Mothers of boys have one of the greatest jobs in the world.
Penis talk, fart jokes, a house that smells like a locker room, sullen moods that stretch for days. And dirt. So much dirt. Sounds appealing, right?
But in all seriousness, raising boys presents unique challenges and opportunities for moms. Mothers play a critical role in raising boys to be emotionally healthy and successful men. Studies show that teenage boys who have appropriately close relationships with their mothers do better in school, experience less depression and anxiety, and are less likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors.
Most moms are nailing it. But even the best mothers of boys can use a helping hand. Here are three truths, backed by science, that all mothers of boys need to know:
1. Boys Are Not Girls
Boys and girls are biologically different*. Not better, not worse, just different. While it may be controversial to say aloud, science backs this assertion.
Among the differences, elevated testosterone influences higher activity levels and a penchant for rough-and-tumble play. Girls’ brains mature earlier than boys, which accounts for the contrasts seen in self-control, organizational thinking, and risk-taking.
To what extent environment and parenting contributes to the differences in boys and girls is a topic for another time. For the sake of this conversation, we are taking at face value that these differences do exist.
As the oldest of five sisters, I had very little real life experience with boys. But what I lacked in experience I made up for in strongly-held opinions about learned gender roles. There would be no “boys will be boys” write-offs of bad behavior in our home. My sons would be polite, sit still, learn to be nurturing, and never play with guns.
My supportive husband and I surrounded our sons with a variety of toys; traditional “boy” toys such as cars and dinosaurs, gender-neutral toys like building blocks, and “girl” toys such as dolls and a play kitchen.
To my constant dismay, every toy became a weapon in the hands of my sons. Magic wands were swords, plastic animals became lasers, and legos were fashioned into guns.
The day my five-year-old bit his peanut butter sandwich into a pistol and started pow pow-ing his little brothers, I had an epiphany. Boys were not girls. Nor should they be.
This story is nothing more, just a story. But the lesson I learned was repeated time after time as I raised five sons to adulthood. Boys are not girls. Parenting style, execution, and expectations should be adjusted to match this scientific reality.
2. Boys Need to Fail
When I give classes to parents in China on grit and emotional intelligence, I start by asking them to imagine a familiar scene: A child is happily playing. Then something happens and he begins to cry. Within moments every available adult rushes in to “save” him from whatever the trouble is. As I speak, the audience knowingly nods in agreement. This behavior is so prevalent in China it has a name: “Little Emperor” syndrome.
We may be tempted to dismiss this anecdote by saying, “that’s China, not here.” But, are US parents’ reactions to their child’s perceived hurt or failure really so different?
Teachers get yelled at for giving a high schooler a less than perfect grade. Moms set up “playdates” with other adolescents of their choosing. Parents write their teen’s university applications (and worse).
Over-parenting, also called “helicopter” or “bulldozer” parenting, presents a real threat to a growing boy’s healthy development. And while a warm, close relationship between mother and son is crucial, there is an important distinction between close and too close.
Protecting our boys from natural consequences harms their development, autonomy, and healthy sense of self. Not allowing boys to learn to tolerate and learn from failure–which can only be done by experiencing failure–leaves them vulnerable to anxiety, depression, perfectionism, and co-dependence.
Studies confirm the link between overprotective parenting styles and poor mental health outcomes. One study, in particular, found that out of 100,000 college students who self-reported as being raised by helicopter parents, 84% were overwhelmed with the responsibilities of adulthood, 60.5% were sad, 57% lonely, and 51% experiencing anxiety.
I get it. You see it as your job to protect him. You don’t want to see him get hurt or fail. But what experience tells us, and science confirms, is that boys need failure, almost as much as they need love.
Accepting that our sons need us to allow them to be independent of us, try new things, and fail, is one of the most loving things a mother can do for her son.
3. Boys Need to be Told No
One more truth about raising boys is that they need to be told “no,” and learn to accept it.
As mothers of boys, a big part of our job is to help prepare them for the future and to be successful adults. Teaching them to accept “no,” whether it comes from us or someone else, is central to this charge.
Sometimes you aren’t invited to the party, your date changes her mind, or you don’t get the job. No one likes being told no, but hearing it is a fact of life. Never saying no, or saying and not enforcing it, can leave boys ill-equipped to deal with the real world.
When well-meaning parents refuse to set — and stick to — clear rules and boundaries, boys can develop a “never take no for an answer” attitude. They come to see themselves as entitled, with an over-inflated sense of their own importance. They may argue, beg, demand, guilt-trip, withdraw affection, or even become verbally (or physically) abusive when faced with not getting what they want.
On the other hand, boys who learn to accept being told no grow into young adults who don’t whine, call their parents, lash out, or threaten people when they don’t get what they want.
Reluctance to telling our kids no is a common mistake even the best of mothers make. We all want our boys to like us. Maybe we want them to see us as the “cool” mom. It can be easy to slip into the friend role, rather than that of parent.
Personally, having been through the messy childhood and even messier teen years with my sons, I believe boys don’t need you to be their friend. They need a parent who will say,
“No, you can’t stay out past nine o’clock on a school night.”
“No, I won’t finish your homework for you.”
“No, you can’t serve alcohol at your graduation party.”
The lifelong mother-son relationship has many seasons. There is plenty of time for you and your son to be friends. For now, they need a supportive but firm parent who will set and enforce rules.
*We acknowledge that the terms “boy” and “girl” are used generally and for simplicity, and may not represent that entire spectrum of experiences.
This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If your child is having a mental health emergency, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text 741741 from anywhere in the country to talk with a trained crisis counselor.