In this episode: Janet speaks with author Maggie Dent about her newest book, Mothering Our Boys, in which she focuses on the common perceptions and misconceptions we hold about boys. Maggie speaks eloquently about innate differences between little boys and girls, and how those differences often negatively inform our attitudes and expectations. Maggie is a prolific parenting author and educator who advocates for a healthy, common sense approach to parenting. She is a passionate, positive voice for children of all ages, and her wisdom is an invaluable resource for parents, teachers, early educators and anyone seeking to improve their lives and relationships.
Transcript of “Mothering Boys – Secrets to Understanding Our Sons”
Hi. This is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
I’m so excited, because I have the honor of an interview today with one of my idols: Maggie Dent from Australia. She is a parent education icon. If you haven’t heard of her, you should definitely become acquainted. She has written 11 books about parenting and the most recent is out right now in Australia and in ebook in the U.S. and it’s called Mothering Our Boys. It’s about building a strong connection with our sons, understanding them, seeing through their eyes a bit better so that we can have empathy and compassion and build the kind of relationship that we dream of having with our sons. So I’m really excited that Maggie is here to talk to me about this today. Welcome Maggie.
Maggie Dent: Thank you Janet. I have followed you for a very long time. This is a mutual admiration society. And I think what you would find, those who dive in to the book, that it comes from an incredibly respectful place and I think that’s where we get confused sometimes.
We know it’s gender, we’re more alike than we are different, we get that. For a while, it was politically incorrect to talk about the slight differences, but, as the statistics keep growing about our boys’ struggling with all sorts of things and our men, I think it became a time that we needed to say hang-on, some things may be a little different.
So, with the science now behind common sense and also, I’m a former high school teacher, so I taught for 17 years and then I also became a full-time counselor working with troubled children and things, particularly around avoiding suicide, and it was their voices I started hearing thinking, gosh, we aren’t really understanding our boys as well as I think we could.
I also grew up on a farm in western Australia, so I spent all my childhood chasing my dad because my mom was fairly difficult, and then I have four sons of my own that are now grown men and I kept thinking, I think I’m supposed to be the woman who helps mummy’s understand raising boys.
Janet Lansbury: Absolutely. I remember hearing once that if you have three boys, you are eligible for sainthood. I think maybe four boys really just puts you over the edge and you’re definitely there.
Maggie Dent: When I had my third son, people started coming up to me expressing their horror and dismay and disappointment for me and then when I had my fourth, I had someone lighting candles in a church because I had four boys. While it’s sort of got a funny side to it, my eight year old son next to me said, “Mummy, why do they keep saying that about us boys?” And that’s where I think we accidentally start influencing our little boys to see themselves as less than. We lower our expectations.
Janet Lansbury: Less than, and more trouble-
Maggie Dent: Yes, more trouble. And that was the other unhealthy perception that I’m really wanting to get us to have conversations about … Boys are tough and the inevitability of boys to behave badly, and it’s okay for them to be disengaged and not do well at school. They’re the three biggies that I really hope that we can unplug and do something to make positive changes.
Janet Lansbury: What are some of the keys that you would offer to parent’s for connecting with their sons better and being that parent they need?
Maggie Dent: Okay, I will start with just a couple of the unique differences that influence the way that we communicate.
We’ve still got biological drivers from caveman days. The biological drivers for men in those days when gender was very separate, was their number one thing was to protect and defend, and, they were very single-focused and wouldn’t stop until it was done. They liked to focus on one thing, finish it, and then they can turn to the next thing.
Whereas us as cave-women, we are the organizers of the babies, the toddlers, we were often the medic in the house. In those days we were organizing when that community needed to move because nature wasn’t going to sustain them. We kept bloodlines clear, and we can manage a much wider multi-focus and that’s where we often perceive …
Let me give a simple example … if a little boy is only 2 meters away from you, possibly watching a lovely children’s program and you call to him gently saying, “Babe, it’s time for dinner,” and he doesn’t respond. And then we go a bit louder … “It’s time for dinner!” And then we in our mind, often as women, we think he’s doing that intentionally.
That’s only that the single-focus is so strong in that moment, he can’t hear you and then we yell at him and the poor little lad turns around … why is the woman that I love more than anything in the world suddenly yelling at me? And so that’s a really common one, we need to go over and tickle his back or stroke his head or let him know why we’re questioning … so we can take the focus from whatever he’s doing, so he can hear us. And if we can ask again… I find that we speak more harshly to boys and command and demand, and no-one likes that, so of course there’s a natural push-back.
So that’s just a very first … similar one, which is also why sometimes men can’t find the milk in the fridge-
Janet Lansbury: They can’t find the milk in the fridge?
