Boys Will Be Girls ... And Girls Will Be Boys

By Chris Thurber

Sure, there are anatomical differences between boys and girls, but even that apparent binary is more confusing than you might think. Indeed, about 1 percent of the young people you work with at camp 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 you ran an all-boys, an all-girls camp, or a coed camp. I’m not a geneticist, so I can’t do more than plant an intriguing seed in your mind about anatomical sex differences.

But having grabbed your attention, let me share something about boys and girls that is even more surprising, and over which you have considerable control: gender-role stereotypes.

People 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.

Examining Differences
In a 2005 study for American Psychologist , Dr. Janet Shibley Hyde summarized the results of 46 meta-analyses (rigorous statistical summaries of other empirical studies) on gender differences. Hyde’s review comprised tens of thousands of individual participants, and found that the most popular notions of gender differences were unsubstantiated. In other words, the popular notion that boys and girls are intellectually and socially distinct has little scientific proof.

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--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 they cannot be nurturing, even in their role as a father; girls may grow up thinking they cannot be aggressive even in a competitive workplace or on a sports field. Consider the unintended consequences of parents and teachers having lower expectations for girls’ success in mathematics than for 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 nonscientist self-help counselors such as John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars; Women Are from Venus.

If the attitudinal starting place at your camp is that males and females are from different planets--at least metaphorically--then you can expect several insidious behaviors to perhaps be present:

People will objectify one another. Males and females will see each other as potential conquests rather than colleagues. They will avoid and pursue each other--for different reasons at different ages--more often than befriend and connect with each other.

Gender-role stereotypes will become more entrenched. For example, males and females will find it easier to endorse muscular ideals of male beauty and waif-like ideals of female beauty when the gender starting points are distant. Sexist comments will be tolerated--even reinforced--because of a belief that gender-role stereotypes have more than a grain of truth in them.

Expectations for achievement will be embarrassingly low or uncomfortably high. Males and females will attribute their failures to inherent limitations of chromosomal makeup. They will make activity choices based on how they expect others to react, rather than on what they desire.

Misunderstandings will persist. Rather than recognizing and celebrating their common humanity, males and females will see one another as fundamentally different. The belief that there is so much foreign and, therefore, unknown about others can lead to anxious, avoidant behaviors or clumsy, even aggressive ones.

Clearly, no youth development professional wants these outcomes for his or her campers and staff. However, few directors understand how exaggerated the perceived differences are between males and females. Indeed, our collective, non-scientific, almost blind adoption of the “gender-differences hypothesis” leads to complacency. You may be condoning unhealthy behaviors without realizing it. Read the following two studies and decide how you would respond. You might even use these cases--and others of your own design--as the centerpiece of a mid-summer in-service training.

Case Study 1
Nathaniel is a sensitive, 10-year-old boy who struggled with homesickness during his first summer at overnight camp. Now back for his second summer, he is having some trouble making friends. Many of the boys in his unit enjoy organized sports and informal, competitive games. Some even invite Nathaniel to join them, but he usually shies away from rough-and-tumble activities because his glasses get knocked off easily.

On Thursday morning, Nathaniel and the other boys finish cabin clean-up early, and are huddled around the daily schedule trying to choose which activity period to attend. Tom, their cabin leader, is standing nearby, listening to the conversation. Ultimately, it will be his responsibility to be sure each boy has made a selection, and he starts heading out of the cabin when the bugle blows for first period. Tom himself will be headed to the sports field to help coach the 12-and-under baseball team.

“What’s for arts and crafts today?” asks Nathaniel. A few of the other boys chime in: “It was baskets on Monday, so today is probably clay.” “No, it wouldn’t be clay because they did that yesterday. It’s probably charcoal drawing.” “What about painting? Can we paint?”

Tom interjects, “Boys, you can go to arts and crafts if you want to, but those types of artsy-fartsy activities are more for rainy days and stuff. It’s a gorgeous day out, so you might want to pick something more studly and outdoorsy.”

Questions to ponder:

  • What type of choice is Tom offering his campers?
  • What is Tom’s message to the boys?
  • Would things be different with a female leader and female campers? Why?
  • How might Tom rephrase the issue to convey a healthy, balanced message?
  • What improvements can Tom make to become a better leader?

Case Study 2
Cassie is an athletically built 11-year-old girl in her fifth year at day camp. As a “fiver,” she has instant respect from many of her peers. Her leadership is evident in the ease with which she organizes pickup basketball games and other court-based competitions during free time. Once or twice, her assertiveness has annoyed the other girls who call her “bossy.” Mostly, however, the girls respect Cassie’s talents and intelligence.

At morning-activity sign-up, Cassie chooses horseback. Almost all of her peers choose waterfront. As Cassie heads up the hill to the riding stables with one other girl, an experienced staff member, Mandy, falls in step with them. “Girls, slow down. It’s a hot day.”

Cassie replies, “I love hot days. I love the summer. And don’t worry, I put on sunscreen.”

Mandy adds, “Or you could just stand in the shade. I find that sunscreen makes my skin feel a little greasy. And then if I sweat, it’s totally gross. My plan is to stand in the shade of the stable. You girls might want to do the same.”

“You mean not ride the horses?” asks Cassie, incredulous. “I love to ride.”

“You girls are both so pretty,” says Mandy. “All I’m saying is that you might want to rethink getting all sweaty by riding today. Remember, tonight is the dance with Rockwood.”

Questions to ponder:

  • What type of choice is Mandy offering her campers?
  • What is Mandy’s message to the girls?
  • Would things be different with a male leader and male campers? Why?
  • How might Mandy rephrase the issue to convey a healthy, balanced message?
  • What improvements can Mandy make to become a better leader?

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, your staff’s attitudes, and your training priorities. Now ask two essential questions: What have I said, built, or endorsed that is based on a false assumption about male-female differences? How would I redesign things if there were no differences between boys and girls?

If you answer these two questions honestly, I guarantee you’ll make improvements.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist who serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy. His writing and videos are favorite training tools for professional educators and youth leaders worldwide. He co-founded, co-authored the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook, and hosts The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, a homesickness prevention DVD for families. Find out more on