Category Archives: Research

Raising Boys

Much of the advice and support provided by Parenting NI regarding parenting and childrearing is universal. Both boys and girls benefit from things like clear communication, routine and secure attachment. It is important to recognise that every child is unique. This uniqueness is often the reason why a particular tactic or activity does or does not work with a particular child, rather than it be about their gender. Nonetheless, there are differences in the way in which boys and girls may need support from their parents and as the month of November includes international Men’s day (Thursday the 19th of November), this article will look at some advice specifically for parents and carers raising boys.

When thinking about parenting boys, there are two equally important aspects to consider. One is physical and developmental differences that come from biology. The other is more to do with the idea of what a boy or man ‘should be’ or might face growing up in Northern Ireland. Every society is different, and what is considered normal, appropriate or good behaviour for a boy will in part be a reflection of this. Additionally, every family is different, and so every parent will have their own morals and values for their children. As a result, some of the advice we give might not be relevant to your son or family.

The first question that any parent of a boy looking for advice or guidance on how to raise him may be asked is: ‘what kind of man do you want your son to be?’ Society has a range of expectations for men (and indeed women). It is therefore important for parents to know what particular characteristics they wish to encourage in their sons, as they grow into men. This means looking at behaviours and attitudes that you wish to build in your son that are not generic to all children. An example might be:

“I want my son to have a healthy respect for women, and to understand issues relating to consent”

Or

“I want my son to know that he does not have to be violent or aggressive in order to ‘prove’ his manliness”

Of course, most parents will want to ensure all of their children are respectful of others and not violent. However, there are aspects of these behaviours that are often specific to men. Boys will gain their understanding of what is required to “be a man” from a number of sources, but their parents and in particular fathers can have a major role to play. They can counteract any negative stereotypes or influences from society at large.

Scientists have found differences between male and female gender children present from the moment of birth. From as early as three months, male infants on average lag behind females on a range of developmental issues such as language and sensory development. Most of these gaps are closed by age three, but the existence of these differences (and the importance of the first three years of child development) show the value of being aware of gender-related differences in parenting. The distinctions in the way you raise your son will take different forms as they develop. Starting early down the path to a compassionate, respectful man will make the transition easier, but it is never too late.

Differences naturally have an impact on how a child develops. For example, boys tend to outperform girls in spatial awareness in early childhood. This may lead him towards activities that require good spatial skills like ball sports or climbing, and away from social or verbal games like participating in role-play. This might be typical, but as a parent, you are the one who can decide when or if your son is exposed to particular activities or encouraged to indulge his particular interests in them. A ‘nature and nurture’ approach is thus required to understand male versus female development, and account for problems that arise. It is a good idea to introduce your children to a very wide range of activities when they are young and encourage them to see the value in varied play. By not labelling activities as “for boys” or “for girls”, you can promote positive attitudes and grow their own sense of creativity. On the other hand, preventing them from taking part in something they express an interest in because it is not masculine may cause strife or confusion in the household. Additionally, consider what behaviours these attitudes will create as they grow and engage with other children. Your son might mock or refuse to play with another child who he sees as playing the “wrong” sort of game. Once these attitudes have been developed, they will be harder to change or refine later.

One common issue is male children partaking in overly aggressive play. On average, boys are more physically aggressive than girls in play. Normally children will disincentivise overly aggressive play by refusing to engage with a child who is ‘too rough’, and as a result that child will reduce their aggressiveness in order to reengage. Research has suggested that parents, and fathers in particular, can help boys learn to self-regulate by engaging in rough and tumble play in childhood. However, it is important that the parent sets the limits – stopping if they get too rough or start to try to cause real harm. By teaching your son to play within acceptable limits, you can help him to be less violent later. This in turn helps him to learn to solve problems without violence.

Keep in mind that some parents will find it harder to tell if ‘rough play’ is actually fighting. One study found that while boys could tell the difference between a video of rough play and a real fight 85% of the time, fathers or mothers who grew up with brothers about 70%, but women who grew up without brothers identified all videos as actual fighting . As such, keep your own experiences and internal biases in mind when talking about what you see as overly aggressive play.

If your son seems to be too violent in their play, this also presents a chance to talk to him and introduce empathy. While it can be frustrating or concerning – particularly if your son has hurt another child – remember to see this as a learning opportunity. In addition to whatever discipline you feel is right, take the time to speak to him about his actions and why they were wrong. For example:

“How do you think you made [the other child] feel?”

“Do you think everyone was having fun, while you were playing like that?”

