Raising Boys (A Dad’s Advice for Moms)

Even with three kids there are times when I sill feel like I’m just now getting the hang of being a dad. Most of us are. That said, there are a few subtle nuances that I have picked up along the way as a dad that might come in handy for moms raising boys.

Ladies, here are some things to think about with your boys:

  • Think caveman. Adult women have thousands of emotional states, as do girls like my daughter. Boys, on the other hand, tend to feel one of three: mad, sad, happy. Don’t project your complex emotional life on your son. His issue of the moment might not be that complicated. He wants to eat, poop, or run. On a really bad day he wants his toy back after some other kid took it from him. He doesn’t want to stare out the window and have lengthy discussions about the meaning of life, as my eight-year-old daughter often did.
  • Watch his body not his mouth. Again, like adult men, the clues to how your son is doing will show up first in his body language. Jumping up and down with six-inch vertical leaps is the natural state of being and is good. Slumped shoulders are bad. Yelling is good. Quiet needs attention.
  • When in doubt, hug. Boys will often have a much harder time than girls verbalizing their problems. My 5-year-old son will sometimes burst out into tears after seemingly trivial events. I know there is something deeper going on, but I am not going to get it out of him, at least not at that moment (whereas my daughter would not only tell me what went wrong but in no uncertain terms why it was my fault, which was generally true enough). So the solution is physical not verbal. I spend a lot of time just hugging my boys. I usually have no idea why. But as a default cure-all, it seems to work wonders. A minute later they are all patched up and ready to rumble again. This even works pretty well with my 14-year-old, who is a 6-foot-tall linebacker at Boston College High School.
  • Yes, it really is all about poop. Girls potty train 6 to 9 months before boys, but once boys make it onto the throne, there is no stopping them. Moving their bowels is pretty much the highlight of their day (true confession: it still is for me, too), and they are going to want to talk about it. Bathroom time is a participatory sport. My five-year-old likes to head to the bathroom just as the family is sitting down to dinner, sometimesduring dinner. It’s the first time he has been still long enough to realize he has to go. And he wants me to come with him, not just to assist in the wipe but to have a leisurely conversation about the status of his poop. As much as I found this inconvenient at first, now I just go with it. Quality time is quality time.
  • Batman lives forever. Boys, even at a young age, realize the importance of super powers. They want to be good and believe in the existence of ultimate good in the world. Boys sort out their identities in relation to the mythical characters they hear about. My son is obsessed with Batman. He wears a full costume, even through the airport and down Madison Avenue. What amazes me even more than his dedication to the superhero is how the guard at LaGuardia or the guy hanging off the back of a garbage truck sees him and shouts, “Batman!” My boy nods his head just slightly, acknowledging his public before moving onto the important work at hand, like going to kindergarten.
  • Pointless physical activity is perfect. My brother and I once convinced his two sons and my older boy, when they were all around the age of 10, that they really needed to build a structure out of rocks. The rocks were on one side of a beach, but the perfect spot where the structure had to be built, according to our sage advice, was on the other side of the beach. Each stone weighed between ten and thirty pounds. The boys started moving the boulders one by one, working together to lift the heaviest ones. My brother and I set up our beach chairs midway from the rock pile to building site. We read the paper most of the morning while the boys tired themselves out moving rocks and then assembling a tremendous cathedral. By lunch they were tired and happy, and my brother and I had enjoyed a peaceful morning.
  • Winning does matter, but less than you think. Boys — perhaps even more than girls — put themselves under extreme pressure to perform in school, in sports, and in social situations. They talk about it less, so the sting of failure can run even more deeply than with girls. With boys it’s important to emphasize the lessons to be gained from failure, instead of trying to win at all costs, and to emphasize the development of the whole boy. Too often in our culture, boys are pushed to become one-dimensional robots. Goodness isn’t about winning at youth soccer or having the most friends or being the smartest kid in class; it’s also about being kind. That’s something as a mom that you can particularly help your son understand.
  • Clothes matter. I know there are way more options for dressing little girls than little boys, so the tendency might be to just throw jeans and a t-shirt on your son and forget about it. But you better make sure they are the right jeans and the right t-shirt. The only consistent battle I have had with my sons is over what they wear. It matters way more to them than I ever would have imagined. They want to look cool; they want to be comfortable (pants that are tight but not too tight, warm and yet breathable). I do draw the line with clothes that have already been worn two days in a row, but I don’t discount the importance of fashion to my kindergartener.
  • Crowds, not so much. I have noticed that my daughter lights up when she enters a crowd, whether family or strangers. Mass humanity is something that gives her energy. With my boys, and, frankly, for me too, it’s the opposite. They get shy and tend to hide behind my legs. I try to protect them from these situations and not push them beyond their limitations.
  • Bedtime is sacred. Because boys are so active, it’s hard to get them to sit still. The best time of day is the ten minutes before they go to sleep. Crawl into bed with them, read books, and hold them while they fall off to sleep. If you don’t believe in God, you will once you have lain next to your overactive son while his body goes limp next to you, and he ever so faintly begins to snore.

