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How boys differ from girls in early development

December 30, 2018

Two recent items published in The New Mexican point to the need for appreciating the differences between boys and girls early in life. Understanding these differences is essential to employing a biological, psychological and sociological orientation to address the costly failures of boys.

The first article was about the “warrior gene,” which is associated with conduct disorder and antisocial behavior (“ ‘Warrior gene’ appeal to be heard by state Supreme Court,” Nov. 24). The article unfortunately omitted the fact that the problematic form of the gene is much more likely to be found in males.

The second item, a fine letter to the editor, urged us to think about interventions for infants in addition to the much-touted push for preschools in the state (“Pre-K is great, but let’s think babies,” Letters to the Editor, Nov. 26). This is a good point, and it needs to be underscored that most brain development occurs by the time children enter preschool.

Many psychological and behavior problems also begin very early. Indeed, 80 percent of children dismissed from preschool for disruptive conduct are boys. For them, early education comes too late.

So, I second the early emphasis but with a twist: the need to keep in mind the differences between girls and boys when designing and providing early interventions.

As the national infant advocacy organization Zero-to-Three has noted, infant boys have a slower developmental timetable than that of girls. It is well established that infant males are more likely to suffer prenatal and early postnatal mortality and morbidity. Boys are thus more vulnerable to early caregiving inadequacy than girls.

For example, infant boys raised by women experiencing severe postpartum depression are more likely to exhibit attachment insecurity in toddlerhood. These early, almost unique vulnerabilities of boys seem to have consequences that are visible later in life in who fails in school, suffers most of the childhood psychopathologies, and commits violent crimes in adolescence and adulthood, to mention a few of the deleterious outcomes of a poor start in life.

A great deal of research has established that neurodevelopmental issues and family adversity are more common in the backgrounds of those males who persist throughout life to commit crimes. Their biology, physiology and hormones complicate their early development in ways that are mostly different from girls.

This uniqueness is the subject of a Santa Fe Boys Educational Foundation conference on the “Early Origins of Male Violence” to be held in May at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center.

In sum, I agree that we do need to think about early development. We also need to think about boys and what the research shows us about how they differ from girls in early development.

This is not to say that girls do not have their own mostly distinct vulnerabilities, such as anxiety and depression in adolescence, but we need to be able to understand the fragilities of boys because there are many who suffer, and the cost to society is enormous.

Paul Golding, Ph.D., is president of the Santa Fe Boys Educational Foundation.

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