Surprise, surprise! Boys and girls are different. Whether it’s nature or nurture is largely irrelevant. The point is that boys and girls do best when their parents respond to the specific needs of their gender, rather than use a one size fits all approach.
Here are 21 parenting strategies guaranteed to meet the needs of the boys in your life:
Communicating with boys
1. Choose your time to communicate
Adults who do best with boys have a way of getting into their time-frame. They can talk with them about what interests them now, what’s important to them now, what’s grabbing their attention now. That’s relatively easy when your sons are under ten, but challenging when they are teenagers.
You have to be a little cunning to get into a teenage boy’s time-frame. A parent who picks up a teenage boy from a party at midnight, just may have a better chance of getting into this time-frame and getting a window into what’s important, than one who parents from a distance.
2. Talk to boys while they are doing
One way to get boys talking is to get them moving. Go for a walk together, wash the dishes together or do some other job and you will find their tongues loosen up. The pressure to speak is removed by activity. More than this, males are activity-based. Just as activity and play is the language of fatherhood, activity is the mode to get many boys to open up and talk.
3. Ask “what?” not “why?”
If a boy misbehaves never ask him “why?” He usually won’t be able to tell you. Instead get him to revisit the moment of poor behaviour and get some window into his thinking or motivation at the time. “What were you thinking about when you did…?” “What was going on to make you want to do that?” “What will you do differently next time?” These type of questions help ensure that boys learn from their experiences so they behave differently the next time they are in a similar situation.
Managing a boy’s behaviour
4. Join the dots
Boys, more than girls, are likely to learn many of their lessons from experience rather than being told. However some boys can’t see the woods from the trees. One boy I know couldn’t see how his fast mouth (he was quick with a one-liner) was putting him offside with his teachers. It was obvious to everyone but the boy in question. He needed an adult to draw a line between his behaviour (smart mouth) and it’s outcome (teachers feeling disrespected). Be very calm and rational rather judgemental so that your son takes your message on board.
5. Create a space for processing
A bad day at school may be followed by an angry outburst on arrival home, particularly if he is asked that time-honored question: “How was your day?”
“&^$%%%!!” may well be the response as he slams his bedroom door behind him. He has just entered his cave where he will take his time to settle his thoughts and generally go within to draw on his internal resources. Resist the temptation to knock on his door and lovingly say, “Darling, is everything alright? Would you like to talk about it?” You are only inviting some more rejection. The best solution is to wait until he comes out of his cave before you talk. Generally, he will come out when he is ready and has made some sense of what has happened to him. This is the time to talk.
6. Teach him to cool off
Many boys struggle to regulate their emotions. When a boy gets angry his testosterone levels rise, further inflaming anger. Anger then frequently spirals causing a boy to lose control of his behaviour completely. It is useful to teach boys to take some time to calm down and regain control of their physiology and their behaviour.
Methods such as time out, cuddling and comforting are useful to help young children learn to cool down. As boys move into school age and beyond, help them understand the triggers that can lead to anger and then discuss various methods help them regain some calm. Deep breathing, getting some exercise or thinking about something different are simple ways of relaxing. Boys that don’t learn to self-regulate their emotions during childhood don’t magically learn to regulate their anger in adulthood. MARK THIS AS A VITAL SKILL TO LEARN.
7. Encourage boys to repair and restore relationship breakdowns
Many boys naturally move on after conflict. It’s often seen as a strength or a positive compared to girls who can make conflict linger far longer than necessary. However they can often neglect repairing relationships so they can be perceived as callous or uncaring. Encourage boys to make amends with an aggrieved person either with an apology or an act of kindness following conflict with a sibling or a friend. Alternatively, consider sitting down with them and the aggrieved person to discuss what happened; what they may do differently next time and in some cases to listen to how the other person felt about their behaviour. Some boys need to some assistance to develop empathy and see how their remarks or behaviour can adversely impact others.
Building boys’ confidence
8. Encourage collecting
Boys are avid collectors. It’s in their nature. It’s how they put order in their world. They like to see the extremes and see how they are confined. Collecting can drive many parents crazy, but it’s linked to boys’ normal healthy development.
