While every child is different, there are some basic foundations we can provide to ensure our sons grow up to be men who make us proud.
It’s something we’ve always known instinctively, but studies now prove that boys are wired differently to girls. In their book, It’s a Baby Boy!, obstetrician-gynaecologist Stacie Bering and psychiatric social worker Adie Goldberg reveal there are indeed scientific differences between male and female infants’ brains, and that developmental distinctions present themselves a few weeks after conception.
If you’re a mum, you’ve probably experienced these differences on a personal level. This boy—your boy—is somehow so different from who you are simply because of his gender. How do you understand him? How do you connect with him? And how can you successfully raise him so that he then goes on to become the man, husband and father you want him to be?
Here are some tips:
1. Show warmth, tenderness and affection
Boys require as much warmth, tenderness and affection as do girls, but studies have shown that parents hug, cuddle and even talk to their sons less than their daughters. As psychologist Steve Biddulph said in his book, Raising Boys, “If, in the early years, a mother suddenly withdraws her presence or her warmth and affection . . . to control his grief and pain, the boy shuts down the part of him that connects with her—his tender and loving part. If a boy shuts down this part of him, he will have trouble as an adult expressing warmth or tenderness to his own partner or children, and will be a rather tense and brittle man.”
2. Allow them to express their feelings
Your son needs to learn about sadness, anger, happiness and fear, and the best way to do that is to see his parents (even dads) express them. When it comes to talking, on average, boys will use fewer words and shorter sentences than girls. So ignore the message that men should be “stoic” and “strong” and help your boy to express himself better through his body and emotions. If boys fail to recognise their feelings, their go-to emotion will generally be anger. However, as Steve warns in Raising Boys, they also need to know how to “hold” those feelings: how to be afraid, but not rattled; mad, but not dangerous; happy, but not stupid; and sad, but not overwhelmed or dismayed.
3. Help them learn self-control
As Stacie and Adie say in It’s a Baby Boy!, “Your boy is built to be active. He is going to test the limits of his physical strength.” That physical strength has the potential to convert into something more destructive as he grows older and bigger, so while you should encourage your baby boy to move and be active, he needs to learn self-control as well. This means knowing the appropriate time to back off and how not to “lose it”, especially when he’s angry, tired or frustrated.
4. Chivalry isn’t dead
Opening doors, walking on the outside of the sidewalk and ensuring the lady gets home safely after a date are just some of the many old-fashioned but still relevant chivalrous acts your son needs to learn. Teach him to do them not because women are the weaker gender, but because they are different and he respects them. Your son needs to learn that while gender differences exist, gender inequality shouldn’t.
5. Give him his independence
It may be difficult to see your son as anything but your baby boy but you are doing him a big favour if you teach him not only to be independent, but how to take care of himself (and later, his family). According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, men on average spend fewer than five hours a week on domestic work, compared with between five and 14 hours a week by women. So teach your son to cook, clean and perform all the different chores needed to run an efficient household, and not expect his mum (or wife) to do them. Teach him also to care for others (playing with younger children or animals) and you’ll also provide him with opportunities to be tender.
6. Provide good mentors and role models
Fathers are vitally important when it comes to teaching boys to be good men, especially in their pre-teen years. When fathers are absent, male mentors and role models can also fill those shoes. If your son looks up to these men, it will be from them that he will learn the skills, behaviour and attitude needed to be a responsible and well-rounded spouse and father when he grows up. While you’re at it, give him some strong female role models as well to help him learn respect for women and their accomplishments. Belong to a strong social group—church, sports, school—to ensure your son receives the type of mentoring he needs.
7. Part of a community
“There is a natural egocentricity in a boy, particularly a young boy, that needs to be tempered with conversations that remind him he is a social being. Living with others and benefitting from their respect is great, but here’s the rub: others need to receive that same respect. Communities offer much. However, they also require much,” writes Tim Hawkes in his book, Ten Conversations You Must Have With Your Son. Contributing positively to the community he’s in will also teach him compassion, empathy, humility and kindness. He will also learn what it takes to be a contributing member of his own family when he grows up.
8. Friends with girls
You are the first female “friend” your son has and it is through you that he’ll learn how to relate to other women. Teach him what girls are like, to respect them, and help him to relax around girls and women, knowing that he can simply be friends with them. Claire Cain Miller in The New York Times article “How to Raise a Feminist Son”, says, “Research found that by the end of preschool, children start segregating by sex, and this reinforces gender stereotypes. But children who are encouraged to play with friends of the opposite sex learn better problem-solving and communication . . . [and] boys who have friendships with girls are also less likely to think of women as sexual conquests.” Related to this is teaching him to honour sex, and the difference between liking, loving and lusting.
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9. Provide structure in his life
“All boys, no matter where they fall on the intellectual or behavioural spectrum, need help focusing and organising their behaviour,” write Stacie and Adie in It’s a Baby Boy! They go on to suggest helping your son by giving him simple rules, a reliable and consistent schedule, and an organised room with designated places for his toys, clothes and school supplies. Never forget to praise and encourage him when he gets it right.
10. Love God
A deep and committed relationship with God will help mould your son into the man, husband and father he has the potential to be. A true bond with God will teach your son to love abundantly, the humility to seek divine guidance and the calm assurance knowing all will be well with God.
11. Model that behaviour
There is great wisdom in the Bible where it advises us to “start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6). At the end of the day, what every boy needs is a good example. Children learn by copying. So whether you’re a mother, a father, an aunt or an uncle, simply by virtue of being an adult, you need to behave the way you want a child to become and he will go on that path. Speak gently, act with integrity, show love and always respect others, and you’ll help develop a man society will benefit from.
As Steve says, “If you think about it, the great men of history—Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Buddha, Jesus—had courage and determination, along with sensitivity and love for others.”