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Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences Hardcover – February 15, 2005

4.3 out of 5 stars 186 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In the feminist conception of gender flexibility, no set rules apply: girls can play with trucks; boys can play with dolls. But pediatrician and psychologist Sax argues that our theories about gender's fluidity may be wrong and to apply them to children in their formative years is quite dangerous. Sax believes the brains of boys and girls are hardwired differently: boys are more aggressive; girls are more shy. And deliberately changing a child's gender—in cases of intersex (hermaphrodism) or accident (as in the case of David Reimer, who was raised as a girl after a hideous circumcision mishap)—can ruin a child's life. Sax also believes modern gender philosophy has resulted in more boys being given behavior-modifying drugs and more girls being given antidepressants. Much of his argument makes sense: we may have gone to the other extreme and tried too hard to feminize boys and masculinize girls. Sax makes a compelling argument for parents and teachers to tread lightly when it comes to gender and raises important questions regarding single-sex education, which he supports. His readable prose, which he juxtaposes with numerous interviews with school administrators, principals, scientists and others, makes this book accessible to a range of readers.
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From Scientific American

When I was a college freshman, a male teaching assistant I sought help from told me matter-of-factly that women were not good at inorganic chemistry. Had I been armed with Why Gender Matters, about how biological differences between the sexes can influence learning and behavior, I could have managed an informed rejoinder to go along with my shocked expression. Sax—a pediatrician and psychologist in the Washington, D.C., area and founder of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education—hopes to make today’s teachers and parents aware of the science behind differences between girls and boys. He was inspired to write the book as more and more parents brought their young sons to his office in the mid-1990s, seeking an evaluation for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Recalling studies that show boys do not hear as well as girls, Sax felt that for some of the boys he assessed, simply not hearing the teacher led to their inattention, a problem that could be solved by a front-row seat. Although Sax repeatedly makes clear these differences do not limit what either sex can achieve, he does contend they play a valuable role in determining the most effective methods for teaching, disciplining and understanding children and young adults. Using studies as well as anecdotes from his practice and visits to classrooms, he offers advice on such topics as preventing drug abuse and motivating students. In his chapter on aggression, Sax cites research that shows young male primates are much more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play than females to illustrate why some amount of aggression in boys is normal and why banning "healthy" outlets such as dodgeball—done in his local school district—is misguided. The book is thought-provoking, and Sax explains well the science behind his assertions. His anecdotes are generally instructive, although some are a little too thin to support his points. Sax ends by offering several compelling arguments in support of same-sex education, such as analyses that find girls are more likely to study physics and boys are more likely to study literature in single-sex schools. But whether or not you agree with Sax, his volume is a worthy read for those who care about how best to prepare children for the challenges they face on the path to adulthood.

Aimee Cunningham


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; First Edition edition (February 15, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038551073X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385510738
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (186 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #488,126 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

By Gene Zafrin on January 12, 2006
Format: Hardcover
The book's main premise is that on average boys and girls are significantly different. To support this thesis, Sax mentions a number of recent studies on the differences of male and female brains. Teenage girls, for example, handle negative emotions within prefrontal cortex: the same area of the brain that is responsible for the language. Teenage boys, on the other hand, use amygdala, a separate area of the brain. Sax concludes that for this reason a teenage girl finds it much easier to talk about how she feels than a teenage boy does. The same is true about math: girls process it in the prefrontal cortex and boys in a separate part, hippocampus. So, the book says, boys would find it easier to understand math if it were explained to them as pure science, and girls would learn the same material more quickly if it was presented in connection with real life.

The science is explained on a very basic level, no prior knowledge necessary. Although, sometimes the thoughts are not extended to a logical conclusion. For example, throughout the book Sax assumes that the closer parts of the brain are the better communication among them. Even though this seems reasonable, some supportive evidence would have been useful. And what if girls' math processing in prefrontal cortex simply means that talking about math comes easier to them than to boys?

Still, that male and female brains are different on average and react differently to the same stimuli seems fairly commonsensical. In this context, Sax's argument for single-sex education sounds convincing.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
We have a whole library shelf of pregnancy, baby, and now parenting books that my wife has bought over the past few years. I've had a hard time getting the enthusiasm to delve into many of these. However, as the father of a 4 year old daughter and now new twin boys, this particular book looked intriguing. Well, I couldn't put it down. Not only is it well written with engaging anecdotes, but it presents the latest scientific findings in gender research (with lots of footnotes so you can read the studies yourself if you are so inclined) and relates it to the job of parenting. It helps that the author is a family doctor who has seen his share of dysfunctional situations that in hindsight might easily have been prevented with a little knowledge.

The book is more than just informative about gender differences in children - he relates this information to such parenting topics as disciplining your child, gender specific education strategies, dealing with problem children, kids and drugs (both the legal and non-legal kind), and teenage sex.

Even if you don't agree with everything the author says, I think you'll learn a lot by reading this book.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The Good

Why Gender Matters does an excellent job of presenting taboo subject mater with well laid out arguments backed by evidence. The premise of the book is summed up well in this passage from one of the appendages: "A central argument for this book is that for the past three decades, the influence of social and cognitive factors on gender traits has been systematically overestimated while the innate factors have been neglected."

This is a difficult subject to tackle without coming across as a sexist and a bigot. But I was consistently impressed with Sax's ability to approach these topics delicately but unambiguously. His careful phrasing effectively disarmed the knee-jerk defensive reaction, and unapologetically delivered his points in the most reasonable tone.

The writing was pleasant to read, and the content thought-provoking, enlightening and challenging.

The Bad

Sax mixes in a lot of his personal views on morality and proper child rearing. There are whole pages which hardly reference gender at all, which instead serve as a soapbox for Sax to rant about the need for discipline or rail against mushy liberal parenting approaches.

I have little basis on which to judge his parenting advice, being a topic I have little knowledge of or interest in. Even so, it came off as prudish and overbearing, and I think the book suffered for it.

The Unforgivable

In the chapter six, titled "Sex", a sensationalist and thoroughly debunked myth, "Rainbow Parties" (wikipedia it) is cited as evidence for the moral decline of our society and the outrageous activities that kids these days engage in. This glaring factual error lends serious doubt to the credibility of the author as an unbiased man of evidence.
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Format: Hardcover
I really liked this book when I started reading it. The author made a bold statement that he would back up his statements with evidence, and the early chapters are full of information with footnotes if one is inclined to research more about any facts (such as: the highschool dropout rate in the US is now close to 30%. That figure was startling to me, but he lists several places where I could do further reading on that topic.)

The problems start later in the book. Once the facts are presented, I found myself disagreeing with the conclusions he drew from those facts quite often. He believes that parents who "consult" with their children, "inform" them about available choices, and "make suggestions" are equivalent to "overly permissive" parenting. He cites an example of parents who allow their children to "choose" soda and chips to eat every day. No doubt, that's no way to allow your child to grow up, but he makes no mention of allowing your child a choice of acceptable options. What about allowing him to choose between broccoli or a spinach salad with dinner? There's lots of evidence to support that listening to your child and allowing him freedom within limits that you set is beneficial to self esteem.

There's a lot of grey area between the authoritarian style of parenting he advocates and being a pushover to your child due to fear of not being liked by him. He's dismissed the idea of working out a plan with a child due to some very poor compromises some parents have made. (A heavy 8 year-old girl is allowed to spend a month with grandparents who let her eat nonstop junk food. Then she's hard to deal with when she returns home. Girl doesn't want to go to a no-junk-food camp instead of Gramma's, so mom doesn't do anything different.
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