Rooted in biology but also influenced by other factors, there are some key differences between boys and girls that will impact how you understand, communicate with and support your sons.
1. Boys prefer to do
Think for a moment what tends to happen if the average man buys a flat pack. He will generally start building it without reading the instructions. When he finishes, there are often unused bits that he sweeps aside because they “must be unimportant!”
What has actually happened is the man has been on an adventure, which he has then conquered through his own choices and autonomy. This gives him great fuel for his self-worth barometer.
We need to keep this in mind as mothers. When we want our sons to do something, we increase the chances of getting it done if they are allowed to have some autonomy in how to get it done.
I found in my high school classrooms that some boys worked better sitting on the floor rather than at desks. The fact they could choose was deceptively important to them and a small sign of respect. Little things matter and having complete authority that is mandated makes most boys defensive and resistant.
2. Listening is a challenge
One of the most common sources of conflict is that sons “never listen” or they seem not to hear what mums say! Here’s a possible explanation.
Let’s pretend your son is watching TV. You call out to him from the nearby kitchen, asking him to turn the TV off because dinner is ready. You notice no sign he has heard you. So you use a slightly louder voice. Still no reaction. Then you shout at him very loudly.
You may notice your son turn quickly with a distressed look on his face, wondering why on earth his mother—the woman he loves more than anyone—is suddenly shouting!
You see, in a way he was really busy: his single focus was the TV and he did not hear you the first two times. I suggest that rather than call out, you walk over quietly and possibly tickle his back to get his attention, then give him five minutes to turn off the TV. Boys are often not good at transitions, especially moving from an experience they’re enjoying.
Just before the five minutes is up, go over and in a loving voice, ask him to turn the TV off now because dinner is ready.
3. Boys generally hear less
It would seem that boys’ capacity to hear, especially to take in long-winded explanations and directions, is significantly different to how girls hear. Have you ever noticed that girls can often listen to what you’re saying while they are talking as well?
I can attest to this in my classrooms where I would be giving a description about a task. Inevitably, two or three boys would put their hands up after and ask what they needed to do. More recent research suggests that rather than boys hearing less, this trend may have more to do with boys understanding less. Either way, this can be really frustrating for mums of sons.
4. Boys get information overload
Boys tend to struggle with too many requests or when too many words are spoken. This is often because of an information overload.
Imagine the look on your son’s face if you asked him to put his dirty glass in the sink, wash his hands and come for dinner. There is a look that suggests, “Uh oh, I am gonna get into trouble because I didn’t hear what Mum said!”
Boys don’t tend to remember the first or last part of the request—it simply causes a minor brain freeze and that’s when you see a glazed expression. Try to ask him to do one thing at a time and then, when that’s done, ask him to do the next thing. Often single words with clear non-verbal messages such as waving hands and arms, can get better results.
You may say, “David—” (pause and point to shoes) “in your bag” (point to bag) “now, please” (big smile or wink). Remember, he really wants to please you. If you can keep your requests to around 10 words or less, you also increase the chances of him succeeding.
The cycle of requesting and nagging is a sign your communication is not working, not a sign he is being disobedient. If you can get into the habit of connecting with your son in a gentle, tender way that does not require words before you make your request, you will be lowering both of your stress levels.
5. Boys have shorter attention spans
Boys’ attention spans appear to be shorter if they perceive an activity no longer deserves their attention. Your son simply does not want to waste his energy on things that are not going to make him feel better about himself or that are not going to be fun.
I believe this may be to do with boys processing dopamine differently from girls: as soon as the dopamine level drops, boys will start moving to build the level back up.
Boredom to boys is akin to failing or losing and that is why sometimes a young lad who is watching TV might also be jumping up and down on the couch.
I have also heard from a physiotherapist that crossing the arms or legs for any length of time for some boys can be painful due to the differences in the development of boys’ and girls’ muscles and tendons.
6. Boys need greater stimulation
Boys need to be sure that an activity is worthwhile, interesting and something they want to do. As an English teacher, it took me quite some time to convince some of my boys that English was a worthwhile subject.
There is a question burning inside every boy, every day and that is: “What’s in it for me?”
7. Memory issues
If there’s one issue that drives mothers to need more chocolate, it is how frustrating it is for our sons to remember things. What we do know is that memories are anchored when there are strong emotions present, which is possibly one of the reasons why we remember quite vividly very painful moments of childhood and tend to forget the more bland, normal moments.
Little boys are notorious for accidentally weeing on the floor and they can also be known to have a quick poo and run out without wiping their bottom, flushing the toilet or washing their hands. Sometimes it’s not so much about forgetting as being distracted by something else. If there is a game going on, playing trumps everything and boys will sometimes wet themselves because they cannot drag themselves away.
8. Boys need to play
Children learn almost everything they need to know about life through play, from physical coordination, decision-making and problem-solving, to empathy and social and emotional skills. And in this world, where a tsunami of screens has changed the way we interact with each other, learn and engage, it is vital that we prioritise play.
Vigorous, rough-and-tumble play helps children, especially boys, diffuse excess emotional energy. Research has also shown a strong link between lack of rough-and-tumble play and violence once boys reach adolescence, and I am convinced the increasing violence and bullying in our schools is because we have not valued play enough.
Children need play for brain development—the cerebellum is stimulated by tumbling, rolling, balancing and spinning. Play helps a child learn emotional and social competencies, which cannot be developed through verbal interaction with adults.
I am a firm believer that all boys and all girls need plenty of ongoing opportunities for creative, exploratory play in stress-free environments, especially in nature without restrictions on time or freedom. It is essential to life itself.
This is an edited extract from the book, Mothering Our Boys, by Maggie Dent, released at the end of 2018 and now a bestseller.