“I know you were just playing, but remember that other people have feelings too, and your behaviour can hurt them even if you don’t mean to”

By stimulating this sort of conversation, you encourage your son to think about the wellbeing of others. It also makes it clear that talking about emotions is good, and this may help to prevent issues later in life where a man may feel uncomfortable talking about serious emotional distress. It helps him to see talking and communication are the way to resolving issues, rather than fighting.

Naturally, it is important to talk to your son about women and girls. This should be done in an age-appropriate way, including language they are likely to understand. As modern attitudes shift regarding the relationship between women and men, think about how you want your son to see women in society. You might presume that they will know by default to treat them with respect – not to catcall on the street, harass or otherwise intimidate. For many boys, this will come naturally. However, there is no harm is explicitly stating that such behaviours are not acceptable.

This sort of conversation can happen early in your son’s life. Advice for young boys who are teasing their sisters or female friends (particularly for being girls) can be to follow the “SEE” acronym:

– Stop: Respond in a calm manner. Tell him that personal insults are not acceptable;

– Empathy: Like with rough play, encourage your son to see the issue through the eyes of the victim;

– Educate: Help him to express his frustration or other feelings in a better way. Teach him to use words to describe his problems, but not to insult or harass.

Naturally, children will fight and this will often include insults or taunts that we as adults would deem unacceptable. Remember that your son may not realise that making fun of someone for their gender, or putting them down for being a ‘girl’ is wrong. As his parent, it is your role to teach him. If you see poor behaviour being displayed by others, point this out and talk about why it is inappropriate.

As your son grows the issue of respecting women as autonomous people may present itself. Teenage boys are under immense pressure to ‘show off’ and impress friends. This sometimes results in overly aggressive or inappropriate behaviour with women. Equally, there is a pervasive but incorrect attitude some young men have that a woman needs to be ‘argued down’ and that ‘no’ does not necessarily mean ‘stop’. In addition to being socially unacceptable behaviours, these attitudes can lead to serious consequences if not addressed. As a parent, you can and should talk to your son about what it means to get consent, and there is plenty of advice contained in our previous article “Talking to Young People About Consent”.

In many ways, raising a boy into a man is about forward planning. Parents cannot possibly anticipate every event or influence on their son, and he must take some responsibility as he grows for the kind of man he will be. However, if you have an idea of the types of values you want to instil in him and are watchful for signs of poor behaviour raising a “good man” is perfectly achievable for parents. There are many more issues than can be explored in one short article but keeping open communication and strong standards of behaviour can address many of them.

If you want more help or are worried about the behaviours or attitudes of your son (or any of your children) you can access support on the Parenting NI Supportline on 0808 8010 722.

Parental Experiences and Attitudes on Post-Primary Academic Selection during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented disruption to the education of children in Northern Ireland. While this has had a dramatic impact on all children, there has been a particular focus on those facing important exams. While sector-wide policies have been enforced for both GCSE and A-level results, this has not been the case for Northern Ireland’s unique third examination period – the post-primary transfer.

One key result of this lack of government mandated policy has been regional variation. While some schools have indicated that they intend to continue with selection without adjustment, several others have decided to either drop or amend selection methods for this year. This decentralised response to the crisis has left parents and children in a uniquely challenging situation, without precedent.

This paper sought to gather a snapshot of parental concerns and views regarding post-primary transfer in the pandemic period. The findings of this demonstrate a wide range of very strongly held views, and a lack of consensus on almost any aspect of post-primary transfer both in the pandemic and more generally. Parents were deeply divided on core issues such as:

• Whether the transfer test should go ahead this year;

• Whether the transfer test should exist at all;

• Whether academic selection by any means should be a component of Northern Ireland’s Education system.

Parents were often unambiguous and direct with their feedback. Those in favour of the transfer described it as “a necessary part of education” and said that altering it at this late stage was “deeply unfair”. However, some parents who opposed the tests described them as “almost a form of torture” and suggested that allowing the normal transfer process to take place in the shadow of COVID represented a “moral failing on behalf of the authorities”.

It is impossible to determine with such a small sample size how widely any of these beliefs are held. However, what is clear is that there are strong feelings regarding post-primary transfer that deserve to be examined in more detail.

To read & download the full report on Parental Experiences and Attitudes on Post-Primary Academic Selection during the COVID-19 Pandemic 2020, please click the button below. Published August 2020.

Read the report

Call for research participants

The lived parental experience of child- to-parent abuse in Northern Ireland

Invitation

If you have completed the Parenting NI ‘walking on egg shells’ programme you are being invited to take  part in a research study which seeks to explore the experiences of parents and carers who have encountered child-to-parent abuse. Before you decide it is important for you to understand why the research is being undertaken and what it will involve. Please take time to read the following information carefully and discuss it with others if you wish. Please ask if there is anything that is not clear or if you would like more information.