Maggie Dent: Yes, because there’s too many things in the fridge.
Janet Lansbury: Oh, oh right.
Maggie Dent: Yeah. I had one of my sons come to me when he was about eight and he said, “Mum, where are the socks?” And I said, “Babe, I’ve had the same sock drawer for fifteen years, I’d probably look in that one.” We’re horrified you know, in that communication.
Women, we have this massively competent memory for all of those reasons, because we had all of those things to remember, so their capacity to remember things is incredibly frustrating for women. You know, you can send the little boy into the bedroom to get his socks or his bag and he doesn’t come back, and he doesn’t come back for a couple of reasons. One, he’s actually forgotten what you asked him but two, on the way in, his single focus went to something more interesting like a toy on the floor. So, when we get to understand this, then we don’t have to get quite so frustrated and cross with him, because he can genuinely not remember lots of things we wish he did.
Janet Lansbury: And has that been proven to be more common for boys?
Maggie Dent: Absolutely more common for boys, particularly boys in homes where there aren’t any girls. So when they’ve got sisters, often they become like extra mothers. They’ll know he’s going to forget or they’ll go and help him find it; they do these lovely softening kind of things. Whereas if it’s a household of boys and all of them haven’t got very good memories and don’t listen very well or can’t hear a lot of words, then it can be a little bit frustrating for the mum if she’s sole female in the house.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. I always recommend also giving children a helping hand rather than repeating ourselves. I think repeating ourselves is a trap for us. It accelerates our frustration and discomfort and it doesn’t work with children because, as you said, we tend to get louder and then they tend to go back into themselves even more.
Maggie Dent: Often boys are not able to articulate and there’s some really good research now from Dr. Allan Schore from UCLA about how the boy’s brain, when a fetus becomes a boy, it’s marinated in testosterone in the first 12 weeks. It does slow down the boy’s brain development so they haven’t got the same capacity to learn language or organize themselves and all those things. It also means at times, that they can’t find words to articulate what they’re feeling. We have a world that’s still trying to dismantle the old male code which says that boys are not meant to express vulnerable feelings and the only valid one for a warrior is anger.
So how often is anger not anger but something underneath it? Like the sad/angry syndrome that often happens in a long day-care where you might drop a boy off and so he’s really sad and then as he runs in to play, that sadness can transform into anger and he can go and kick someone or throw some toys. He hasn’t got the words and that behavior is a form of language, particularly for young boys.
Our job is, I believe for mummies, because we get emotions … God bless, I’ve got four grand-daughter’s and my goodness, I cannot believe the difference when I’m observing them, really scanning their emotions while working out what feeling they’ve got right now.
We assume that all boys can do the same as little girls. And so I think it’s just that understanding that they may struggle to communicate their unmet needs and that we kind of have to be able to help them find out what those unmet needs are and hopefully try to meet them.
Janet Lansbury: That makes a lot of sense. I have a son as my youngest. I have two daughters and then a son and I have noticed that what people have said to me, feels true. People have said it’s nice to have a son as your youngest because they stay yours a little bit longer and I feel that. I feel that with my daughters, especially when they were toddlers and then adolescents, they really pushed back on me a lot and needed to … rejected me in a lot of ways, and my son doesn’t really do that. But I can tell when he’s… like you said, he sort of has an angry response when he’s afraid, when he’s worried or uncomfortable about something that he has to figure out. Sad, although I don’t think he’s sad that often, but he definitely has frustration and worry and those kinds of feelings and it comes out as lashing back a little bit.
Maggie Dent: There’s some fabulous new neuroscience that shows that if a girl or a woman gets upset, obviously her limbic brain fires but the next center that fires up is her word center, almost immediately which is why we are very quick to express how we’re feeling.
For boys and men, it’s the limbic brain followed by the body, so he transfers that straight into the body, so he’ll go and kick something rather than be able to express it. That doesn’t mean to say he hasn’t felt it deeply.
That’s why one of my big suggestions is when boys muck-up, not just little things, but the things we have to have a conversation about, that in the heat of the moment, when no child’s good in that moment, that I would even allow longer, because there’s this hunger in a boy to be loved and to be understood, but it takes him a bit of time to be able to review that. So sometimes it’s a lovely chat in the bath the following night, or a pillow chat as he heads to bed saying, “Remember when you got really cross yesterday? Can you tell me what was happening then?” He’s got a much better chance then, but he had absolutely no chance before he’s had a time to process it.
Another perceptional difference that we can understand is that boys are often looking for an external experience of some kind to be able to assess their own self-worth. Therefore, if they’ve hit a target or they’ve won something or they’ve built that tower to the right height, they give themself a big high-five and it makes them feel good within themselves. So, when they disappoint and when they muck-up, their self-worth is just crushed by their own internalized emotional understanding, without us then becoming harsh.
