If anyone had said that a boy would utterly transform my world, my values, my lifestyle, my priorities, my entire self definition, the younger me would have laughed out loud. God gave me two of them who have done just that. I’m from an all girl intellectual family and had so little experience of boy-ness and boy-isms. I needed to learn about them and how to raise them. There’s a worldwide bestseller called “Raising Boys” by a brilliant psychologist Steve Biddulph. He is one of the world’s most well respected parenting experts and I was lucky enough to meet him last month at the end of his latest UK book tour. Here I am sharing the main lessons I have taken from him on raising sons. I hasten to add that this subjective “cliff notes” version of a book and lecture is no substitute for reading Steve’s books. They have informed how I parent my children in such far-reaching positive ways. “Raising Boys” contains so many fascinating insights into how boys’ minds work, and how to raise them to be happy, confident and kind. In any event, I hope this post will encourage you on your parenting journey and give you some insights and practical tips on the motherhood and fatherhood of your sons.
A note on “other people’s parenting advice” from Steve himself: Run it past your own heart and your own head. If it passes those tests, take it home. Remember that as parents, you know your own child, household and circumstances better than anyone else does. You also have an in-built good sense of what is right for your child. Don’t let anyone over-ride your natural parental intuition.
Back to boys. I was so fascinated to hear that the biggest worry for a parent of a son should be keeping him alive – literally. Between the ages of 15 to 25, boys are three times more likely to die than girls, largely from very preventable causes – motor vehicle accidents, suicide, violence and workplace injuries. Other research has shown that 95% of behavioural problems and 80% of learning difficulties reported by schools are in males. Aspergers/dyslexia and many other conditions are dominated by boys. This is mainly down to complicated brain reasons that I cannot go into, but in a nutshell, a baby boy is born three weeks behind a baby girl in brain development. He will not catch up until the age of 19.
One of the main things I’ve learnt from Steve, and this is backed by many scientific research studies, is that boys and girls develop differently and have different needs from each of their parents. So what are the main things Steve says we need to bear in mind when raising our sons?
1. We must be willing to spend time
Time and love are the same thing to a child. You must put in the hours, and give your children your full attention when you are with them. The time you spend with your sons needs to be tailored to their distinct stages which come with different needs from both mothers and fathers. Needless to say, these stages are a general guide and there is no sudden shift between them, more a change of emphasis.
0-6: The Mum Stage: All children need their mother more, she has natural advantages. Dads can do a lot, but relative to the mother, they are just light entertainment. Children at this age need strong love and security in a world that is warm and welcoming.
6-14: The Dad Stage: At the age of about 6, a boy discovers he is male. He will look around to see how to do “maleness”. His father becomes effectively the primary parent for interest and activity in a boy’s mind. Steve’s advice to Dads: don’t squander it. It will not last.
14: The Mentor Stage: A boy at this age needs input from male mentors other than his father in order to complete the journey from boy to man.
At 14, there is a testosterone surge of 800%. The relationship between fathers and sons becomes twitchy. In Steve’s words, a 14 year old boy will argue with a road sign. He is deeply critical of the person his father is or could be or should be in his mind. Some boys never get over this. As a girl who utterly adores her own father and everything he is and he stands for, it was really interesting to hear Steve discuss the relationship between fathers and sons. Every boy who has ever lived apparently has inside his mind a “dream father” – the father he wishes his father would be, and every father has a “dream son”. Sadly the two never really match and the disappointment between what a male wants and what he actually has strains 90% of all father/son relationships, whether they realise it or not. I find this fascinating. It wouldn’t cross my mind once to consider a “dream child”, let alone compare my actual children to it. As a mother I just love the ones I’m given. They are all perfect to me. Men need to be taught to do that: accept what they have. A father must love his son for who he is, without constantly trying to mould him into (or blame him for not being) his dream son.
As for mothers, one important role she has for her boy at this stage is to teach him about girls and what they are attracted to. Comment positively on characteristics girls go for (like kindness, reliability, conversation and a sense of fun) so he knows how he should behave to attract them: “You were good company today”, “you’re good to talk to”, “you have a good sense of humour”, “you make me laugh”, “you are caring and kind”.
2. You must be willing to play rough and tumble games so he learns and understands his physical strength
Little boys need to wrestle and play rough and tumble games. You need to teach them through these games about the effects of their own strength and how they must learn to control it. Steve’s tip: If a boy goes too far, you stop the game, you look him in the eye and say: “your body is precious and my body is precious. We cannot play these games if one of us might end up in hospital. We need ground rules.” Males need to be taught how to control their body. The difference between a boy and a man is that a man can hold his emotions. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t have them. But he must be able to exist in full grief, terror or fury and not have his emotions spill out physically and hurt someone else. You must be able to be beside that man and not feel unsafe.
