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)

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About Tom Matlack

Tom Matlack is the co-founder of The Good Men Project. He has a 18-year-old daughter and 16- and 7-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life. Follow him on Twitter @TMatlack.

Comments

  1. This is great advice! I have three sisters and two daughters, and when my son was born my first thought was “what do I do with him?” This guide is a wonderful read for all mothers of sons.

    Based on my experience, boys are very different from girls. I didn’t direct my kids in any one direction,but the girls love dolls and quiet craft projects, and my son loves cars, throwing toys and wrestling with his sisters (who, by the way, HATE wrestling).

  2. As a single mom. And I mean single as I adopted a boy while single. I thank you so much for this.

  3. great piece!! very well written! very much describes our boy / girl split …. i actually took a course when my son was about 4 called “bringing up boys” which helped to bright to light the differences btwn boys and girls … school makes us all out to be the same and the reality is boys are VERY different from girls!

  4. Nice article. I got really emotional when I was reading pooping part. That is my son who goes number two during dinner and points at the tub for me to have a seat and tells me to look the other way while he is “pushing” LOL!! As a first time parent, I thought that he is just being way too clingy but then one day, I realized that I will miss our daily bathroom conversations!

  5. I think it is harmful to focus so much on gender differences while raising a child. Stereotypes are often exaggerated because of a tendency and desire to comparmentalise behavior. It makes us feel intelligent and gives us a sense of control amidst the flux of life. Boys and girls are both human and have a lot in common yet uninformed articles like this one focus on gender difference and pay no attention to cultural influences. From infancy my son and daughter were treated differently by others. When my son made a fist it was because he was going to be a tough guy someday. When my daughter would grasp at my wife’s earrings it was perceived that it was that she liked pretty things. Even the tone of voice that people used when communicating to my children was different based on which child they were talking to. I also felt my temdancy to do the same thing because of my cultural preconceptions. I am not claiming that there is absolutely no difference between boys and girls. What I am saying is that exaggerating these differences limits the development in children as their complex and unique personalities are pidgin-holed into two very restrictive categories.

    • Anonymous says:

      Amen!!

    • THANK YOU!!! I was think the same thing. It’s disheartening to see this over and over, especially in Christian writing. There are gender differences we can celebrate, but it doesn’t help anyone to paint with such a broad brush and assume everyone always falls within the same lines. In many ways I’ve always been wired like a male in my thinking. I already see that in my daughter. And my son? Emotional intelligence is a learned skill, and as his mom I’m going to teach him. I’d rather celebrate and nurture their differences in terms of personality, not gender.

  6. Daddy O says:

    Great article, thank you for sharing.

  7. laceyjane says:

    I loved your casual insight. Thanks for the good advice.

  8. I appreciate the article (well-written, enjoyable, pretty helpful) but I do feel obliged to point out to other readers looking for advice that quite a lot of the above isn’t universal. I’m not a parent, but I have been a babysitter and long-term nanny for several different children, and I can say it varies quiet a lot, particularly being in crowds, talking, hyperactivity, and dealing with emotions.

    But yes, Batman!!

  9. I agree with many of these points, especially the ones about hugging, physical activity, and quality time. Some of them, however, are worth calling out.

    For one, making generalizations about the personality types of men and women is based entirely on lack of truth. Personality types do not favor gender, and children are not that different from adults. The shy woman you met at the office was not a center-of-attention-seeker as a young girl, simply by being a young girl. She was shy, like she is now. It seems that your daughter is more extroverted and outgoing while your boys happen to be more reserved. This is not true for all children; common sense tells us this, as does scientific study.

    Also, I disagree with the lack of emphasis on emotion and verbal expression in boys. Perhaps your boys aren’t as verbally expressive because they’ve been taught not to be? Society expects men to be physical and women to be verbal, and never the other way around. This has caused a ton of problems, and we’ve all seen it. Perhaps this problem can be curbed by not simply assuming that your boys, being boys, feel only simple emotions, and aren’t worth trying to verbally reason with. This can be detrimental to boys who actually are willing to verbally express their frustrations and problems. I was one of these boys who was verbal by the age of eight. I was also quite active–but all children are when they’re in kindergarten. I think you’re overgeneralizing, and while this works for your children, applying this logic to all children is borderline forcing them into gender stereotypes, when you should be cultivating a pursuit of your children’s “true self” instead.

  10. I agree with everything, except one thing. I do not think that moms are generally better parents. There are too many factors involved for that to be true in my opinion.

