Boys Will Be Boys

“The ‘differentness’ of boys is not inherently bad but it does present a challenge to teachers, to the school culture and to boys themselves.” Excerpt from Raising Cain by Dan Kindlom and Michael Thompson.

Since the 90s, evidence has been mounting showing that boys are struggling in school far more than their fathers ever did. The evidence also shows that girls on average outperform boys in school, when measured by report card grades in most subjects and in all age groups. What emerges from research into this topic is that nature is playing a bigger role in gender differences than nurture, and therefore gender differences are real, biologically programmed, and important to how children are educated. Let’s take a look at some of the differences that have been identified by researchers and how these might affect a boy’s education.

Firstly, girls are born with more sensitive hearing than boys and this difference increases with age. Males tolerate higher noise levels than females because they don’t realize that it’s louder. Boys may be inattentive in class because they genuinely do not hear what a teacher is saying. This could be because many female teachers themselves have more sensitive hearing and will tend to speak more quietly. So, without realizing it, boys may innocently be noisier in class and consequently distract girls from their work.

Girls develop a link between the amygdala and the cerebral cortex much earlier than boys. This means that it often isn’t productive to ask adolescent boys why they are feeling an emotion or even to imagine an emotion because for them there isn’t a connection between where emotion is generated and the part of the brain that is used to talk about that emotion. Perhaps this is why so many boys are uncomfortable and appear resistant when asked to express their emotions about an event in which they have been involved.

There is apparently a difference in the anatomy of the eye where the male retina is thicker than a female’s because of cell composition. This leads to preferences regarding colors and motion. Boys could be more interested in a mobile in their cot than their mother’s face. Girls naturally prefer colors like red, orange and green while boys are attracted to black, grey and silver. This translates into the type of art that interests young boys and girls. In the majority of kindergarten classrooms teachers are female, and many encourage students to draw people and animals using lots of colors, but boys want to draw trucks in motion using darker colors. This could consequently make boys decide that they are no good at art or that art is for girls from a very early age.

Boys and girls like to read different types of books because of the way their brain develops. Girls enjoy fiction, short stories and novels. Girls can experience greater emotional connection and empathy with characters and their feelings. Boys, on the other hand, tend to prefer nonfiction, action books with strong male characters who often act as brave heroes. This can ‘turn off’ boys from reading because at the early elementary level the type of books provided by schools tend to be of little interest to boys.

These days children are starting school younger and younger. This may be detrimental for boys because their brains develop in a different sequence to that of girls. Boys tend to need more time to adapt to the skills of reading and writing than girls. Girls’ language and fine motor skills mature earlier than boys, while in boys targeting and spatial memory matures earlier. It may be worth noting that in the majority of Scandinavian countries children don’t start formal education until they’re seven, an age at which boys are as ready as girls to start to learn to read and write. Perhaps the rush to get children into formal education and away from social play groups has different implications for boys than girls.


Boys and girls have different perspectives about friendships. Girls enjoy spending time together – face-to- face, talking and sharing secrets, and self- disclosure. When boys form friendships, they are usually developed out of a shared interest in a game or activity. They don’t want to hear secrets. They want to focus on the activity, not the conversation. This has implications for teachers in classrooms where girls look for a friendship with the teacher – a smile, eye contact, or non- verbal reassurance. Working with boys means sitting down next to them, shoulder to shoulder. It also means that girls suffer greater stress and anxiety pressures when friendships break down. Girls under stress want to be with friends, while boys would rather be left alone.

Males can be innately more aggressive than females because of testosterone. Boys enjoy rough and tumble play fighting as it releases aggression, while girls do not have this need. It has been shown that banning more aggressive activities for boys at an early age can lead to more serious acts of violence later in their lives. For boys, aggressive sport is seen as fun. It is certainly important not to treat boys and girls the same in this area because they are hardwired entirely differently from as early as the first three months in the womb, where the combination of testosterone and Mullerian-inhibiting substance ‘defeminizes’ a boy’s body and brain.

It is commonly joked about throughout the world that males and females navigate differently. Females will use landmarks that can be seen, heard or smelled, while males use absolute directions such as north or south and exact distances when giving directions. This is common not because of nurture but nature. Women use a different part of their brain (cerebral cortex) to navigate and for other spatial tasks, while men use their hippocampus. It is the same for children, and hence has differing implications for teaching geometry and number theory.

As Nietzsche, the German philosopher, said, “the secret to getting the most out of life is to live dangerously,” but again this applies very differently to boys and girls. Boys find risks irresistible, admire others who take risks and get a thrill from physically risky activities. Boys and girls react differently to pain and so therefore are attracted to different activities. This risk- taking is again hardwired in the brain as the amygdala in males dominates behavior patterns far more and far longer than in females, who transition at a much earlier age to the cerebral cortex for their response mechanisms. This has definite implications for issues such as drug education in schools. Boys and girls will respond very differently to the same information; what might scare a girl may trigger the risk-taking thrill response in a boy.

It appears clear to the majority of people who have raised children of different genders or worked with them in schools that boys and girls are different, have different needs and abilities, and aim for different goals. If one accepts that these differences are due to nature and not nurture, as the studies of children raised in a gender-neutral manner would suggest, then education needs to reflect seriously on why it treats boys and girls the same. Schools abound with the rhetoric of differentiation, but where is this applied when it comes to probably the most important area of difference – gender? As we learn more from neuroscientists about gender differences in our brains, the need for answers becomes ever more important for schools if they are to reverse recent trends concerning boys in school.


Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, April 4, 2000
Why Gender Matters, Leonard Sax, Random House, Feb 14, 2006
Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, Leonard Sax, Jan 6, 2009
Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, Leonard Sax, Jul 12, 2011

Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different – and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men by Steve Biddulph and Paul Stanish, Aug 1, 2008
The Male Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine, Broadway, 2010
How to Make School Better for Boys.

School has become too hostile for boys.

Experimenting in Single Sex Education,

The Trouble with Boys, Newsweek, 2006,

Struggling School- Age Boys, Newsweek, 2008,

Boys Just Can’t be Boys,

The Puzzle of Boys,

Bio: Adrian Watts is the Deputy Headmaster and Director of Academic Studies at the International School of Ho Chi Minh City (ISHCMC). 

Research for this article were taken from these sources:,,, et al.
In his next column, Adrian will write about challenges facing girls in schools today.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Oi.

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