Childrearing

Study Says Parents Can Do More To Neutralize Gender Self-Control Stereotypes, While Perpetuating Gender Self-Control Stereotypes

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shutterstock_130393385It’s a proverbial shell game when it comes to correcting issues in self-regulation, a term which describes a child’s ability to control his or her impulses, follow directions and stay on a task, among the genders. Do we need to focus on the boys, or just children of either gender who struggle with self-control?  Or are they always the same subset?

A new study assessed the behavior and performance of over 800 preschool aged children in four countries: the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and China and concluded that only the American children showed drastic differentiation between the boys and girls’ ability to self-regulate.

The study points to “a common stereotype, enforced by anecdotal evidence in classrooms across America: Boys are wild and impulsive, while girls have much more self-control” before going on to say, “it doesn’t have to be that way.”  The study has the right conclusion in my mind, but it gets to the point by continuing the gender self-control stereotypes.

“In our study, self-regulation was good for academic achievement for boys and girls,” said lead researcher Shannon Wanless, now at the University of Pittsburgh, in a press release. “That means this skill is important for both genders and we should be supporting self-regulatory development for all children, especially boys. Low self-regulation in preschool has been linked to difficulties in adulthood, so increased focused on supporting young boys’ development can have long-term positive benefits.”

Wait, wait.  I was with you on the “we should be supporting self-regulatory development for all children,” but you lost me at “especially boys.” Especially if you’ve met my daughter.

The way I see it, children pretty much fall on one side of the spectrum or the other — those who can sit still and focus easily, and children for whom it is more of a struggle. I have a son and a daughter and one of each — except they reverse the traditional gender roles assumed by these researchers.  My son was born with the desire to plant himself down and learn, while my daughter does not sit still.

I see the stereotype perpetuated by my son’s teachers as well. At the end-of-the-year parent/teacher conference his teachers gushed about how “good he is” because “he can sit just like all of the girls.”  This obviously isn’t news to me, but I don’t congratulate myself about it. I swear they acted like he was some sort of freak of nature — and maybe he is, because he was pretty much born that way.

My daughter, on the other hand, isn’t in school yet, but I like to say she’s an experiential learner. She won’t sit and go through foam bath letters to learn the alphabet like my son did at her age. She likes to be up, moving, and doing. She runs, she touches, she experiments. I wonder when she starts school in September if they will tell me she is “wild like the boys.”

That prospect doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but what does worry me is the study suggests these preschool teachers simply “let boys be boys” without making strides to curb the behavior. The findings say the “wild ones” can, in fact, be taught to exercise self-control at levels that compare to “the girls,” or the ones for whom self-regulation comes easily.

“What can we learn from Asian cultural and teaching practices about how we can support girls and boys to be successful in school?” said Megan McClelland, an associate professor in Oregon State University, in the press release. “When we see differences in developmental patterns across countries it suggests that we might want to look at teaching and parenting practices in those countries and think about how they might apply in the United States.”

I think the study will help parents and teachers understand the importance of — and success in — encouraging self-regulation, but I hope they will apply it equally to the girls and the boys.

(photo: GTeam/Shutterstock)