    James

  11. revolutionaria says:

    i felt really triggered by this article. i found it full of sexism and labeling of boys (and girls) as being one way only. many of what i read in it i could also say about many girls i know (i am a teacher and am around lots of kids all day long). statements like this: “Because boys are so active, it’s hard to get them to sit still” is not true of all boys and it implies that boys who are not particularly active are not “boyish”. also “Boys, on the other hand, tend to feel one of three: mad, sad, happy” does not ring true for me at all as a parent and teacher of boys.

    one thing that has helped me to talk about the “differences” we see in boys and girls (although there are just as many of them among boys and among girls) is using language that implies that boys and girls are socialized to behave one or another way, rather than that they are just born with natural differences. i would have had an easier time with this article had he said things like “because boys are socialized to show less emotion, often they revert to mad, happy, or sad” or “because some boys are very active”…it leaves room for nuance, includes boys who don’t have those traits and doesn’t feel as essentialist.

    the part at the beginning about moms being better parents is almost to ridiculous to comment about, so i wont.

    • passionate individual says:

      Absolutely, revolutionaria, I too found the article entirely sexist, with so much literature out there to the contrary why do people insist on attaching stereotypes onto genders. The actual differences in boys are girls are so small and cannot be attributed to the stereotypes that are so often banded around. We are all individuals and often ‘boy’ traits can be seen in most girls and vice a versa. Unfortunately boys are socialized from a young age not to talk about emotions or cry etc and girls are given more space to this. I have two children, both boys who are so very different, one child is soft and gentle and an amazing communicator, the other is fiery and extroverted and isn’t so great at communicating but they are both at different ages and we, as parents are doing our best to raise them without the pressure of limiting stereotypes. There is so much research out there, showing how important it is to break gender stereotypes and how irrelevant they are, check out Lise Eliot and Cordelia Fine.
      Unfortunately these articles aren’t really the best advertising for the good men project, essentially putting men back in the role of the illiterate cave man, which would be an absolute step backwards. Here’s to raising children based on their individual personality traits, not the personality traits of a narrowminded stereotype.

    • According to this article I am a boy(and I am a 29 year old female!). I hate crowds, I don’t like to talk about my emotions, I only wear sneakers and jeans when given the option, but they had better be the right jeans and sneakers, my body language is not so different from that described but I certainly won’t tell you about what’s bothering me willingly, and I move constantly even when it’s not necessarily productive. I don’t have children but I am a teacher and have seen a wide variety of children. There are no ‘boy traits’ or ‘girl traits’. There are children with individual traits. The traits we describe are socially constructed and taught into children. My relationship with my husband is, in many ways, role reversed. I mow and garden, handle car maintenance and do the handy work around the house. He is a computer guy who kicks my butt at doing the dishes or cooks up a mean dinner, but it works for us and I think all children need to be taught to sew on a button and change the oil in a car, regardless of gender.

    • Wow, I’m so glad you commenters not any of my kids teachers! I am the mother of 5, four boys and one girl. Some people TOTALLY missed the point! I think they took your words as the bible and implied that you are proclaiming to know all as truth. I, on the under hand, found it funny and very true. I appreciated your honesty and humor. And I especially liked getting an honest male point of view. Keep writing and let these “politically correct”, no keeping score, nay sayers go find another article to lash thier insecurities at!

      • I am so with Tina. Really people. I am one of 10 children – 5 of each and have 4 children myself. 2 boys and 2 girls. I too appreciated the honesty and humour and I would most definately say (and I am also teacher) that my boys and my girls require very different parenting from me and it is nice to hear someone else say that they do to.

      • I couldn’t agree more with these people being the “gender police”. They totally missed the mark here. This is an amazing article and I love it! I’m also thankful any of thos persons aren’t my sons teachers!

    • Great article. sorry the gender police can’t understand the concept of GENERALIZATION.

    • motherofboys says:

      I find the article perfect! Thank you so much for your insight! Ignore the feminist women above and it gave me a great insight that i enjoyed reading.

    • traceyb65 says:

      how sad we need to ‘ignore the feminist women’! because here’s another feminist woman *pauses to allow the eyerolls* who agrees … and Jim, i think the problem i am having with the article is the opposite to generalisation, that it is very specific to these sons. which makes it a nice article, but hardly useful advice for MY son. and I’m entirely unsure whether it is a worthy piece for The Good Men project which is about NOT enforcing the gendered roles that have damaged so many of our beautiful young men. nice personal piece, not so great advice. probably ‘lucky I’m not a teacher’, hey? xt

  12. Spot on! Found myself laughing through your descriptions. Do I recognize the everyday life with a 4-year old boy!!! You bet! These advices works for a Norwegian mum as well. Thank you.

