All parents of boys want them to grow up to be good men. In today’s ever-changing world, it’s easy to think that goal is harder and harder to achieve. But it’s not any harder than it has ever been. Today’s world requires different skills than a decade ago. There are things parents can do while raising boys starting when they are chubby little toddlers snuggling with you on the couch up until they’re handsome high schoolers on the cusp of embarking on their own lives.
Here are 6 tips for raising a boy in today’s world that will help guide him in the right direction to becoming a responsible, respectful adult.
1. Discuss His Emotions
Boys, maybe more so than girls, need to be encouraged to share their emotions. There’s a widespread expectation that men are strong and don’t cry. Boys, and later on grown men, are often expected not to show when they’ve been hurt or if they’re sad or afraid. They’re told to “suck it up” and to “take it like a man.”
Starting when he’s a toddler and on up through elementary school, encourage your boy to express how he feels. If he’s sad, let him know it’s ok to cry. When he’s sad or afraid, snuggle up with him and let him tell you how he feels. If he knows it’s ok when he’s young, he’s more likely to continue to share how he feels as he gets older. Then one day, hopefully, he’ll do the same thing with his sons.
2. Model Healthy Behavior Towards Others
Raising a boy who is respectful is probably at the top of the list for most parents. So, model the behavior you want him to follow. The negative comments you make about any one group will impact how your boy sees people in that group.
Keep negative comments about a woman’s or your own appearance to yourself. Dads can play an especially important role on this one. Boys typically emulate their fathers, so seeing their dad (or step father, older brother, grandfather, or other male role model) being respectful to women can make a big impact. This rule applies to other groups of people too – coworkers, people of another race, teenagers, or your kids’ teachers – and should be followed from the time your boy is a toddler on through his teenage years.
3. Encourage Non Gender-Based Play
Giving boys a variety of toys and the opportunity to engage in non-stereotypical play helps them grow up to be well-rounded. Buy him dolls. Play house or dress up with him.
Your son might not gravitate towards dolls or a kitchen set, and that’s ok, but offering them gives him the opportunity for the nurturing-type play that girls are offered in abundance. The traditional male/female roles are becoming less commonplace, so exposing boys to a variety of play at an early age lets them decide what they like and don’t like based on their preferences and not on old-school “traditions.” And if he prefers the pink pots and pans to action figures, you might just have a budding chef on your hands!
While you’re introducing options for play, set up play dates with girls too. The fact is that girls are a part of life, so show him that girls aren’t that much different from boys. Establishing early on that boys and girls are equals and playing together is normal will help him maintain that belief later on. With any luck, it will help your middle school boy from being scared of girls and will ensure that your high school and college-aged boy treats his girlfriend with respect.
4. Teach Him that His Body Belongs to Him
It’s not only important to raise boys to respect other people, but they need to learn to respect themselves too. Have conversations early about how his body is his. Talk about good touches and bad touches. By three years old, kids can understand the concept that some parts of their bodies are private. Use bath time to name the parts of the body and label certain parts as private.
By kindergarten, move the discussion towards the idea that no one should touch him if it makes him feel uncomfortable. It’s important to remember most sexual abuse comes from someone a child trusts, so be careful about listing people from whom it’s okay to receive touches. And be aware that abuse often starts with “innocent” touching like back rubs that over time lead to inappropriate touching in an attempt to create a false sense of security and make it seem acceptable to a child. Empower him to say “no” if a touch feels bad.
If your son understands that “no means no” in elementary and middle school, it’ll be much easier to talk about consent in high school and beyond. When it’s time to discuss sex with him, don’t skip the part about consent. By then you’ll have been discussing the topic for so long, he’ll likely shrug you off and tell you he knows, but by continuing the conversation you’ll show him how important the topic is and make talking about it normal. You’ll be setting him up to talk openly and comfortably with a sexual partner.
5. Show Him Healthy Family Dynamics
Start by modeling a healthy family at home, no matter what your family may look like. Show younger boys that mom and dad, or mom and step dad, or mom and mom share household chores. Eat dinner as a family as much as you can. Be respectful of each others’ opinions. As your boy enters elementary school, share homework duty and be involved in his education as much as you both can. Ask him for his opinion and input on family matters whenever appropriate, and as he gets older, include him more often.
Point out times when he’s kind or thoughtful and discuss relationships that you observe together in person or on television. Commend the good things you see and discuss the not so good things.
In single parent homes, modeling a healthy family won’t necessarily look the same, but it’s still an important part of raising a boy. Instead of sharing chores and homework duty with a spouse, a single parent can show boys hard work, determination, and the ability to do things on his own. But things like eating dinner as a family, being respectful, and asking for his opinion are all just as appropriate to incorporate into his routine.
Families are so diverse in today’s world that modeling a healthy family at home isn’t enough. Expose your boy to all sorts of families, from adoptive families to same-sex families, divorced families, and single-parent families. Use television shows you watch together or point out families you know in your neighborhood or at school. Identify the things that make a family a family, like love, support and taking care of each other, regardless of what that family looks like.
6. Set Boundaries with Technology
Set limits on technology starting in elementary school. Discuss online dangers like bullying and sexual predators. By middle and high school, set boundaries when it comes to inappropriate images and “sexting” (sending and receiving sexually explicit text messages). Be clear about your expectations and teach him how to respond when someone sends him a picture or inappropriate message.
Along with setting boundaries for older boys, have a larger conversation about pornography and what he should know about it. Your personal and family values will dictate how this conversation unfolds. A discussion may include how you know pornography is out there and easily accessible, but it’s unrealistic and you don’t want him to get the impression that it reflects a realistic view of sex.
With all of the outside influences of the world competing against us, one of the most effective things we can do while raising boys today is to model the behavior we want them to follow. Everything from empowering boys to discussing their emotions, to showing them healthy relationships, and encouraging them to play outside of their traditional gender roles will help set them up to be sensitive and respectful men. And if we can succeed at that, then we’ve been pretty successful parents.
Keep the conversation going; check out Closing the Teen-Parent Communication Gap.