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BOOK EXCERPT: Mothering Our Boys by Maggie Dent – A Guide for Mums of Sons

Boys are not tough, especially little ones
One of the most significant stereotypes that needs to be challenged is that little boys are in some way stronger and tougher than little girls. We need to also 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 become a ‘real’ man.

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 sniffling”.

Needless to say, it is lucky I am an emotionally mature woman because my first instinct was to shout at her. Can you imagine the educator speaking like that to a little girl?

I have had many grandmothers come up to me after my seminars telling me how their daughter-in-laws speak much more harshly to their sons than they do to their daughters, seemingly unaware that they do it.

Research has shown that parents treat their boys and girls differently right from infancy. For example, infant boys are touched more frequently and handled more roughly before the age of three months. Also physical punishment is applied more significantly for boys than girls in many Western countries. Also people have been found to label children’s emotions differently based on the child’s gender (i.e. seeing anger in an expression when they think the baby is a boy and fear when they think the baby is a girl).

One primary school teacher shared with me a story about a Year One teacher, who obviously believed that boys were stronger than girls. Apparently on very hot days she was known to tell the boys to stand like tin soldiers in the sun while the girls went inside to the cool, air-conditioned classroom. I think possibly this teacher may also have had a psychological issue around boys and men that needed some therapy to resolve!

So, my first take-home message is that we need to take much better care of our little boys — emotionally, psychologically, physically and socially. We need to stop shouting at them, hitting them, shaming them, speaking harshly to them and simply being mean.

On top of the influence of hormones and social experience, Schore presents evidence that something else is happening in our baby boys’ development.

The stereotypical belief that the only way to get boys to do the right thing is by hurting them or being hard on them needs to be challenged every day because it is so deeply embedded into the psychology of our society. The scars this creates in early childhood fester deep inside like a cancer and are often the source of future irrational rage and aggression. This does not mean we do not discipline our boys or make them accountable for their choices. It means we need to consciously choose the same warm discipline that we tend to use around girls. Simple.

So how come boys are not tough?
Male vulnerability in terms of health and wellbeing has been well-researched. This research continues to bring forward evidence that little girls develop faster and more thoroughly than little boys from conception. Even before I became a mother to my four awesome sons, I spent a childhood with my little brother who was much gentler and often less brave than me. Maybe this helped me to realise that boys are not inherently tough, even though they have a larger amount of muscle than girls. Physical strength is one thing but mental and emotional strength that can impact cognitive abilities and linguistic capacities is something else.

In his book, Raising Boys in the 21st Century, Steve Biddulph explores the notion that there is a fragility in boys, especially in little boys under five. Statistically, 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. This situation continues through life, however, there are lots of other reasons why this discrepancy happens so let’s start at the very beginning of life.

Technically, every embryo starts off female and sometime in the first 12 weeks of life, the massive flooding of hormones stimulates the embryo to either stay female or become male. Biddulph explores a 2017 review of empirical research from highly regarded neuropsychologist Alan Schore, which suggests that the marinade of testosterone in utero seems to slow down the growth and development of the male baby’s brain.

On top of the influence of hormones and social experience, Schore presents evidence that something else is happening in our baby boys’ development. His groundbreaking work has shown that the delay in brain maturation makes boys more vulnerable in the long run to social stress (attachment trauma) and physical stress via endocrine disruptors or toxins in the environment. He goes on to say this “negatively impacts” their right brain development. Basically, this impacts our boys’ social and emotional functioning, and their capacity to cope with stress.

The first thousand days from conception to the age of two are an incredibly important window and we need to nurture all babies and care for them as lovingly and calmly as possible. For our boys, though, it seems they are even more fragile, especially when it comes to attachment and bondedness — which influence our primary driver in life, human connectedness.

