Boys Will Be Girls

That’s right. And girls will be boys.

Think outside the gender box.

Sure, there are anatomical differences between boys and girls, but even that apparent binary is fuzzier than you might think.

Indeed, about one percent of the young people you work with were probably born intersex.

As Anne Fausto-Sterling, author of “Sexing the Body,” writes: “While male and female stand on the extreme ends of a biological continuum, there are many bodies [...] that evidently mix together anatomical components conventionally attributed to both males and females.

“The implications of my argument for a sexual continuum are profound. If nature really offers us more than two sexes, then it follows that our current notions of masculinity and femininity are cultural conceits.”

Gosh, and all along you thought that you ran either an all-boys, all-girls, or co-ed youth summer program. Now you’re not so sure.

But I’m not a geneticist, so I can’t do more than plant an intriguing seed in your mind about anatomical gender differences.

But having grabbed your attention about something over which you have no control, let me share something about boys and girls that is even more surprising and over which you have considerable control: gender role stereotypes.

We are commonly socialized to believe in inherent differences between boys and girls. For example, boys are better at math than girls; girls are better at language; boys have a justice orientation in moral reasoning; girls have a care orientation; boys are assertive; girls are passive.

Interestingly, as Fausto-Sterling suggests, these are cultural conceits.

In a 2005 study for the journal “American Psychologist,” Dr. Janet Shibley Hyde summarized the results of 46 meta-analyses (studies of studies) comprising tens of thousands of individual participants and found that most popular notions of gender differences were unsubstantiated.

Hyde’s “gender similarities hypothesis” is that males and females are much more similar than they are different.

That turns out to be an extraordinarily important scientific finding because certain beliefs--such as boys being physically aggressive and girls being physically delicate--are tremendously harmful to any young person’s development.

Boys, for example, may grow up thinking that they cannot be nurturing even in their role as father; girls may grow up thinking that they cannot be aggressive even in a competitive workplace or on the sports field.

To take another example, consider the unintended consequences of parents and teachers having lower expectations for girls’ success in mathematics than boys.

Fully 78 percent of all gender differences ever studied scientifically are small or close to zero, according to Hyde.

That finding flies in the face of the “gender differences hypothesis” put forth by non-scientist self-help counselors, such as John Gray, author of “Men Are from Mars; Women Are from Venus.”

And so my challenge to all youth development professionals is this: Take an honest look at how your beliefs about boys’ and girls’ abilities and predilections have shaped your program.

Now ask: How would I redesign things if there were no differences between boys and girls? I guarantee you’ll make improvements.

Dr. Christopher Thurber