Before you read this article, I want to make a disclaimer that gender is more fluid than fixed and while respecting biological, neurological and hormonal differences – there is not an ‘all boys’ or ‘all girls’ reality. On top of that there is social conditioning that is deeply embedded in culture and ancestry. So when I use the term boys I am referring to a statistically significant number of boys however much of what I share may also be relevant to girls or gender diverse people. I encourage you to take what feels right for your child and to leave the rest.
One of the most pervasive stereotypes that needs to be challenged about gender and childhood is that little boys are in some way stronger and tougher than little girls.
Sure, there is generally a difference in the muscle formation of boys compared to girls developmentally. Strength that is physical, especially core strength, is one thing. However, strength or competence that comes from emotional and social maturity, is very different. Just because little boys tend to have higher energy levels, tackle more physically demanding pursuits, or enjoy playing superheroes more than most girls, it does not mean that they are tougher.
We also need to challenge the stereotype that says that little boys need to start practising how to be tough and how to freeze their emotions early in life in order to grow to become ‘real’ men.
As I wrote in my 2018 book Mothering Our Boys:
Just last year I was in an early childhood centre where I witnessed an educator shaming a little boy who was crying after he had hurt himself. In frustration she finally said to him,
“Go and stand in the corner until you stop snivelling.”
Needless to say it is lucky I am an emotionally mature woman because my first instinct was to shout at her. Can you imagine her speaking like that to a little girl?
For those of you who have read or listened to that book, you will know how passionate I am about changing this social norm about boys being tough. Male vulnerability and fragility in terms of health, well-being and mental fitness has been well documented and yet this deeply embedded conditioning is still impacting our boys, especially in the formative years of life.
The early years window is when they shape their sense of self, their self-worth, their identity, their capacity to regulate big feelings and their expectation of how the grown-ups in their world will treat them. In adolescence, especially with the increasing intensity of their emotional world, many lads struggle with irrational anger and frustration. Often, this has been shaped unintentionally and unconsciously in the first five years of life.
Sadly, research shows that many grown-ups treat boys more harshly than they treat little girls. They often speak in a harsher tone and assume that it won’t cause any harm.
Steve Biddulph was the first parenting expert to identify the sensitivity and vulnerability in his brilliant book, Raising Boys. Statistically, baby boys die in utero at a higher rate than girls; they die at birth at a higher rate than girls; and they die in the first 12 months of life at a higher rate than girls.
We have learnt a lot, thanks to the empirical review of research conducted by neuropsychologist Dr Alan Schore. Hormones are part of the story as our little girls have higher levels of oestrogen (the bonding hormone) and for males, testosterone is key. In fact, Schore suggests that the marinade of testosterone in utero seems to slow down the growth and development of the male baby’s brain. He also argues that boys are more vulnerable to social stress (attachment trauma), and physical stress via endocrine disruptors or toxins in the environment.
All babies benefit from having strong attachment to safe caring grown-ups and if little boys as toddlers and infants are spoken to more harshly, told to toughen up when they hurt themselves, shamed when they cry and express vulnerable emotions, then they learn that being emotionally vulnerable must be avoided at all costs. They also learn that the grown-ups in their lives might not be as safe as they wish they were.
The research of Schore and others supports a major premise of Biddulph’s book when he wrote that he believed that little boys were more prone to separation distress, anxiety and that they could become emotionally shut down as a result of feeling misunderstood and abandoned. There is also research that links male adolescent violence to neglect in early childhood particularly a lack of physical and emotional nurturing.
When I was working as a counsellor, I met many of these boys as teenagers and older men who had become emotionally numb, due to the harsher ways in which they were spoken to – and definitely to the harsher punishments they received. (If you’d like to hear some of these stories, take a listen to my chat with Sarah Kanowski on the ABC podcast, Conversations.)
Change = stress = sad/angry boy
Change of any kind causes stress within us as humans. Little boys are particularly susceptible to change, especially in their homes and with the people they value the most. I once worked with a five-year-old who had transitioned into preschool well and then suddenly became physically aggressive towards other children. His behaviour became quite out of character, and I asked his mum what had changed in his world that may have caused this distress which was overloading his nervous system. Apparently, his much-loved granny was in hospital and while that would have caused some distress, I felt it was something bigger. Then the mum remembered that the early childhood educator who her little son absolutely adored had also gone on maternity leave. This little boy was struggling with grief and sadness and worry about his grandmother and, unable to express it verbally, he expressed this through his behaviour. Once his new preschool teacher understood how he was feeling, and focused on building relational safety with him, his aggressive behaviour ceased.
Many early years’ educators have spoken to me about the sad/angry boy syndrome, when a small boy who feels abandoned and anxious will quickly convert that into hitting or aggressive behaviour. I have found this to be the case both personally and professionally, and encourage parents to know that it can take a while for a little boy to feel safe when he begins childcare or big school.
Often little boys’ anxiety will be shown through impulsivity, aggression, shouting, silliness, oppositional behaviour and through other physicality. Some little boys’ anxiety will look like shutting down and they will daydream, appear to not care or not be listening, avoiding social experiences, struggling with falling asleep and staying asleep, under eating or overeating.
