Two parents recently asked similar questions. How can we encourage kids to “stop playing dumb” in order to be more popular? And, how can we help encourage kids to make good choices in friends, especially when others can be mean or arbitrary about who they let into their inner circle?
The answer is surprisingly simple: Do nothing. Truth is, when it comes to social choices, we can’t save kids from choosing bad playmates or peers. Kids need to go through all the social steps, and missteps, on their own if they are going to build the social skills they need to thrive as adults. We had to learn about the complexities of the social world this way, too. Let them figure out on their own who to be close to and learn that “popular” kids can sometimes be mean and rejecting. That experience of pain helps them develop a tougher social skin, and it helps them to open up possibilities toward others who are better suited and offer deeper friendships not based only on things alike the clothes you wear, music you listen to, or sports you play.
How do I keep dialogue and conversation open with my boys as they get older?
Most important: get his hands busy. Don’t plan on a lengthy verbal exchange, but do something playful together. Don’t pose direct questions, especially about serious subjects like school work, problems with social issues, or disappointments and failures in sports. Those issues will come up on their own when your son is ready.
Establish a fun, enjoyable, and often physical type relationship first. So many times in my office I get boys talking once I start tossing a squishy ball between us or walking with them over to a shelf filled with collections of rocks and fossils. Don’t sit opposite your son to try to get him talking. Direct eye contact can be threatening. Play side by side. Another great trick is to wait until night. Right before bed, ask him to share anything he wants with you – only if he wants – and assure him that this is a good time to let thoughts float out of his head so he can start the next day fresh. Tell him you do this too. You release any negative thoughts just before your head hits the pillow and it feels great.
How do I keep my son anchored and close to family as he grows?
I see this challenge everyday in my office. Parents view their growing sons as changing and losing touch with their family. But interestingly, their sons see it quite differently. They talk about their parents drifting from them – not the other way around. They talk about their parents becoming more and more serious about homework and grades. They tell me their parents are busy and stressed and worried about jobs. They tell me that the only times their moms and dads interact with them is when something is going wrong. They tend to only recall the critical and unhappy side of their parents.
One boy recently broke down in the office telling me his parents don’t engage with him on the things they used to enjoy and talk about, like getting outside to play one-on-one basketball in the driveway or talk about a cool new video game. Many parents admit to me that they are revved up, are more serious, as their boys grow older. Mainly because teachers and coaches and other parents seem to be on a treadmill of pushing for higher results. So, remember… lower the stress. Also, remember that boys connect with us not through words or tasks, but typically though physical activities. One mom told me how she’d had an epiphany. One day she heard herself nagging and complaining about chores and homework, and told me she didn’t like being that kind of mom. Instead, she decided to take a walk with her son around the block. Get out of the house and leave the tension behind that was causing a rift between them. This grew into taking hikes with her son on free afternoons and weekends (without his young sibling tagging along) to explore cool wooded areas and trails near their home. They bonded without words, but with each step they took, each interesting rock they collected, the relationship solidified. Boys share experiences – often without words – and mainly when outdoors. They also don’t like to share our attention. They deserve this one-on-one time no matter how old they get.
Boys love to give one-word answers. Is this normal?
The answer may surprise you. As boys get older, and approach mid-elementary school years, most will pull back and express less emotion. It’s normal. They retreat from uncomfortable feelings. They talk less about problems. This seems a sudden shift for parents who recall their young son once telling them everything and displaying sadness and worries openly. This change isn’t abnormal, and in fact, their retreat from expressing strong emotion or worry directly is part of the developmental path most boys will take. Not all boys, but most. They are shoring up their new found sense of power, masculinity, and belief that they are capable and independent. This is both a true gender difference, some of it likely is wired in some way, and much of it is based on how we socialize young teenage men. Don’t be concerned that your son isn’t as verbal and emotional as he once was, and adjust your expectations for how he communicates with you.
What are some of top myths we should know about boys?
Myths about boys abound. Here are a few.
Truth is, boys are complex and don’t neatly fit into these simple stereotypes. Once you understand early boy development and appreciate the trends impacting boyhood, you gain what you need to see them in their true complexities. Once better understood, raising boys moves from frustrating to rewarding.
As the saying goes, it takes two to tango. If you’re locked in a power struggle with your son, you’re likely fueling it by giving him attention. Here’s a new way to think about power struggles:
It’s natural, especially for young boys, to push the boundaries. They’re experimenting with ways to gain control to achieve what they want. So, don’t engage in a back-and-forth struggle. If the issue at hand isn’t important, let it go. Wear sneakers or shoes to school? Gloves or mittens? One more bite of broccoli? Don’t get caught up in these relatively tiny daily details. As soon as you see a power struggle starting up, step back and disengage. Don’t give it attention. Instead, seize the moment as a learning opportunity. Let natural consequences help your son learn that he’s making life tough for himself. Tell him, “It was your choice not to get into bed at the time we agreed. So there’s no time left for a story tonight. I’ll miss reading to you. But, tomorrow will be another day and I know you will do a better job not fighting so we have more time for a story.” At first, he will cry and protest if you don’t join in on his desire to struggle… but by using this approach you can start to reverse negative patterns. Remember to always stick to what you say. Always appear calm and collected. Use fewer words. These will bring about fewer struggles.