Belonging is another way of explaining attachment, which is the relationship between a key adult and a child, and then their wider community. Babies, toddlers and children need to have ‘big people’ they can trust to nurture and care for them. These people help guide and teach them all that they will need to know in life so they can become independent, capable adults who will hopefully in many cases find mates, breed and ensure the survival of the species.

Primary attachments are the big people of central importance to a child’s life — typically parents or close family members or caregivers. It is helpful for parents of babies and toddlers to have a circle of caring adults who can share in the raising of children. This allows for support, guidance and respite, which helps every parent, especially tired mummies, cope with this intensive time of life.

Attachment is as important to healthy child development as eating or sleeping.

For children who are in long-day child care, the early years’ educators who form a loving, caring connection to them are technically a source of primary attachment, often called secondary attachment figures. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has some fascinating videos explaining the concept of  ‘serve and return’ interaction between a child and their significant adults, where children reach out for interaction and, when adults respond, it assists essential brain wiring to occur. The Center also has an excellent video called ‘The Science of Neglect’ which shows how detrimental it can be for young children when this interaction doesn’t take place.

Attachment is the ‘super glue’ that holds a child in close proximity to a parent/caregiver. A child is meant to pursue proximity, which means being close to their big person so that they feel safe and are safe. Attachment is as important to healthy child development as eating or sleeping. Indeed, in much of the most recent research, strong attachment and bondedness can be shown to be the most significant influence on emotional wellbeing, mental health and physical health for life and so if our little boys have a tendency to be more prone to the damaging effects of poor attachment, then this needs to be the number one focus of all mums of new baby boys. Maybe this needs to be spoken of in the prenatal classes given that we know the long-term negative consequences of this in our sons’ lives.

The review of interdisciplinary research by Schore supports Biddulph’s premise that our young boys are more prone to separation distress and anxiety, and that they could become emotionally shut down as a result of feeling abandoned. This is also supported by research that shows that male adolescent violence is now strongly linked to neglect in early childhood, particularly a lack of physical and emotional nurturing (and, indeed, a lack of play). These are things that we can fix with awareness, knowledge and, most importantly, action.

Early mothering really matters

Maternal attachment has traditionally been the dominant form of attachment in the first few years of life for all children. Indeed, in traditional indigenous communities all boys spent around the first eight years of their lives solely in the company of the women, including the grandmothers and the aunties. In a way this is where they learnt ‘women’s business’. There was always a warm, open pair of arms and a soft breast anytime a little boy may have felt vulnerable. In no way was he expected to be tough or a brave little boy. He was seen just as the little girls were — a unique miracle who deserved to be reassured, cherished and loved deeply. There are some who argue that this window of maternal nurturing and comfort helped to build the neural pathways of being caring and loving later in life. Without this essential ‘maternal’ love, a person can grow up to be hardened and less capable of giving or receiving love. Certainly, research has linked postnatal attachment trauma to being predisposed to a range of personality and psychiatric disorders.

Every baby ever born is conceived and grown in the womb of a woman. There have been times in counselling sessions when people have recalled emotional memories from before birth or at birth. Indeed, I have witnessed people expressing deep sadness that they ever had to leave the womb — and in some way every little boy will have an unconscious memory of feeling safe inside his mother’s body. This incredibly deep bond of connection is the beginning of a boy’s relationship with his mother, and possibly the core of his sense of being.

From the time that a boy leaves his mother’s womb, he is on a gradual journey of distancing himself from the safest place imaginable. Many men have expressed to me that their mum was the safest person in their world and that, no matter what age they were, they could always turn to her and she would be there. This sacred, primal and unconscious connection is always present. There have even been stories from the battlefield that when some men face death, they call out for their mother.

Sally Goddard Blythe is the director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in the UK and her main area of work is with children experiencing specific learning disabilities (dyslexia, developmental coordination disorder, attention deficit disorder, under-achievement, etc.). She believes that our modern world is making it more and more difficult for babies and toddlers to spend significant time with their parents, where she believes the healthiest ‘mothering’ can occur. On reading Goddard Blythe’s book, What Babies and Children Really Need, it turns out that what they really need — time — is what many modern mothers cannot provide, simply because we live in a society that does not allow for it. I tend to agree with her.

