Michael Gurian is the author of a series of books that help parents and teachers understand the differences between boys and girls -- and how to use that understanding to raise healthy kids and help them learn. Gurian's work takes into account the latest findings from neuroscience and psychoneurobiology, for example, the way that estrogen and oxytocin in girls and testosterone in boys create changes in the brain at puberty. His latest book, "Nurture the Nature," will be published in May 2007. For info about his other books, see The Gurian Institute website.
At The Gurian Institute, teachers learn how to recognize the differences in individuals while devising appropriate classroom activities to address the different ways boys and girls learn.
Gurian (like me) comes from the feminist era of the 1970s, when we believed that differences between men and women were the result of societal expectations and conditioning. He is therefore very sensitive to the nuances and pitfalls of discussing biological differences between the sexes, and he does so with awareness of the diversity of individuals and the continuing need to struggle for social equality.
I spoke with Michael about how adolescent boys and girls can experience healthy relationships with each other.
HUG: The bodies of adolescent boys are surging with testosterone, while girls are experiencing the effects of estrogen and its enhancement of the effects of oxytocin. For those who haven’t had a chance to read your books, can you please briefly explain how these different hormones affect the brains, emotions and activities of each?
GURIAN: Boys tend toward aggression nurturance, a system based on competitiveness and helping each other move up hierarchies. When someone has a weakness, pointing it out and forcing the person to mitigate the weakness.
Girls tend to use empathy nurturance: "How are you, I'm going to hug you and make you feel better." Males will try to make you perform better.
Girls do become very aggressive in adolescence with verbal shaming and creating in-groups and out-groups, creating hierarchies. However it's not as physical. Boys are more physically aggressive, no doubt. Testosterone is not just a growth hormone, it's a sex and aggression chemical. So with 10 to 20 times more testosterone than a girl, and his system being based on this hormone, he will tend to be more physically aggressive.
They're both doing what each other are doing but in such different ways that people will say boys are more aggressive and girls are more nurturing. Girls have more of an intimacy imperative, and boys have more of a performance imperative, so this language can make sense, but I think the truth is that boys utilize more aggression nurturance and girls utilize more empathy nurturance. Both boys and girls nurture! But in their own ways.
HUG: Girls have a more intense need for connection at a time in their lives when they naturally start to become more independent from the family, and a time when parents often begin to look outward from the family. How does this affect teen-aged girls?
GURIAN: The intimacy imperative is so very strong, due to the estrogen, progesterone, oxytocin and serotonin interactions, that it creates such a strong need for intimacy and to develop the self through intimate relationship. Simultaneously, the psychology of human development is that children must separate from their parents.
Both males and females hormonally need each other and want connection. Teenage males in general tend to want more sex and less intimacy, and females tend to need more social intimacy. As she's trying to separate from mom and still has a deep need for intimacy, she will project a lot of it onto friends and males.
With boys, there will be romance and sexuality mixed in, which further complicates things. She's trying to bond with the boy and at same time trying to understand how to have a self. The malleability of her hormonal, social and emotional base often leads to her to nearly give up herself just to get intimacy. Often we will see a girl during the teen years fighting the urge to obtain intimacy at the expense of self. Part of her internal destiny is to see how to give a self without giving up a self. And she fights that fight with the male.
The males are smart. They'll say, "I love you, I love you," get the sex from her and never call her again. When a male has sex and orgasms, he gets that hit of oxytocin that takes him to a level similar to hers, so he will exacerbate the problem by saying, "I love you you're the best." His oxytocin goes down in a couple of hours, as testosterone floods in and mitigates the oxytocin level.
But she has this oxytocin that rages for days and days, and she thinks he's in love with her. I think that's why we have so much depression after these romantic and sexual breakups.
HUG: So, dating begins at a time in their lives when males and females are, chemically, at their most disparate. How can these very different organisms come together in a way that gives both what they need without getting them into damaging situations?
GURIAN: The most tried-and-true way throughout history, and one we must constant reinvigorate, is accountability to family and extended family. Always remember, this hormonal base and reproductive system was meant to be nurtured in a three-family system, and this boy and this girl are supposed to be accountable to this system and social network.
For an individual child, there may be certain times where dad or mom isn't around, or there is no extended family. In those cases, I would try to get the community and schools to focus on character development: going to synagogue, mosque, anything, especially for males. And sexuality needs to be part of that character development.
The point of having them accountable and loved in a three-family system is they get their emotional needs met in a variety of settings, so girls don't need to hyper-utilize the males. It's normal primate behavior. I don't think there's a tip a girl can follow to hold onto herself that's as powerful as making sure she's loved.
HUG: You say in your books you wouldn't let your daughters date until they were 16. Did you make that stick?
GURIAN: Yes, they're fine with that. Our kids have bought in. Our parenting model, is we're constantly in dialog with them. How's this working, how does it need to get modified? They'll suggest things, we go back and forth. I'm going to get another piercing now, one of my daughters will say, and we as parents need to buy into that, since this is a milestone.
For my daughters, we have asked them to set a goal o f not having intercourse until a guy has to be around for six months at least, and proven his love and fidelity. Teenagers will at some point start to have sex without parents' permission! But, if you want to be a smart young woman, we say to our 17-year-old, you want to see if he sticks around for six months. This seems to work for her for now, it seems to give her safety and security.
HUG: This presupposes that a girl is getting her need for connection and oxytocin and bonding from her family, friends and boys without sex, right?
GURIAN: Half of our 17-year-olds have had sex. A hypothetical 17-year-old girl will have experimented with oral sex by now and may well have had intercourse. So I'm not naive, but what I'm teaching is her control of the process of giving this gift of this part of the self. And definitely, it's hard to make the case for this course of action if she's not getting love through the three families.
I'm more concerned with safe sex as a primary reason to practice these goals. She should set sexual goals that need to be met. Like being with someone for six months, maybe you could do intercourse; after three months, maybe oral sex. It's just like you set goals for anything in life you want to succeed at. That's what I preach; who knows if they'll do it. But I try to make the case.
When I tell groups of young people about the differences in male and female oxytocin, teen-aged girls just immediately go, "Ah-hah." That's a biochemical way I've found effective, to help them be self-controlling and self-aware.
A teen-age girl has got to know, this is what she's working with, and teen-age boys will take advantage of it. If a teen is on her own, she still should set those goals. And boys need to be accountable, of course, as well. They should set sexual and emotional goals too, and live up to them.