In many ways, we have been taught to raise our boys and girls differently. Some cultures and religions dictate that men must grow up to be strong, both physically and emotionally. As such, there has been a tendency to treat males more harshly than females, even when they are just infants.
In the past, some people have believed that doting on baby boys too much could prevent them from eventually becoming the men we want them to be. As such, parents can often be less responsive and caring towards their sons than they would be towards their daughters. But is this really a beneficial approach?
Interestingly, our instincts in treating boys and girls slightly differently could well be well founded – but not in the way you might expect. In fact, rather than toughening boys up, parents should in fact be paying them more attention than perhaps girls would need. New research is now suggesting that a “tough love” attitude towards boys could well be entirely the wrong approach.
One of the leading proponents of this new research is Dr. Allan N. Schore, a leading name in the field of neuropsychology. Put simply, neuropsychology looks at how neurological conditions or trauma – which affect the nervous system – can change an individual’s behavior. Schore was born in New York City in 1943 and studied at the University of Pittsburgh. He is now based at UCLA in California.
For the last 20 years the focus of Schore’s work has been a person’s social and emotional development throughout their lifetime. Specifically, he has combined both biological and psychological discplines to devise his theories. And his contribution to the field has led to The American Psychoanalytic Association praising Schore as “a monumental figure in psychoanalytic and neuropsychoanalytic studies.”
Schore’s contributions have appeared across many areas in psychology. These include works that focus on developmental psychology, psychiatry, attachment theory and developmental neuroscience. Schore’s studies have also crossed into clinical psychology, clinical social work, behavioral biology and trauma studies.
One of Schore’s major areas of work involves the combination of attachment theory and neuroscience. Established by psychologist John Bowlby, attachment theory focuses on the enduring bonds between human beings. These include the emotional and psychological links shared by romantic partners as well as those between parents and their children.
Early behavioral theories suggested that attachment was grasped following birth when infants came to realize that their primary carers were responsible for feeding them. As a result, scientists once believed that separation anxiety in children was mainly a fear of going hungry. However, Bowlby discovered that youngsters experienced worry and distress when separated from their primary carers even when food was available.
Instead, Bowlby concluded that attachment was driven by motivation and behavioral factors. For example, when kids get scared they are likely to seek out their primary carer in search of safety and solace. Indeed, Bowlby came to see attachment as rooted in evolution, believing that an infant’s intense desire to form a close bond with their carer provided them with a survival advantage.
However, using neuroscience, Schore has questioned whether secure attachment comes from genetics alone. This is because, by using modern technology such as brain scans, it’s become clear that infants’ brains continue to develop in the first two years of life. And during this time, the brain is strengthening and closing down certain connections and functions, depending on how much they are called into use.
In an interview posted on YouTube by Michael Regier, Schore explained, “One of the greatest fallacies that many scientists have is that everything that is before birth is genetic, and that everything that is after is learned. There’s more genetic material in the cerebral cortex at ten months – much, much more – than there is at birth. What this means is that the genes are spinning out, or programming, well into the first year. They don’t stop at birth.”
Schore added, “The growth spurt of the brain is occurring from the last trimester of infancy to the second year. During that time the brain is more than doubling in size, it’s connecting up. But its maturation is experience dependent. It’s not as if, as the genes are encoding, everything is going to fall together. It needs certain types of experiences for the brain to grow.”
According to Schore, the most important experiences to an infant’s development are those associated with the emotional and social functions. “Those are the ones which are embedded in the attachment relationship,” he explained. Positive emotional experiences with their carer allow this part of a child’s brain – also known as the right brain – to flourish and they come to form a secure attachment style, which will directly influence that infant’s future relationships.
So in Schore’s opinion, the attachment relationship isn’t purely genetic. It relies on stimulation from an infant’s carer. “What the attachment relationship is, is a combination of the psycho-biological predisposition of a particular infant, which is genetically encoded, and the interactive experiences that the child has with the caregiver,” he explained.
Because, in his belief, newborn babies innately possess high levels of emotion, Schore believes that it is their primary carer’s role to teach them how to react. As their brain is developing so rapidly until two years of age, babies are less able to regulate their own emotions. So they often rely on their mothers (or other primary carer) to help.
According to Schore’s Regulation Theory, it is interactions from a baby’s primary carer via the attachment relationship that shapes an infant’s brain’s development. And it is the emotional right side of the brain that is most deeply affected by these early experiences, the most important of which are subconscious exchanges between the baby and its mom.
When a mother is tuned into her baby’s needs she can create a sense of safety for the infant, who comes to feel they can communicate with their carer on an instinctive level. And when a child comes to realize that their emotions can be comforted, they eventually learn to “internalize” this comfort, and therefore establish the ability to control their own emotions.
It is only when we come to manage and control our own emotional responses, Schore has argued, that the idea of our “self” begins to form. Learning to regulate our own sympathetic and empathetic reactions teaches us that we are not simply an extension of our mother. Instead, we become aware that we are responsible for feeling and dealing with our emotions, and a positive attachment should provide us with the tools to do so effectively.
Schore set out this regulation theory in his 2017 article All Our Sons: The Developmental Neurobiology and Neuroendocrinology of Boys at Risk. The study looks at how stressful environments can impact baby boys more than girls, and the impact this can have on their development.
According to Schore’s 2017 study, boys are affected by their early life experiences much more than girls are. This is because all areas of their brains, including those governing control of limbs, language abilities and social interaction, mature at a slower rate than those of girls. What’s more, the stress-regulating circuits in the brain mature less rapidly in boys too.