3. You must teach your son to respect women
I am not looking forward to this time, but apparently at around age 14, a boy realises he is bigger and stronger than his mother and the penny drops: “she cannot make me do it”. Hitherto unquestioned household tasks like clearing his plates after dinner or tidying his bedroom might be met with a surly manner and disrespectful attitude. This is where a father needs to step in: “Don’t speak to your mother with that tone of voice”. He needs to send the message to the mother: “I’m with you; we’re in this together and I won’t leave you to do this alone”. A lot of men make huge mistakes at this point. A man siding with his son with talk of “why are you making such a big deal of it” is the worst possible response, and a fundamental misunderstanding of how marriage and co-parenting works: You stay on the same side and never undermine each other. A father who undermines his wife constantly is not raising his sons correctly.
What about single mothers? One third of British mothers are raising sons alone. Steve says they can do this really successfully – and it is preferable to raising sons with an undermining partner. What is crucial is that she finds a male role model, a grandfather, uncle, teacher, friend. Her sons need to know how to be a man, or in Steve’s words “what a good man looks like”. He needs someone to watch and emulate. She needs to look at her life, choose that man wisely and make sure he is around every so often. Behaviour modelling is very real – your children will always follow more what you do than what you tell them to do. Be the people you want your children to become.
4. You must honour your son’s tender feelings
Little boys have a lot of feelings and we want them to have them and express them for life. We want them to become men who keep their hearts open. The world hammers male feelings a lot, with all sorts of potential negative consequences. Unexpressed emotion can turn into stress. Stress is a significant factor in many physical illnesses and conditions as well as mental illness. Most addictions stem from the need to drink oneself into oblivion – to block the pain of unexpressed emotion. Steve’s tip: Actually ask your son how he feels. Ask him again because boys often need asked things twice. Notice his worried looks and stormy expressions, find out their cause and talk him through them.
Steve made one final point which has really stuck with me – developing on his poignant message that time and love are the same thing in this busy life we lead. You know someone loves you when you have their full attention. Quantity actually does matter as much as quality. This is a country where people don’t have enough time. Great things happen with kids but you never know when those moments will be – those moments when they say the things you’ve lived your whole life to hear. What makes a good childhood is memories. Make sure you create them.
As for other people’s advice on boys, I have one nugget to share. The brilliant headmaster of my eldest son’s prep school knows as much about 7-13 year old boys as anyone could. He recently gave a talk to parents in which he said: “If you have a boy with an older sister, never compare them.” Mine don’t have an older sister but I can assure you that if my childrens’ birth order had been different, I would have potentially thought my sons needed speech therapy and behavioural counselling. I would have struggled not to trash their self confidence by showing constant disappointment in my face. Having a girl after two boys has been utterly fascinating. With the same genes, parenting and circumstances, she is completely different. At two and a half, she is as articulate as her 5 year old brother, using complicated sentence structure and big words like disgusting and brilliant (two of her current favourites). She sits where she is put and concentrates for hours using fine motor skills with sticker books and colouring in books inside the lines – a skill they are still yet to care about, let alone master. She has whole conversations with dolls and between dolls inventing personas for them. At the same age, her brothers would be slotting lego pieces into DVD players or their noses, climbing the furniture, throwing peas into cups and having constant wrestling battles. I am told mine are fairly calm for boys. Don’t ever compare your kids. It is terrible for them in multiple ways, but especially don’t compare your son to his older sister intellectually in the younger years. He cannot help being different (seeming behind) in every non physical way.
Notes: Steve has a new UK edition out of his book Manhood, which is for adult boys. Every male on the planet should read it. I am giving it for Christmas to all the men in my life. Hahaha. I want strong, rational, kind, emotionally balanced men in my life who don’t put on masks to hide emotions, who have healed their father wound, who know how to be a true dad, have real friends and get sex right. Those are all chapter titles, I didn’t just improvise. What a great gift for your husband that you will benefit from as much as he will! Steve writes really well and his almost disarming honesty on how relationships and parenthood works will grip you. For me, his books are akin to those novels you cannot put down, even though they are self help manuals – which is far from my favourite section in the book store. I am not alone. The Telegraph describes Steve as “electrifying” and Raising Boys has sold over a million copies.