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”
“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.