Schore also believes that boys have fewer innate tools to help them build up a defense against stress than girls do. And environmental stress generally has a greater detrimental effect on boys, from the time they are inside the womb and into their early lives. As such, these experiences can have a more cumulatively significant effect on boys than on girls.
With that in mind, Schore believes that boys are more at risk of “attachment trauma”. This can be caused by a number of factors, including separation from mother after birth, maternal depression in the womb and/or stress after birth, and having an unresponsive carer. Attachment trauma in turn can greatly impact the development of the right brain, which grows more quickly in small children than the left, and affects self-regulatory behavior.
In his research, Schore also found that baby boys – who were not born prematurely – nevertheless responded differently to newborn behavior assessments than their female counterparts. That’s because they were found to have higher levels of cortisol than girls following the examination. And cortisol is the hormone indicative of stress.
Following their births, studies have demonstrated that infant males are more susceptible to being separated from their mothers. As babies, they also show a larger vulnerability towards stress in the womb and unresponsive care after birth. All of the above have the potential to cause greater distress for newborn boys than girls.
In addition, Schore points out that boys of six months of age tend to display more frustration than their female counterparts. And at 12 months old, male infants react more strongly to negative stimulation. And these stressful situations to which baby boys are exposed affect the parts of the brain most involved in social interaction and self-regulation and self-discipline.
In his research, Schore also cited the work psychologist Edward Tronick, who believed that boys “are more demanding social partners.” Tronick also claimed that boys “have more difficult times regulating their affective states, and may need more of their mothers support to help them regulate affect.” As a result, he concluded, “This increased demandingness would affect the infant boys’ interactive partner.”
So what are the implications of Schore’s claims? Well, early stress could have worrying consequences for boys as they grow, leaving them more vulnerable to developmental disorders including ADHD, conduct disorders, autism, and even early onset schizophrenia. Notably, all of these conditions have been on the rise in recent decades, which some have linked to the rise in the number of babies left in daycare. And according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Early Child Care Research Network, almost all daycare establishments are inadequate in the care they provide for babies.
In his study, Schore writes, “In light of the male infant’s slower brain maturation, the secure mother’s attachment-regulating function as a sensitively responsive, interactive affect regulator of his immature right brain in the first year is essential to optimal male socioemotional development.” In short, boys rely on their mothers to help them control their emotions up to the age of one.
Schore concluded his study by suggesting that differences in wiring patterns between sexes in adult brains are established during infancy. As a result, he claimed that these differences between genders aren’t merely genetic. They are in fact likely to also be shaped by early experiences and environments.
Based on his findings, Schore used his study to outline ways in which parents could better care for baby boys. Whereas some people believe that boys need to learn resilience, they in fact need at least as much responsiveness, sensitivity, and emotional regulation as girls do in order to properly support their emotional development.
In fact, from what we can glean from Schore’s study, it is quite possible that baby boys actually require more attention and affection from their primary carers than their female counterparts. As such, doting on infants shouldn’t be viewed as spoiling them. Rather, an attentive carer is supporting their infant’s emotional development.
Often in contemporary society, the harsh treatment of boys and men is commonplace. While boys are usually permitted to cry without judgement when infants, they are often then told not to as they grow, in adherence with potentially harmful gender stereotypes. Schore’s findings suggest instead that young males should have their needs respected and emotional distress should be met with kindness, affection and empathetic care.
What’s more, boys that are born prematurely require even more sensitive care than those carried to full term. This is because their ability to impulsively interact with their carers is lessened. As such, they require even more attentive support as their brains develop.
But according to Schore, the responsibility to care for our baby boys properly goes far beyond parental influence. As such, his study provides plenty of food for thought for policymakers and professionals. And there are practical solutions that could be implemented on a wide scale that would help to ensure infant boys receive the support they need.
For one, universal access to paid parental leave would help moms and dads to give their babies with the required levels of loving and dedicated care. A more robust parental support model would free up parents’ time, energy and focus, enabling them to be more attentive. Indeed, a suggested 12 months of paid maternity or paternity leave would help ensure children, especially boys, got the attention they needed at the most crucial part of their lives.
Another area which could arguably benefit from improvement is that of hospital birth practices. Historically it has been common for mothers and their babies to be separated during their hospital stays following birth. However, this can cause significant stress to infants, particularly if they are male.
Citing Kunzler, Braun, & Bock’s 2015 research in his study, Schore states, “Exposing newborn male… to separation stress causes an acute strong increase of cortisol and can therefore be regarded as a severe stressor.” Furthermore, he added that recurring separation can lead to hyperactivity and, “changes… [to the] prefrontal-limbic pathways, i.e. regions that are dysfunctional in a variety of mental disorders.”
In conclusion then, boys’ brains mature more slowly than those of girls, as do the brain circuits which regulate stress. They also have fewer built-in mechanisms that enable them to build up a resilience towards that stress. As such, early life experiences can have a bigger impact on boys than girls.
Boys are also affected more negatively by a lack of appropriate care, by post-birth separation from their moms and by stress before birth. These factors can impact the development of the right brain, which is linked to emotion, self-control and social interactions. What’s more, they are more at risk of going on to develop mental disorders including ADHD and autism.
Bearing all this in mind, it seems it may well be harmful to treat males more harshly, for example expecting them to be “tough” in order to adhere to gender stereotypes. In fact, infant boys need to be treated with the same level of sensitivity and responsive care as girls, if not more, to help them grow up healthy and happy.