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Trial and Error. Comfort with Failure. A Deeper Mastery.

Illustration by Kya Hanson’s first graders at Logan Elementary School.

By Michael Gurian (’80) 

Sister Margaret Mary Conway, beloved debate coach, recruited me to Gonzaga, and I entered a debate team with no fewer than seven Mikes. For convenience, Sister Conway renamed each of us. My ancestry is one-quarter Roman Catholic and three-quarters Ashkenazi Jew, so my name became “Ben” for the Israeli statesman, David Ben Gurion. Many of my GU friends still call me Ben.

Sister Conway’s renaming of me and the other Mikes is actually – I would learn in my later research – an integral part of mentoring: The mentor gives a youngster a new name or nickname that captures a bit of what the mentor sees in the youngster’s nature. The mentor hopes the new name will give the youngster big shoes to fill – a model for identity that will help the young person toward a life of self-mastery and service. Sister Conway gave me the name of a service-oriented statesman. I believe she wanted me to live up to high ideals of service by developing fidelity to my own nature and to the needs of my future communities.

Nature-Based Theory 

Sister Conway passed away many years ago, but at our last meeting, I thanked her for “Ben.” We agreed that my life went in a slightly different direction than she and I assumed it would. (We thought I would become a lawyer.) But we recalled that at Gonzaga I began to build my life’s work, nature-based theory. Over two and a half decades, I have developed a gender framework that makes use of age-old cultural knowledge and 21st century brain research. Nature-based theory posits (and, I hope, has by now proved) that academics, policymakers, parents, educators and business people will create flawed social systems unless their thinking gives equal share to nature (our inborn personality, talent set, temperament and gender), nurture (our upbringing) and culture (the larger world in which we learn iconography, social tradition and ideological biases). Nature-based theory places “nature” first in this trinity to emphasize the importance of the gender that is born in our brains.

During my time at Gonzaga, both on campus and nationwide, acculturation and socialization were the main noted causes for gender differences between boys and girls and women and men. Most universities and colleges still share that “culture-centered” focus. While nurture and culture clearly matter and always will, I saw among the various cultures represented by Gonzaga students the same truth I had seen in my own boyhood: Some gender differences are so natural to human genetics that they appear in all cultures.

My parents were traveling academics who later became Foreign Service officers; my boyhood gave me a window into many cultures. Worldwide, boys, no matter their cultural or nurturing influences, are more likely than girls to show their love and affection by tossing a ball or other object at a friend – sometimes quite dangerously. We now know that male brains are set up in-utero to include more centers in the right hemisphere for this kind of attachment than are girls’. Boys also are more likely to mix their nurturing activity with rough-and-tumble aggression, including, in modern life, participating in video gaming communities; and they are more likely to use fewer words per day for their feelings than girls, on average.

Girls, on average, are more likely than boys to explore multiple feelings simultaneously in words; they are more likely to request that affection not be connected to aggression; and they are less likely to take risks and more likely to value neatness. Scientists now know of more than 100 significant differences between the male and female brains. These brain differences appear in all cultures on all continents and, like those above, are set up via X and Y chromosome markers and in-utero hormonal surges. Nature-based theory insists that we study these brains simultaneously with studying gender from a nurture and culture standpoint.

Success and failure

Because of the new brain sciences, we now better understand the needs of our children and adolescents as they grow into successful college students and beyond. One example that might seem counterintuitive is the male/female difference regarding the need for comfort with failure in order to ensure success.

The human brain seeks trial-and-error experience. Thus, a good deal of failure is needed during childhood in order for each of us to grow up and become a success. Zero tolerance policies regarding cognitive or behavioral failures are generally destructive to the natural development of both boys and girls. If mistakes don’t happen while a child is a child, an adolescent and a young adult – the individual is less likely to grow into a resilient leader who has learned

enough humility to do good in the world and enough core strength to lead teams through the inevitable failures that will be important to eventual success.

This idea of trial-and-error has special import in varying ways for our daughters and sons. As they develop, many girls tend to value “good behavior” more than many boys do. They tend to devalue failure, trying to avoid it as much as possible. Girls also tend to ruminate about social-emotional failures for longer periods than do most boys. There are a number of nature-based reasons for these proclivities in girls, including the highly active female cingulate gyrus and the female brain’s emphasis on white matter. Nurture and socialization are involved, too.