    Mother of 2 (4-year old son, AND 8-year old daugther)

  13. A note on the second to last bullet point. You said that “crowds give girls energy.” This generalization you made is essentially the same as saying “girls are extroverts” (extroversion vs. introversion is defined by where people get their energy from: from being around others, vs. from having alone time). Well, yeah, some girls are extroverts, and thus gain energy from a crowd. But some girls, myself included, are introverts – we NEED our alone time in order to recharge. Also, yeah, some boys are introverts. But some, such as my cousin’s husband, are extroverts. I really am very skeptical of parenting articles, because they often times imply that “all boys are the same” and “all girls are the same” and thus perpetuate gender roles and whatnot. In my humble opinion, it is best to get an understanding of your own children, and then adjust your parenting to fit that kid’s need.

    • I was coming here to say as much – you have found a personality distinction, not a gender distinction, for this point.

      I do believe in generalizations as far as genders, though. They don’t fit for 100% of boys (or 100% of girls) but they are a useful tool, and it’s clear that there are traits that are strongly present in the boy population and strongly absent in the girl population, and vice versa.

      It’s like what I’ve been teaching my nephew recently: When you say “boys are stronger than girls” you’re referring to them in the aggregate. It is true that men, as a group, are stronger than women, as a group, but any given woman might be stronger than any given man, and any given girl stronger than any given boy. Similarly, girls, as a group, master the nuances of language much faster than boys, as a group, but there are still boys who learn to read by age 3 and girls who can’t figure out sarcasm by age 9. The fact that exceptions exist doesn’t mean that the generalization isn’t useful, or that it’s something we should pointedly ignore; for example, generalizations can help a mother understand why her son isn’t responding well to her parenting style.

      But you’ve got to be careful to distinguish between distinctions of gender and distinctions that stem from other things – such as the Myers-Briggs personality system dichotomies, or pressures from peers or other parts of society (“real men don’t cry!”), or even just the desire to prove that you’re different from your sister.

    • He didn’t say crowds give girls energy. He said they give his daughter energy.

  14. Great article (for me)
    As a single mum of a ten year old (the father went off with his PA when he was 7mths old), I am mum and dad. I do worry about bringing up a balanced boy, without cossetting him too much. It is hatd for a boy to accept advice from his mum sometimes (I am for hugs and stories and organising his life apparently)

    You are right about the hugs being better than words. Hugs get my son to ‘breathe’ when he’s pent up.
    sometimes gets him to open up about how he is feeling, but even then he just wants me to listen, not necessarily advise (sometimes we all just want to be heard I guess)

    I fret mostly about how he should deal with playground politics, as he is pretty emotional and lets stuff get to him, needs a thicker skin.
    I say ‘just say ‘yeah, Liverpool lost their match, so what?’ or ‘Yeah, I missed the goal, you’re not Lionel Messi yourself, let’s get on with the game’ and it will shut down bullies or nasty comments, but he says he can’t, or that I don’t understand’ …he is not self confident yet. (How can I teach him self confidence??)
    Not sure what ‘dad’ advice is here… suspect this is an area for mantalk!

  15. I have two boys. They use to say that I’m different from the “other mothers” they see. As a compliment. The fact is that I work with art, nature, and also as an activist (and the two boys very much participate in my work). I see they using me as a role model, and I consider it good but also a bad thing. Because I would prefer they grown more independent of what I am. We are best friends, like the three mosqueteers, but with a almighty captain, total rulers, that is me. I will really miss their childhood. Thanks for your text.

  16. When a dad gives advice to moms… SEXISM!

    please realize that these are clear generalizations and speak quite acurate to most boys. Let’s drop the whole “I am offended” baloney.

  17. I thought this article was funny, clever, adorable, and just a great read. I am mother to two boys and two girls. Great advice.

  18. This is a great post written from an experienced Dad, with a title that targets the wrong audience for some reason. I am really surprised you wrote this to Moms. Other than the first two points, I think this is great advice for all parents, but it really seems to be a must read for Dad’s. I don’t think it comes as naturally to Dad’s to hug, think about crowds, accept losing and care about clothing. It seems to me that Dad’s are looking to the Mom’s to interpret their kid’s meltdowns more frequently than not. I also don’t think my husband is the only one who is clueless when it comes to clothes and could use your input on making sure the kid’s clothing matches. I forwarded this to my husband and I hope he takes the time to read it.

