More than ever before the modern world is experiencing uncertainty and change. As a result, many of our boys are struggling. But what impact is this having on the men they will become? Claire Armstrong chats to renowned child focused educator Maggie Dent on how to raise remarkable men in a modern world.
Words CLAIRE ARMSTRONG
It was an emotional Maggie Dent that spoke in awe of her latest book, Mothering Our Boys; A guide for mums of sons. This is the book she believes she was put on this earth to write and carries her heart and soul. And even with her long list of credentials in the parenting realm, Maggie feels the pressure of how audiences will respond. But as sales climb beyond 10,000 in the first few weeks, it is clear this book resonates with today’s parents.
At her core, Maggie is a mum, a self-claimed, imperfect mum, to four wonderful boys.
Maggie with her sons
“I openly claim I was an imperfect parent, but I always had an intuitive sense my boys needed freedom and times and places without my direction or input,” she says.
“Allowing my boys to take risks, fail and recover, was not easy but it greatly helped build confidence, courage and gave my boys incredible resilience.”
Maggie speaks of modern lifestyles, full of game consoles, social media and an education system so focused on academic results, diminishing the freedom to just “be kids” and providing fewer opportunities for unstructured play, as having a major consequence on our boys’ development.
“We have spent so much time trying to safely guide our children and prevent bad things from happening to them that we are dissolving their ability to judge risk for themselves which ironically sets them up for disaster."
Today’s boys are struggling.
They are more likely than girls to go to prison, be illiterate, die young, be in remedial classes, have ADHD and more. And we are also seeing poor examples of masculinity in our society via the news and social media.
So how do we show our boys what healthy masculinity looks like and raise men capable of being able to hold their hearts open in relationships?
“The big message in my book is other women can positively influence other people’s sons. Boys observe all humans and learn from everyone around them so it’s important we are all that warm, gentle presence in young boy’s lives.”
Maggie lets Offspring in on a few secrets. A couple of little secrets about raising boys.
“A big secret is play,” Maggie quips.
Could it really be that simple? Maggie explains the real secret to raising boys into happy, well rounded young men, is to let them play and allowing them the chance to make mistakes, get dirty and occasionally get hurt.
Playing together also teaches kids how to behave socially around winning and losing, an experience far more valuable than playing games on screen, which show no emotional response from competitors.
“The play code developed from playing with other children is fundamental for boys to negotiate conflict in adult life,” Maggie says.
She suggests games with only one winner. When they lose, they’ll get better at learning to deal with it. Play is also how we learn to wait, to take turns and develop the art of strategy.
Most boys struggle emotionally due to the inner conflict between hormones, brain chemicals, slower and poorer verbal and emotional processing and social conditioning for boys to appear powerful and successful.
There is a mistaken perception that boys and men don’t feel emotions as much as girls and women — here is another secret – they do. They just process and communicate them very differently.
“Boys need more time to work out what big feelings are all about, whereas girls tend to move from experiencing the emotion to interpreting it much quicker,” Maggie explains.
“When boys feel emotionally vulnerable, they tend to have a default setting straight through to anger, which is often not acceptable in everyday settings.”
Traditionally, boys have been told to toughen up when faced with adversity. Maggie dispels this saying a more nurturing approach is far more helpful for boy’s development.
“All children need to know they are valued and loved. But we need to meet the unique needs of boys. They want close one-on-one chats, but they don’t want them straight after school when they haven’t had time to process it yet.”
Another secret many mums of boys will have already learnt is that non-verbal cues are a primary form of communication. To feel loved many boys just need to know you are “present” to them.
It sounds easy, but in reality, parents are busy people. But Maggie urges anyone with boys to acknowledge that moments of non-verbal connection are incredibly valuable.
With Christmas coming, Maggie reminds parents that boys don’t need the latest fancy toys, instead the best gift would be using the holiday to spend time together playing and making magical memories. It’s about presence not presents.
Some tips on communicating with boys:
• Boys respond to non-verbal connections. Wink, make funny faces, give high fives and thumbs up.
• It's about presence. Join them in their chosen activity. Watch their favourite show or build Lego together.
• Engage in spontaneous hugs, cuddles and tickles. Launch a ‘surprise bedroom tickle attack’ (for older children!)
• Let them know you think about them when you are apart. Hide notes or jokes in their lunch box or on the bathroom mirror.
• Make eye contact and ensure they are listening before you start talking. Keep verbal instructions short.
• Give choices and ask, rather than demand.
• Help boys with emotional coaching. Teach calming strategies and model quiet times especially with big feelings.
• Create a bedtime ritual. The last thing your son should hear every night before entering the land of nod is how much you love them.
“I always told my boys, ‘I love you more than all the grains of sand on every beach, more than all the stars in the night sky and more than all the hairs on all the bears’ and even now they still remember it.”
Claire is a journalist of eight years across a range of publications and mother of two beautiful girls. She has a passion for all things parenting and a love of sharing stories about the parenthood journey.