So often when boys muck-up, there was not an intention to do that. And that’s the other side to what I think … the perception is, boys have an intention to be naughty or bad or break things or won’t sit still… When really underneath it, it’s very rare that happens.
Impulsivity and boisterousness has meant he’s made a poor choice. So if we change our language from “bad” and “naughty” to, “that’s a poor choice,” then when he’s calmed down we can actually go back to that and say, “Can you see why that wasn’t an okay thing?” I encourage parents, particularly of boys, to just have three simple rules; try not to hurt yourself, try not to hurt anyone else, and try not to damage the world around you. Quite simple.
We go back to that and then try and work out what we’ve been wanting to do and then … “Okay, so that didn’t work and it broke one of the rules or maybe two, so, I’m going to help you work out some other way of doing that.” Because our boys aren’t great at finding a different solution but they’re open to a better one that means they don’t get into trouble. That sort of emotional coaching, I believe in the first five years of life, can really influence our boys to be much better when they muck-up, when they fail and when things go wrong.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, when you were going over that, which definitely makes a lot of sense, I was thinking, I don’t even see it as a choice. If they were making a conscious choice, they wouldn’t do it but their impulse got the better of them, so they did it.
Maggie Dent: Mm-hmm.
Janet Lansbury: Going over it much later, not sternly or saying, “Why did you do that?” But really wondering, that curiosity that I think is so helpful for us to have as parents, the way we approach everything with our children, that curiosity of, “Wow, what happened there do you think? What do you think made you feel like doing that?” The safe way that we engage with them, I feel, makes a big difference.
Maggie Dent: Yes. It does. The biggest one I really would love people to have conversations … watch the different ways that we speak to boys and girls.
So, if a little girl falls over, the language is often something like, “Aw, sweetheart, are you okay? Can I help you? Are you all right? Can I help you up?” We go to this really … you feeble thing, you can’t do it yourself, which isn’t helpful for girls. And so we need to make sure we’re not giving them the message that they need more help but the other side is we often would say to the boy, “There’s nothing wrong with you, get up. Just toughen up.”
Janet Lansbury: “Brush it off.”
Yeah, “Brush it off.” So I’d love it if we just leaned over and said, “Are you okay? Do you need a grown-up’s help?” To either gender, that implies a sense of, you’re capable already however, if you genuinely need my help I’m available.
I’m not sure in your schooling system Janet, but over in Australia there are different behavior policies for boys and girls so that the boys are punished much more severely for exactly the same thing that a girl may do. And we do have some aggressive little girls out there that are angry so, if they shove a boy over, hardly anything happens. But if the reverse happens, oh my goodness. And if that also happens, when a boy accidentally knocks a girl over because he’s running and he didn’t see her, the punishment is equally the same. No wonder we can create angry men later.
I still argue that unless we stop hitting, hurting, and shaming little boys, we’re not going to change what happens with the minority of our men who are doing those things as hurt men later in life.
If we can build a sense of helping them gain the capacity to understand what happens in the heat of the moment and how to deal with it without punching, paying back, or all those sorts of things, with having some words. And it does take time, and you’ll think you’re never going to get it sometimes, but I raised four exceptional men without ever hitting them and very rarely raising my voice. Three of them are the most amazing daddies; very different to their own father, who was of that generation where you didn’t do anything; I think he changed one diaper in four boys and I don’t think he got out of bed once. And I’m looking at mine doing team parenting and I’m so proud of them.
And I want to throw one suggestion out there to mummies who have got rooster boys, you know your feisty alpha males who don’t want to share and they’re opinionated and they want to win everything and you think, they haven’t got an empathy gene in their body. There is hope. There is hope. There is hope, because my two rooster boys have become very tender, gentle, loving fathers. And I realize, and this is one of the secrets in my book, that your boys can learn to father — not how their father fathered, but how their mother mothered.
Janet Lansbury: Oh, that’s lovely.
When you were talking about the school system and the way other people discipline and treat boys versus girls, I do believe in the power that we have as parents, and I feel like there are so many things that we can’t control, like the way other people in schools treat our children, but we do have control over what we’re doing and I feel like that is by far the most important modeling and relationship building that our children experience. Through that, I think we can safeguard them and give them the message that what other people are doing isn’t right and isn’t about them, but really about those people and the way they see things.
Maggie Dent: So it’s a big job isn’t it.
Janet Lansbury: It’s a big job. It’s a big job. In the best possible way, too.
Maggie Dent: Yeah.
Janet Lansbury: It’s a scary big job and it’s a positive, incredibly affirming big job that we can do, and we’re not going to be perfect at it.
