As a psychologist who has studied child development, and as a mother of two boys and a girl, I can say that there are differences in boys’ versus girls’ development. It’s important to understand these differences and how parents can raise happy, well-adjusted sons. There is always a significant amount of variation among individual children. Here are the general/average trends.
When boys and girls are born, boys tend to weigh more than girls do. In terms of physical growth after that, boys and girls tend to be about equal until middle elementary school, when girls tend to grow taller than the boys due to hormonal changes. You might look at your children’s elementary school class photos and see the girls towering over the boys. That usually continues until middle school, and then, boys’ growth spurts kick in with puberty, which lead them to grow taller than most of the girls of the same age by late adolescence.
GROSS MOTOR SKILLS
In the early stages of physical development, boys may display a faster development of gross motor skills (running, jumping, balancing), and girls demonstrate faster development of fine motor skills (writing, drawing). This might be part of the reason why the saying “boys will be boys” originated, from parents seeing their boys running around all over the place, jumping here, there, and everywhere. There is scientific research that has shown that the pleasure center of the brain of boys lights up more when they are more aggressive and when they take risks. This doesn’t mean that girls can’t be risk takers, of course.
It is a well-known finding that girls’ verbal skills develop, on average, faster than boys. It is not unusual for a boy to be a “late talker.” How can a parent help in this area? Narrate what is going on when you are with your son. For example, “now we’re going to the store to get some fruits and vegetables…This is an apple…etc.” Read with them. Ask them to tell you the names of objects and places.
Since girls’ verbal skills are typically more advanced, it makes sense that they seek out social bonding in ways that primarily involve verbal social interactions from a young age. You’ll see the girls sitting together playing on the playground, playing word and clapping games with their hands. Usually, you’ll find the boys running around and climbing and being very physically active on the playground. Again, these are generalizations.
The environment in which a child is raised can have a big impact on how they develop. For example, a parent can foster a girls’ physical skills by getting her involved in sports. A parent can help their son to develop fine motor skills by getting them to do art or writing. That will probably help to avoid a common problem among boys, that their handwriting, especially in elementary school, can be very sloppy. They need to work on developing their fine motor skills. Helping a boy to learn how to type is probably even more relevant these days since so many teachers expect work to be done on computers.
What about social-emotional development? There are factors which can help us to understand why there is a stereotype that boys are more immature socially and that they have difficulty understanding or expressing their emotions. Besides the fact that boys’ verbal skills are somewhat slower to develop than those of girls, that alone does not explain it. A more significant contributor are societal expectations for how boys are “supposed” to be. This relates to the traditional expectation that boys are not supposed to show their emotions, which begins in early childhood. In many families, boys will be chastised for crying, for example. They might be called a “sissy” for doing so or instructed to stop being “a baby.” What does this communicate to the boy? That he cannot show this emotion because he will be seen as weak and more “girl-like.” This is part of the culture of masculinity.
This really puts a strain on boys as they grow up. This may foster the inability to understand their own emotions and to suppress them. Or most of their emotions start to emerge as anger, since anger is a socially acceptable emotion for boys to show, even though it gets them into trouble sometimes. Better to be in trouble for being angry than showing weakness or backing down, they are sometimes taught.
For the sensitive boy, these cultural expectations can be very stressful and lead to problems such as anxiety and depression. The sensitive boy does not fit the mold and is seen in a negative light by others. He might get bullied at school or rejected by peers or even by his own family, and depending upon the type of parents he has, he may be put down or discouraged from being who he truly is.
You might see a similar pattern emerge when a parent has a daughter who prefers “boy activities” and is a “tomboy.” Although, society seems to have more tolerance for girls who are tomboys than it does for boys who are sensitive and artistic. The pressure for boys to grow up to be “real men” in the old-fashioned sense of the term (physically strong, does not show vulnerability, does not talk about emotions, is dominant) is still more or less the norm even in 2022.
Although, there does seem to be a trend now in the media for males to be both sensitive and strong. I’m thinking of The Rock, who plays characters who embody the ultimate powerful muscle man on the outside, and yet have a tender “teddy bear” inside. This is a far cry from the old Western films with Clint Eastwood in the 1970s, where his characters would never show any vulnerability or emotional weakness.
So how can we as parents help our boys to grow up to have a balance of strength and masculinity with the caring, compassion and sensitivity that are typically associated with feminine qualities (as I write this, I am hoping that the reader will not think that I am suggesting that the feminine qualities are signs of weakness; in fact, they are signs of strength–a different type of strength–which promotes successful relationships with friends, spouses, and later, their own children). Here are some suggestions:
- At a young age, teach your boys about feelings. There are inexpensive “feeling charts” that you can purchase that show facial expressions and name them. This will promote learning of verbal language and emotional intelligence.
- Model for your sons that it is ok to talk about whatever emotions they have. If they’re angry, talk about what makes them feel angry and validate it. If they’re sad and cry, talk about what happened and validate their sadness.
- Always keep an open line of communication with your son and be aware of non-verbal signs that they may be having a hard time with their emotions. They might be acting out more, being more aggressive than usual, or withdrawing. These could be the ways that they are expressing sadness, anxiety, or confusion. Because of fear of being perceived as weak, they might not go to you to talk about what’s really going on. As a parent, be alert and go to them to spearhead a conversation. If they don’t feel comfortable, then you could suggest that they could see a counselor to talk about what’s on their mind.
- Don’t deny or ignore the signs that you see. Some of the highest rates of suicide in the 21st century are by tween and teenage boys.
If a boy does not grow up with a father, or one who is very involved in his life, it is important to find one for him to serve as a mentor. Boys who do not have male mentors often have higher rates of behavioral problems and lower self-esteem. The mentor could be a teacher, another family member, a pastor, a coach, or even an older peer. The Boys & Girls Club of America is one resource that could be useful. There is also the Big Buddy program, Big Brothers/Big Sisters who have programs in Baton Rouge. I also found boystomen.org, which is just one of many other mentoring programs that you can find on the internet.
Here is a list of books which might be useful resources for raising boys:
- Boy Mom: What Your Son Needs Most from You by Monica Swanson
- He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son to Believe in Himself by Adam Price, PhD
- Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys (A Practice and Encouraging Guide to Christian Parenting) by Stephen James