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Raising boys: How to nurture gentle sons

Brothers on lounge
Credit: iStock.com/kupicoo

It’s not unusual for parents of boys to be told ‘You have your hands full’ or simply ‘Good luck!’ There’s a perception held by some parents that boys are ‘tougher’ than girls and therefore are harder to raise. 

But why is the act of raising boys seen as a handful or a hardship as opposed to raising girls? What things should parents be doing from the early years to really nurture their son’s gentle or softer side?

Child Psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg says the best way to nurture your son in the early years is to make them feel safe and valued. Then, as they get older, make sure they always feel they are listened to.

“For the first few years of a boy’s life, mothers are the most important person in a son’s life. So, in those early years, it’s crucial that mums model social emotional competency; issues like anger management, problem solving, decision making and conflict resolution are all very important,” Dr Carr-Gregg says.

“The way in which the mother deals with and interacts with people lays the template to how their sons will. So I think the most important thing is for mums to talk out loud, to talk about thinking, to model that whole mental cognition.

“So when somebody does something that’s wrong, the mother can explain what’s going on in a positive light. Or when, for example, they hear an ambulance, it helps if mum says, ‘Look, that’s the noise of an ambulance, I wonder if somebody is having a baby!’ Rather than speaking negatively – this is all very important.”

For the first few years of a boy’s life, mothers are the most important person in a son’s life. So, in those early years, it’s crucial that mums model social emotional competency; issues like anger management, problem solving, decision making and conflict resolution are all very important.
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg

Sons shift their focus towards fathers

Dr Carr-Gregg believes it’s around the age of five that the dads become more important to their son.

This doesn’t mean that the mother is no longer important, but a son’s focus tends to shift towards their father.

“Prior to the age of five, sons have locked onto their mum but around five they’re learning what it is to be a male and if the male isn’t there or if the man displays some toxic masculinity then you’re basically going to recreate that. So dads are very important,” Dr Carr-Gregg says.

When it comes to nurturing a ‘softer’ side of boys, Dr Carr-Gregg believes it’s all down to the personality of the boys’ main male role models. 

“Most boys, up to the first few weeks of school, are actually still quite soft, they adore their parents, love their siblings, and the socialisation hasn’t happened. But if they don’t have good male role models to help reinforce those qualities and demonstrate those qualities, the peer group of school often turns them into hard little boys that don’t show emotion, and start trash talking girls,” Dr Carr-Gregg says.

“They need good male role models who will basically show that softer side of masculinity because the young boys are just starting to learn what it is to be a boy.”

Keep boys away from a diet of violence

Keeping boys away from a diet of violence as entertainment, as far as playing violent video games, is something Dr Carr-Gregg insists parents need to focus on from an early age.

“Violent video games can reinforce negative stereotypes. A few video games are okay, but I have a rule that for every hour of ‘screen time’ should be two hours of ‘green time’ at that young age,” Dr Carr-Gregg says. 

“Also, parents must make sure there are no electronics in the bedroom. What electronics do is prevent some kids from finding their spark.

“Young boys desperately need to find their spark, something that gets them up in the morning that they absolutely adore.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s art, music, drama or sport, but from a very early age it’s vital that they develop an interest in something and have a go and be encouraged.

“It’s all about finding out about themselves. To me, that is of great importance and helps with their social and emotional confidence.”

One thing that troubles Dr Carr-Gregg is his belief that parents of today are not doing enough to encourage that ‘spark’ in their sons.

“Sadly, I believe what’s happening is parents are terribly time poor and, for many, it’s just easier to hand their son an iPad and leave them on their own,” Dr Carr-Gregg says.

“So I worry about the language development of those boys and also what that’s going to do for reading, numeracy, and social skills.

“These kids can quite literally be left to their own devices, and that’s problematic because nothing lights up their brain like 3D play with a loving adult.

“A great predictor of well-being for kids is the ability to obtain and maintain and retain human relations.”

If there is anything Dr Carr-Gregg believes some parents are getting wrong with their boys, it is telling them to be brave and not to cry.

“Don’t ever tell them not to cry! What happens is they’ll express their emotions through violence. There’s nothing like a good cry, there’s a chemical in human tears which mean you actually feel better when you’ve had a good cry, so we should never deprive our boys of crying,” Dr Carr-Gregg says.

Tips for raising boys

  • Talk out loud about what’s going on in a positive light, to help to model the child’s whole mental cognition. Keep reassuring your child that he’s growing up in a safe world and that he is loved.
  • Make sure your son has good male role models to show them the softer side of masculinity.
  • Keep boys away from a diet of violence as entertainment. For every hour of ‘screen time’ make sure there’s an hour or more of ‘green time.’
  • Make sure there are no electronics in the bedroom.  Tech is not a ‘friend’ and shouldn’t be used as a ‘digital babysitter.’
  • Help your son find their spark, something they adore: art, music, drama or sport. It’s vital that they develop an interest in something and be encouraged.
  • Don’t ever tell your boys not to cry or they’ll express their emotions through violence. There’s nothing like a good cry!