How to Raise Boys in a World Full of Hazards
Two days before her 18-year-old son went on a lads’ trip to Ibiza, Danielle sat him down for a chat. She said: “I discussed consent with him and told him that if he was with a girl, he needed to be sure about what she wanted.”
Gone are the days when “a chat” before a holiday to a party island was a goodbye hug at the airport, while furtively shoving a packet of condoms in your son’s pocket and whispering in his ear: “Don’t get anyone pregnant.”
Thanks to the #Me Too movement and the more recent Everyone’s Invited platform, brief chats have become much longer ones about consent and other anxieties parents have when it comes to raising sons in the 21st century.
Perhaps this shift was inevitable due to the explosion of social media, giving children access to sexual imagery that, pre-internet, was restricted to the top shelves of newsagents.
A recent report published by the Children’s Commissioner, Rachel de Souza, found that 13 is the average age that children first view pornography online.
Ilana Hutchinson, the schools manager at Jewish Women’s Aid, says: “When we were growing up, the major influences on children were friends, family, our local community, school and maybe Just 17 magazine and Smash Hits.”
“Nowadays, the big wide world of the internet is also influencing our kids, where many of them can access anything at any time. The question is: ‘How can we as parents have a bigger influence?’ This is a forever challenge.”
Sarah, who has three sons between the ages of 11 and 18, says that she doesn’t shy away from broaching the subject of pornography. She adds: “I have explained that what they see online is not necessarily true in real life, so they know that there is a barrier between the real world and the media world and that porn is not how love should be.”
When it comes to consent, “my boys know that if a woman says, ‘No’, it is, ‘No’ and that they mustn’t touch a girl if she doesn’t want that. My boys know that this is the red line.”
Hutchinson, who does a lot of work on sexual violence prevention and consent, says that the key to chatting to our children about pornography and other harmful content is being “really open” and encouraging our children to become “critical thinkers.
This means asking them questions, such as: “What do you think about that content?” and “How does it make you feel?” She warns that an outright ban on social media by parents is unrealistic and may only prove counterproductive. “Lecturing and telling off are never going to shape attitudes.”
Instead, Hutchinson, who will be speaking on the HerSpace panel, recommends regularly checking in with our kids in a relaxed setting, such as on a car journey or dog walk. She says: “If we take the time to listen to what they’ve got to tell us, they do want to talk to us. They want to be heard.”
Respect for women begins at home, says Laura, who is a mother of three boys. She says: “With me and my husband, my sons see a very equal relationship. It’s really important that they see me as a strong woman, who is able to say what she wants to get what she wants.”
After growing up with a sister, having two sons has been “a steep learning curve” for Caroline. She is anxious that #Me Too and Everyone’s Invited have made it difficult for her teenage boys to start relationships. She adds: “There is a lot of pressure on them these days when it comes to navigating the world and behaving in a certain way.”
Her concerns are echoed by parenting educator Rachel Vecht, who says: “Boys seem a lot more fearful these days that they are going to be accused of something. I have noticed generally that there are less boyfriend and girlfriend relationships like the ones we had growing up — just talking on the phone or going for a walk in the park.”
Prolific screen usage has also had an impact on how young people form relationships, says Vecht, who will be speaking at HerSpace. She adds: “Maybe they think that having a relationship is like sending a Snapchat — messaging someone — and that’s not what we would have called a relationship when we were growing up.”
According to an NHS report, children are spending, on average, over six hours a day on a screen. This has affected the development of our children’s — particularly our sons’ — social and emotional skills, says Vecht.
She adds: “I’m concerned there isn’t enough real-life interaction. Kids aren’t learning non-verbal communication skills, like reading facial expressions and body language. That’s not something which is exclusive to boys, but I think developing those social skills can sometimes be a little bit more difficult for them.”
Caroline has observed how differently her sons and daughter express themselves and says: “My daughter is more emotionally open. Although I am very close to the boys, there is a different closeness between me and my daughter. With my boys, I feel there is a slight disconnect.
“Because of the pandemic, I feel that my boys are now a couple of years behind socially and emotionally. A lot of girls were able to keep the lines of communication open with their friends, but many boys were just on their Playstations.”
To give our sons the tools to open up to us, parents need to use “emotion coaching”, says Vecht.
She adds: “Instead of this old-fashioned ‘Man up! Big boys don’t cry’ mantra, we need to create that safe space from a young age where boys can feel really heard and understood without judgment.
“If your child is really frustrated or upset, instead of being dismissive and saying: ‘Don’t worry’, help them by saying: ‘I wonder if you are feeling X?’ Otherwise, we are just shutting them down.”
Child psychotherapist Dr Dana Dorfman says: “Typically, girls socialise and are socialised too through verbal exchange and in a highly relational way. While it is more common for boys to seek help and talk about emotions than in previous generations, it is still not the norm.
“Boys are not as accustomed to identifying and verbalising emotions, particularly vulnerabilities.”
Sasha, a mum of five boys and one girl, says that rather than wanting to sit down and have a chat about any anxieties, her sons prefer to “let off steam” by doing sports.
She says: “Sometimes, it’s very hard for them to express themselves and hormonal changes can manifest themselves in an aggressive way, so I find that if they go out and do some sports, there is a real mood change afterwards.”
Dr Dorfman says that especially during the adolescent years, “boys’ vulnerable feelings are expressed through aggression or withdrawal.
They may ‘react’ to internal anxieties and sadness by behaving in a more angry, irritable and frustrated manner. Often, they are unaware of the underlying feelings and what ‘registers’ is the latter.”
Suicide is the leading cause of death among men under 50, with men accounting for 75 per cent of suicides. As well as teaching our sons that “vulnerability is a strength”, Vecht says that parents need to build up their sons’ sense of self-worth.
She adds: “There is a lot of nagging, repeating and labelling, but criticism is very demotivating.
“Shifting your mindset and acknowledging what your child actually does well, using descriptive praise, is beneficial. Don’t just focus on the outcome, but a child’s attitude, strategies and effort. This really nurtures self-esteem.”
Danielle emphasises the importance of resilience and adds: “We actually need our kids to fail so that they appreciate when they do have success.
“My oldest one applied for a summer internship and failed at the final stage. When he applied again, he got through. I try to inspire a ‘get-up-and-go’ attitude in them.”
According to Vecht, “there is so much pressure academically and socially, so it’s good to help them to find some kind of passion or hobby, something that gives them purpose and meaning that they can excel in.”
For Yoni, this has been key to developing his sons’ confidence and says: “When it comes to sons, there is a lot of competition. Who is the popular kid? Who is the sporty kid?
“As a parent, I try to steer them towards something they have a chance of winning. If boys can achieve mastery in something, it gives them an enormous amount of confidence.”
But as well as looking after our sons’ needs, we also need to look after our own as parents.
Vecht says: “80 per cent of parenting is modelling, so be conscious of how you are modelling taking care of your own mental and physical wellbeing.
“It’s hard-wired in the DNA of a child to look up to and imitate the same gender parent and the son is learning from the father what it means to be a man.”
This is a message Yoni has taken on board and says: “I’m very conscious of how I act in front of my sons and that it can influence their personality and their behaviour for their whole life.
Raising boys may bring challenges, but it is not all bad news. According to Caroline, sons bring with them an immense amount of fun.
She concludes: “My sons are noisy, funny and crazy. Yes, our house is chaos, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Note: Several names have been changed in this piece
By Gaby Wine