What does this all have to do with us? Importantly, the new nature-based research begs us to find innovative ways of helping girls to learn to enjoy failing. If we can help them develop comfort with failure and cognitive disorder – in other words, if we can avoid overprotecting them and “over-perfecting” them – we can help them to relinquish the illusion of perfection in their early years. Thus, they may live and lead with less negative stress later in life. In my work with Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Cisco Systems, Frito-Lay/Pepsico, and various governmental agencies such as NASA, executives often comment to me: “We need more resilient young women, women who won’t take things personally, and will take the kinds of risks that lead to invention and innovation.” The message here is not that some of these women don’t already exist – they do – but that we can do a better job in our daughters’ early years to help them compete later as successful leaders.

Boys and young men will often be a bit more fearless about failing if they are doing a task they find novel, inventive and engaging. But they, too, are facing powerful leadership issues in the new millennium. The corporations I’ve worked with report a growing sense that our young men, in the aggregate, are not as well prepared to work and lead as we may think they are. Corporate executives point to educational structures, from pre-K through college, that are not at all certain about how to cultivate young males. These systems have been set up with little knowledge of how the male brain learns. As a result, especially over the last 50 years, these systems have gravitated quite far from the learning styles and needs of millions of boys.

Helping our sons

As researchers and policymakers work on this issue, there is much you can do at home to help your sons. From a nature-based viewpoint, it can be useful to remember that each of our sons, like our daughters, comes into this world with an internal trajectory for leadership success already built into the brain, via genetics, talent sets, temperament and vulnerabilities. Those nature-based qualities in boys need more in-depth project-based learning in school and at home than we might realize. Boys experience their very male-specific reasons for this, in the male basal ganglia – a motivation center – male gray matter emphasis in the brain, and male stress response in the amygdala. While both girls and boys can benefit from in-depth project-based learning, the male brain is set up to be less successful in shotgun learning (lots of worksheets and verbal multitasking). Many of the boys who are now diagnosed with ADD are not being taught and nurtured in the way their brains need.

When I’m asked in my lectures what is the safest (on average) way to stimulate a male brain toward leadership success, I give this simple, yet complex, answer: We do not need to place our sons in a dozen stimulating activities. In general, three in-depth activity structures at a time are actually better for your son’s growing brain than so many activities that he is constantly stressed out. The three areas of activity include one physical activity (sports/athletics, or, if he hates sports, then he must get an hour of physical exercise, not including recess, per day); one extra-academic activity (music, language training, etc.); and one structured social-emotional activity (Boy Scouts, faith-community, etc.). In-depth brain-activation through physical, cognitive and social-emotional activity can build a more motivated and successful man than myriad activities in which the boy is not able to go deep enough into an activity to learn purpose, meaning and self-mastery. This mission development is crucial to women and girls, too, of course, but we’ve spent the last 50 years studying female development; in the next few decades, I believe we’ll study male development with equal depth.

I believe Sister Conway’s renaming me Ben was her Ignatian way of sending me on a mission to help bring “Israel” to my people. Of course, “my people,” in this context, is not one group (the Jews) but anyone who is interested in the brain, nature and gender. My “Israel” is not a new Jewish nation but a new theoretical framework regarding human identity development.

Would I have pursued my theory without Sister Conway renaming me? Perhaps. But would I have succeeded at it without her mentoring me, at Gonzaga, under my new “name”? I don’t believe so. She allowed me to ask the questions about nature, nurture and culture that I needed to ask, and those questions sent me toward the human brain and philosophies of science.

I hope Sister is proud of her Ben, now 56 years old. I look back at her across the decades with immense gratitude and with a need to do for other young people what she did so selflessly for me.

Michael Gurian (’80) is a marriage and family counselor and the New York Times best-selling author of 26 books published in 21 languages. In 1996 he co-founded the Gurian Institute which conducts research internationally, launches pilot programs and trains professionals. 

As a social philosopher and gender consultant Michael has pioneered efforts to bring neurobiology and brain research into homes, schools, universities, corporations and public policy. 

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