Boys and girls are different. Everybody knows that, yet when we plan programs for the church we too frequently act as if those differences don’t exist, or as if they are unimportant. To ignore these differences is to risk missing opportunities to reach young people or perhaps even to risk ministering in ways that are counterproductive. In none of the ministries of the church are these differences more important than when we are dealing with youth.
The differences between boys and girls exist in two different realms: sex and gender. Adolescence is, almost by definition, the time when the differences in both of these realms become suddenly acutely important. We cannot honor the needs and experiences of our young people without understanding the changes and concern over these differences that are more or less constantly on youths’ minds during the adolescent years.
When we speak of a person’s “sex,” we refer to those biological elements that make people either male or female. Little boys and little girls differ from one another only in what we refer to as primary sex characteristics. Apart from those, a little boy and a little girl are physically very similar. The defining symptom of adolescence is the appearance of bodily changes, which begin to make boys’ and girls’ bodies increasingly dissimilar, and boys and girls discomfort with and reaction (or over-reaction) to these changes are among the most challenging aspects of working with boys and girls in these age groups.
When we speak of “gender,” we refer to those traits that a particular culture associates with each of the sexes. In other words, gender is the meaning that we give to the differences between girls and boys. We have different expectations of boys than we do of girls, and one of the biggest challenges facing adolescents is their fear about their ability to meet the cultural expectations of “feminine” and “masculine.”
Both boys and girls are thrown off balance by the changes in their bodies, but they are positively terrified by the changes in their roles. Rare is the adolescent boy who thinks he is masculine enough, so he goes out of his way to accentuate his toughness. Seldom does an adolescent girl feel she matches up to our society’s feminine ideal, so she acts out in ways that overemphasize the characteristics that she feels she is expected to show. It is never enough to reassure youth that they are fine, they are normal, and they should just be themselves.
The task for youth leaders is to work with both girls and boys to assure them that they are valued as made in the image of God, wherever they fall on the spectrum of traits which they believe mark them as masculine or feminine. Boys may need to be encouraged to value deep relationships. Their peers may use derogatory labels for boys who are willing to acknowledge important friendships. The common thread of sin that runs through most Biblical stories is human pride, and it is sometimes said that pride and self-assertion is a characteristic of the way that men in particular damage their relationship with God. Boys may seem to be pride-filled, especially in their competitiveness, their swaggering, and their showing off, particularly when there is an audience of girls around. “Putting them in their place,” however, is exactly the wrong approach, since these activities come not from pride, but insecurity, as boys test out whether they can yet call themselves men. Boys are learning to assert themselves, and they need opportunity and encouragement to learn ministries of support and service, not just leadership.
Girls, on the other hand, may be more likely to “hide their light under a bushel.” They may defer to the boys for leadership, and they may shrink from sharing their talents, fearing that such self-assertion will result in their being labeled “unfeminine.” Their concern with relationships can be all consuming, and they can sometimes be cruel in securing their own place in a group at the expense of someone else. Far earlier than the boys, girls begin to think about the kinds of relationships that lead to finding a spouse. This can lead to crushes not only on their male peers, but also on the men who work with them in church activities. Such crushes are difficult to handle appropriately, since boundaries must be clearly maintained, but girls must be assured that their youth pastor or other youth workers truly value them, simply for the delightful human beings they are, not as potential romantic partners.
Arranging for some opportunities for boys and girls to pursue separate activities is an important part of working with youth. Both boys and girls need to be able to ask tough questions and to express their fears, free from the pressures and confusions of interacting with the opposite sex.
On the other hand, adolescents need to have opportunities to interact with one another across gender lines, and the church needs to be a place where it is safe to discover a little about those others who are growing in such a different direction from themselves, a place where the boundaries of interaction are clear and where respectful, constructive relationships between men and women are the norm. Because of this, it is crucial that our churches provide both male and female mentors and role models. Youth workers need to show what healthy relationships between men and women look like: working relationships, friendships, and marital relationships.
The differences between boys and girls mean that different activities may be more appealing to one than to the other. Often this difference in needs is met by planning activities that the boys will enjoy, assuming that the girls will come along simply to be where the boys are. Young people are our most precious resource, and we can find ways to make it safe for a boy to fill a nurturing role or for a girl to be successful athletically or in leadership. As Christians we are called to create a different world, one that does not force people into the stereotypes that shape the rest of the world. Rather we are called to create a world where every girl and boy is celebrated as a child of God and encouraged to give of themselves all of the special characteristics which make each one unique to build the Kingdom of God.
Published June 2005