The Problem-Solving Parent: Boys ''Must'' Be Boys
By Eleanor Reynolds

How often have you heard the cliché "boys will be boys?" In the days when little boys were at home, running around the yard and neighborhood playing cowboys and superheroes and building secret hideouts, we saw the aggressive and boisterous play of boys as a sign of strength, leadership, and future success. Times have changed, and today the behavior of boys has become a subject of national concern. Boys have a lower sense of self-esteem than girls, aspire to do less in school, have difficulty learning to read and write, and are often held back or placed in special education classes. There are three major, inter-related influences in the life of any child: biology, relationships, and environment. Let's look at how each one impacts the lives of boys.

Brain research has revealed that compared to girls, boys generally mature later, are more active and aggressive, and require more physical space. Boys are better at manipulating objects, are more task-oriented, and are more likely to solve problems, but they are less verbal and more apt to have trouble reading. In addition, boys have difficulty identifying the emotions of other people.

Mothers have always been expected to provide unconditional love and nurturing for their children and most mothers do just that. However, the mother who works outside the home may have little time or patience with a noisy, disruptive boy at the end of the day. Fathers may have work responsibilities that require them to be outside the home, or they may be absent from the home entirely. Boys need a strong, male role model to demonstrate the masculine version of empathy, tenderness, strength of character, respect for women, courage, commitment, and compassion. This is how a boy becomes a man and, in time, a father to his own children.

With most mothers in the work force, boys are spending more time in some kind of child care, which in many ways is geared toward girls. In a child care environment, children are expected to be compliant, fit into an allotted space, respond appropriately to verbal directions, express themselves verbally rather than physically, and refrain from rough, noisy, or rowdy play when indoors. These limits may work well with most girls, but they cause enormous stress for most boys. The result is "behavior problems."

How to Let Boys Be Boys
How can you enrich the lives and futures of your sons? Here are some ideas:

  • Boys need intimacy as much as girls, but boys must learn intimacy; it doesn't always come naturally. Baby boys may not seem to invite as much cuddling as girls, but they still need it. Hold, carry, rock, make eye contact, sing to, and coo with your baby boy as much as possible.

  • Teach your boy by showing him how to do things. When putting away his toys, be his partner and do the task together. Get down to his eye level, take his hand, and guide him. Don't assume he'll respond to verbal cues.

  • Help your son learn how to express his feelings in ways that are natural for him. Boys take their time expressing their feelings, sometimes repressing how they feel which leaves them with only one acceptable emotion: anger.

  • Encourage your son to take risks, not only physical risks but mental and emotional risks as well.

  • Boys prefer to take charge and solve problems. Learn how to use the problem-solving approach so you can help your son make the most of his innate skills. When there is a dispute, ask both kids to think of ideas to solve the problem. This is called negotiation and helps children to use their thought processes and verbal skills in place of physical force.

  • Accept your son's level of physical activity. Give him space to run, jump, wrestle, make noise, and be a boy.

  • If your boy is in child care, choose your provider cautiously. Search for a warm and nurturing setting that offers numerous physical activities when children are indoors as well as out.

Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at