Spotlight on Development

By Kathleen Kelley, MA


Stuck for a topic, I ask the crew of Lincoln Log builders in my living room for article ideas.

“You can write about how awesome I am.” Replies Alden.   Alden is great – smart, creative, funny, but maybe a narrow focus for a Mothers Club article. The three boys return to their work.   They discuss design, strategy and story lines as a village emerges for their action figures. As I admire their complicated play, an article theme emerges, boys are awesome.

I returned to the living room to interview the boys: Patrick, age 9, James, age 7, and Alden, age 9. Question: What do people say about boys that hurts your feelings or you think is wrong?

Patrick: “Boys are smelly and ugly.”

James: “The girls say: ‘Boys drool, girls rule.”

Alden: “The girls also say, ‘Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider, girls go to Mars to get candy bars.’ It makes no sense and when you try to make a comeback they say more stuff.”

Their negative experiences centered on the girls’ playground teasing. Teachers and other adults in their lives were more neutral or positive. We moved on to the awesomeness of boys. Question: What are some things about boys that are great or that boys do differently than girls?

Patrick: “Boys like legos and video games and cool stuff.”

James: “Boys are more hard core. They pick up worms.”

Alden: “Boys are more mature. They do more dangerous stuff and take risks. Boys can just throw on some sweat pants and a t-shirt. Girls will take years fixing their eye makeup.” (He had a teen age sister).

With this anecdotal information, I moved on to the research. My interest in boys is both personal (three sons) and professional. I consult with preschools around behavioral and developmental concerns. Boys are disproportionally referred to our program at a 2 to 1 rate. Are the boys so ‘bad’ or developmentally behind their female peers? Pink Brain, Blue Brain by neuroscientist (and mother) Lise Elliot is a review of the existing research on gender differences along with concrete ways to support our sons and daughters. Differences do exist at birth and can increase over time if they are reinforced. Children reinforce these differences when they stick to play in their comfort zone such as “ball throwing” or “doll cuddling.” My son Patrick, loved his pink Winnie the Pooh doll stroller, but it was all about the wheels and he would fling the dolls out of it. He had no interest in dolls as a toddler, but his love for stuffed animals and Ugli Dolls lasted into the elementary school years. He and his brother played for hours with these toys creating complex stories, often with very nurturing themes.

The differences amongst boys are as wide as the differences between boys and girls. There are some trends though. Boys tend to be better at spatial tasks (thus the gravitation toward building toys); boys may be somewhat behind girls in communication ability. My colleague, Tracy Johnson, suggests preschool boys may respond better to “What would you do if…?” vs. “How would you feel if…?” She also suggests we make sure our early childhood programs are set up to meet the needs of boys (and girls) who need lots of physical movement and hands on activities. Lengthy circle times and an emphasis on table activities and projects can be challenging for many boys.
Lise Elliot encourages parents and professionals to be active in providing the nurturing our boys and girls need: “In an increasingly complex and competitive world, we need our boys to be emotionally intelligent and our girls to be technologically savvy. By appreciating how sex differences emerge—rather than assuming them to be fixed biological facts—we can help all children reach their fullest potential, close the troubling gaps between boys and girls, and ultimately end the gender wars that currently divide us.” Her book has practical tips on how to provide this support.

Let’s encourage our boys to be loud, active, worm handling, builders. Let’s appreciate their focus on fun over fashion. They need positive messages about their play, abilities and interactions.   Let’s also continue to encourage their nurturing behavior, creativity and communication to support their full potential.

Kathy Kelley works for the Early Learning Institute (ELI). ELI serves young children Birth-5 years old and their families. If you have a child development need, we probably have a program for you. Most of our programs are FREE! For more information go to: or give us a call at 591-0170. Questions? Email Kathy,