    Nicole @ HoldtheOffice.com

  19. I thought this was a great article. People need to chill out and realize that this man is sharing HIS personal experiences with HIS sons. Not everyone needs to be politically correct all the time. Yes there are actually biological differences between men and women, our brains are a bit different and generalizations are OK sometimes. Anyone with half a brain should know not EVERY boy or EVERY girl is going to fit into a typical category, that is OK there are ALWAYS outliers. I am the mom of a 3 year old boy, I’m a teacher, and I’ve worked with children for over a decade. His advice is GENERALLY true, boys tend to be a big wigglier and more physical than girls. Socialization plays a role but only to a certain extent. My son will spend 20 minutes jumping on a trampoline and maybe 2-5 playing with a doll. Anyways thanks for sharing and don’t mind the gender police on here!

  20. Heartfelt perhaps, but waaaay too overgeneralized about gender. I think I would rather read more dad’s experiences on how to parent in general as I think dads often are just as good of parents as moms, but do things differently.

  21. Listen up parents! As a 30 year old female Ive met a lot of wonderful men, Ive also met just as many if not more childish men. Its dawned on me watching so many of my friends struggle with relationships in the present and the past that parents are messing up with their boys. If you you do have boys remember not to just teach them how to be good children. So many parents do this accidentally. Teach your boys how to be good friends, good roommates, good boyfriends, good husbands, good co-workers.

    I think some of these things come more naturally for little girls due to their higher need for verbal communication. Boys dont ask….and so we accidentally dont tell. My boyfriend never helps with housework even though we both work the same hours, pay the same bills ect. After a visit to his mothers house it dawned on me why. The whole time we were there she waited on him hand and foot, he never once thought that his 50 year old mother scrubbing his dishes and laundry was out of place. Its clear; she taught him how to be a good boy, and thats it. Im sure it was accidentally done in an attempt to provide for his every need. Unfortunately, this is going to cause some severe emotional hardships for him in the coming months. His inability to integrate into routine responsibility in a partnership is cost him his girlfriend. Sadly, I dont think he’ll ever completely understand why – because no one ever scripted him to understand.

  22. You lost me in the first sentence. Parenting isn’t a competition, it’s a collaboration. Opening your article with that is, at worst, pandering (“if I say that they’re better parents, women will read this!”), and, at best, disingenuous. I’m lucky to be married to a woman who, yes, is a great parent. But you know what? So am I. And neither one of us is keeping score of who is the “better” parent, because it’s something that we work at together.

  23. Bessie West says:

    Thank You! I have 2 older girls and can read them like a book, my son who is the youngest is a different story. I will reconnect with him! He is now a teen and do not get him! They are different : Girls and Boys……

  24. This kind of gender stereotyping strikes me on a personal note as well. I am a mother of a highly intelligent/highly sensitive boy. Most of the description of “boys” do not fit him at all. He loves to learn new things, to read, to teach things to others. He is very emotionally intense, moreso, I would say, than my daughter. The pressure of boys to be a certain way, rough and tumble, ignores the kids like my son whose wonderful qualities of caring, intelligent and conscientious are often overlooked in society’s quest to raise “tough” boys. Our national obsession with football, which is, in all reality, a very violent sport, is a good example. My son also is a good athlete. However, that does not define all that he is. I think we are doing our sons a great disservice by expecting that they are not able to communicate their feelings and only have three basic feelings. I think all human beings have a wide array of emotions and that both boys and girls learn which ones are/are not appropriate for their gender. I appreciate the author’s sharing of his personal experience, but, once again, I am finding myself unable to identify with any of it. Let’s not forget the population of highly-sensitive, highly-intelligent boys out there, like my son!

  25. Jeanne Logan says:

    I am the mother of, and the survivor of, 4 sons and I now have 8 grandsons. I am blessed. One thing that I think is important is for moms to stop telling their sons that they are precious or sweet about the age of 6. At this time, they begin developing their sense of manhood and “sweet” just isn’t part of that. That can totally undermind his entire concept of his own manhood. Tell his grandma, his aunt, your best friend, but don’t tell him. Tell him he is wonderful, brave, thoughtful, kind, strong, smart, a great problem solver, a fast runner, all sorts of things, but not sweet or precious.

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