We often hear that boys need to be toughened up so as not to be sissies. Parent toughness toward babies is celebrated as “not spoiling the baby.” Wrong! These ideas are based on a misunderstanding of how babies develop. Instead, babies rely on tender, responsive care to grow well—with self-control, social skills and concern for others.
A review of empirical research just came out by Allan N. Schore, called “All our sons: The developmental neurobiology and neuroendocrinology of boys at risk.”
This thorough review shows why we should be worried about how we treat boys early in their lives. Here are a few highlights:
Why does early life experience influence boys significantly more than girls?
- Boys mature slower physically, socially and linguistically.
- Stress-regulating brain circuitries mature slower in boys prenatally, perinatally and postnatally.
- Boys are affected more negatively by early environmental stress, inside and outside the womb, than are girls. Girls have more built-in mechanisms that foster resiliency against stress.
How are boys affected more than girls?
- Boys are more vulnerable to maternal stress and depression in the womb, birth trauma (e.g., separation from mother), and unresponsive caregiving (caregiving that leaves them in distress). These comprise attachment trauma and significantly impact right brain hemisphere development—which develops more rapidly in early life than the left brain hemisphere. The right hemisphere normally establishes self-regulatory brain circuitry related to self control and sociality.
- Normal term newborn boys react differently to neonatal behavior assessment, showing higher cortisol levels (a mobilizing hormone indicating stress) afterward than girls.
- At six months, boys show more frustration than girls do. At 12 months boys show a greater reaction to negative stimuli.
- Schore cites the research of Tronick, who concluded that “Boys . . . are more demanding social partners, have more difficult times regulating their affective states, and may need more of their mothers support to help them regulate affect. This increased demandingness would affect the infant boys’ interactive partner” (p. 4).
What can we conclude from the data?
Boys are more vulnerable to neuropsychiatric disorders that appear developmentally (girls more vulnerable to disorders that appear later). These include autism, early onset schizophrenia, ADHD, and conduct disorders. These have been increasing in recent decades (interestingly, as more babies have been put into daycare settings, nearly all of which provide inadequate care for babies).