Life Mothers & Babies

Monday 20 November 2017

A guide to raising boys

Suzanne Harrington is impressed by a new book that shows our sons to be a lot more complex than we think

My boy: Suzanne with her son Felix
My boy: Suzanne with her son Felix

Suzanne Harrington

GIRLS are complicated, boys are straightforward. Girls are tricky teens, boys are easy teens. Girls need loads of input, boys are self-rearing.

And if you believe that, you might want to stop what you're doing right now and get hold of a copy of 'Ringleaders & Sidekicks', a new book which says it will help you help your son "cope with classroom politics, bullying, girls and growing up".

Oh God, you might think. Not another parenting manual telling me I'm doing everything wrong and screwing my kid up for life. Not another earnest trudge through an unrealistic paperback guilt trip. Actually, no.

As much as I have resisted how-to parenting books since becoming one, this book contains the authentic voice of boys. Real boys.

That's because Rosalind Wiseman – best known for 'Queen Bees & Wannabes', the non-fiction book which inspired the terrifying teen movie 'Mean Girls' – involved real boys in its writing.

Around 160 of them, aged between 11 and 18 (not including her own two sons, who are 10 and 12) were the book's unofficial editors, checking every bit of dialogue for authenticity.

"I would say to them, 'tell me exactly what parents say that makes you stop listening', and they did," the American author says. And she wrote it all down.

"The boys in this book held up a mirror, which helped me to slow down, be honest and be self-reflective. It's not about beating yourself up as a parent, it's about asking yourself hard questions."

So welcome to boy world. In boy world, you don't ask for help, you don't show hurt and you don't do vulnerable. Screen life and sports matter more than exams. Being swotty at school is for losers.

Adults are, at best, interfering, at worst out to ruin your fun, and so must be kept at arm's length. Porn is how you do sex.

This does not, however, mean teenage boys are sex-crazed, zombie screen addicts, who communicate through grunts and punches and have poor personal hygiene. Nor do we need to talk about Kevin. Boys may be boys, but they are more than just clichés and caricatures.

"We underestimate boys," says Wiseman. "I actually believe our relationship with our sons is more complicated than with our daughters. With boys, we demonise, we dismiss, or we give too much privilege."

However, because they don't tend to do hissy fits like teenage girls, "Boys' problems can slip under the radar . . . what you thought was easiness turns out to be your own cluelessness".

Yikes. Maybe we do need to talk about Kevin.

But, from a boy's perspective, what is a boy? Wiseman asked her sample group to describe a high social status boy. They said he would be funny, strong, good with girls, relaxed, independent, tall, confident, detached, tough, good at the right sports, and good financially.

His opposite? Sensitive, easily upset, poor, weak, fat, shows pain, bad dress sense, awkward, a rule follower, snitch, has disabilities, "flaunts" being gay, and is controlled by girls. Boy world sounds like a brutal place. But is it really?

Wiseman says boys cannot freely express their desires for world peace without being scoffed at by their peers, which makes them disillusioned.

"What really struck me is how boys look around and see adults lying and abusing power, and so they disengage," she says.

"They get disappointed and they don't talk about it – it's rare to see a boy whose overt passion is to change the world, for fear of ridicule. Girls have a language to talk about dreams and hopes – boys don't." (Unless it involves sport!).

Meanwhile, they're rolling their eyes as we try to communicate with them.

We ask them how school was, they say they can't remember. We ask where they are going, and they say, 'out'. They waft past us in a cloud of Lynx, impenetrable, masters of avoidance.

What do you do?

"Your chances of getting it right are about on par with winning the lottery," says Wiseman, which I genuinely find massively consoling.

I am not the only parent with a son (aged just 10, mind you) who regularly tells me to leave him alone, to butt out, that I don't understand anything, and how I was put on this earth solely to embarrass him. (And this is long before puberty rears its hairy head).

There are many reasons, says Wiseman, why your son doesn't want to tell you stuff. He doesn't think you can help; he doesn't want you to get angry with him or the person causing the problem for him; he doesn't want you to judge, worry, take away his technology or humiliate him.

