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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.

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.”

 

Today, it is all about girl power. Heroes like Malala Yousafzai and Wonder Woman leave us in awe at just how far we have come. But what about our boys?

All around us, little girls are being empowered more and more – they are becoming more confident, more successful in school, and attaining more power and strength then ever before. But what about our boys?

Today, boys are dying earlier, performing worse in school, and committing more violence.

From birth, boys are emotionally short-changed. They are taught to suppress emotions such as fear, grief, and shame, as this would be a sign of weakness. They must always be tough and strong. ‘Real men’, after all don’t cry – they rage. As established author and sociologist Professor Thomas Scheff explained, boys learn from an early age to hide their vulnerability by acting out in anger or remaining silent. Despite our best efforts, these hyper-masculine messages are still being passed on to young boys, from friends, parents and the media.

And this of course has dire consequences. Today, boys are dying earlier, performing worse in school, and committing more violence. Studies have indeed shown that this toxic masculinity is a root cause of these problems. By teaching our boys, whether intentionally or not, to suppress their emotions, we are inadvertently setting them up for a tougher life.

And that all starts from the moment they are born.

Where does it start?

 

 According to best-selling author and family therapist Terry Real, boys are emotionally short-changed from birth. Studies have shown that “infant boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, nurtured less.” This is because parents, perhaps unintentionally, believe that boys are born with an innate ‘manliness’. Boys are supposedly born tougher, and do not need as much affection.

In reality however, boys and girls start off equally emotional and expressive. In fact, infant boys are slightly more emotional than girls, says Real. Studies have shown that they “cry more easily, seem more easily frustrated, appear more upset when a caregiver leaves the room.”

As boys grow, however, their emotions are dealt with more negatively. Studies show that while girls are encouraged to talk and express their frustrations, emotive boys are more likely to be physically restrained or threatened. Their insecurities are more likely to be ignored. Boys, after all, need to be trained to become ‘real men’.

Studies have shown that “infant boys are spoken to less than girls, comforted less, nurtured less.” …. Boys are supposedly born tougher, and do not need as much affection.

Despite our best efforts, we still, perhaps subconsciously, believe that men must act a certain way in our society. According to anthropologist David Gilmore, who specialises in cross-cultural masculinity, gender roles are still seen as an important social organising tool. Men and women are given particular parts to play, so that society and life itself can go on smoothly. In essence, if ‘boys will be boys’, then everything will be all right.

But is this really healthy for our boys? By teaching boys to be ‘real men’, we are arguably setting them up for a harder future. Here then are three consequences of teaching boys not to cry:

Health

 

By suppressing their emotions, men are more likely to die first. According to Rutgers psychology professor Dr. Diana Sanchez, men are more likely to ignore their medical problems as “they have a cultural script that tells them they should be brave, self-reliant, and tough.” They are far more likely to avoid going to the doctors, or lie about their symptoms so as to not appear weak.

Men are reportedly three times more likely to commit suicide, even though depression is more prevalent among women. In 2015 alone, 2,292 men took their own lives in Australia, as opposed to 735 women.

This applies to depression as well. Men are reportedly three times more likely to commit suicide, even though depression is more prevalent among women. In 2015 alone, 2,292 men took their own lives in Australia, as opposed to 735 women. It is believed that this is due to men’s reluctance to seek help for their depression, as ‘real men’ must be self-reliant and strong. ‘Real men’, after all, cannot reveal their emot

School

 

 This idea of a ‘real men’ can make school much harder for boys. In the past few decades, boys have been performing worse than girls in school. In Australia itself, boys are five times more likely to be expelled. They average lower grades then girls, particularly with writing and reading. 60 percent of Australian university students today are also women.

According to Dr. Michael Kimmel, a renowned sociologist who is today considered one of the world’s leading experts on masculinity, boys perform poorer in school largely because of how they have been socialised as men. “Boys acknowledge academic disengagement as a sign of their masculinity,” says Kimmel. ‘Real men’, in this sense, must be stoic and disinterested in general.

“Boys acknowledge academic disengagement as a sign of their masculinity.”

As Kimmel explains, “This isn’t natural to us humans – if you ever watched a two or three year old, we are naturally, unbelievably curious.” It is only when they get older, Kimmel says, that they are taught by their male role models – fathers, brothers and friends – that apathy is a true hallmark of a ‘real men’.

Violence

 

By suppressing their emotions, boys are inadvertently gearing for a more violent future.It is now a well-known fact that men commit more violent acts then women. In Australia, men are more than three times more likely to commit a violent crime. They are also more likely to be a victim of homicide or burglary, usually at the hands of other men. There are 12 times more men then women in jail right now. Simply put, you are more likely to experience violence from a man.

Indeed, violence is oftentimes the only language that does not bring them shame.

As psychology professor Dr. Arthur Markman explains, “people may become more aggressive after they have to control themselves.” Many men also feel that anger is the only emotion allowed to them – they may be in fear, or in pain, but repress this and act out in anger, for rage is strength, and strength is what makes a ‘real man’. Indeed, violence is oftentimes the only language that does not bring them shame.