Think of all the nagging, reminding, repeating and hassling you do. No parent wants to do it, but how many times have your heard yourself saying no to your son lately?
No, you can’t play with guns. No, you can’t climb on the back of the sofa. No, you shouldn’t be so rough with your dog/brother/friend/school bag. Blah, blah, blah. It can feel as though we are constantly berating them for acting on their own instincts, and while that’s damaging for them, the constant battle to suppress their genetic programming is as exhausting for you as the realisation that you are actually that mother.
But if boys really are hardwired to behave in ways you simply don’t understand or often, like, then how do you change the pattern?
According to leading behaviour expert Noël Janis-Norton – who counts Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton among her clients – it’s actually pretty easy. In her latest book Calmer, Easier, Happier Boys, she offers simple and effective strategies for addressing the unique challenges of raising motivated, cooperative and confident boys aged 3-13. And she knows a thing or two about it.
Mother to a boy and a girl as well as a foster parent, now at 70, she has six grandchildren (three of each) as well as a lifetime of experience as a teacher – from the classroom to special needs; from head teacher to parenting adviser. She is also an author and speaker.
Why boys? We asked.
“I have written a book about bringing up boys because when enough parents ask the same question, I write a book about it. Parents of boys are concerned about their fidgetiness, restlessness, lack of concentration, aggression, poor social skills, and how, relative to girls, they are not fulfilling their potential academically.”
And while there is a camp that will flare against the suggestion that boys and girls are fundamentally different, Noël says that, by a combination of nature and nurture, there really is a difference – something she calls the Boy Brain.
“If you have a boy and a girl, it really puts it into sharp relief. But even if you only have boys, as a mother particularly, boys’ behavior is sometimes hard to understand. The Boy Brain has certain predispositions, among them impulsivity, distractibility and the drive to be physically active. Boys have about 30 per cent more muscle fibres than girls, and managing them takes up a lot of brain space, which leaves other areas less stimulated, such as fine motor co-ordination and impulse control. When boys do get what they need they thrive.”
So it matters that, as parents, we understand what those needs are. Especially when women both at home and at school, are cultivating boys. As US psychologist Michael Thompson says, girls’ behavior is the gold standard in schools, and boys are treated like defective girls.
“Most teachers are female,” Noel explains, “and the school system is about sitting still and listening, writing, sitting still some more, listening some more. I do a lot of observations in schools, and little boys as young as 4 years old will say, ‘I’m one of the naughty ones, so I have to sit on the thinking chair’. It’s heartbreaking.”
“Many boys are in almost constant motion — fiddling, wriggling, interrupting and blurting out the first thought that comes to them. We can help boys improve their impulse control, although we shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations. But nagging and constant telling-off don’t work.
Instead, establish some new rules (e.g. sitting quietly at the dinner table, sitting still when a teacher asks, not fidgeting or making constant noise) with ‘think-throughs’. Ask him: “When you want to talk, instead of interrupting, what should you say?” He has to answer sensibly in a complete sentence: “I should say excuse me, then wait until they stop talking and look at me.”
As your son answers he is visualising himself doing it right, and that influences future behavior. The more think-throughs you do, the sooner the behavior will improve. You may get eye rolling and mumbling at first, but persevere.
According to Noël, by introducing some simple strategies, parents will see a change in their family dynamic for the better. If we ensure they play enough sport and spend time with their fathers, as well as controlling our own impulse to shower them with meaningless superlatives; if we introduce positive alternatives to reminding and telling-off, like descriptive praise and reflective listening; then as parents, we can encourage our sons to be more cooperative, confident and self-reliant, and to have more sensible habits and better impulse control.
“Most importantly, they will be happier boys.” Amen to that.
Read more from Noël in our exclusive series of strategies on everything from rules and routines to how to help boys better express themselves.