If you enjoyed this, you might also like Tom’s new piece: Raising Teenagers For Dummies (Like Me)

About Tom Matlack

Thomas Matlack is a venture capitalist.


  1. Hey Tom.
    Just for the record, I have to say that some men are FANTASTIC parents. If you can admit that parenting is not your strongest suit, more power to you. But, I think you are just being hard on yourself and I have proof. Any man who can write your final paragraph (Bedtime is sacred) is a fantastic parent. Because you are there with your child in his quiet moments offering safety, peace and the comfort of your physical presence.

  2. Tom, it seems this article engenders many of the stereotypical feelings about men that the “GOOD MEN PROJECT” purports to fight against. Ironic.

  3. Tom Brechlin says:

    Due to time restraints, I can’t say all that I want. I do want to say that I’ve read Tom’s things and for the most part, his comment about his wife being a better parent is way off the mark. Mom’s and dad’s are different … equal but different. Dad’s provide something that moms don’t …. One other thing before I sign off is that the roles of moms and dads change as the kids get older and for sure change based on the kids gender.

  4. Tom.. that was a beautiful read.. thank you.. I’m about to go and snuggle with my over active son :)))) Thank you.. I feel assured I’m not smothering my son.. yet being the mum.. not wanting to fix.. but letting him know I’m there if he needs me.. thank you

  5. Stopped reading after the first sentence:

    “Let’s get one thing clear from the get go: moms are generally better parents than dads.”

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. After going through a divorce and seeing how the courts are living in 1948, this made me cringe. Evidently the author lives in 1952 also. Thanks for setting us back 60 years.

  6. Stopped reading after the first sentence:

    “Let’s get one thing clear from the get go: moms are generally better parents than dads.”

    Wrong, wrong, wrong. After going through a divorce and seeing how the courts are living in 1952, this made me cringe. Evidently the author lives in 1952 also. Thanks for setting us back 60 years.

  7. Heidi Bell says:

    I can’t agree with this kind of essentialism, and I don’t understand why people have to generalize for everyone else based on their singular experience. If you had written this as “Let me share my personal experience” rather than “Let me show you how my experience illuminates essential truths of what it means to be a boy or a girl,” you would have been fine. The more we see people, especially kids, as individuals on a continuum of human experience, the better off we’ll be.