There is enormous pressure on today’s mums to be everything — to look slim and ageless, to be fit enough to run marathons, to have a spotless house, to be a master chef in the kitchen, a goddess in the bedroom, run your own business, as well as being a good-enough mum. The former Governor General of Australia, Quentin Bryce — herself a mother of five children — said that, indeed, we can “have it all, but not all at the same time”.

Any time there is a significant change in a boy’s behaviour he is usually struggling with something in his world that is overloading his nervous system and troubling his mind.<

The first five years of life are incredibly important in terms of growth and development on all levels. The good news is that it is now socially acceptable for dads to be far more involved, and more and more of them are sharing the work/parenting load, some becoming at-home dads who support their partners as they continue their careers. In my book, 9 Things, the first ‘thing’ that I explore is connected mothering and I argue that it is the art of mothering that is vitally important, rather than who does the mothering. The more mother figures the better. Research is quite clear that strong attachment can be formed with non-biological caregivers — it simply needs to be consistent, warm and loving.

Again, Schore points to research that indicates that infant boys are even more reliant than girls on their mother’s input to help them regulate their emotional responses to stress. The ability to linger when feeding a baby, whether by bottle or breast, to gaze lovingly into a baby’s face, to smother a baby’s brow with endless gentle kisses and to make soothing low sounds of reassurance while a baby is being changed, dressed or settled is being undermined by the pressures and distractions of our chaotic world. There is research that shows that boy and girl babies in the first six weeks of life tend to do something very different when you lift them up out of a cot. Girl babies are much more likely to focus on a face, whereas boy babies are much more likely to focus on something beyond the face, like a mobile or a picture on the wall. Given what we know about the importance of ‘mirroring’ and mirror neurons, this different tendency — if left just to nature — might see a delay in the capacity for a boy baby to feel connected to the key caregivers, especially his mother, and to even learn to smile. Now we know this, we can ensure that we capture boys’ little faces directly when we feed them or change them. Given the new phenomenon of ‘brexting’ or texting while breastfeeding or bottle feeding, we have some work to do to inform mammas of newborns how critical this first 12 months of life is to ensure boys in particular are attached deeply. We simply cannot leave this to chance.

Many mums of young babies and toddlers tell me they feel they are drowning under exhaustion and stress. The first 12 months of a baby’s life is when parents have the most disturbed sleep, and sleep deprivation is one of the biggest stressors of being a parent. This was why the tribal approach to raising children was pure magic. There was always another woman who could give you respite — which in modern terms could mean time for a little nap, to have a shower and wash your hair or drink that cup of tea while it is still hot.

Tired and exhausted mums and dads are often unable to meet the needs of their babies and toddlers with calmness and unconditional love. It is very difficult to be joyful and patient when you are completely sleep-deprived and exhausted. Healthy attachment needs human connectedness that is saturated with warm, loving interaction, respectful and child-centred care, and an unhurried, calm environment as much as possible. This is impossible 100% of the time and parents, particularly mothers, need to stop beating themselves up if they have days when things don’t work out well.

Given how important this window of building strong attachment to our sensitive boys is, I need to clarify something here to avoid confusion later. Smothering our baby boys with tender kisses, attention and loving touch is incredibly important, especially in the first 12 months of life. This must not be confused with smothering them later in life by being over-invested in everything they do, and being too dominating. As our little boys become active — and toddlerhood is the beginning of that — they will naturally distance themselves a little from our loving tenderness. We need to ensure that we are still able to meet those needs for independence and nurturing in our little boys.

Emotional vulnerability
When boys are struggling with emotional vulnerability, they will do one of two things. They will come out fighting — acting out their emotions through angry outbursts or with irrational behaviours towards other children and their parents, or they will simply withdraw and seek isolation. One of the key things to always remember with boys is that:

Any time there is a significant change in a boy’s behaviour he is usually struggling with something in his world that is overloading his nervous system and troubling his mind.

