I mainly focus on raising grade school aged sons since that is the stage of life that I am currently at. Sometimes, I reach back into my archives to address readers’ concerns, though. Several readers have recently given birth to their first son or are having challenges raising their sons. While each child is different and gender norms are not as narrow as they were in the past, there are differences between raising daughters and sons. I truly believe that the key to enjoying raising sons is to have realistic expectations. That is why I often encourage moms of boys to talk with other moms who actually enjoy raising boys and to read parenting books from professionals who specialize in working with boys. In regards to the latter, I pulled this following post (a Q & A with my favorite psychologist who specializes in boys) up from my archives. Enjoy…
Back in August of 2008, I shared my excitement about having a future Mom in the City Q&A with Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D. in the post Questions About a Boy. Dr. Thompson is a psychologist, school consultant and author/co-author of eight books including the classic bestseller, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys and It’s a Boy!: Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen. (You can learn more about Dr. Thompson and his works on his website www.michaelthompson-phd.com.)
Dr. Thompson was gracious enough to answer ten of our top questions. (Initially, this was four posts but I combined them into one for this 2017 update.)
1. What do parents need to understand about preschool aged boys?
I think parents, especially moms who weren’t raised with brothers when they were young, need to understand that boys really are different from girls, or more accurately, the average boy has a different arc of development than the average girl. Boys cry more easily than girls and are harder to calm; they are more impulsive and developmentally immature when compared to girls of the same chronological age. Their impulsivity can sometimes be scary to parents; a small group of boys are so impulsive that they can dash out into the street in an instant. We have to keep an eye on them. Fathers sometimes need to be reminded that boys don’t have to be “turned into” men, that their crying and need for cuddling when they are two and three doesn’t mean they will grow up to be soft. Little boys need every bit as much love, cuddling, attention, comfort and guidance as girls do.
Most of all, parents need to remember that boy development is trustworthy. For some reason, parents generally feel that girls are going to be okay and they seem to trust in their development. With boys, parents sometimes panic and are afraid that developmental immaturity at three or four, a problem with anger for example, will mean that their son won’t be a healthy or loving man. It is overwhelmingly likely that he will grow up to be a loving, competent man. When an exasperated mother is trying unsuccessfully to potty train a reluctant boy at three she may lose faith in boy development, especially when she remembers that her daughter was trained at two. She has to remember that almost no sixteen-year-old boys are still wetting their pants! Boys do get there, just more slowly.
2. Why are boys’ fantasy stories and imaginary games often so violent? Is that something parents should be concerned about?
I prefer to think of boys as being drawn to stories of adventure and power. They love dramatic tales involving conflict between good and evil, life and death. People are so disturbed by the fact that there are killings in boys’ stories that they fail to notice that the hero has often slain a villain. Boys work out their aggressive and angry impulses in stories in which they are heroic figures, filled with moral and physical strength. I believe that is what mythology, drama, art and storytelling are all about and have always been about. (After all, almost every one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays—Hamlet, Macbeth, Julius Caesar—is full of murders).
It is every boy’s wish to grow up to be a strong, respected man. His play and his fantasies always reveal that wish, if you can listen to his heroic yearnings behind the surface blood and guts. Children under five don’t really understand the permanence of death, so killing and dying in a little boy’s stories is just an expression of his desire to win. Since girls rarely engage in this kind of play, we have to ask the question: are little boys’ brains wired to be attracted to aggressive stories? I think they are.
3. Who has the greatest influence on preschool aged boys – the mother or the father?
In both single-parent families and in traditional, two-parent families (and there are fewer and fewer of them), it is the mother who provides the moment-to-moment, day-to-day care for her son and daughter, and thereby provides the foundation of their emotional lives. A mother’s love is, I believe, the bedrock of a child’s personality. Military histories tell us that when men are dying on the battlefield, with their last breaths they cry out for their moms.
That said, both parents are extremely influential in the life of a child, and I believe nature provided children with two parents for a reason: kids benefit from having two different approaches and two people who can support each other in loving a child during the difficult moments. A boy is profoundly influenced by how his mother treats him and responds to him, and he is equally influenced by the ways in which his father loves him and celebrates him.
Many mothers feel a bit jilted when their three- or four-year-old son, with whom they have spent a long day, suddenly seems incredibly excited by his father coming home. They want to wrestle with their dads, hang on their dads, and do everything their fathers do.
It is normal for a boy to love his mother, but to take her a bit for granted. After all, she’s the one who is usually there; she’s the one who reminds him to bathe and brush his teeth, etc., etc. In a little boy’s world, the fact that his father works outside the home tends to be a novelty, but also a boy needs to start constructing a male identity and it is his father on whom he is going to model himself. I’m sorry when mothers compete with fathers for a boy’s affections. A boy’s love for his father should be a source of pride to his mother; after all, she married his father because she thought he was a good man.
