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How can parents help boys grow up happily?

Recent research has shown that there are fundamentally no differences between male and female brains as a whole and how they process information. The differences between individuals are far greater than the overall differences between men and women.

Something is very definitely affecting boys though: girls now out-perform boys at every level of school and university, and boys are far more likely to suffer from ‘developmental disorders’ such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

Bringing up Boys

There may not be real differences between men and women’s brains once they reach adulthood, and particularly in how they process information. Nobody, however, would argue that men and women are not very different biologically. The same goes for boys and girls.

The differences are not just physical, and certainly not just visible. Male hormones cause boys to grow and develop differently from girls, and develop certain skills sooner, but others later.

This has clear implications for bringing up boys, and helping them to navigate the complicated world of education.

Differences in the way children develop manifest themselves early.

For example:

  • Small boys tend to want to move around more than small girls, and will occupy more space as they play;
  • Toddler girls will be quicker to notice and respond to other children than their male counterparts, who tend to play ‘alongside’ rather than ‘with’ other children for much longer;
  • Boys tend to build and manipulate toys more, whereas girls will often get more involved in ‘role play’.

What this adds up to is that boys generally develop gross motor skills earlier than girls, but their social skills lag behind.

Boys also tend to have a testosterone surge somewhere around the ages of about four to five, making them more active.

Of course, this is just around the time that they are expected to start attending nursery school or kindergarten, and conforming to behavioural norms such as sitting down for ‘circle time’, sharing with other children and taking turns.

Put like that, it is clear why starting school can be much more of a problem for boys than for girls.

Three Stages of Development

Steve Biddulph, in his seminal book Raising Boys: Why Boys are Different – and How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men , suggests that boys go through three phases of growth, and need different role models in each.

Birth to age 6

At this stage, a boy is very much his mother’s child.

He looks primarily to her for help and support, and her role is to provide a warm and loving environment. The key at this stage is for both parents to show a boy that he is loved.

Age 6 to 14

During this period, boys start to look at how to become men, and their father is their key role model, demonstrating how men should behave.

Boys often go to considerable lengths to attract their father’s attention during this period, even becoming ill in their father’s absence.

It is, however, important that their mothers do not distance themselves from boys: boys need to know that their mother is still there, and still loves them.

Ages 14 and over

At this stage, the boy starts to look beyond his immediate family for one or more male ‘mentors’.

His parents need to step back a little, but should make sure that he has some good male mentors, choosing them carefully to ensure that their boy remains safe. Without this support, he will otherwise draw on his peer group—hence, Biddulph suggests, the rise of gang culture in areas with a history of absent fathers and lack of male involvement in the wider community.

Biddulph stresses that these stages are not absolute, and that both mother and father need to be involved throughout, but that they should be aware of these primary needs and support them.

What boys need to know

Don and Jeanne Elium, in Raising a Son, describe a story of a scoutmaster bringing order to a group of scouts. He told them that there are three things that boys need to know:

  1. Who’s in charge?
  2. What are the rules?
  3. Will those rules be fairly enforced?

It seems that structure and fairness are vital to boys. Scientists have also observed this need in young apes and monkeys, who develop a very clear hierarchy in their social groups.

Supporting Boys at School

A number of commentators have called for boys to start school a year later than girls to ensure that they are at a similar level of readiness.

That, however, is unlikely to happen any time soon.

It is therefore up to parents to support their boys through school and make sure that they cope.

Ways that you can help include:

  • Making sure that they have lots of space and time to run around outside school hours. If it helps, you can always take them to the playground or to play football for half an hour before school;
  • Help them to develop their language skills from an early age;
  • Talk to them about the importance of not hitting or fighting, and help them to find other ways to resolve problems;
  • Talk to them about options and decisions, and handling social situations. This will help them to deal with these aspects better, and understand how to make good decisions.

Growing Up

The teenage years bring huge challenges for boys, including hormonal surges and changes. They also, of course, bring challenges to parents.

As parents, it is important to remember that these hormonal changes have more than just visible effects: they also affect the brain. For example, boys really do become more disorganised, it is not just an act.

Growth spurts can also have unexpected physical effects; for example, research shows that they can affect the ear canals and actually make boys slightly deaf for periods of time.

Ways that you can help include:

  • Working with them to develop an organisation system so that they don’t forget everything;
  • Ensuring that they understand that respecting adults is still important, even if they are now taller than some of their teachers;
  • Keeping communication channels open, and giving them time to talk to you in unthreatening situations. Boys often find it easier to talk over an activity, so it may be helpful to carry on doing something together, whether that’s walking, cooking or woodwork. Make sure that you discuss important things, including sex and relationships (and not just the mechanics, but the emotional aspects too);
  • Keep boundaries clear and enforce them. You will all want to change the boundaries, for example, to allow your son to stay out later but, if you have asked him to be home by a certain time and he is not, then you need to enforce a consequence.

Remember: boys still need to know who is in charge, what are the rules, and that rules will be enforced, even as teenagers.

Equality, sex and relationships

Teenage boys and young men often have problems relating to girls and women in a friendly, non-sexual way, and also in romantic relationships.

This is made worse by the ready availability of pornography online. It has been reported, for example, that some boys believe that all women should have no pubic hair, and that sex should be violent, because this is all they have seen.

Parents have a responsibility to help boys to relate sensibly to women as their equals.

Partly, you can do this by modelling a good relationship between you as parents, and show how you respect and value each other (even if you are separated or divorced). You can also help by treating your son as a person, communicating with him, and valuing his opinions.

You can, and should, always challenge any sniggering and crudeness about sex, preferably with gentle humour and by filling in any gaps in their knowledge. It is also good to challenge any derogatory language about any minority group, giving your children a more positive view.

Try to avoid sexualising your children too early: for example, five year old boys have ‘friends’, some of whom may be girls, not ‘girlfriends’.

Learning to Love and Value Boys

It can sometimes seem that boys are a problem, something to be ‘managed’ and ‘sorted’. But as any parent of a boy will know, they are also loving, vital people, who need to be loved and valued just like anyone else.

Research supports instinct in saying that the best thing that any of us can do for boys is to love them, and show them that we do.

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