How To Raise Boys: An Interview With Parenting Specialist Maggie Dent
Got a little man under your roof? Parenting expert and author Maggie Dent has raised four. Here she shares a few of the tips and tricks you’ll find in her new book, Mothering our Boys. (Spoiler alert: add farts to your parenting arsenal).
If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then raising a son, for a mother, is akin to rearing a Martian. Sure, there are the obvious physical differences between boys and girls, but beyond buying gender-appropriate diapers (which, admittedly, do seem to work better than your unisex sort), how can we parent in a way that caters favorably to what we can’t see – the biological impulses, brain structures and information processing of a man in the making? How can we best communicate with our sons, arm them with the tools to filter societal influences and move on from archaic, harmful adages such as ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘real men don’t cry’? Parenting expert and author Maggie Dent, who’s raised four of her own boys to adulthood and has worked, for many years, with boys as a teacher and counselor, shares some pearls of wisdom from her latest book, Mothering our Boys.
Your book explores how boys and girls process information differently… can you tell us a bit about this?
“There is some research now showing that when boys process emotion, it moves very quickly from their brains into their bodies and this is why often a boy’s behaviour is actually a form of language. They also tend to shift it to areas of the brain that will work to solve the problem causing the emotions. Females, on the other hand, tend to quickly shift emotions into the parts of the brain associated with verbal processing. This means mums tend to want to talk about a conflict immediately when many boys need time to be able to process the emotions and then be ready to talk.
Parents can be mindful of not using too many words when communicating with their boys, because this may confuse and overwhelm them. Also, if a boy is focused on something he often finds it hard to hear you – especially if you are speaking from a distance. This is not deliberate.”
How can we open conversations with our sons?
“It’s important that our boys know we are really hearing them when we communicate, so we can say things like:
‘Let me put this down so I can give you my full attention.’
‘Tell me more about this.’
‘Wow, that’s interesting.’
Even just making reassuring noises and nodding is helpful. With our body language, we can show we’re listening by perhaps kneeling in front of our son as he speaks – if he’s small – leaning in closer, putting your chin in your hands, or sitting really close. Definitely ignoring your phone when he is present nearby. And a big thing I often emphasize is keep your mouth closed and your ears, eyes and heart open! Responding positively non-verbally is deceptively powerful for most boys. Boys can take a while to open up.”
You’ve said we don’t have to always punish boys to teach them a lesson. What are some more effective was to discipline our boys?
“I recommend all families establish three very clear, simple rules: 1.Try not to hurt yourself 2. Try not to hurt others; and 3. Try not to damage things in the world around you.
You can pretty much refer any poor choice a child makes back to one of these three rules.
So when a boy has made a poor choice, I suggest this approach:
Rather than jumping in to punish him, first try to see the situation through his eyes and respond rather than just reacting. Help him know what went wrong by finding out what his intention was.
Help him to make the situation right by asking him how he thinks he can put things right … this might be saving up to pay for a neighbour’s broken window or being grounded for skipping school.
Explore what would be a better choice next time — for example, if he’s in trouble for pushing a friend who sat on his toy, then discuss how he might communicate that better next time, such as saying: ‘No, off please!’
Forgive and forget —we moms rarely forget but it’s important to not rehash the past.
Acknowledge the valuable learning– this is optional but I have found it’s helpful to remind him that sometimes poor choices can teach us a valuable life lesson.”
You talk about how ancient biological drivers can influence boys’ behaviours. Is it possible to teach our boys to intercept and temper negative, knee-jerk reactions?
“I think boys often react in anger as our society has conditioned us to see anger as a more appropriate ‘warrior’ response than, say, crying or asking for help. We can absolutely teach our sons to not go straight to anger by helping them know their emotions from a young age and coaching them to allow the other emotions instead of going straight to anger. We can do this even through something as simple as reading picture books about emotions, or even ones that teach empathy and kindness. Also it’s helpful for boys if they can see the men in their lives express their feelings, and not be afraid to cry in front of young boys or teens.”
In what other ways are we socially conditioned to treat boys and girls differently – and how can we remedy this?
“Sometimes we might be conditioned to think, for example, ‘Oh boys are tough’, so if a boy hurts himself we might say, ‘You’re alright – get up’, but to a girl we might say, ‘Oh sweetheart, no, did you hurt yourself? Come here, can I help you?’ That’s not helpful in allowing that little boy to think he’s tough enough to deal with hurting himself and also it implies girls are less capable of managing similar experiences. We could maybe acknowledge a child who hurts themselves the same way – ‘Hey, are you OK? Do you need help?'”
After reading your book, we can’t not mention farting! Why does farting work as a parenting technique with boys, and how and when can we best administer it?
“Ha ha! Humor is a wonderful way to boost positive brain chemicals and so one of the things boys seem to love is ‘bottom humour’; they are obsessed with anything to do with poos, wees, bums and farts. If we moms can embrace this, rather than looking down on it, it can work wonders as a parenting technique. A well-timed fart can lighten the mood, defuse a conflict and be a wonderful bonding connection with a son.”
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