All of which is quite human. After all, asks Wiseman, don't YOU avoid conflict whenever possible? Well, yes.

We can embarrass our sons really easily, without even meaning to – by singing, hugging, saying "I love you" in front of his friends, oversharing, introducing him by his faults ("This is John, he's really shy"), or by being too shouty on the sidelines of sports events. The list is infinite.

"When my mum asks embarrassing questions, I pretend she's invisible," says one 12-year-old. My son does that too.

Wiseman thinks we need to rethink how we communicate with our sons.

"We're not creative about reaching boys – we expect them to sit in a circle and divulge their feelings, which they won't, so we assume they don't have feelings."

Which they do – just not always freely expressed. In extreme cases, this non-expression can lead to negative outcomes like violence or suicide, but in non-extreme situations – that is, the ones parents face daily – it just leads to frustration on both sides.

Wiseman offers some helpful things to say when your son confides in you.

I'm sorry that happened, thanks for telling me, let's think about it together, tell me a few specifics so I don't make assumptions – all calm, clear, and constructive.

However, unless you are Yoda, what you have probably said is something completely different. Like in the case of an altercation: just ignore it, walk away, he's jealous/from a bad home, you probably took it the wrong way, don't show that it bothers you, you should punch him in the face.

None of these help. Nor does asking a million questions, forcing a hug, or using his slang. Instead, maintain boundaries, maybe share some of your own teenage social car-crash stories to cheer him up and don't add to his anxiety by saying things like, "whatever you do now will affect the rest of your life".

He already knows that, even if he acts like he doesn't. He's not stupid. Clueless maybe, but not stupid.

Neither is it okay to make fun of his problems, nor tell him he has no idea how good he has it.

Allowing him to make his mistakes without shaming him, nagging him, or taking ownership of his decisions will lead him to trust himself. In theory anyway.

This includes the fact – yes, fact, according to research quoted in the parenting book 'NutureShock' – that, although parents value honesty in their kids above else, 96pc of children routinely lie to the parents. And no, your little darling is probably not one of the 4pc.

But haven't we lied to them? I know I have. ("Tiddles didn't feel any pain when the car reversed over his head").

"They're lying to us for the same reason we lie to them. Because they think they have a very good reason," says Wiseman.

She is not, however, about letting boys off the hook. Apart from the authenticity of the boys' voices in her book, what appeals is its fairness and constructiveness.

She offers contracts to be signed by parent and son regarding screen time and computer games; she gives practical advice on how to deal with sneaking out of the house, lying, rage, mobile phones (11 is a good age to get one, apparently), porn ("Porn is to sex what the WWE is to fighting"), and what to do if a girl sends a naked picture of herself to a boy's phone.

Manners, accountability, emotional intelligence, and respect are what Wiseman thinks boys can offer their parents, teachers, girlfriends and peers; we just need to start guiding them early on.

Teaching your five-year old son basic social skills – eye contact, greeting, please and thank you, knife and fork stuff – is doing him a massive favour.

As is walking him through ideas like sexual consent, appropriateness, and how to smell nice, when he's older.

Praise and encouragement, without any of the where-did-I-go-wrong guilt tripping, is what he needs to go out there and be the best he can be in boy world. Bearing in mind he may not want to – some boys sit in their bedrooms for years avoiding social interaction as much as possible.

"The greatest challenge for boys is believing in their right to take the right risks, to believe in themselves," says Wiseman. "They have the right to their feelings, including anger, otherwise they become emotionally stunted.

And the greatest challenge for parents? "We have to stop pigeon-holing and simplifying our sons. They are highly complex emotionally. We think boys don't hold grudges, or are not capable of being highly manipulative – they are!

"We have contributed to the alienation of boys by accepting them at face value when they say everything is fine. 'Fine' can mean 'okay' or it can mean 'my world is crumbling', and we need to be able to understand which is which.

"We've put so much effort into communicating with girls – we need to do the same with boys."



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