How To Help Boys Build Better Relationships

As a parent of girls, I cannot tell you the number of times I've had parents of boys tell me, OMG boys are a totally different animal! If you've been mystified by how to handle various issues with your sons, attend Dr. Anthony Rao's talk, Boyhood Decoded, on March 5 at the Fessenden School in West Newton. In anticipation of sharing about this event, I invited Dr. Rao (author of The Way of Boys) to answer a few pressing questions about raising boys.

But quickly, before I get to the questions, let me share how I came to them. Given that I have zero experience raising sons, I decided to query about top concerns and questions via the Boston Mamas Facebook community + my personal channels. And I was overwhelmed and fascinated by the response! In a day or two, I received close to 100 public or private responses spanning identity, emotional, physical, communication, sex, and relationships issues. There were so many compelling questions and I'm going to try to get more of these topics covered over the coming year, but meanwhile, Dr. Rao shares his advice on 3 topics regarding relationships and boys. I recommend reading his responses in entirety because the underlying principles and response recommendations are relevant to many, many situations.

1. How can I teach my son that girls/women are still valuable as friends and their interests are not lesser just for being feminine?

Respecting others is best achieved by showing (not only telling kids) that all types of people are valuable. We shouldn’t force kids to be friends with anyone they don’t wish to be close to, but they can be given opportunities to develop new relationships with many different types of people. When boys (or girls) show intolerance toward others, treat it like any other type of inappropriate behavior. Be firm and say that’s unacceptable. Most important, model for them through your actions –- not just your words –- that you value all types of people, whether they are male or female.

2. How can I empower my son to respectfully stand up to his coaches and advocate for himself without worrying that he will be perceived as weak?

Should children have to stand up to their coaches? Shouldn’t coaches be looking out for the needs of their players? Many sports have become too serious and very costly. That makes the stakes high. The pressures to perform and stay ahead of peers have eliminated much of the inherent fun, and healthy exercise, that sports were intended to provide. Worse, many coaches are not positive role models.

If your son has this type coach, reconsider the psychological costs of his staying in such a highly pressured activity. If, however, your son’s coach is fair and positive, maybe your son is having a tough time advocating for himself. He might be shy or has low self-confidence. Address that with practice. Practice meeting new adults. Extend a hand and greet people politely with a smile and good eye contact. Set up times for him to approach a safe stranger and ask for something (maybe talk to a sales clerk or ask for directions). Confidence is built while practicing these type tasks. Practice every opportunity you can. And don’t advocate too much for you son. That makes him dependent on you, and that leads to his feeling less confident.

For boys and young men, it is paramount they have positive male role models. This doesn’t require that there be a dad living in the house. It means that moms have to find (and learn to trust) good male role models. The good news is that there are good men all around us. Start in your community. Every police department, for example, has a program where male officers volunteer to meet with youngsters/teens and do activities. Fire departments often offer this too. Boys see these males as supportive and strong leaders. Consider a male babysitter/au pair. Find a college student or older high school student to sit alongside your son a few times a week and help with homework. This will reinforce a male-approach to learning. It will be more animated, fun, and hands on. Ask yourself, where do groups of boys play or meet (at and beyond team sports)? You will likely find these activities have positive adult male role models in charge. Camping, outdoor activities like skateboard and rock climbing, boy’s clubs and organizations, martial arts, robotic building groups, computer clubs, math teams, chess teams, groups that collect and play magic cards, mechanic classes, just to name a few.

3. How can I help my son pick up on the basic social currents and relational skills that girls possess?

Don't expect (or make) boys behave or socialize like girls. Their style, generally speaking, is quite different and some of that is based on neurological differences. Also, many boys will develop social skills later than girls, so be patient. But you should teach (and expect) the basics. Better eye contact can be practiced and reinforced. Responding to unnecessary anger and aggression with clear consequences. But don’t use too many words or lengthy discussions about their behavior, and keep your emotion out of it. Don’t personalize their negative behavior. And always keep them very physically active. They need to channel their adrenaline and pent up motor needs. Teen boys need to channel testosterone as well. If your son, compared to most other boys in his class, is showing very poor social skills, check in with a psychologist or developmental specialist. It could be social anxiety. It could be that he needs social skills training in small groups.

Disclosure: This post reflects a sponsored editorial partnership with the Fessenden School.