The vast majority of parents, me included, are on a quest to do the “right thing” and raise our children to be emotionally healthy, confident, self-sufficient adults. Much has been written about raising emotionally healthy girls, but I have to say, as a mother of two boys, the material available to parents for raising emotionally healthy boys is only now beginning to surface.
Many consider Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher, to be a seminal commentary on the challenges facing young women as they emerge through adolescence in facing a narrow, physical definition of what it means to be a woman. I also enjoyed reading Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World, by Rosalind Wiseman. Both are helpful resources in support of expanding a young woman’s definition of self beyond her physical appearance and navigating the complex world of female adolescent group social psychology.
Don’t get me wrong—I love raising my sons. And, like any evolving parent, I constantly seek new information on how I can help my children to develop optimally in a world where the complexity of negative influences seems to permeate our culture. Every day, we hear of more violence in the world, whether across the globe or on our school campuses. Technology has exploded exponentially since my childhood, and children are growing up in an era unlike any other, where social networking is not only instantaneous but also potentially dangerous if used carelessly. I am finding that, as my oldest son crosses over into adolescence, the social world of teenage boys shifts, and a whole new dynamic is at play. Boys go through their own subtle (and not-so-subtle) social and psychological transformations as they become young men, and they deserve all the support in the world. I found myself craving books like those mentioned above, but specifically for help in raising boys.
Fortunately, there is a growing body of knowledge and information being published to address the specific emotional needs of raising boys. I gathered a list of books I am enjoying reading. I also wanted to highlight a few tips (of many hundreds) that have been helpful to my family. Boys are just as deserving of emotional support during adolescence as girls are. They are unique in their neurological hard-wiring, but also equally capable of depth of emotional intelligence as their female counterparts. As parents, we owe it to our sons to provide them with a secure, loving foundation of emotional support in their home lives as they emerge into new territory as healthy, whole, young men.
Collective wisdom on raising boys:
- Teach your son (and daughter) that being strong and courageous includes having healthy emotional intelligence. Teach empathy, emotional vocabulary, and reciprocity. Expressing feelings is not weakness; it is courageous. The most successful people have high emotional IQ.
- Respect your son’s space and his need to individuate as he develops into his own person, but also be available to connect at his level. Shoot hoops together and talk. Take him on an outing where you enjoy listening to his music and talking in the car en route to a movie of his choosing.
- Establish your family values at a young age, and reinforce those values with rituals and traditions (at holidays, meal times, etc.) as a secure base and anchor for your son’s emotional and spiritual development.
- Teach responsibility through accountability with chores, homework completion, and respectful behavior. Reward accordingly. Likewise, remove privileges when these tasks are not completed. You get what you earn. You don’t get “paid” for not showing up to work.
- Model respectful behavior and demonstrate integrity. You are the most significant teacher ever for your son. For parents who are married/cohabitating, show respectful behavior in the couple relationship. Your son is learning how to treat his future dating partners by observing your interactions.
- Admit when you have made a mistake, and openly apologize for your transgression. Show you mean to change through your actions.
- Teach that violence is destructive. It’s hard to avoid exposure to violent video games and movies, but put a limit on screen time. Expand your son’s emotional IQ by helping him have an emotional vocabulary that allows for assertion as opposed to aggression.
- Consistently verbalize that you have confidence in your son’s ability to make good choices for himself. And mean it. He needs to know that you believe in him. He will encounter challenges with not-so-great teachers and narcissistic friends in middle school and beyond, but if he knows you believe in his ability to problem-solve situations, he is empowered to rise above any difficult circumstance. And he knows he can troubleshoot with a trusted parent if he needs to.
- Tell your son you love him. Every day. And give him a hug and a kiss. Every day. He may not ask for physical affection like he did when he was younger, but he still needs it.
- Begin to let go … and let him be the magnificent, young, emerging man he is becoming. You have already laid the foundation, and now it is his task to synchronize all the wonderful knowledge, love, and support you have given him as he begins his vision quest of identity formation, individuation, confidence building, and emerging adulthood. Be present and a guide/compass to help your son make good decisions. He still needs you, but in a more behind-the-scenes kind of way.
- Boys are not immune to the pain of cliques and narcissistic friendships. Boys’ friendships can be just as complicated as girls’ in middle school and beyond. Help your son to have an emotional vocabulary to assert himself and choose authentic friendships.
- What you value as a parent comes out through the behavior of your children. Time to check the ego. Don’t live through your children. They are unique individuals with unique interests and challenges. If you value integrity and authenticity, your son will learn emotional intelligence and self-confidence and, in turn, seek healthy friendships. If you value competition and stepping on people’s toes to get ahead, he will learn that as well and become the next bully. Young men can be successful through high emotional intelligence that fosters collaboration and teamwork. On the contrary, self-absorption and narcissism are destructive and ultimately alienate a person. Be willing and able to process with your son how he views social interactions, and teach him the values of reciprocity, empathy, and integrity through your actions and words.
The following are some books I’ve found helpful in educating me on being a mother of boys:
- Wiseman, Rosalind (2013). Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World.
- James, Stephen, and David Thomas (2009). Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys.
- Brewer-Hartley, Elizabeth (2001). Raising Confident Boys: 100 Tips for Parents and Teachers.
- Kindlon, Dan, and Michael Thompson (1999). Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.
- Gurian, Michael (1996). The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors, and Educators Can Do to Shape Boys into Exceptional Men.
- Buchanan, Andrea (2005). It’s a Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons.
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