The study is being undertaken by Elizabeth Cowdean, an MSc Psychology student at Queens University Belfast and is being supervised by Dr. Katrina Mc Laughlin. This research study has been approved by the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Ethic Committee at Queen’s University Belfast.

What is the research about?

Child and adolescent abuse towards their parent/s or carer/s is a worldwide phenomenon and furthermore is increasing at an alarming rate.  However, to date very little research has been taken into this area (as opposed to other forms of family violence). Therefore, the main aim of this research is to understand this experience that is present within many homes and effects many families. We want to learn more about what parents and carers have to say about child-to-parent abuse and what can be done to prevent it. We also want to find out about the ‘Walking on eggshells’ programme and what it was like taking part in it.

What would I be asked to do if I took part?

The interview will be conducted by Elizabeth Cowdean, an Msc Psychology student from Queens University Belfast who will help you talk about your experiences by posing a few questions. This interview is an opportunity for you to tell your story.  Elizabeth will help you identify which aspects you most want to talk about and will be interested in hearing whatever you think is important about your experiences of child-to-parent abuse.

The interview will take approximately 60 minutes and will take place in the Parenting NI Belfast office, within a room where other people cannot hear what you are saying and in which you feel comfortable. This interview will be recorded so that there is an accurate record of what has been said. You can ask for the recording to be stopped at any time during the interview.

What about confidentiality?

After the interview, Elizabeth will listen to the recording and type up what was said, your interview will then be deleted from the audio recorder. All recording equipment and typed up interviews will be kept securely in a locked environment. Within any written transcripts or finished typed materials your name (and the names of any other identifiable people or places) will be changed to aid anonymity.

Everything you say in the interview is completely confidential and will be anonymised within the written dissertation. However, if someone who is being interviewed did say that they, or someone else, were at risk of harm or danger then Elizabeth would be obliged to inform another person about this.

What happens to the collected data?

When the interviews have finished Elizabeth will look at the interviews that have been conducted as she will want to use quotes from interviews in the written material she will produce from this research. Elizabeth will remove any information which could be used to identify you or anyone else you have mentioned during the interview. The written material will be used to help those who work in the area of child- to-parent abuse to better understand the perspectives of parents and carers affected by this form of abuse/violence.

What happens if I do not want to take part or change my mind?

You do not have to take part in the research if you do not want to. Feel free to ask Elizabeth any questions that you have about taking part and if you do decide to take part, you do not have to answer any questions you do not want to answer.

If you change your mind about being involved in the research you can stop the interview at any time without having to explain your reason for doing so.

If you wish to withdraw from the study after your interview has taken place you can do so and ask that any information you supplied (which will now be in the form of an audio recording or a typed transcript) be withdrawn or destroyed. Elizabeth must be contacted and informed of your decision no later than one week after the interview has been conducted.

If you have any questions please feel free to contact Elizabeth. Please do so by emailing: ecowdean01@qub.ac.uk

The Big Parenting Survey 2018!


Since 1979, Parenting NI has been supporting parents across Northern Ireland. We have helped thousands of parents, grandparents, kinship carers and others in parenting roles with issues ranging from bedtimes to anti-social behaviour.

Over the past 39 years, we have become the trusted voice of parents in Northern Ireland. In part because of our experience in helping parents when they most need it, Parenting NI has been able to stand up for them. We have helped to promote the importance and centrality of parents in policy relating to children, and we have worked hard to ensure that their voices were heard at the most crucial points over the last four decades.

An important aspect of advocating for parents is ensuring that we are listening to what they want and need. We have always been guided by parents, and acted for parents in our activities. We are always seeking new ways enhance our understanding of parent’s needs and concerns, and this year we are launching our largest ever parent’s survey, The Big Parenting Survey 2018!

The online survey will run from the 3rd of September until the 3rd of October 2018. In it, we are calling upon as many individuals in parenting roles living in Northern Ireland to give us their thoughts and views about being a parent in Northern Ireland today.

  • It doesn’t matter if you are a new parent, or if your children are grown.
  • It doesn’t matter if you are a kinship carer or a grandparent.
  • It doesn’t matter if you live in Belfast or Fermanagh.
  • It doesn’t matter if you have never accessed Parenting NI’s services.

Please help us to better understand the real experiences and issues faced by parents by completing the online survey here. We’d also really appreciate it if you could share the link as widely as possible to help us get as many responses as possible and so it is reflective of the experiences of all parents throughout Northern Ireland. You can share the link (https://www.questionpro.com/t/ALEXYZcgi9) on social media using the hashtag #BigParentingSurvey. 

We’d like to thank you all for your help and support in advance.