When I first learned that my husband and I would be parents to a little boy just over seven years ago, I smiled; I had somehow known all along I was carrying a boy, and we were ecstatic about it. Less than two years later, we welcomed our second boy; two years after that, our third. Having three little boys running around the house has been a dream — noisy, hilarious, heartwarming, and more fun than I ever could have imagined. It has also been trying at times. And while I’m certainly no expert (my boys are all under the age of 8, after all), here’s what I’ve learned about raising boys so far.
1. Get Moving
According to Dr. Michael Thompson, author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, boys in all cultures around the world wrestle more, mock fight more, and need to move in general. A lot. I’ve certainly found this to be true; from the time he was 18 months old, when he wasn’t running circles around us, our oldest son was climbing and jumping off of everything in sight. And our youngest sleeps on a mattress on the floor of an otherwise empty bedroom after he pulled each dresser drawer out just enough to create stairs so he could jump off his dresser again and again instead of going to sleep. Boys seem to be hardwired for a lot of physical activity, so what should we do? Encourage it. Let them roughhouse a bit, and make a safe place for that to happen. We purposefully have no coffee table in our living room — the open space leads to plenty of wrestling matches. It’s good for them. According to experts, physical play and roughhousing promotes healthy intelligence, physical fitness, helps foster positive relationships, and provides endorphins and rushes of oxytocin.
2. Drop the Tough Guy act
I’m constantly taken aback by my sons’ sensitivity and empathy for others — the sweetest moments are when they comfort each other when sad, disappointed, or hurt. Despite what society may project upon males of all ages, boys are just as sensitive as girls, if not more so. An article by research psychologist and gender scholar, Peggy Drexler, cites research that found boys cry more when they are upset and have a harder time calming down. Boys are more easily stressed and more fragile medically and emotionally. Yet research shows that parents ask daughters how they feel more often than they ask sons, and when daughters get hurt, parents tend to comfort them more than they comfort sons. Avoid saying things like, “Get up, you’re fine,” or “Suck it up.” These statements send the message that our boys’ emotions and sensitivity are not valued.
3. If you want to discuss something serious, don’t just sit there, do something
In my years of counseling boys and girls in a school setting, a frustrating thing kept happening: while the girls easily opened up to me and could talk face-to-face in my office, the boys often clammed up and shut down. But as soon as we began doing something, for example, shooting baskets outside on the basketball court, or playing a card game in the office, the same boys miraculously opened up about anything and everything. The same goes for our sons. Sitting down to a face-to-face conversation can feel confrontational to a boy. If something serious needs to be discussed, try broaching the subject during a walk or a game he likes to play. You may be amazed at the ease of his words in between turns of a game of Horse.
4. Sometimes the solution is simply a hug
It’s not rocket science; sometimes a good long, strong hug has the ability to change bad moods and negative attitudes faster than any words. Boys sometimes have more trouble verbalizing their problems. Watch his body language, and the next time your boy is acting grumpy or even lashing out, get down on his level and open your arms. Repeat often, and don’t stop as they grow older. It turns out that boys need to be touched two to three times as much as girls to release the same amount of oxytocin that is released during a hug, and brain imaging research shows that the amount of nurturing a child receives from his mother early in life may lead to a larger hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for handling stress and building memory). And while little boys may be good at asking for hugs when they need some extra affection, boys aged 12 and up feel more insecure about it, even though they still need physical touch from their parents. So make it a habit now. Hugs for all, big or small.
5. Give them space
There is often a strong pull as a parent to jump in when we see our children struggling or making mistakes. But one of the best things we can do as parents is step back and resist that urge. Allowing our sons (and daughters, for that matter) to make mistakes and learn from them is an invaluable lesson that will help them establish trust in themselves and as a result, grow more confident and capable. With my youngest, who is now 3 years old, it comes in the form of physical independence. Instead of stepping closer to him at the playground and helping him find that foothold as he climbs a play structure, I stand at a safe distance and let him search for it, testing his body awareness. He is so proud when he reaches the top with no help. For older children, it may come in the form of social interactions. Instead of jumping in and intervening when another kid is pushing him around a bit at the playground, stand back and observe for a moment. You might be surprised by how well he can handle it, all by himself.
Lauren Knight blogs at Crumb Bums.
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