Boys’ Emotional Development
He was my newborn. He was my infant. He is my toddler. And rapidly, he is becoming my little boy. Someday, in the not too distant future, he will be a young man.
I am amazed by how quickly my son and the many baby boys who came into my family’s life at around the same time are growing up. Recently, at a get-together of five young families hosted by a couple whose first son was born just three months before mine, one parent commented on the fact that all of the eight children present were boys. This was by coincidence only. The hosts had not sent out a “Boys Only — And Their Tired Parents” invitation.
Somehow we were drawn together. Was it nature or nurture? We may never know for sure.
But as I watched the boys—who were mostly in the 1- to 3-year age range—play, and the fathers gather together to talk sports, and the mothers gather together to talk work/life balance, it got me thinking. Are boys really different from girls?
Breathe easy. This article will not argue for or against either gender’s superiority in any capacity. Yet, based on my conversations with other moms of boys and a light review of the research, I am convinced that there are indeed unique characteristics of boys that parents can positively influence on their journey to becoming men.
Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D, a child psychologist and co-author of “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” and “It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen” wrote, “There are many different kinds of boys and many ways to be a man. Not all boys are athletic, not all boys are risk-takers; some are very cautious and others boys don’t appear conventionally masculine. Boys can see all these differences with their own eyes right from the beginning. What they need is for adults to confirm that they are all valued and respected, and that there is a place in society for all of them.”
Most parents naturally value and respect their boys, even those of us who thought we’d be more comfortable raising girls.
“Before having two sons, I almost felt sorry for moms of boys,” says Shelley Carter, mom of Luke (3) and Henry (1). “They didn’t get to pick out pretty dresses, find the perfect matching bow, and would instead have to spend all their time pretending to be interested in trucks and sports. Now, I can’t imagine anything more wonderful than playing with my sons’ trucks or kicking a ball with them in the backyard.”
According to Thompson’s research, many boys have an especially large need to be physically active, and providing safe ways for them to be physical through sports, physical games, and outdoor activities is great for their development. “Boys who are not able to get the level of physical activity they need often demonstrate restlessness, fidgeting, drumming, or kicking….” he writes. “Help them curb their aggressive impulses by encouraging them to stop and think before acting. Re-direct them if you see that they are restless or provide opportunities to stretch, walk or run around.”
One myth about boys that I have carried with me from childhood into parenthood is that they are nearly unemotional and unable to express their feelings. That general stereotype has been proven wrong time and time again.
Shelley Carter agrees. “I always assumed that boys would be rough and rowdy, and while they certainly have these moments, I have been surprised at the inherently sweet nature of boys,” she said. “Watching my three-year-old rock his baby doll to sleep or getting one of the many wet kisses from my one-year-old reinforces to me that there is a tenderness to boys that is often overlooked.”
In the Raising Cain: Boys in Focus Outreach Resource Kit, which is based on Michael Thompson’s bestselling book, parents and youth outreach workers are given tips on helping boys recognize their own feelings and those of others, and learn to express themselves in ways other than anger or aggression.
“Most boys yearn for opportunities to connect with others and learn how to behave in a variety of settings,” the authors wrote. “Help boys name their feelings (for example, sad, angry, [or] embarrassed).
Provide a non-judgmental setting and ample opportunities for boys to give voice to a wide range of emotions in a variety of ways: through talking about them, writing, movement, role-play exercises, art or music. Encourage them to show caring behavior towards others and to consider the feelings of others.”
Furthermore, fathers and other male role models play an extremely important part in helping little boys navigate boyhood and, later, manhood. “Boys often model their behavior on older boys and men in their lives,” Thompson wrote.
The Raising Cain authors encourage male role models to let little boys see them expressing their emotions and demonstrating empathy and concern for others. This will not compromise your super-hero abilities, fellas. As Thompson points out, “emotional courage IS courage.”
And that’s what little boys are made of.
PBS Parents Guide to Raising Boys – www.pbs.org/parents/raisingboys