  8. Thanks, Tom, as always, fantastic insight and tips on raising a good man. Bravo!

  9. Goodness…are you people judgmental, or what??? Firstly, the author was sharing his experiences with his own children, and if you don’t ‘get’ some of the humor imbedded in the article than you are not as emotionally evolved/savvy/gifted as you claim to be (Insert eyeroll) There are distinct differences between the ways in which boys and girls handle, and express, their emotions. It’s not to say that boys don’t feel the same depth and scope of emotions as girls just that they 1) may not have learned the tools to express them verbally 2) may need more time to process them to understand what they’re feeling. I’ve been both an educator and professionally nanny for over 20 years, and as much as I’ve fought gender-stereotyping/pigeon-holing etc., there are distinct differences. There just are. Generalizations exist for reasons, and that’s not to say that ALL boys fall into the boy generalizations or that ALL girls fall into the girls one. (I mean I still wear superhero t-shirts and I’m a ‘girl’) So…take a deep breath, process your angry & judgmental emotions, and try to appreciate what the author is trying to actually do here: HELP BOYS.

  10. Brad McDowell says:

    Come on Tom….I love you are doing here with the website, but suggesting that boys only feel three emotions is just silly. Boy (and Men) are human just like girls and women and we all have a thriving emotional component to us….if we allow it to exist. I see me in therapy because they only have three emotions and this is what gets them into trouble. If we allow this myth to continue, men will continue to be viewed as caveman.

    Also, men can be as good a dad as they want to be. I had to learn to be a dad, the dad I wanted to be, because my dad did it differently than I would have hoped he would. But, he only parented me the way he was taught, or in reaction to the way he was taught, and I am confident that if he were here today he would say he wished he would have done it differently.

    Let’s stop this nonsense about men being so different from women. Certainly we are not exactly the same, but we only become more different because we are pushed to be more different than we need to be.

    At the core, we are human and I believe that means we all have the capacity and the desire and the need to be emotive and to care for off-spring!

    Glad I got that off my chest….now I am off to teach my class….The Psychology of Men and Masculinity!

  11. Man do I love the bit about boys pooping before and or during meal time. I thought that was just MY son! I do have to say that women are great parents but men have their place too and without them (besides the obvious – kids wouldn’t exist) children would be unbalanced. So albeit you are not a perfect dad you are likely just the dad they need 😉 Thanks for the laughs!

  12. Hmm, I don’t know. I’m not going to say your advice is invalid, it’s very well meaning, but I think most of it relies too much on certain biological absolutes, which implies that human behavior is somehow linked to their biology. Boys at a young age are not especially biologically different than girls. Come puberty, this might be a separate issue, but during a prepubescent age all gender identity is completely performative. When raising males, we should all be careful not to fall back on lofty/sometimes not very lofty platitudes, especially when they are nonessential and, virtually all cases, irrelevant.

    • I agree. This gender essentialism can be really hard on kids and it’s socially destructive. This does not describe my son at all.

    • Michael says:

      Carlos – I disagree. Girls and boys are very different biologically at young ages. There is a lot of evidence revealing differences in mental, emotional and physical developmental curves and abilities. Of course these are generalizations but the idea that boys and girls are the same is also and more clearly incorrect. That doesn’t necessarily mean his conclusions are all correct but many of them are based on actual scientifically observed behavior and not just the ranting of a blogger.

    • Holdfast says:

      Sorry, but no. I can see it with my son and the other toddlers he plays with. Sure, he might sometimes pick up a doll and play with it, and the little girls might occasionally grab a truck to play with, and that’s all fine, but they are fundamentally different. I don’t know if it is innately biological, or if it is because they’ve unconsciously patterned themselves after adults or older kids if the same gender, but they just don;t act the same. The way boys and girls move, the way they interact with other kids, the attention spans, it’s just not the same.

    • As a psychology major I wanted to reply to your comment about how “but I think most of it relies too much on certain biological absolutes, which implies that human behavior is somehow linked to their biology.” Human behavior very much is related to biology, it is called, biopsychology, the study of the mind and behavior through biology. I think the advice is good and there are many valid points, while not all boys are the same, this is his experience and many little boys are just like this. No two children are the same and we all know this, but there obviously enough children that have the same behaviors or there would not be books and books about child psychology and behaviors.

