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‘See the child, not the gender’

Forget what you’ve been told about your boisterous boys’ behaviour – there’s no such thing as a testosterone spurt, says Sarah Ockwell-Smith...

  • ‘See the child, not the gender’

I have four children, three boys and one girl. What I have come to realise, both personally and professionally, is that all children are completely different. You cannot categorise them by their sex.

Yes, my daughter loves to dance and paint; but she also adores play fights and tree climbing. My boys may love Lego and cars, but they are also partial to a princess and a fluffy kitten. My first son has always been quiet and sensitive, my third too; while my second son and my daughter are loud and fairly crazy. My daughter has always loved sport and being outdoors, while my eldest son hates any form of exercise and would rather curl up next to me and read a book.

This is who they are. They are not the colour of the sticker on their ‘red book’; they are not predestined by their X and Y chromosomes. They are them. They are unique.

Gender-stereotyped labels

As a ‘parenting expert’ (a term I’m not particularly fond of, I hasten to add), I often hear people say, “Oh, it’s because he’s a boy – they’re always a handful!” Indeed, I don’t think it’s no coincidence that the word ‘boisterous’ begins with the syllable it does! It’s a term that’s rarely used to describe little girls; those who do attract it are often called ‘tomboys’, which is an insulting term if ever I heard one. Insulting to both boys and girls that is, because of the set of gender-stereotyped labels attributed to it.

Why is behaviour often explained by a child’s sex? Most people will tell you, “It’s because they’re different. Their brains are different and their hormones are different.

We hear so much about boys’ brains being wired to enjoy more physical activity and more spatially complex tasks, and that girls are better at concentrating, language and displaying more nurturing behaviour. We also hear lots about the ‘testosterone spurt’ that affects young boys around the ages of three and four. This spurt in the predominantly male hormone is used to explain the violent and somewhat out-of-control behaviour exhibited by toddler and preschool boys.

Everything mentioned in the above paragraph, however, is a myth. There’s no such thing as a ‘testosterone spurt’ in boys of this age, and any genetic brain differences between boys and girls are minimal.

Nature or nurture?

The truth is that differences do exist between the male and female brain in adulthood, and even in childhood – but nobody can prove that these are down to genetics. Research into the differences between the male and female brain is often misreported and misattributed; the science of gender tends to involve a large amount of bias and twisting of results to meet pre-existing hypotheses.

A more feasible explanation is that differences can be attributed to the high levels of gender stereotyping in our society today. Simply put, right from birth, our often unconscious steering of boys towards ‘boy things’ and girls towards ‘girl things’ has a lasting impact on the development of children’s brains.

Of course, if the brains of young children are blank slates, open to manipulation by adult gender biases, this brings about a huge weight of responsibility on all adults caring for them at any part of their life.

But what of hormones and the testosterone surge in young boys? Observe any nursery and you’ll likely see a boy hitting or shoving another, running, yelling or struggling to sit still during story time. Parents often complain that their little boys have “become a handful” and are swiftly advised “That’s because they’re releasing lots of testosterone now.”

I was the parent in this scenario 10 years ago, and I left after a discussion with my son’s key-worker feeling somewhat relieved that I hadn’t done anything wrong; instead it was my son’s hormones to blame. 

The proponent of the Testosterone Surge theory is Steve Biddulph, the Australian childcare author famous for selling over a million copies of the book Raising Boys. For years, testosterone has been used as a scapegoat for ‘boyish behaviour’ and the myth still heavily prevails today.

You might expect there to be evidence to back up Biddulph’s testosterone claim, for the theory to be well documented in medical literature. The truth is there is none, and it isn’t.

When asked for his source, Biddulph said, “I read it in a magazine.” For years parents and childcare workers around the world have been misled by a throwaway comment an author gleaned from a magazine. The moral? Never believe everything you read in a childcare book (and I say that as a childcare author)!

Why does this matter?

If parents and childcare workers presume that ‘boisterous behaviour’ is down to rising levels of testosterone or brain differences, that must mean they are not blaming boys – which is surely a good thing? Yes and no.

Behaviour is almost always a sign of communicating an unmet need in young children. If we excuse the violent or destructive behaviour of a young boy by thinking ‘He can’t help it’, we run the risk of doing him a great disservice. We fail to investigate the real issue behind his behaviour.

Is he overwhelmed? Overtired? Bored? Is he feeling anxious? Is he hungry? Does he need to get outside and be more active? Does he need more clearly defined and consistent boundaries?

All of these considerations are missed when we attribute behaviour to a non-existent testosterone surge or neurological difference. We fail to meet the real needs of children and we fail to understand them as individuals. While we continue to see children as ‘boys’ or ‘girls’, we fail to see the unique child (with unique needs) that they are and run the risk of limiting their innate abilities and growing personalities, based upon our ill-informed preconceptions.

So I offer a challenge to you all. Starting today, try to ignore gender and see the child – not the label.

The facts

Testosterone levels in children and adults explained…

• Testosterone is produced by both males and females. It plays a vital role in bone density and muscle mass in both sexes, as well as the more obvious development of sexual characteristics.

• There are differences in testosterone levels immediately after birth, when the testosterone level of boy babies is around 120 nanograms per decilitre (the level of an adult male is 240–1040ng/dL).

• By the time baby boys reach two or three months old, their testosterone levels reach that of an adult male but then fall very quickly. By the time the baby boy is six months old his testosterone levels will be extremely low – comparable to that of a baby girl.

• From this point, the boy’s testosterone levels will remain negligible until the onset of puberty at around 11 years of age. Levels gradually rise during the teenage years until reaching their adult peak.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a parenting expert, author and mother of four; her latest book, Gentle Parenting: How to Raise Calmer Happier Children from Birth to Seven is available now, published by Piatkus.

For more information, visit sarahockwell-smith.com or follow @TheBabyExpert

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