While he is struggling, he may not be sure what it is that’s causing the sense of overwhelm and distress. I have worked with boys who became very aggressive suddenly and the apparent trigger was a disaster that happened in another part of the world, which they saw on TV. My plea to all parents of boys and especially to mums of boys is to avoid seeing your son as ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’. Know that, in some way, he is struggling to cope with our world and he needs our help. This reframing around little boys’ sometimes-irrational behaviour is imperative if we are to stop little boys staying confused around strong emotions.

Boys need to feel that they can be loved, especially when they make impulsive poor choices as their biology often encourages them to do.

I once worked with a mother of a 5-year-old son who had transitioned into preschool really well. Suddenly, he became physically aggressive towards other children, shouting and pushing, and he had even held a young boy in a headlock. He had also thrown a truck at another boy in the sandpit. This behaviour was most out of character and the mum was desperate to find out what was behind it. I questioned her as to what things may have changed in her son’s world that could have caused him distress and may have overloaded his nervous system. The first thing she could think of was that her mother (his granny) had been really sick in hospital. Apparently his granny was now at home, however, her grandson did not know that and this was the first thing on his plate of worries that contributed to his behaviour. I still felt there could be something bigger than that for such a sudden, dramatic change in behaviour from this little boy. Finally, the mum said, “I know what it is”. The boy’s much-adored preschool teacher had just left on maternity leave. He was struggling with grief and sadness, on top of the worry about his grandmother. Being unable to express this verbally, he expressed it through his behaviour. The new teacher in the preschool was made aware of the situation and made a concerted effort to build a bridge of connection with the little boy over the next few days. That little boy’s behaviour returned to normal.

I have often found that when boys’ behaviour is particularly aggressive and irrational, it is often linked to the more vulnerable emotions like fear, sadness and feeling dumb or inadequate. The same behaviour can keep happening in manhood and that is why we need to spend considerable time and energy in the first five years of a boy’s life to help him navigate the confusing world of emotions, feelings and moods.

Boys need to feel that they can be loved, especially when they make impulsive poor choices as their biology often encourages them to do. We need to ensure that boys feel very secure in their world because this reduces the inner turmoil that can come from them being not as emotionally competent as our girls at dealing with conflict and high emotions.

When we invest heavily in nurturing them, helping them to understand big, ugly feelings and teaching them ways to make better choices warmly and compassionately, we can change the future lives of tomorrow’s men.

This is an edited extract from Mothering Our Boys: A Guide for Mums of Sons by Maggie Dent, which will be published on 8th October 2018. Maggie Dent is one of Australia’s favourite parenting authors and educators, whose work as a ‘boy champion’ is informed by over four decades work as a teacher, counsellor, author and speaker — and as a mother of four adult sons. Mothering Our Boys is available from www.maggiedent.com and many online bookstores.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

MAGGIE DENT, DipEd, DipCounselling, is one of Australia’s favorite parenting authors and educators, with a particular interest in the early years, adolescence, and resilience. Her experience includes working for almost two decades as a secondary teacher before moving into counseling and working in the palliative care/funeral services and suicide prevention.

An in-demand writer and speaker, Maggie is an advocate for the healthy, common-sense raising of children to strengthen families and communities, and is a regular contributor to education and parenting blogs and magazines and appears regularly on Australian television and radio dispensing her common-sense wisdom. She is the author of ten books, several e-books and a prolific creator of resources for parents, adolescents, teachers and early childhood educators, and others who are interested in quietly improving their lives. Her books include Saving Our Adolescents, Real Kids in an Unreal World: How to Build Resilience and Self-Esteem in Today’s Children, and 9 Things: A back-to-basics guide to calm, common-sense, connected parenting Birth-8. http://www.maggiedent.com