  13. I think this is a well-intentioned post, but it’s misleading. Not all girls are gregarious crowd-lovers, and boys the shy ones. You will often find the complete reverse occurring in households–this is all about extroversion and introversion, which does not know gender.

    My sister has 4 boys–her oldest is definitely an introvert. He prefers to play alone rather than in groups and can focus on one activity for hours. A quiet child isn’t necessarily cause for concern. Pushing someone like this to be more extroverted can do a lot of psychological harm. Her second eldest has zero shyness, and would love nothing more than to sit with someone and discuss his feelings for eternity. The other two are quite young, but seem to lean to the extroverted side. And, personally, I’m female and do not like to discuss my feelings and emotions–never liked it as a kid, don’t like it now. This is in stark contrast to my sister, who has always worn her heart on her sleeve. Also, as a child I preferred playing alone, being inside my head, and avoiding crowds, and still enjoy the same scenarios today in my 30s.

    But the poop–that’s definitely all boys. 😉

  14. Nasirah says:

    This describes my son to a tee…(and his sister also) and we bring them up both the same way :) very funny! Thanks for sharing

  15. John Anderson says:

    It’s nice to know that boys haven’t lost their fascination with bodily functions. Wait until they find out they can fart.

    • When my grade schooler discovered the fart app, well, he and my husband rejoiced for days. Me? Not so much.

  16. patty broom says:

    cute article………made me smile.

  17. A lot of this stuff is really important but single mothers and women teachers completely fail at them.

    “Boys, on the other hand, tend to feel one of three: mad, sad, happy.”

    Anger in young boys is not tolerated at all. Girls get angry and their feelings are respected. Boys are looked at as a problem and are dealt with accordingly.

    “Watch his body not his mouth.”

    The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Boys in trouble don’t ask for help and they don’t get help.

    “Winning does matter, but less than you think.”

    Competitiveness is stifled and stomped out in boys. We are taught to value teamwork and cooperation and it’s drilled into our heads that everyone is a winner.

    “They want to be good and believe in the existence of ultimate good in the world.”

    No kidding. But this clashes with everyone telling young boys that they are potential rapists and men being portrayed as idiots and criminals in the mass media. How do you think that comes across to a young kid?

    Dear Author,

    “Crowds, not so much”

    This has more to do with the crowd than it does with your boys. Our society welcomes girls and views boys with suspicion. Even at a young age they key into that. They know they are not welcome.

  18. ALL of this stuff applies to girls. The only reason these ideas exist that boys and girls are SO MARKEDLY dissimilar come from people like you spreading the same ignorant opinions and other ignorant people believing them to be fact. Read a psychology book. Pfft!

    • THANK YOU. Almost all of these are ridiculous. The main reason boys don’t communicate the way girls do is that from infancy it’s assumed that boys won’t communicate, so it’s not taught like it is in girls. And liking/not liking crowds either has to do with A.)introversion vs. extroversion [a natural trait that has nothing to do with gender] or B.)or some form of shyness [a learned/developed trait that is more-than-likely linked to the lack of communications skills being taught].
      And if you think boys loving bathroom jokes and superheros more than girls isn’t because it’s socially more okay for boys, then I sent the largest of sighs your way.

    • Michael says:

      Sonya – Actually you should read some child development books because there are signficant differences in how young boys and girls develop.

  19. Gilbert_Sundevil says:

    As the father of four sons, a big giant thumbs up from me. Yes, there are some exceptions to these general rules, but you’ve largely hit the nail on the head.
    Jimmy @ 9:16 – bravo to you for stating why and how are sons & men are stifled & maligned in our society today.

  20. Hi Tom ~
    As the mom of a good man, I really appreciated this article and wish I’d seen it years ago. I quoted you in a post I just wrote for the Parenting With Cancer blog: “Think caveman… Don’t project your complex emotional life on your son.”

