Freaky Fortnight

The Difference Between Boys and Girls
Watch as a husband and wife switch places.
Oct. 13 2009 12:48 PM

Freaky Fortnight

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

Columbus Day brought on that feeling when you are on a boat and land slips out of sight. We've been at this switch for a week and my job is starting to recede to the far horizon. For the first couple of days, I kept up with e-mail and the news of the world. Now it's all slipping by me, and my time with the kids is starting to take on the daydreamy aspects of a Winnie-the-Pooh story. We pick up sticks. We crack open acorns. The water fountain provides endless mirth. Would anyone like some honey?

Maybe it was because I had no commitments yesterday, and I was able to let the day unfold in kid time. Will wants to spend 20 minutes talking to the cat in the copy shop window? Fine. Nick needs to find a big stick and jam it into the wheel of the stroller? Also fine. Not that there weren't a few moments of Daddy rage. Often, it's as if my kids have woken a dormant emotional volcano. I was a fairly buttoned-up character in my 20s. Now, it's the rare week when I don't shout and groan and go on a mini-rampage: "You must listen to Daddy!"

Advertisement

Sometimes kids will simply not do what you want them to do, no matter how sensible the request, such as Don't choke your brother. My mantra, taken from Kazdin/Rotella, is that the best way to change a negative behavior is to find a positive one to replace it. So I tell Nick: "Don't choke Will. Just punch him lightly in the stomach." That sort of works. When I look around the neighborhood, there are certain people who are just naturally good with children—something about their manner and approach seems to soothe and delight young ones. My friend, Mike, is one of those people. He came by yesterday with his 1½-year-old daughter.

On a walk for chocolate chip cookies, Mike soon had all the kids holding hands. His daughter was doing delightful things like picking flowers and hopping along with them. Not for the first time, I was overcome with girl envy. They like to sit still and color. They talk to you about things besides poop. They don't grunt when approached by other children. I've been reading a new book Pink Brain, Blue Brainby the neuroscientist Lise Eliot. After 140 pages of explaining how the differences between average boys and average girls are overblown, she concedes that boys do lack "inhibitory control":

In one study of two- and three-year-olds, boys came out worse than girls in virtually every measure of self-control, impulsivity, and rule following: they were less able to stop themselves from eating an M&M placed under a glass cup (though asked to wait until a bell rang); more likely to peek over their shoulders at a gift being wrapped; more likely to release a pinball plunger before being given the go signal; and more likely to commit an illegal act, like scribbling in a book, when encouraged by an experimenter.

Which is all to say, those child researchers have devious minds! I suppose it's some comfort that science confirms that boys are a little more work, though my friends who have girls tell me that the grass isn't always greener. There are wild, unbelievably willful girls. Some young girls are apparently quite good at messing with your mind—playing Mom and Dad off of each other, for example. And, inescapably, all girls have a tendency to grow into teenage girls.

I think a lot about boys vs. girls because my boys are proving to be very boyish—at least with me. When I'm near them, I am never safe from attack. The younger one likes to pound my chest as hard as he can. And I had to issue a fatwa against "penis chopping" this week after I took a direct hit from Nick in a crowded elevator. So the boys are not lacking for rough-and-tumble play when Daddy is at home. But there are moments when the boys are afraid or anxious and Daddy just doesn't cut it, and they ask for Mommy. Maybe that would change as I spend more time with them, but right now it's hard to hide from some of the differences between boys and girls.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.