Gender Differences: Taking that Risk

Different? Heck yeah! Our blog series on Gender Differences

“There is no such thing as a ‘child’: there are only boys and girls.” ~ Dr. Leonard Sax

Post 1: Taking that Risk

We’re starting a blog series on the differences between girls and boys, based on our popular podcast episodes, They Sure are Different! Parenting Boys and Girls in a Messy World and Parenting and appreciating the differences between boys and girls. We also recommend Leonard Sax’s classic book Why Gender Matters for more information and data on this issue.  Dr. Sax notes that, the lack of understanding of gender differences has the unintended consequence of reinforcing gender stereotypes.” Isn’t that what we’re seeing today? 

This week, we’re going to talk about one of the biggest differences between the sexes, one that parents notice almost immediately: risk taking.

Boys thrive on risk: girls avoid it when they can.  In almost any situation, boys will look for ways to make a task more challenging or exciting: and they will increase the risks automatically (and astronomically) when other boys or men are present.

Girls are less likely to take risks, and are consequently less impressed by risk-taking. Boys on the other hand are more likely and willing to take risks and are more impressed by other boys who take risks. That kind of sums up the major behavioral difference between girls and boys that parents experience!

This is true across the animal kingdom: the males of different species are more likely to take risks and to get killed while taking risks. Physiologically, boys experience a tingle or a charge from risky behavior, whereas girls may feel more nauseous or fearful. This makes boys more likely to do things because they are dangerous. Moms particularly need to understand this about boys!

Boys will do stupid things if they find those things adventurous and exciting. Boys are also less likely to report injuries, especially if they took a risk and failed, and they are more likely to attribute a mishap to “bad luck” rather than an error in judgment. Scientists have documented (as if parents needed to know this) that boys in groups drop a point in IQ and judgment for each boy who joins the group. As one teen guy put it, boys are “stupid in groups.” It’s one reason why parents need to monitor a group of boys under their supervision almost minute by minute: boys in a pack could start doing literally anything at a moment’s notice!

Boys tend to overestimate their abilities, and girls tend to underestimate their abilities. A boy might ask for favors or attention because he doesn’t want to look weak or because he wants to be treated fairly, whereas a girl is less likely to ask, maybe because she doesn’t think she deserves it or because she’s afraid of looking arrogant. It’s one documented reason for the “gender pay gap”: men will ask for raises far more often than women will. It’s one reason why parents, especially dads, should encourage their daughters to take wise risks and give them “dare training” to help them develop confidence in their abilities. 

The problem is that girls tend to be risk-adverse: they don’t like taking risks and they can learn negatively from them (ie: “I’ll never do that again.”) but boys, frustratingly, can seem to learn nothing from their mistakes and will often take the exact same risk again. (ie: “I was unlucky last time I jumped off the roof.”)  So it’s not enough to simply badger your daughter into taking risks: you have to coach her wisely so that when she takes a risk, she succeeds and is encouraged to keep pushing her limits. On the flip side, boys often need to be taught to analyze their failures to avoid making the same mistakes.

Boys crave risk and adventure, but they need to be educated into doing it wisely. Learning a skill from an experienced person keeps a boy in touch with reality and teaches him to more accurately assess his own abilities and progress. Also, supervise your sons during risk-taking: give them rules and stick to them. We understand why moms tend to try to stop their boys from taking risks (they don’t get that “adventure tingle” their sons do!), but risks are important in letting a child develop judgment. Taking little risks now will help them face big risks later on with better discernment.

If you find your child doing inappropriately risky things, don’t kill their spirit of adventure. In fact, part of parenting is providing kids with opportunities for adventure! Campouts, sports, martial arts, traveling, exploring new places and things can provide good risks that dare both sexes to be brave and wise. Provide your children with contact with reality so that they don’t try to assuage their appetite for adventure with video games or inappropriate and morally suspect behavior (stealing, promiscuity, bullying). Kids building bike ramps and climbing trees might make a parent nervous but a better stance is to supervise the risk. “Ok, you can build a ramp but I need to inspect it first. And you need to wear a helmet.” Even if you have to say no to an activity, recognize that boys, in particular, will still be seeking an outlet for adventure and risk, so provide those outlets in other ways.

Again, learn more about the differences between the sexes so that you can avoid frustration in parenting, disciplining, and appreciating your children. After learning all this, we can say to God the Father, “Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.”