    I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma when my son was 7 years old. (He’s now 24.) When I read this, I realized in one swift boot to the head that my anxiety about him being traumatized by my cancer was 10x more traumatizing than the cancer itself. He’s tried to tell me a thousand times that he wasn’t stuffing unresolved feelings about it — he never had any!

    On the upside, I guess this means my husband and I did a good job of minimizing the impact of my cancer/chemo on our kids’ lives. My husband was the Rock of Gibraltar — still is — an amazingly good man and a powerful example for our son, who turned out just fine.

    Anyway, thanks for this.

    Peace and grooviness ~

    PS ~ Here’s a link to the Parenting With Cancer post: http://parentingwithcancer.com/2012/05/09/chemo-sabe-how-joni-rodgers-raised-great-kids-despite-cancer/

    • Rock of Gibraltar………well somebody/thing pulverised that “ROCK” in my life.

      Love my boys and the advice (Raising Boys-a dads advice for Moms)

      definately will hug them and love them before they sleep…
      so stuff the rock…

      No Blond Bimbo / No Boobs either!!

  21. While, as a mom, I really looked forward to the subject of this article, I think the article described the author’s kids’ personalities more than their enculturated gender traits. I’d really like to see an article like this which is based more on a broader statistical analysis of the issues that boys and young men face.

    @Micky I don’t remember reading specifically that the author said these were inborn traits. Little girls experience gender issues from a young age (objectification, sexualization, etc.) due to our culture. I expect that little boys experience some issues as well and I’d like to know what.

  22. Mother Bear says:

    Well said!
    I have raised two sons…….I am finally getting it

  23. Madalyn says:

    Your sons, your daughter, and your wife are lucky to have you. All families need a father and husband who is tuned in.

  24. Nicely put Tom. I rather enjoyed this piece. I have boy girl twin two and half year olds. And my son is purely how you described yours and so is my daughter. I have a feeling you have embraced your sons behavior and supported it NOT formed them into what you wanted. Relax people, stop being so up tight and worried how much everyone else is damaging their children. I garuntee we are all going to screw up somewhere down the line. Smile apologize and give them a hug!

  25. Michelle P. says:

    This is great. As a mom, I’m always shaking my head in disbelief as my 6 year-old is yelling from the bathroom describing the sounds that are occuring in there. I do not “get” boys preoccupation with bathroom stuff. My hubby has been trying to help me understand, telling me that to him, that stuff is still funny!
    Anyways, thanks for the insight and the laughs. Ignore all the naysayers and those that want everyone to act unisex.

  26. Tom,

    I’ve often seen you on this site decry essentialist gender stereotypes. Why, just a few days ago you posted a comment about women and technology, protesting someone’s implied point that women weren’t good with technology because of their gender.

    But then you make this comment:

    Let’s get one thing clear from the get go: moms are generally better parents than dads

    Great, thanks for clearing that up for us. Because it’s easier to dismiss the entirety of your post when you kick off with a HUGE and insulting generalization that sweeps all men (especially fathers) into the same dustpan that society does.

    So I’ve gotta ask: really? For real? For really real?? O-kay. Since you’re promoting the stereotype I’d like to see something to back that up.

    1. What defines a good parent?
    2. What are the frequencies of these traits in fathers and mothers?
    3. What evidence do we have from children of which parent they prefer?
    4. Is it possible that better is really just different and that both are equally valid?

    But I digress, you also began your “advice” with another insult: “think caveman”.

    REALLY? BOYS ARE CAVEMEN NOW? Yes, just stupid, uncomplicated, non-complex cavemen who can’t feel more than 3 emotional states because… yeah, I don’t know why either. And your daughter is nearly always right that things are your fault? Great. Thanks for reinforcing that “all Dads suck” meme.

    Seriously, you had a great idea and just ruined it so completely that I’m shaking my head here at my desk.

    • In his defense this was written before the comment on the other page, he may have learned a bit more since then. It’s good to see the gender essentialism being challenged even by those who once believed in it more.

