Why Girls Should Be Tough and Boys Should Be Tender

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

The excited new father gazes in at the hospital nursery with a huge smile of pride and joy. “What will you name him?” asks a friendly nurse. “Something strong, like John”, the father replies. Before the baby boy gets his first diaper change the expectation for him to become strong and powerful lays over him like a heavy iron blanket. A few feet away another father smiles at his new baby girl. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?  Our little Mary,” he comments to anyone who will listen. “Oh yes, she’s a real doll.  So sweet and quiet,” comes the reassuring reply.

John and Mary arrive pre-wired biologically to produce muscle or softness depending on their gender.  The more muscle John produces the higher the likelihood he’ll be successful and aggressive. As Mary grows into her soft curves and physical beauty it’s likely she’ll find a high status mate. John, encouraged to play sports and take risks, develops confidence and leadership skills. Mary, encouraged to be polite and respectful, develops social and verbal skills designed to make others feel better. John learns to conquer. Mary learns to nurture.
One morning, when Mary is about 11, she walks to a bus stop.  A convicted sex offender plucks her off the street and sexually abuses her for years. Physically weaker, groomed by nature and culture to comply and nurture, she bonds with her rapist. Her survival physically and psychologically depends upon her ability to adapt to the desires and whims of her captor.

John learns to “annihilate” his opponents in several sports to the sounds of cheering fans. He masters video war games where he learns to destroy zombies, aliens and police. He grows up spirited, happy and self-confident. He meets Mary and falls in love with her beauty, vulnerability and willingness to please. He knows of her sexual abuse history, but believes love conquers all. Mary loves his strength. He will protect her. No one will harm her with John around.

Some time later John and Mary go to marriage counseling. John says, “she’s changed. She’s angry all the time.” Mary says, “He doesn’t care about me. He only wants sex and that makes me want to scream or vomit.” John never learned tenderness or gentleness. Gentle boys are sissies and wimps. When faced with frustration, John followed the lessons of his youth. He battled. Mary never learned to fight. When faced with frustration, she complied or figured a way to adapt. Until the rage of victimization overtook her, Mary never defended herself.

Imagine how differently this story might end: What if John had learned to tenderly care for a sick grandma, or little sister? What if John felt proud for rescuing injured animals or helping younger kids adapt to a new school? What if Mary had been taught to speak her mind and challenge authority? What if Mary and all the girls in her neighborhood took Karate or self-defense classes and learned how to fight?

In our modern world, both boys and girls need to know how to fight and run; create and protect; argue and defend. Because biology already primes boys to be aggressive, we need to encourage their tenderness. Nature shapes girls to “tend and befriend,” so we need to teach them how to fight and defend.  Meanwhile, marriage counselors will continue working to repair the damage done.