4. What should moms and dads do/how should they interact with their young sons to best meet their child’s needs?
The most important thing a mother and father should do is to enjoy their sons. Boys are fun, full of energy, sometimes wild, mostly loving and ultimately rewarding. You need to keep them safe, and they need to learn to be well-mannered, but mostly you just have to enjoy what they enjoy. Seeing the world through a boy lens can be pretty illuminating.
5. When (around what age) should boys be expected to control their physical selves (sitting still; play fighting a lot of the time, etc.)?
I hope no one expects boys to ever “control their physical energy” like girls. Three-quarters of boys are more physically active, more impulsive and developmentally immature in comparison to girls of the same chronological age. Boys in groups are rowdy, loud, and active, and they engage in play fighting right through college. Women who have two or three brothers tell me that they continue wrestling and play fighting into their thirties and even forties. If you are waiting for most boys to calm down and be like girls, you are in for a long, long wait.
6. When is the best time to put boys in full day school? (It seems like the majority of schools aren’t geared to physically active boys.)
There is no formula to help you with this decision. Some boys need more quiet play time at home; other boys are ready to wade into a social and school situation. You can figure that out by watching your son and taking your cues from him. If you have a very active boy and you have some school choice, it is important to choose a school that is tolerant of boys, has plenty of outdoor time and isn’t constantly scolding boys. Such a school is likely to be a hell for boys.
7. In regards to discipline/setting limits, how much should “let boys be boys” really be applied?
The phrase “letting boys be boys” is an unclear guide to parenting. Obviously, you need to stop boys from doing reckless and dangerous things. However, because boys like creative, challenging play that sometimes involves play fighting, danger is often in the eye of the beholder—the parent. In my book, “It’s a Boy! Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen,” a Kindergarten mother told me that she and the other mothers learned to turn their backs and NOT watch when their sons were playing in a field after school. She said that the moms had a tendency to intervene constantly when they saw their boys pick up sticks or play a hard-charging form of tag. I don’t believe that you should constantly intervene in boys’ play, because free, undirected play is the purest expression of childhood creativity and imagination.
When it comes to moral matters all children need to learn respect, empathy and good manners. You probably should let some boy shouting or bad language pass because you understand it was impulsive and over-excited; however, rudeness, cruelty and destructiveness must always be addressed.
8. Why are boys considered to be so much more challenging to raise during the early years than girls?
I think it is the boy activity level that keeps moms on their toes for the early years. When his son was between two and three years old, my friend, the child psychiatrist Ned Hallowell, called him “The Terminator.” His son would walk into or over anything, break anything and listen to no one. There was no way to stop him from danger other than to grab him. These boy behaviors are scary for parents, mothers especially. It is worth remembering that at sixteen years old “The Terminator” is quiet, a hardworking student, a gifted singer and a wonderful friend to his friends. The only sign of his early hard-charging behavior is that he is that he is a good wrestler on his school wrestling team.
9. Why is it so hard for boys to communicate — it seems like they either melt down or shut down!
Boys communicate very effectively, but much of their communication is non-verbal. They tend not to use words as early or as often as girls, and boys in groups tend to do activities together, not talk together. That gender difference in conversation is visible early on.
It is also true that from an early age many boys seem not to want to talk about things that make them feel ashamed; that is because it is part of most boys’ psychology to want to be strong, and not to show weakness. When moms are asking their sons about “how they feel” the boy often experiences that as an invitation to be vulnerable, and it makes them feel ashamed. That’s why they look down at their feet and seem to clam up. Sometimes, of course, if they are feeling overwhelmed, they simply fall apart.
Rather than wishing that your son would use more words, you can say to him, “I know you feel awful about not being able to such-and-such. Come get a hug.” After a while, you can simply ask him a question about his feelings, “Are you feeling bad because you can’t….” and he’ll nod in agreement. That helps him to identify his feelings.
The open-ended questions: “How are you?” and “How do you feel?” which are so much a part of female conversation are actually never that successful with boys or men. “You’re angry, aren’t you?” “You feel awful, don’t you?” work much better because a boy (or a man) can express his feelings without sounding weak or like a whiner.
10. It seems like my son has no awareness regarding physical safety. Will he become more “aware” as he grows older?
Of course he will. We all become more aware of danger as we grow older simply because experience — and trips to the Emergency Room for stitches—teaches all of us that some stunts are dumb and that we have limits. However, little boys live in their bodies and they are impulsive, so the joy of motoring around, of swinging from branches, of jumping from one wall to another often exceeds their judgment, even in the face of experience. That will be the case in some boys for many, many years.
Many teenage boys do reckless things because they feel immortal. The frontal lobes, the location of judgment in the brain, are not fully formed in young men until they are twenty-five. Therefore, I can say that the majority of young men will become far more aware of physical safety in their twenties and therefore more cautious. However, a thrill-seeking minority will still find the excitement of snow-boarding, rock-climbing, and motorcycle racing irresistible, even though it will always make their mothers nervous.
11. Bonus personal posts about parenting sons: