On Raising Boys in this World

We've talked about raising girls. But there's a lot to say about raising boys, too. Dr. Matt Leahy weighs in.

By Matt Leahy, Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist | Apr 11, 2016
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This post is part of our "I'm Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas" series. For all of the posts in this series, click here.

My colleague recently posted about raising girls in today’s world and a reader commented, “Loved this article--but I have two teenage boys--is there a similar article?”

Just as there are many things to say about raising girls, there’s a lot to talk about with boys, too. Of course, expert opinion and parenting styles are always changing, but from my past ten or so years of working with boys, I have seen quite a few common threads that are consistent among many boys. There’s no doubt that all boys, and all children, are unique. And at the same time, there are many commonalities. Not all boys will fit this mold (I’ll talk more about that in a bit) but many do. Some things that are important to boys are:

Role models. Boys often look for examples of strong role models, and will gravitate towards what they find. It is very important for boys to have a reliable and loving adult male in their life. In the absence of a father or strong father-figure, boys may not choose the best male role models. An involved and loving dad is an incredible gift for a son. Families where the dad is absent can make up for this by allowing the child to spend time with another male adult who the parent trusts. This can be a teacher, coach, pastor, youth group leader, family friend, neighbor or any other reliable adult male.

Their mothers. By and large, in the absence of trauma, boys will adore their mothers. It’s commonly said that boys love their moms – and actually, that’s true! Boys tend to have a very close and affectionate relationship with their mothers from an early age. As boys mature into adolescence, some maintain this affection, and some back off. This can of course be difficult for parents who still want to show their son how much they love him. My advice is to shower him with love in ways that don’t feel intrusive or “annoying” and don’t embarrass him in front of his peers. But definitely don’t stop showing affection. The love that he is receiving – whether he’s reciprocating or rolling his eyes – is building his confidence and sense of self-worth, and it helps him develop appropriate ways to interact with others in his life.

Activity. Have you ever seen the sign that says, “Boy: Noise with dirt on it.”? It’s so true – when you see boys and girls on the playground, the boys are often the ones running around with sticks, jumping off structures, and scraping their knees. Boys are wired for action. They need to get up and move around, and they need that rough and tumble play. Trips to the hospital, broken bones and scrapes and cuts are more common than not with boys.

It’s important to talk about all of the boys who fall outside of this mold. Gender roles are taught. As a society, we push boys into more “masculine” activities like sports and less into more “feminine” activities like art, choir and drama. But the truth is, not all boys will fit this schema that we create for them. And that’s okay.

In the same way that society tries to masculinize boys through activities, we also have set ideas about how boys should act. We put pressure on boys to be strong, to be caretakers, and to “act like a man”. Some boys will enjoy being caretakers and protectors, and parents can support that. But not all boys do. Some boys want to be nurtured and cared for and are open to being emotionally vulnerable.

So, here is my advice on raising socially, emotionally and happy, healthy boys:

Acceptance. My biggest takeaway is this: total acceptance is the key to long term health. This means accepting our boys for who they are and what they enjoy rather than forcing them into activities or lifestyles that aren’t a fit.

Don’t compare boys to girls. This can be hard for parents who have both sons and daughters, but it is very important to keep in mind. Overall, boys develop later than girls. Boys can be seen as more “wild” (because of their high need for activity). They’re more likely to enjoy sticks and toy guns and find bathroom jokes funny. Sorry, but that’s just the ugly truth!

Allow them to be active. As a psychologist, I am opposed to punishments that take away recess or other opportunities for kids to burn energy. They’re not only ineffective, but they do more harm than good. Instead, I encourage parents and schools to pay attention to how much energy a child has been able to exert and keep that in mind as they plan their day. Build in frequent opportunities for boys to run around!

Allow them to have big emotions. The idea that boys shouldn’t cry is pretty outdated. In fact, research tells us that boys who do best are allowed to completely express their emotions. This leads to stronger relationships in the future. But we also know that boys have a harder time expressing their emotions.

Help them label their emotions. It can be helpful for boys to start young by learning to identify their emotions. This can be as simple as mirroring back to a child who is angry, “It sounds like you are really angry right now.” For older children, you can ask them to reframe their thoughts with emotion words. So rather than saying, “Chris was mean and he’s a jerk”, you can guide the child to say, “I was angry when Chris said that to me. It made me feel upset that he felt that way about me.”

On a related note, depression can be hard to see in boys. Sometimes it comes out as anger or risk-taking. Signs such as a change in temper or frequent outbursts might be a sign that a boy is depressed and needs additional support from a qualified professional – even if the boy doesn’t know or think that he’s depressed.

At the end of the day, whether you’re raising a boy or a girl, the most important things remain the same: acceptance, understanding, strong relationships and positive parenting lead to better outcomes.