Time and time again I have witnessed little boys unable to express how they feel, use physical action often inappropriately without even realising what they have done. Given that I raised four sons, I have witnessed it many times. The emotional immaturity often can create vulnerability in their relationships, even with the best friends and much-loved family members. If we shame our boys – rather than use some gentle coaching and avoid telling them they are ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ – we can deeply damage our little boys’ hearts and create very big ugly feelings deep down in the nervous system. These tend to surface during adolescence in very hot, unpredictable ways.
Boys and girls at school
In my research for my book GIRLHOOD, I discovered that young girls are much more emotionally mature, more likely to pause and reflect before making a choice about their behaviour, and they have much more efficient memories which help them navigate classrooms much more effectively than most boys.
For many boys, especially during the transition into primary school and high school, they see school a bit like a war zone. There are so many expectations on them, so many rules, an inability to move their bodies as much as they are biologically wired to do, and just not enough fun to help them reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that floods the body. Research shows that around 75% of all students who have learning challenges in primary school, are boys.
On top of that they get hungry quicker, they lose concentration quicker, and many of them will struggle to know how to regulate big feelings. Often at the end of the school day, they will have complete meltdown in the car on the way home. They are beyond exhausted and have absolutely nothing left in their emotional tank or nervous system.
Your son will need some help from his key caregivers to help put something back into his emotional tank so he can create some more positive neurochemicals. Food, laughter and lightness, huge big hugs, a trip to the park or having the family dog in the back seat are all simple strategies that can help a boy to refill his empty cup.
Many boys also refuse to do a poo at school, because you need to be really calm to do a poo and this just adds to their angst and stress.
Please avoid interrogating boys on the way home from school unless you have a chatterbox who loves to tell you about his day.
Many boys can’t remember anything on the way home or when they first get home. However, around bath time and bedtime they will often start telling you things because the stress levels have dropped enough for them to have better memory recall.
Boys’ self-worth is shaped by how they judge themselves: How high they climbed the tree, how big their Lego construction is, or how many times they hit a target or whether they won a race. When they do well, they immediately feel good about themselves. When they perceive that they have failed, or they are not good enough and this happens often in our classrooms, they feel the opposite – they are wrong, bad and worse-still unlovable, so their default is to get angry. Inwardly, they are mainly angry at themselves, and that anger will often come out, again, physically. These are not boys deliberately being naughty.
These are boys struggling in the world where they can’t see how they can be competent or capable.
Helping boys to have lots of opportunities to lose in games, and by reading lots of stories about boys and men who have met with failure and later overcome it, is incredibly important to help our boys realise that failing is a normal part of life.
We do not need to toughen our boys up so that they can manage the setbacks of life.
We simply allow them to experience them, while letting them know that they are loved exactly the same after these moments and that they can brush the dust off and keep on going.
The stronger a boy feels emotionally connected to his adult allies, the safer his emotional world becomes. The more loved your son feels, the more likely he will do what you request (if he can remember what your request was!) and he will make more effort to listen when you want to help him learn how to make better choices.
It is a bit sad that due to the inner warrior in our boys they often make more mistakes, break more things, forget more things and are often the ones who bear the brunt of our discipline much more often than most girls.
Boys who do not get the emotional support and coaching to understand big ugly feelings and how to manage them tend to have the following:
- Increased misbehaviour
- Increased anxiety that can impair development
- Weakened relationship with key caregivers.
- Maggie Dent, Mothering Our Boys (2018)
Often boys pick up non-verbal cues that tell them that they are unworthy of love – the rolled eyes, the “tsk tsk tsk”, the freezing them out or ignoring them – these gestures also hurt our boys deeply as they are sensitive to feeling rejected, just the same as girls.
To ensure that your boy feels safe and loved – even if he is in non-stop action mode, seems not to be listening to you, or is being so impulsive as to make your head spin – remember that his number one need is connection. Lots of micro-connections throughout the day can really help a little boy feel loved and accepted. While they may typically have more physical strength and more energy, they are equally as sensitive as most girls and deserve to be spoken to with the same gentleness and compassion that we tend to use with girls.
While we address this myth that boys are tough we can also flip the social norm that tells us girls are weaker than boys. For example, when we rush to help little girls when they stumble or fall over while we tell boys to just “get up”, we are sending a signal that girls need more help to thrive. In future if a child falls, we may need to pause and ask warmly regardless of gender, “R U OK? Or do you need a grown-up’s help?”
Once again, it’s about lots of small moments of consistent, warm, loving connection. I’ll leave you with one little gem. I have been sharing the value of the bedtime ritual for the better part of 15 years. When you hear these loving words as you fall asleep, from someone who loves you dearly, it will not only help you have a better night’s sleep, but it will help you have a better start to the day the next day. Our boys have the pragmatism and love to know exactly how big our love is so that they can feel safe in our world.
more on this in maggie's books on boys...
Mothering Our Boys: A Guide for Mums of Sons
Maggie shares her insights, her reflections, and (as always) her humour around mothering boys in this book that will help you be the mum your son needs you to be.
Maggie’s bestselling 2020 book, From Boys to Men: Guiding our teen boys to grow into happy, healthy men is published by Pan Macmillan Australia.
You can grab the book at your favourite bookstore or at Big W, order a copy direct from maggiedent.com or order online from your favourite bookstore. Ebook and audio book versions are also available and the audio book version is narrated by Maggie herself (from the quiet confines of her small wine cellar!)
Image credit: ©️Ivan Kmit / Adobe Stock