The Truth About Raising Boys

Even before I started reading Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James and David Thomas, I already knew that little boys were nothing like little girls.

It was obvious from our earliest play dates, simply observing the way my son and his little friends interacted with the world. I’d watch, in awe, as his girlfriends sat playing with itty bitty dolls, lining them up on the table, meticulously, all of their plastic legs bent at the same, perfect angle. In the meantime, my son practiced his left hook by knocking down blocks, or beamed with pride as he smashed his activity cube as hard as he could against our wooden floors.

I still see it today as my son perfects his vocabulary and begins to string clumsy sentences together, and the girls his age are having in depth conversations with their moms about wanting string cheese and sliced strawberries for snack time.

Just like grown men and women, little boys and girls are entirely different mentally, physically, and emotionally.

It surprised me to find that baby boys and girls actually develop distinct differences as early as the blastocyst stage, one of the earliest developmental stages in the womb. At the fetal stage, testosterone levels in boys reach adult intensity, influencing the development of the male brain, and as early as the eighth week of gestation, baby fetuses are already bigger than girl fetuses. But, as James and Thomas note, the differences aren’t just physical:

From birth, boys are more significantly more active and wakeful than girls, whereas girls show a greater aptitude for communicating and are more sensitive to relationships compared to boys… The male brain is wired for activity, whereas the female brain is biased towards personal connections.

I found the chapter on Liam’s age range (2-4) fascinating. James and Thomas call it “The Explorer Stage”, highlighting the fact that young boys live in their imaginations as much or more than they do in “reality”. Boys in this stage are active, aggressive, curious, and self-determined.

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Explorers are bundles of energy and it seems as if all we do all day is chase them around the house as they discover and interact with their world. Nothing satisfies them more! When it comes to discipline, boys are often stubborn learners, but there is also a good reason for this:

The explorer’s brain secretes less serotonin than the brain of a similar-age girl. Among other things, serotonin works as an impulse-control agent and is responsible for inhibiting some of the aggressive effects of testosterone.

If you’ve ever dealt with an aggressive toddler, you are not alone. Liam had a phase during which he would hit other kids on the top of the head. It was traumatic for me and Joe as we tried to find ways to get through to him, trying all possible methods to get him to stop. It was a relief to find out that this, too, is a developmental stage that young boys go through. This aggression can be an emotional response and a means of communication, but, at times, this aggression can also signal overstimulation, hunger, or exhaustion (as was often the case with Liam!)

As young explorers grow and mature, so does their hunger for purpose and power. As parents, it is our job to simply find safe places for them to exercise their need to be active as well as their desire for self-determination.

When we afford them the opportunity to exercise power and control in ways that are safe (and minimal, in the big scheme of things), we honor a developmental and emotional need of theirs. What an explorer really needs is discipline, structure, and patience. For a boy to thrive as an explorer, he requires boundaries, open space, consistency, and understanding. 

With young boys, it is essential to follow these tips that James and Thomas outline perfectly in their book:

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Explorers can’t process abstract ideas so be simple in your demands and set clear, realistic boundaries that they can grasp (i.e. “It’s almost time for lunch. When the timer goes off, please put your toys away.”)

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A limited selection of options can give boys a sense of success. You can say something like, “Do you want to sweep the floors or pick up your toys?”

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“Today will be a little different. We are going to _____ today.”

Just like with babies and infants, toddlers thrive on consistency and routine. A simple change can really throw them off, so make sure you inform them of any changes so they can adapt smoothly.

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“We are kind – we do not hurt people or things.”

“We always tell the truth – we do not lie.”

Have your little explorer define what “kindness” or “being helpful” means to him. As he gets older, make sure he can give you an example to show that he has a clear understanding.

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“Watch how carefully I turn the pages of the book.”

“Let’s see how gently we can love on baby brother.”

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Make sure to use logical consequence that young boys can understand and connect to their actions, such as: “Remember, I asked you not to throw your balls in the living room. Only in the play room or outside. Because you didn’t listen, I’m going to put them away for the rest of the afternoon.”

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Little explorers should go outside at least once every day, and to the park at least once a week. It’s essential, regardless of weather or temperature.

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As James and Thomas put it, “an emotionally charged adult only provides more fuel to an already emotionally charged child.” Instead of raising your voice to get your child’s attention, use a strong tone and make eye contact to convey authority.

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Avoid lengthy directions and get to the point with as few words as possible. Don’t give instructions in the form of questions (“do you want to eat lunch now?”), and avoid ending sentences with “okay?”.

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When your little explorer is successful at a task, praise him! Experiencing success and affirmation is one of the best motivators of future behavior for little boys in the explorer stage of development. Even select activities that can be successfully completed and affirm everything positive: “I saw how hard you were working. I really like that you’re such a hard worker!”

I highly recommend this book to boy moms, especially as they learn to navigate the many stages of their sons’ developments. I’ve loved reading about ways to facilitate Liam’s transitions through these stages and how to help him reach his full potential.

You can get a copy here!

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Johanna Riehm teaches in the department of Communication and Media at Manhattanville College and in the department of English at Mercy College. She teaches courses in the history of communication, public speaking, and social media, as well as creative and technical writing workshops. Johanna’s work has been featured in Graffiti Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Bangalore Review, Cactus Heart Press, and the LaMothe Review. She is working on her first longer work, a creative nonfiction novel called We Carved Our Names in Tamarind Trees.

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