Janet welcomes back best-selling author Maggie Dent to discuss some of the particular challenges parents face in their quest to raise emotionally healthy children. “We need to let our girls know they can be strong and feisty and it’s okay, and we need to know that there are times when our boys need to be vulnerable and sad, and that also needs to be okay.” As we navigate our children’s moods and behaviors, Maggie believes that messy, even chaotic moments are normal in learning the dance that is parenting, and it is in these difficult times that we all grow. “It was never a perfect art form,” she says. “You’re not a bad parent or a lousy parent. This is what parenting is.”
Transcript of “Boys Do Cry and They Need To (with Maggie Dent)”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m thrilled to have, again, this wonderful, wonderful parenting author and educator Maggie Dent, who I was able to share with my listeners quite a few months ago actually, and I’m still getting thank-yous and people discovering this podcast where Maggie spoke about boys and the special sensitivities that they have and how we can be more understanding and sensitive around their experience and the way that they perceive the world. We can increase our connection and help them to feel whole and walk into the world with self-esteem and be successful people.
Today we’re going to focus even more on boys’ vulnerabilities and the issues that can arise when they don’t have that support for being three-dimensional emotional beings. Also, what we can do to help foster that for them.
Before we begin, I want to let you know that Maggie’s book, Mothering Our Boys, is available on my website (janetlansbury.com) in my Books & Recommendations section. And you can also check that out for gifts for your babies and toddlers that I recommend and other great books for parents of children from infant to teen. I’m often asked for my recommendations and that’s where you can find them along with my own books, No Bad Kids and in Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. So check them out. Books & Recommendations on janetlansbury.com.
So here’s Maggie. Hi!
Maggie Dent: Hi Janet and hello to everyone out there and thank you. Your podcast definitely went far and wide and it started conversations that we need to have as we raise our boys today in a world that’s changing. Our social conditioning needs to change in two directions. We need to let our girls to know they can be strong and feisty and it’s okay, and we need to know that there are times when our boys need to be vulnerable and sad and that also needs to be okay.
Janet Lansbury: What do you hear out there? I know you’ve done your own research with young men. What are some of the concerns that you have? What are the issues that they’re having?
Maggie Dent: Let’s just mention again up front that boys is not all boys and it’s not all girls ever, but we know it’s a statistically significant number of our boys that I’ll be talking about. Firstly, what we understand is there are some differences in the ways that females and males respond to distress or things that upset them and particularly when our amygdala gets fired up. So we have a sense of threat. And often that comes as you beautifully explained to us so many times in those very early years and when there’s unmet needs, and so many of those can be simple ones that we understand.
And hangry is a very real problem for boys. We know our little boys will experience hunger much more quickly and more intensely than girls. So sometimes when that happens and they might ask mom for something to eat and if you’re a bit busy, distracted, you don’t realize just how much that is triggering his nervous system right then. So sometimes that’s enough for them to get upset and want to kick, because they’re trying to tell you it’s actually a little bit more urgent than they can handle and manage. So that’s a really simple one about an unmet need that we need to recognize as a little bit different.
Secondly, I want to touch on what we’ve now found from neuroscience when females, particularly girls, younger and also in puberty, because those are our really volatile windows and we’re learning how to manage ourselves. When we get upset and our limbic brain fires up, the next center that fires up is our words center. So we quite often and come out very quickly with words explaining how we’re feeling or saying things to express our big ugly feelings.
So for boys and men, the tendency is to go for the limbic brain and then it goes down into the body. So can that make sense to those times that are boys will shove and hit and scream sometimes, because that’s actually an energy coming out of the body through the mouth. The ability for them to not only identify what they’re feeling and then to articulate it is definitely more difficult for our boys and our men.
We are still hearing people saying to boys, “Please don’t cry. Now, don’t cry because boys shouldn’t cry. You need to toughen up.” What happens is we shut down that capacity to feel comfortable to express vulnerable feelings and that comes at a cost later. Can I share a quick story?
Janet Lansbury: Yes.
Maggie Dent: Okay, so there’s a five-year-old little boy and he has transitioned into his five-year-old setting because of course we’ve got different names around the world for that. Anyway, this little boy had been fine and then all of a sudden he starts throwing toys at other children. He started really physically pushing to hurt, which isn’t a normal boy behavior, pushing to connect is, but not pushing to hurt. So his distressed mum is obviously frantic to figure out what was wrong. So when I spoke to her, I said, “What has changed in your little boy’s world that is now overloaded his nervous system so that he is triggered into this behavior? Because he’s trying to tell you he is really struggling with some big ugly feelings.” I said, “What’s changed?”
Firstly she said, “Oh, his grandmother’s been in hospital.”
And I said, “Yep, and is she home?”
And the mom said, “Yeah, no, she’s home now.”
I said, “I don’t think that’s big enough. There’s something else because this is a big change in behavior. So this is the big ugly feelings coming out through behavior.”
And she said, “Oh no, I’ve worked out what it is. His very favorite teacher who he loved dearly has gone on maternity leave.”
I said, “That’s it.”
So this little boy is grieving deeply every day that he’s safe person who looked after him when Mummy wasn’t there is no longer there. He doesn’t have the words to express that. And so that was what the behavior was about. So we worked at building that connection. We also worked at him being able to send a card to his maternity leave teacher. And within three days that little boy was back to being that happy little boy.
Janet Lansbury: Wow. Was he able to express the grief and tears and-
Maggie Dent: Mum validated to him: “This is what happens when we lose things we love particularly people.” And it is very much like a death experience for a boy. He’s five. He can’t see her so she might as well have died to him. Grief and death and loss is something I’ve worked in. And this is why I want you to get the guinea pig that dies because we want our children, particularly our boys, to know that it really hurts in your heart and that ache is big, and it actually is really helped by sometimes crying, if that feels okay. Sometimes it can be stomping our feet. Sometimes it actually might be us wanting to do things like running, because discharging bigger energy out of our body for boys often needs movement.
