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Boys' and Girls' Brains: What's the Difference?

by David Walsh, Ph.D.


David Walsh, Ph.D.

David Walsh, Ph.D. serves on the Next Generation Advisory Board for PBS KIDS. His newest book is Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids: The One Brain Book You Need to Help Your Child Grow Brighter, Healthier and Happier. Read more »

Sorry, David Walsh, Ph.D. is no longer taking questions.

My wife and I have two sons and a daughter. We raised Dan, Brian, and Erin during the era when most believed any differences between boy and girl brains were purely the result of socialization. Everyone knew there were no innate differences. Nurture, not nature, was the explanation for any gender specific behaviors. Many parents raising both sexes, however, probably experience what Monica and I did. Try as we might, we could not ignore apparent inborn distinctions.

New brain science helps us, as well as millions of other parents, solve the puzzle. Now we know there are differences between boy and girl brains because brain-imaging technology shows the differences in living color.

What are some of the differences?

Language is one of the clearest. Girls talk earlier than boys, have larger pre-school vocabularies, and use more complex sentence structures. Once in school, girls are one to one-and-a-half years ahead of boys in reading and writing. Boys are twice as likely to have a language or reading problem and three to four times more likely to stutter. Girls do better on tests of verbal memory, spelling and verbal fluency. On average, girls utter two to three times more words per day than boys and even speak faster---twice as many words per minute. The list goes on and on with the differences persisting throughout life. Among elderly stroke victims, for example, women recover their speech much more quickly than men.

A growing body of research on these differences points us to a girl brain built with a language head start. During infancy the left hemisphere (the brain's language center for most people) develops before the right for little girls whereas the order is reversed for boys. Even more convincing, females have at least twenty % more neurons than males in the brain's Broca area (where we produce language), and they have as much as 18% more volume in the Wernicke's area (where we interpret language).

The controversy about overall intelligence between the genders is over. Contrary to what some wanted to believe, there is no evidence men are smarter than women, or that women are smarter than men. Gender differences do show up in several cognitive areas, however. Just as there is a lot of evidence that girls' brains give them a verbal advantage, likewise there is data showing that boys' brains favor spatial skills that make it easier for them to visualize three-dimensional objects from different angles.

There are other differences as well. For example, the contrasting hormone levels between boys and girls explain some of the behavioral differences parents often see in how boys and girls play and express their aggression.

While it is important to understand the differences, it is critical to remember that different doesn't mean good or bad, better or worse. We also need to remember that science is identifying group averages, not individuals. The distinctions are true for many boys and girls, but not for all. And, of course, biology does not mean destiny. Experience does play a role in how the brain is wired.

Whether you're raising a boy or girl, you can avoid gender bias with these general tips:

  • Encourage your sons and daughters to get involved in a wide range of activities.
  • Foster children's language skills, with special attention to your sons.
  • Name emotions for your son, helping him to interpret social cues.
  • Teach both your sons and daughters to deal with anger and aggression in constructive and appropriate ways.
  • Encourage your daughters to find solutions when they are sad.
  • Give your daughter toys to build with. Encourage her by creating a story about what you build. Give her experiences with tools.
  • Encourage your sons to name and talk about their feelings. Model emotional literacy for them with remarks like I'm feeling disappointed that our picnic was cancelled because of the rain."

  • Sorry, David Walsh, Ph.D. is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.

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