Raising boys

In a constantly changing world we have to regularly adjust our expectations and methods of raising our children. Different people or groups play a role in how our children grow up and, in many instances, it takes a village. In this day and age, how to do we raise our young boys to become respectful men in our society?

We’re all familiar with the male stereotype. The one who watches rugby, doesn’t cook or change nappies, and works an 8-5 job. He goes for drinks after work with his friends and shares lewd jokes about women. The stereotypical man doesn’t do housework (except perhaps for the ‘manly’ jobs like cleaning the pool or taking out the rubbish on a Tuesday). If he gets upset, he lashes out or shuts down. This is the stereotype. It doesn’t have to be the reality. What can a man be? What should a man be?

With these stereotypes in mind, the definition of a man should not be determined by the physical work he does around the house or his job, but by his interpersonal and relational skills. An ability to empathise, reflect and sympathise should be paramount. When a man is equipped with these skills and views of the world, it actually doesn’t matter if he cooks or not, because what he has to offer a family counts for so much more. How do we ‘grow’ men like this?

“Emotions don’t feminise boys, they humanize boys to be fully connected to themselves and to others.”  (John Lynch in The Pain Behind the Mask)

To start with, we need to raise empathic and emotionally intelligent young boys. The Future of Jobs report (listing skills required for jobs in 2020) reports that emotional intelligence, people management and coordinating with others are in the top six of the most important skills needed for future success. We need to teach our boys these skills. It is important that boys are encouraged to take on a variety of roles in their play. For example, playing with dolls or looking after a pet can teach our little boys how to be nurturers and carers. This will later be something that forms part of their identity as men, rather than something that is frowned upon. We need to make a big deal about positive role models and place emphasis on emotional men in history or society. Encourage our boys to become men who are allowed to cry, who are stay-at-home dads, or do ‘soft’ jobs like teaching or play musical instruments.

In our country, which is rife with gender-based (usually domestic) violence, it is important that we encourage our boys to become respectful of women. We need our boys to have spaces to express themselves and their emotions that does not involve an aggressive physical expression. At the recent ‘Raising Boys and Girls’ Conference at St Stithians School in Johannesburg, Nene Molefi made a pertinent point about raising boys and girls. She explained that it is important that we as role models (whether it be parents, teachers, members of society) encourage and prepare the boys around us to become men who are ‘upstanders’ and not bystanders on gender equity issues such as domestic violence, workplace equality and parenting. Similarly, we need to raise women who acknowledge this and embrace and support of these efforts.

Raising boys and raising girls shouldn’t have to be very different. As a society looking to the future, our goal should be one where separate expectations and requirements of men and women are not needed, where characteristics like empathy, respect, emotional vulnerability and relatedness apply to both boys and girls and therefore men and women.

Some practical guidelines for raising boys

  1. Lead by example. Be a dad your son looks up to or a mom worthy of your son’s respect.
  2. Teach good manners (at the table and in interactions).
  3. Listen to them.
  4. Acknowledge their efforts and actions. Notice when they’re polite or hospitable.
  5. Encourage empathy and compassion.
  6. Hug them and provide positive verbal affirmation.
  7. Encourage positive friendships (especially with girls).
  8. Show good sportsmanship while playing or watching sport.
  9. Teach and model respect and trustworthiness.
  10. Encourage your son to take responsibility for his actions.
I am an HPCSA registered independent Educational Psychologist. I work at a school and in private practice. I offer short and long-term therapy for children, adolescents and young adults, as well as parental guidance. My method is primarily non-directive and psychodynamic but I will take the unique nature of every client into consideration when making a choice on how to proceed with therapy. I offer therapy for (among others) anxiety, anger, bereavement, depression, children struggling with divorce or parental conflict, adjustment and learning difficulties, self-esteem, eating disorders, self-injury and trauma.