; that helps with both reading and writing at young ages. It’s why boys may have a harder time at the beginning of school, if it means lots of desk time and worksheets. They, on the other hand, need opportunities to move their large muscle groups; researchers found that recess actually gives boys a chance to stretch, use up excess energy, and come back to class ready to concentrate.
The fact is, God made our boys and girls different in specific ways. We’ve seen this almost from birth–our baby girls have been fascinated by faces and people, our baby boys loved motion and noise. As they’ve grown, we’ve seen that carry through. Our girls are focused on relationships and feelings–the “people” aspect–while our boys are intrigued by machines, forces, and power–benign or destructive!
It’s one reason elementary school seems challenging for boys: they don’t naturally sit down and color within the lines like the girls do. Classroom management becomes difficult, and teachers who are former girls themselves may unconsciously reward one’s behavior while giving the other a continuous cycle of “Sit down! Be quiet! Stop fidgeting!” Does this happen in your home?
This is a distraction to everyone. While we do train our boys to sit still when needed, we’ve found it’s often better to work with that energy rather than try to squelch it. Researchers have found boys concentrate better when they’ve had a chance to use their large muscle groups – recess is not just for P.E., there’s an academic benefit too! When the fidgets start, we give them an errand, send them to run laps around the house, or even trot up and down the stairs to burn off some energy. Or go ahead and let them use the floor, or the countertop, or a whiteboard to do their work. Don’t despair–Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill did some of their best writing standing up or pacing around.
We’ve seen clear differences in motivation, too. Boys love to try their strength, and love to compete against each other or just the clock. One of our sons seemed to drift during math lessons, until we started timing him. When he had a set period to finish his problems, he quickly learned to pace himself and keep focused until he beat the clock. They sometimes balk at an assignment if they can’t see the purpose for it; they want to know the subject is relevant to their life someday. Sometimes “Because!” is the only answer, but we’ve found it helpful to keep engaged with them on why they need to understand literature or algebra.
Girls, on the other hand, are often motivated by relationships–by pleasing those in authority over them. It can make them easier to discipline than their brothers, but it can also make them over-cautious, afraid to take risks or try something new, and terribly sensitive to criticism – even from themselves. Dads in particular should be aware of their daughters’ need for extra encouragement and affirmation.
Subject matter makes a difference, too. Recently Melanie reviewed a new art curriculum with our kids. The instructions were clear and kid-friendly, so anyone could learn the techniques. However, this was a very boyish curriculum–all the exercises were things like airplanes, dinosaurs, and superheroes with bulging biceps. The boys loved it; our daughter was non-plussed. Where were the flowers, the people, the horses? It just wasn’t lovely at all! Certainly she could learn the fundamentals of drawing, but this program wasn’t going to capture her imagination the same way. On the other hand, letting her add illustrations and decorate her worksheets makes even handwriting practice a delight.
Even environmental issues make a difference. In our house and in our van, control of the thermostat is a male/female issue. The ladies want things warm and cozy; the gentlemen could hang meat in their area. That’s pretty common, from what we’ve read.
Bringing It Together
So how can you handle all these different tendencies in one class room?
We got a clue from a church we used to attend. The historic sanctuary was drafty, and we noticed the elderly ladies congregated in the front, near the heater, while the expectant mothers hung out in cooler rows in back. We can do the same in our home–why not let your daughter have the sunny spot by the window, and your son sit under the ceiling fan?
Sometimes we just need to take turns. Some studies suggest boys and girls actually hear and respond to voices differently; Susan might think you’re shouting, while William seems hard of hearing. Try reading with expression–lots of it. Raise your voice to capture your son’s attention, lower it to draw your daughter closer. Direct your questions to each by name, instead of asking general, “Who knows . . ?” queries.
Don’t be afraid to recognize the differences God placed in your sons and daughters. Rejoice in them, as you see your children display different facets of God’s character, such as His strength, His compassion, His justice, His creativity. Embrace the fact that, just as God gave a diversity of gifts to His church, He’s done the same for our children. If God’s family is not made of interchangeable parts, neither is our own. Homeschooling gives us the tremendous opportunity to celebrate and cultivate the uniqueness of our children as we raise them for service in His Kingdom.
Hal and Melanie Young are the parents of six boys and two girls who were homeschooled from the beginning. Their book, Raising Real Men: Surviving, Teaching and Appreciating Boys, was Christian Small Publishers 2011 Book of the Year. You can visit their website at www.RaisingRealMen.com join them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/raisingrealmen or follow them on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/raisingrealmen. Hal & Melanie were the keynote speakers at the 2013 CHEA Bay Area Conference. This article was first published in HSLDA’s Court Report.