Maggie Dent: No, no, no gosh. I start my seminars with some of my most incredibly less than perfect moments of parenting, because I want you to feel comfortable that there’s no such thing as perfect parenting and that in actual fact, those moments become teachable moments; they show our children how do I bounce back from, a really bad decision. Do I apologize, do I get cross at myself? So, we are constantly modeling.
Janet Lansbury: Yes.
Maggie Dent: I think one of the really important messages is the emotional fragility of boys. We know they can get hot emotions just the same as our girls, but when I was counseling full-time and I had a 14-year-old boy, and you know they can be really interesting, and this particular mum wasn’t very happy with her son’s report card. So, she did the traditional female technique of freezing him out. So she kind of ignored him for nearly a week and, fortunately, one of his friends was able to alert me particularly, because he knew I knew this lad, that he was planning to take his life.
When I worked with him, he said to me that his mum had frozen him out and he thought she had completely stopped loving him so he gave it three or four days and then he said well I can’t live without my mum’s love, that’s how important it is, so I’m just going to leave this planet rather than live without her love.
So, there are times that we do things as women we don’t realize that can actually break our little boys’ heart, there’s a sensitivity in that. It’s almost like we’re doing a shift gender-wise where we are recognizing girls can be really quite tough and quite mean, quite early, because they are a bit more savvy and our boys are floundering around and also way more sensitive to the things that can hurt; relational aggression and social exclusion. Also, not having those gestures that make them feel loved. So often, again as women, we tend to use a lot more words and boys can have a slightly different way of feeling loved by their mum, and we’ve got to work out what that is, whether it’s the five minutes cuddled up in bed, even though I’ve got a sink full of dishes and a thousand things to do, they just might want to snuggle next to us without talking. Maybe they want you to rub their head, maybe they want you to tickle their back. We’ve got to work out what the non-verbal signs are that show that I still love you and I’ve got you and my love is fierce and unconditional, even when you muck-up. That’s what they want to know-
Janet Lansbury: Yes.
Maggie Dent: Because when we look those looks of disappointment, later on in adolescence, they don’t want to come to us when they’re wounded and broken because they just don’t want to see that look of disappointment again. They feel those wounds deeply, especially from their mother, and obviously there are lots of tender dad’s out there that can be equally as loving. But we carried them in our bellies so there’s a connection that goes beyond words.
So, give them permission to hold that tender space with them so that they can hold that tender space one day as a husband or a partner in an intimate relationship.
Janet Lansbury: Absolutely. I think also that’s hard because that’s something we have to intuit. Children, especially boys, I guess, won’t show what they need. They won’t ask for what they need. They may not even know what they need from us in that way and that makes it harder because we have to see beyond and we have to keep seeing our child’s heart underneath everything, and finding our way there, even if we don’t even know at the time if we got there, or whatever, we still have to keep seeking it and connecting there. It’s a big challenge.
I can’t wait to read your book. I didn’t get a chance to yet. It’s already a best seller in Australia.
Maggie Dent: Yeah.
Janet Lansbury: That’s so exciting.
Maggie Dent: When I wrote it, I didn’t want to sound like a woman banging on about boys without having some sort of back up, so I did survey 1600 men. I wanted to know what their relationship was like and I gave them five levels. Fortunately, only around 19% of all those men are completely estranged from their mother’s. But I did ask what was one of the things you wish your mother had done that she didn’t do and what did she do that you wish she hadn’t? A number of men said, “I wish my mum hadn’t been the martyr and done everything for me because I’ve ended up a useless male.”
How often do we … we just do it out of love, but maybe at some point we do need to build their capacity to look after themselves; to cook and to wash and to do all the things that are kind of ‘womanly.’ So, it was like, whoa. So throughout the book you’ll find those quotes and also, we asked mom’s to send in their funniest anecdotes and, oh, my goodness, they can really be an enormous source of unexpected delight.
Janet Lansbury: Well, thank you so much Maggie. This has been delightful.
Maggie Dent: My pleasure. Really my pleasure. Keep up your fabulous work please Janet.
Janet Lansbury: Thank you, you too. And, I definitely feel like we are kindred spirits and are very aligned in our messages.
Maggie Dent: Thank you.
Janet Lansbury: Well, you have a lovely evening and I will you talk with you again soon I hope.
Maggie Dent: Cheerio to everyone.
Janet Lansbury: Cheerio to you!
Maggie’s book, Mothering our Boys, is available at amazon.com. Also, please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlandsbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and categories so you should be able to find whatever topic you’re interested in. And both of my books are available on audio, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them for free from Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast. Or go to the books section of my website. You can also get them in paperback at Amazon and in eBook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Apple.com.
Thank you for listening. We can do this.