Mamas on Bedrest: Boys & The Brain

January 30th, 2012

Boys and Girls learn differently.

Well no news there, yet that is what the presenter, Mr. Michael Zumpano, opened with today at a parent education seminar offered at my son’s Montessori school. “Mr. Michael” as the children call him, has a Master’s in Education and specializes in physical education and the educational needs of boys. He teaches physical education to the children at my son’s school and provides particular insight into the education of boys. I’ve seen him in action and have been impressed at how well he engages and redirects children who are on the verge of “acting out”.  And although I try to limit “scheduling” things on the weekends (as quite frankly I need a break from scheduled activities) when I saw the notice for this seminar, I was drawn to it and I’m really glad that I went.

The purpose of Mr. Michael’s presentation is to help us as a community (parents, teachers and other family members and workers) to come together to better support boys. He related how in his own life, his father died when he was 8, yet he has lots of support from family who lived close by, neighbors and other men in his community who mentored and guided him. He emphasized that today many boys are growing up without their dads in the home or in their lives and without extended family or a close knit community. The result is that graduation rates for boys are down and risk taking behavior is up. We as a society and as communities have to step in and step up for our boys to ensure that they develop as fully mature men.

So what did Mr. Michael teach me about interacting with my son (and my daughter)?

  1. Male and female brains are different. Male brains are larger than female brains and are composed more of gray matter than white matter. What this means is that males are more adept at performing spatial tasks. Males can focus on one thing for quite some time, sticking with it until they master it, but have a much harder time transitioning to another task than females. Females brains are composed of more white matter. Female brains circulate more blood and have more neurologic connections between the sides of the brain. As a result, females have better verbal skills, are more relational and are able to move more easily from one task to another.
  2. Testosterone and Oxytocin. Male brains are under heavy influence of testosterone while female brains are under the influence of oxytocin. Now these are generalizations as both sexes contain both hormones and we all know of men who are great multi-taskers and communicators and women who are more aggressive and confrontational. But in general, Male brains are primarily influenced by testosterone and female brains are influenced by oxytocin. So what does this mean for behavior?Testosterone is what causes boys to be more aggressive and to take risks. It’s an action taking hormone. It also makes it more difficult for them to take in a lot of information. When trying to get your son (or husband) to do something, give them “just the facts”, visual cues/pictures and direct tasks. Don’t infer and don’t assume they’ll “get it” because you allude to something. If you didn’t clearly say it, they may not have received your message.

    Oxytocin is a nurturing hormone. The dominant influence in the female brain girls respond to verbal cues, direct eye contact and empathy.

  3. Nurturing: Empathy vs. Aggression. As mamas, our natural instinct is to “nurture” our babies. But as our little boys grow, we may need to nurture them less and handle them with a “firmer” hand. This is not to say that you should beat your boys. But because of how their brains are designed, they are going to respond better to lower/deeper pitched (voice) tones and a strong touch. So if your son is playing a video game and its time for dinner, you are going to have to approach him (and if he is calm) look him in the eye, lower the pitch of your voice, speak firmly, perhaps with your hand on his, and say, “its time to stop and get ready for dinner.” Mr. Michael also reminded us that this will be a tough transition for a boy as he is deeply engrossed in what he is doing and doesn’t easily transition. He advised perhaps saying, “Son, 5 minutes more and then its time to stop.” He even advised a step down approach, “Son, 3 more minutes, then its time to stop.”  (Now as a mama, I have to admit that I was a bit put off by this. Sometimes I need my son to do what I need him to do when I ask him to do it! But I will take this information  into consideration!)A very interesting point Mr. Michael shared is that when your son is not calm, i.e. when tempers are rising and you find yourself in a confrontation with your son, that is not the time to make eye contact. In males, eye contact is a sign of aggression, an invitation to spar, kind of like a dare. Your son will see your behavior as a sign of aggression and will meet your “aggression” with aggression of his own! This is primal behavior (seen even in boys as young as toddlers) not your son trying to sass you or be headstrong. If your son is agitated and you are trying to get him to do something, approach him from the side, lower the pitch of your voice, perhaps put your hand firmly on his shoulder and then state clearly and directly what you want him to do.

    Finally, when your son falls, your first instinct may be to run to him and say, “Are you ok? Aw, it’s okay baby.” This may be okay for a baby boy, but as they get older, it’s important that boys be nurtured in a more aggressive fashion. If they fall, make sure they are not hurt, but assure them that they are okay and encourage them to “get back into the game”. As they get older and may be feeling skiddish about making a mistake or poor performance, we must encourage them to stick with the task, honor their commitment (especially if it is to a team) and to try again at the activity. This type of nurturing tends to help a boy rally faster and to get back to tasks at hand. Boys that are “nurtured” too much won’t develop the necessary skills to press through adversity and complete tasks and this can become a hindrance in later development and in life.

  4. Before you Assess….One thing that I am always concerned about is how quickly people (schools, teachers, relatives, etc…) are ready to label children and medicate children. I came away from this workshop more convinced than ever that there are children (boys especially) out there labeled as ADHD and behavior problems when they simply need different guidance and direction and a different teaching style. Boys are not made neurologically to sit for long periods of time. After a time boys go into what Mr. Michael called “Active Brain Rests” where they seem to zone out and/or fidget. Boys need to move. Frequent movement breaks enable boys to better focus when they are approaching tasks. Before you have your son assessed, ask these questions:
    • Are they getting enough water? Dehydration makes it difficult to focus. If you son is asking for water, he is already dehydrated.
    • Is he getting enough sleep? Children who are sleep deprived have more difficulty focusing. Speak with your pediatrician and find out how much sleep your son needs and be sure he gets it.
    • Make sure your son is getting a nutrient dense diet. This can be hard, especially when children refuse to eat certain foods. But make sure your child is getting the nutrition he needs and discuss supplementation with his pediatrician if you have questions.
    • Make sure your son is getting enough natural sun light. This will not only improve his mood, but also help make sure he is getting enough vitamin D
    • Make sure you son is getting enough Omega 3 Fatty Acids. Omega 3 Fatty acids help with brain function.
    • Make sure your son is getting enough exercise, a natural neurochemical booster.

I came away with a lot of food for thought and a lot of reading that I want to do. I have to admit, I am in the dark when it comes to raising a boy. I am the last of 3 girls and had a daughter first. This boy thing is all new territory for me. But I am very thankful to Mr. Michael for sharing his expertise and insight into the brains of boys with me today.

Mamas on Bedrest, if you know you are having a baby boy and this is your first intimate experience raising a boy, here are some resources for you. This list is by no means exhaustive and this summary of this workshop is by no means “the gospel” on how to raise your sons. But I hope that this is a starting point, some food for thought, which will stimulate you to explore more. That is what this workshop did for me. I learned a bit, but learned more about what I don’t know and about what I would like to learn more. If you know of  or come across great resources, please share them in the comments section below. You can also send us an e-mail at You can also “tweet” us on Twitter (@mamasonbedrest) or post a resource on our Facebook Page. Subscribe to our blog by clicking on the orange circle in the upper right hand corner of our webpage. If you are interested in learning more about supplements appropriate for your children, send e-mail to to schedule a consultation.


Michael Gurian, Gurian Institute, Gender Differences

Daniel Amen, MD, Neuroscience/Brain research.

Michael Thompson, books on boys.

Leonard Sax, Books on Boys and Girls.

Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, ages and stages of development

Louise Bates Ames, psychologist who studies characteristics of each age

William Sears, MD and Martha Sears, RN medical and diet.

“The Way of the Superior Man” (book) By David Deida.

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