There is no doubt little boys can be an absolute delight. During the early years their primary bond is with their primary caregiver, usually their mother, and it is to her they will show their joy and sorrow. Little boys can be highly affectionate; in plentiful need of cuddles and kisses, as well as constant reassurance that they are loved and safe. Equally, there is no doubt that they can be an absolute handful, driving parents to distraction. It is crucial to learn to set boundaries early on. It allows them to feel guided and supported during a critical phase of their early learning.
For Laura, parenthood the second time round was a bit of a shock. Her little boy Sam, loving and affectionate as he was with her at home, seemed like a different boy in public places. She watched with horror as he hit out frustratedly at a small child playing nearby at their local playground. It was the second time in as many minutes he’d done it and she was at her wit’s end as to how to deal with the situation. She had never faced this problem with her daughter, Meg, at a similar age and, as a result she wasn’t sure how to cope. Laura isn’t the only mother to feel like this. Many mothers find play-dates or playgroup sessions destroyed by their little boys lashing out at other children and the time they must spend disciplining them.
There is no doubt that the challenges of raising boys differ to those of raising girls. Firstly, boys are slower to mature and a maturity gap between boys and girls of about 12 months to two years carries on all the way to adulthood. This is why boys are often slower to reach typical milestones of babyhood and toddlerhood. While they may be physically larger than their female counterparts, emotionally they are less mature and will often be far more distressed at being separated from their parents than little girls will.
So how can parents like Laura work to help their children in situations like the one in the playground?
Firstly, they should know their little boy is wired for activity. Boys are genetically designed to be active and energetic. They are also less likely to be socially interactive and far more single minded in their approach to an activity. Steve Biddulph author of Raising Boys says: “at preschool, boys tends to ignore a new child who arrives in the group, whereas girls will notice and befriend them.” If Sam was playing with a piece of equipment or he wanted the one someone else was playing with, he would express his frustration in the best way he knew how, physically. Therefore it is good for parents to schedule some one on one physical activity time with their children. It helps small boys work on developing their hand-eye co-ordination and allows them to feel valued and supported by their parents.
It is helpful to remove boys from the situation they are in the first time they misbehave. Little boys often feel overwhelmed in crowds and removing them from situations where they feel crowded often helps reduce their anxiety levels.
This “time out” method is one of the most common forms of discipline used by modern parents, and usually the most successful. The rule of thumb is one minute per year of age. If they get up, you put them back and the time starts all over again. Afterwards, go back and reiterate why they are in time out. If they are able to you should encourage them to explain to you why they are in time out.
Parents should try to stay nearby while their boys play. That way, they can monitor their behaviour closely. It also provides their children with a clear sense of boundary as well. This is vital for small boys. They need constant monitoring and, while this may prove tiring for parents, in the long term it is usually rewarded with better behaviour.
Parents also need to model for boys how they should have responded to situations: Show them how to say, “Please may I borrow your toy?” rather than snatching or hitting. At this young age children are not good at negotiating for themselves so parents should feel comfortable talking to the other children about it on their behalf. Boys are often slower to develop verbal skills so patience is important, and parents can assist by modelling the desirable behaviour.
Biddulph says the years from birth to six are the, “learning to love years.” It is now recognised that while fathers are a key part of their lives at this time, boys “belong” to their mother. The importance of the bond between mother and boy is crucial to their development. It is important for them to feel safe and comfortable with you. When they cry, it is more useful to resolve why they are crying, rather than telling them simply to “stop it.” Equally, they respond very well to physical affection like kisses and cuddles and the more of this the better.
Little boys will see their mothers at the centre of their existence and are anxious to please them at this age. Because of this attachment they are often easier for mothers to manage and negotiate with than their male counterparts. They will look to you for reassurance that they are safe and behaving acceptably. That is why being physically close to them is so important.
Biddulph believes that daycare for little boys under the age of three can be counterproductive. However, for the vast majority of parents this is unavoidable. It is important to ensure that the time you do spend with your little boy is when you reassure him, and reinforce the bond between you with lots of cuddles and affection.
Whilst there are many challenges associated with parenting little boys, the rewards are enormous. For Laura, once she began setting firm boundaries for Sam, coupled with lots of reassuring hugs and kisses, she saw a dramatic improvement in his behaviour and playdates became a source of fun, rather than stress.
Whilst there are genetic differences in little boys and girls, we cannot underestimate the impact of our own parenting, as both nature and nurture have a role to play. Anthropologist Meredith F Small says “Our parenting efforts may be best directed toward our children’s individual talents and desires, striving to let them become whoever they are. And we can’t overestimate the importance of role models in nurturing this idea.” As parents we need to acknowledge the innate differences between raising boys and girls and work towards looking beyond typical gender roles. Instead we need to encourage them to achieve whatever they wish. This support needs to start in the early years to enable boys (and girls) to see beyond gender lines.
This article was written by Sarah Pietrzak, freelance writer, blogger and mum of three small noisy children.