9. Use private praise that is descriptive
Boys respond really well to feedback, particularly if it is given with genuine intent. Private praise is more effective than public praise for boys as they can become embarrassed being praised in front of their friends or relatives. Tell them what you see and how you feel. “Wow. You have tidied the room really well and put everything back where it should be. It’s a pleasure to come into the living room.” Such comments genuinely made become stored in their bank of skills and builds up their confidence.
10. Increase a boy’s time in environments where he succeeds
Boys who struggle at school or in mainstream benefit enormously when they spend time in activities or in places that they enjoy; where they experience success and where they feel confident. If sport fits this bill for your son then let him spend plenty of time in those environments so he can experience what confidence feels like. Confidence has a snowball effect and frequently transfers to other areas.
Helping boys succeed
11. Give them a reason to learn
Boys are great pragmatists. They need a reason to learn or do something. Link their learning to what they are interested in. If they love football, then get them reading, writing and talking about football, or ways they can be better at football. Link learning to their lives as much as possible.
12. Let your son see you read every day
Reading is a predictor of success at school, yet many boys struggle to interact with the written word unless it’s in a digital format. Boys will value reading more when their significant role models (mum and dad) read too. Make sure they see you read for a variety of purposes – for pleasure, to cook a meal or work out a problem.
13. Go visual to help their learning
Boys are more likely to be visual learners than girls, so play to their natural advantage. Use frameworks, lists and diagrams to aid understanding and increase retention. And show rather than tell them stuff. Once shown they are more likely to retain a picture in their heads to call upon when needed.
14. Teach boys to anchor
The concept of anchoring is really useful for boys who are forgetful, or for those who are learning a new behaviour. It involves linking a new behaviour or an activity they need to remember with a behaviour they already do. Anchoring has wide application. A boy who wants to remember to take a note to school may leave it in a breakfast bowl the night before. Knowing he always has cereal means he won’t forget his note.
Boys and technology
15. Create tech-free zones and times
Knowing when to leave technology alone is just as important as knowing when to use it appropriately. One way to teach appropriateness of technology use is to introduce tech-free zones and tech-free times into your family. For instance, dinner tables and mealtimes should be kept technology free to encourage face-to-face conversations. Bedrooms should be tech free, at least at night, to help children to get the sleep they need.
16. Differentiate between uses
Digital technology has three purposes– communication, education and entertainment. Be aware how your son is using technology, which will influence how you respond to them. Nuance your approach according to the children’s technology use.
17. Make sure boys play in the real world
You may need to be strong – very strong – but work hard to make sure that your son spends time playing in the real. The mum’s mantra of “Go outside and play” that many of us are familiar with is now something like “Put that device down. Now go outside and play.”
Boy-friendly mothering strategies
18. Teach your son about values and relationships
Mothers are generally stronger in the interpersonal areas of child rearing than fathers. Mothers generally do a great job of teaching their sons about a whole range of values (such as tolerance, persistence and loyalty) as well as helping them interact with others. Teach them to treat you well so that they will treat the other women in their lives, including their sisters and partners, with respect and kindness.
19. Step back in adolescence
Developmentally, it can be hard moving into manhood if your mum fights all your battles and is always whispering in your ear what you should be doing. Boys often need to find things out for themselves. Learn to step back a little during adolescence, but make sure you are there for them. Teen boys need to be reassured that their mothers will always be there for them. It makes them strong.
Essential strategies for fathers
20. Connect early
Don’t wait until they are ‘old enough to have fun with’ to start relating and playing with your sons. One way to ensure you connect early is to spend ten minutes a day on your own with your baby son.
21. Show pride in your son
Boys desperately want their dads to be proud of them. A boy thinks that if his dad is proud of him then he know he’s loved. This need for approval is in the male psyche. It cannot be ignored although we often conveniently forget it. The need for their father’s approval has a massive influence on a boy’s behaviour, his achievement levels and, ultimately, on the nature of their relationship.
These are just a sample of the hundreds of practical boy-friendly parenting strategies in our popular Parenting Boys course.