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The Neurobiology of Parenting
(Response to a journalist seeking input on an article on "Who's Easier to Raise, Boys or Girls?")

Paul Grobstein
November 2003

As you say, there's no "answer" to the question "Who's Easier to Raise, Boys or Girls?". One reason is that different parents are different. Some people, for any of an infinite variety of reasons, find some kinds of babies easier/more fun; other find other kinds easier, more fun.

That might seem to be missing the point of your article, but its actually both important for parents to keep in mind in general and more directly relevant. Just as parents differ from one another, so too do babies. Perhaps the most important single idea coming from biology/neurobiology that can help parents is that babies do not come into the world as "blank slates" or unformed humans waiting to be shaped by the experiences they have with parents (and others). All babies come into the world different from one another, for reasons that have to do with genes and other factors that operate during development long before they are born. These differences, in "personality", mean that what works well for one baby will work less well for another, and vice versa. I speak here not only as a biologist/neurobiologist but also as the father of twins, a boy and a girl, meaning I discovered in real life what the biology/neurobiology implies.

What follows from this is that the most important job for a parent is to get to know their baby (and keep getting to know the child as it grows/develops). This may seem harder than starting out with some ideas about what how to treat a baby but actually its a lot easier and much more fun. Babies come equipped with an "instruction manual"; they are very good at conveying to parents what they need and what is pleasing to them. And parents have a built in instruction manual as well ... their enjoyment in their child and their pleasure in interacting with it. Between the two, babies and parents can usually do an excellent job of discovering each other and helping each other become what each needs.

The cultural stereotypes about "girls" and "boys" are actually not very useful in this process, and may get in the way. Babies need to be discovered for what they are, and that may or may not fit a particular person's expectation of "girls" and "boys" (there is so much variation among both boy and girl babies that no characteristic can be reliably predicted for an individual). On the other hand, the "girl/boy" spectrum as it is reflected in cultural stereotypes can perhaps be useful in stretching one's conceptions of what babies can be so that one can more easily discover the distinctivenesses of one's own.

One of my own twins was, at birth, more cautious and deliberate and responsive to the environment; the other was more inclined to do its own thing and deal with the consequences later. That one was a boy and the other a girl may fit some peoples' expectations of what girls and boys are like (and confound others). The important point is that they were different, that I needed to discover and appreciate those differences, and that doing so turned out for me to be one of the great joys (and most important lessons) of parenting.

Are there differences, on the average, between girl babies and boy babies? Yes, for lots of different reasons, including genes and hormones and other things. But what's important in individual cases, with one's own baby, is not the averages but the particular case. Appreciating that babies arrive with their own distinctive characteristics and the spectrum that these can take is helpful. Trying to guess in advance who one's own child is (or ought to be) is not, and can instead get in the way of the essential and enjoyable discovery process.

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