  27. As the mother of one adult daughter, I have suddenly found myself raising my 3 very young (4, 2 1/2, 1) grandsons, and totally at a loss for dealing with all the *boy* issues.

    I’m relieved to know that their habit of leaving the table halfway through dinner to poop, and making the whole family come along, is pretty normal, LOL. Now, we just plan for it, and know that after the first few bites and half glass of milk, one will suddenly jump up and shout “I gotta poop! Le’s go Granny, come on Papa!”

    Glad to have found this site, and will definitely be back.

  28. Valerye says:

    I really feel sorry for some of the people who posted responses here. This was an entertaining column by a man who shares observations about the differences between raising boys and girls based on his own experience. He makes no claim to being an expert in psychology or sociology. However, many of you have argued against his column as if it were a paper submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. You took his tongue in cheek remarks and self-deprecating humor as if he stated these things as scientifically documented facts.
    Try enjoying this piece for what it is – a somewhat humorous look at differences between boys and girls. If you lighten up, you may find you get more out of it. And that you get more out of life in general.

    • I bet you wouldn’t be telling people to lighten up if he had said things like “Let’s get one thing clear from the get go: a women’s place is at home with the kids. It’s what they’re made for.”

      The way he started this article is extremely offensive to me. Young males might be reading this and he’s basically telling them “don’t waste your time trying to be a good father because you’ll never be as good as even a substitute mother.” And then he goes on to promote the idea that males somehow just don’t HAVE complex emotional states; a stereotype that is probably at least partially responsible for the fact that suicide rates among males are more than triple that of females in most westernized countries.

      Enjoying this article for what it is would mean burning it to roast a marshmallow.

    • Yeahhhh!! I agree wholeheartedly.

    • Mark Neil says:

      Standard attempt to shame men for speaking up for themselves.

  29. Sandhya says:

    Really? I’m amazed that we’re publishing this stuff into the 21st century. Boys only care about being mad, happy, or sad? They want to run and they care about poop? Where are you getting this stuff? Perhaps the reason your wife is a better parent than you are is because she pays attention to your kids–not because she’s a woman. I am so tired of that stereotype that the woman is always a better parent than the man. But it’s quite possible that I’m even more tired of hearing that my little boy is simple, while my daughter is complex, that he doesn’t have the emotional depth that she does. Please, do your kids (and readers) a favor and take some time to learn about parenting!

  30. I am the mother of a 2 year old girl. So of course I don’t have a son (at least not yet, I would love to have more kids someday). I think that some of the readers and commenters of this article are taking it too seriously. Parenting advice should be taken with a grain of salt, you simply pick and choose what works for you and what works for your child.

    I think Dads have valuable advice for moms, sometimes it is nice to get a man’s perspective on how to raise kids. I’ve gotten solid advice from Dads and some of it has worked. It is true that boys and girls do develop differently physically and emotionally and each child different things at different rates. Child development knowledge is always changing.

    And ya know what we do raise our kids differently depending on their gender, i’m not saying that this is good or bad, it is what it is. I respect that some parents try to be neutral because they don’t want to put any unnecessary pressure on their children to be a certain way just because that is what is socially expected of them.

    I think as parents we need to offer each other less judgement and more support. It’s hard to raise kids, each one is unique and there isn’t a handbook for how to raise children. We are all winging it, and what I mean by that is, we are simply learning as we go. So why not try to learn from each other.


  1. […] [lix] Matlock, T, 2012, ‘Raising Boys (A Dad’s Advice for Mums),’ The Good Men Project, February 8, 2012,  http://goodmenproject.com/good-feed-blog/raising-boys-advice-for-moms/ […]

  2. […] don’t take my word for it! Hop on over to The Good Men Project where we will meet Tom Matlack who has some seriously funny advice for us! But seriously, lots of […]

  3. […] recently came across this post on the site, The Good Men Project (the name alone speaks volumes), that tells it like it is from one dad’s perspective. […]

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