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Boys vs. girls: Are experts creating a gender war?

Worried that your son is not getting enough attention in a girl-oriented world? There's a book for that. Suffering because your girl might be exploited in a boy-centred society? There's a book for that, too.

Guides purporting to tell you how to help your child navigate the perils facing their particular gender are selling like pink and/or blue hotcakes.

What Leonard Sax, the best-selling author of books including Why Gender Matters, arguably started has been carried on by others on both sides of the gender divide, notably Peggy Orenstein with her best-selling Cinderella Ate My Daughter.

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Jennifer Hartstein's Princess Recovery is also now out. The Last Boy Picked: Helping Boys Who Don't Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood and The Mama's Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger are on the way.

Science has been telling parents for a while that their girls and boys are indeed different by nature. Girls, for instance, are earlier readers and talkers and boys are more inclined to math and science – when they can sit still. Separate parenting tomes, then, seem to have obvious underpinnings.

But they also raise the question: By looking only at a single gender – even those like Ms. Orenstein's, which debunked stereotypes – could these books be steering parents to, at best, partial answers? And what about girls who aren't verbal or boys who hate the pressure to play Superman while the girls prance around in pink?

Some observers see the trend as troubling. Psychologist Rosalind Barnett, who co-authored the recent book The Truth About Boys and Girls: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children, suggests innate brain differences have been overblown, and that educators and parents themselves are fostering stereotypes.

Prof. Barnett says research has shown, for instance, that exercise improves cognitive function for both sexes, so talking about boys needing a more active classroom misses the big picture. "And the real data," she adds, "shows that the within-gender variability on all these things is so massive, there's no way you can talk about what's good for boys. What boys?"

Parents obviously want to do what's right for their kids, she says, "but a lot of the information they get is just wrong. The more nuanced, social-science stuff is not easy to digest, it's not packaged in the way the blue-brain, pink-brain stuff is packaged."

And if the polarization of parenting practices continues, we just might be doing children of each gender a disservice by leaving the other one out of focus – and missing the chance for an integrated approach. "So many of the things girls do and boys do are just kid things," says Prof. Barnett.

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Nevertheless, two more books are out arguing for gender-specific thinking: Raising Boys in a New Kind of World by Michael Reist, a Caledon East, Ont., teacher, and Girl Land by Los Angeles writer Caitlin Flanagan.

In Girl Land, Ms. Flanagan, the mother of two boys, weaves memories of her adolescence with observations about how girlhood has evolved. Ms. Flanagan defends her role in the trend: "In the 1970s we tried to do away with this idea of there being pronounced, biologically determined differences between the genders," she writes in an e-mail interview. "Time passed and most people realized that wasn't a particularly useful way to think about boys and girls, that there were in fact some things that were deeply different, and that it was worthwhile to look at each gender in its own right."

Mr. Reist, the father of three boys and a girl, takes a similar stand, and says he's concerned about the boys he sees struggling in his classroom. "I've been blown away by this brain research and watching it in my classroom," he says in an interview. "We're faced with innate differences."

He outlines various tips for educators and parents on how to make classrooms more boy-friendly, allowing them to move and fidget, offering them different books and by understanding how cyberspace has changed boys' attitudes.

Here's a selective look at Ms. Flanagan's and Mr. Reist's opinions on the issues facing girls and boys, respectively, taken from their books.

A call to action:

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Michael Reist: "We must change our thinking about 'boy energy' and see it as something positive to be harnessed ... We will have to change three things in the future to make schools more boy-friendly. We will have to change the environment, the kinds of activities done there, and, most of all, our expectations and attitudes about boy behaviour."

Caitlin Flanagan: "The sexually explicit music, the endless hard-core and even fetish pornography available 24 hours a day on the Internet, the crudeness of so much of the national conversation and the ways technology has made it so that there is almost no such thing as a private experience any more – all of this is hard on everyone, but I would contend that it is most punishing to girls."


Mr. Reist: "Boys want to read books in which something is happening all the time. One of the reasons Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone grabbed the attention of many new readers, including non-reading boys, was the fact that the action moved along so quickly."

Ms. Flanagan: "A boy does not fetishize the tokens of his childhood. An eighth-grade boy doesn't catch sight of his old Legos and feel a sudden surge of heartbreak; he either walks right past them or sits down and tinkers with them until something else comes along to distract him."

Role of the Internet:

Mr. Reist: "Cyberspace is a visual-spatial world, not a text world. In this post-literate age, more and more people are getting their information from pictures. The typical male brain is spatial and visual. It loves cyberspace, which is a feast of looking and virtual motion. [Meanwhile]boys' reading and writing scores are declining every year."

Ms. Flanagan: "Today's girls leave the hothouse environment of school and peers, retreat to their rooms and, instead of getting a break from the pressure, they re-enter it. The dramas of the day continue, the whispering campaigns and gossip need to be constantly monitored ... the computer has its camera endlessly seeking new images, eager to blast the girl, in her most flattering look, into a zillion screens around the world."

A piece of advice?

Mr. Reist: "We have this idea that unless a child is sitting quietly looking at us, he is not listening. This is not the case. Allow fidgeting, doodling and playing – as long as the child can still hear you."

Ms. Flanagan: "Make her bedroom an Internet-free zone ... The constant incursion of the cell phone and instant messaging, the round-the-clock, deeply addictive and anxiety-producing gossip mill of the social networking sites that teens love, are a drain on the energy needed in Girl Land."

What about the opposite sex?

Mr. Reist: "We cannot ignore the vast amount of brain research in the past 20 years that has revealed fascinating differences between the male and female brains. At the same time, it must always be remembered that gender is not an either-or, black-and-white reality."

Ms. Flanagan: "Many parents are afraid that if they raise their daughters differently from their sons, providing more protection and limits for girls than boys, they will shortchange the girl. But the reverse is true. Girl Land is a finite period of emerging identity, one that can feel confusing and frightening. If her parents take care to protect her during this time ... she will be stronger and more confident as a woman."

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