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|Boys, boys, boys - understanding gender influences
At birth, babies are babies, each a unique individual with differences attributed to personality and very quickly the way in which parents and carers respond to the baby, rather than their gender. Babies thrive on attention, loving to be tickled and enjoyed. They respond to interested animated faces with attention and pleasure. Some babies are noisy and demanding, needing much attention. Others are more calm and peaceful. Some babies are more anxious needing lots of reassurance. Differences are due to the baby's personality and the way in which the baby's needs are recognised and met, but pretty quickly gender does become a significant factor.
Although, we can only talk in general terms, research clearly shows that within the first year of life, differences between a baby boy and a baby girl can be identified. For example:
As toddlers, boys move around more than girls, needing more space and more opportunity for physical play. They handle objects more than girl toddlers and tend to enjoy playing with large bricks to make big constructions more so than girls.
By three years, boys in preschools and nurseries tend to be quite significantly different to girls. They may be later in certain aspects of their development. For example, fine motor skills such as holding a pencil, cutting with scissors and with independence skills such as dressing. Boys of this age also find it very hard to sit still for any length of time and need to have plenty of time for physical play and opportunities to learn through doing the task with real objects in a very concrete way.
Young boys in particular have growing spurts. These affect boys' ear canals and may cause temporary hearing loss. So that he "never listens to a word I say " may sometimes be more "can't hear" than "won't hear".
Hormones play a large part in that much loved phase in the life of so many four year olds boys when activity levels surge, and vigorous physical play, and a fascination with super heroes becomes the main stay of the boy's play. Around the age of four, boys' testosterone levels in the blood, suddenly double and that little boy changes quite suddenly and dramatically into a strong active child with limitless energy and a fascination with rough and tumble and very boisterous play. Mercifully for the boys and parents, this hormone level drops around the age of five to normal levels.
So what does this mean for parents of boys and childcare. Look for nurseries and preschools that offer many and varied opportunities for physical play. Make sure that physical play is more than being let loose in the garden and that it is varied and planned as carefully as the rest of what is offered to the children.
Look for nurseries where the three and four year olds are offered a range of approaches. Boys need lots of structure and consistency around what is expected in terms of behaviour, with staff that appreciate the gender differences at this age and have a consistent policy about boisterous super hero play. Skilled staff will play alongside groups of four year olds and gently redirect play that is becoming too boisterous, supporting children to find civilised ways to resolve differences and ensure that all members of the group are equally valued. Nurseries need to be strong in what they offer not only in terms of encouraging positive behaviour but in the ways they support all children with their personal, social and emotional development. Staff need to recognise the differences between boys and girls in the preschool years and to be flexible and supportive in their approach.
At home, grasp every opportunity to talk to your son and share books with him. Fire his enthusiasm for the written word, by sharing his interests and play and introducing books, words and pictures of particular interest to him. Encourage a variety of friends, boys and girls, and some younger children. Expect and praise him for being calm and careful round babies and toddlers. As with all children, the key for boys is clear expectations, consistency and lots of genuine praise. Take care of your son's self esteem. It is all too easy to be negative with a very lively demanding boisterous child who has trouble sitting still, and constant nagging doesn't do anyone any good and could damage your child's self esteem. Look for the positives, join in with what he is good at and give him plenty of space, time and attention.
Agreeing with your partner, other carers such as grandparents and close friends, and with nursery or preschool what is acceptable in terms of super hero play and being mindful of what your child is allowed to watch on TV will make enormous differences to the way in which he copes with being four years old, male and at nursery.
Boys need just as many hugs, cuddles and tenderness as little girls and they need this from dads as well as mums. They need to know that their father is great for rough and tumble and boisterous play, but that it is also okay to be calm, peaceful and tender with dad, just being together to chill, rather than constantly romping around or playing endless football.
For lone parents, it is important to ensure that the boys have good role models of both genders. So for mothers caring for boys on their own, then it is important to establish early on that there will be, if at all possible, a trusted male relative or close friend or will take a special interest in nurturing your son, providing a frequent, accessible and appropriate role model and vice versa for single fathers caring for sons on their own. For mothers caring for boys on their own, a nursery with male staff would be something to look out for, but as yet perhaps like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Boys in the preschool years do bring different challenges, but they also bring unique joys. It is so important to remember that every child is an individual and it is respecting that individuality and celebrating their uniqueness, whilst surviving that testosterone surge at four years of age that is the key to successful parenting of small boys.
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