So we let them know that being sad is great. And we want our dads to cry around the death and loss of things like that. We want them to cry when their guinea pig dies. We want him to see this is a world where it’s okay for us to shed those tears.
Janet Lansbury: You’re reminding me of the experiences that we had with our son around playing soccer. He started when he was four or five years old and he loved it. It was all his choice. Through the years, we would often be with parents who, as soon as the child fell or got hurt, “You’re okay, brush it off.” I don’t know if they say that in Australia.
Maggie Dent: Yeah, yeah.
Janet Lansbury: “Brush it off. You’re fine, you’re fine. Get up, come on, go, go, go.” With absolutely no patience at all for that child to have any emotion on the field. And if somebody tried to do that when our son fell or was injured, we would find a way to stop them, say, “Please don’t” or “We don’t do that” or something, because we wanted him to be able to cry. The interesting thing that I believe is connected is that our son very rarely cried or complained. When he did it was serious. I believe that was because he felt our acceptance. He felt the freedom to be himself, and that alone allowed him to stay more regulated in these situations, because he had all that support. So it’s kind of like what we’re trying to teach is actually the opposite of what they’re learning then. So if we’re trying to teach, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, you’re fine,” we’re actually teaching them: Don’t trust yourself. Don’t trust your feelings. You shouldn’t be comfortable in your skin. It’s interesting.
Maggie Dent: When we shut it down… Exactly what you’re saying, we’re invalidating a normal human experience in the early childhood setting. Sometimes I see people who want to punish a boy who does what I call the sad, angry boy syndrome. So when mommy leaves, his heart is breaking at some point. So she’s walking out the door and he’s really sad. Because we’ve not given him permission to cry or to sit with that and express it, then he’s likely to go and kick something because he needs to just express.
Janet Lansbury: And he also feels bad for feeling bad like his feelings-
Maggie Dent: And then it gets even worse.
Janet Lansbury: If you feel like crying and people are telling you you’re not supposed to cry, the people that you look to, then not only am I sad but I’m wrong and there’s something wrong with me and I’m not what I’m supposed to be. And yeah, it just adds insult to injury and-
Maggie Dent: It does. And I’ve found as a counselor more of adolescent boys, there were times that with years of this, there’s this well that’s just inside that kind of blocks them up. Because remember, girls love to talk about stuff that’s made them feel bad. It’s not as easy for most boys and men. But giving them a safe enough shoulder and that’s the place that said I need to validate, “That’s a really awful thing that happened to you. That would have felt so bad.” And then just that capacity to be in that safe space without judgment.
The other way… I used to stand behind them and rock them just gently. Now the rocking taps into the vagus nerve. They would have been rocked as babies. No sound in the room. I’m holding them firmly against me. And very soon you hear this kind of *gasp* as it comes up and they begin to sob, and literally you don’t have to do any counseling. They can sob for 20 minutes and there can be snot all over your shoulder. And what’s happened afterwards is a fundamental release of tears from their boyhood.
Janet Lansbury: Really important. I would like to move our discussion a little to a topic that I’m very concerned about. I read an article that I found fascinating about men and friendships and how when they’re little boys that they’re able to make these friendships and be vulnerable with their friends. But as they grow, society tells them they shouldn’t show affection to friends, that that’s not manly and that’s not okay. And men sometimes grow up to feel very alone and not connected in that way that they could have been. What can we do to help besides holding back on that impulse that we have to fix it and tell them they shouldn’t feel what they feel and talk them out of it or wave it away?
Maggie Dent: One of the key things that we need to keep in mind too are that little girls and little boys form friendships quite differently. Girls actually use their words to often tell each other they like each other and tell them they can’t wait to see them and that “I want you to be my best friend,” and they do all this kind of social glue that’s quite verbal, and they do holding and hugging and things.
You’ll notice for boys it’s not words. It’s proximity and time. So the more time they spend with a little boy who is going to be their friend, the more likely they’ll bond with them quite deeply even though they haven’t said much.
What we notice is it’s that proximity time. Today, we don’t tend to do that as much with our busy lives. Parents are more working. We have play dates, but they’re not long, lingering times like we used to do in the past. So we are concerned that that means our little boys are not having that opportunity to develop some core belonging and being able to read the cues that we really like each other.
And this is another thing about the tears. Sometimes it’s that boys can get really upset with not having a friend. And what I found when I worked with some of these boys is they’d miss some of the social cues, just missed the cues that if you want to play with someone, your face needs to have a smile on. It’s got to be up, and you might be waving a hello and calling someone’s name.
Janet Lansbury: So what can we do with our little boys? Sounds like a lot of this is about giving them those opportunities to play together.
Maggie Dent: It’s really obvious, isn’t it?
Janet Lansbury: Just allowing them to be out playing with other children.
Maggie Dent: Yes.
Janet Lansbury: And spending long periods of time…
Maggie Dent: And that’s what we have to re-look at. Prioritize that little tribe that you have around your children to make time for the barbecues and the catch-ups, particularly when the weather’s good, where you actually really are going to go and spend some time together. Not just for grownups to catch up, but for children.
So when children play with multi-age children with the same adults who really care about them, we tend to find that’s where they develop these skills the best, because they start to get that kind of net of safety around them. And then the other one we’re suggesting is if you have time, and we’re getting some of the schools in Australia to do this, that when you collect your children… You know boys can be very crabby at the end of the day because they’ve had to concentrate so hard and to listen and remember and they’re just done. There’s nothing left.
So what we want, and schools are doing this, they’re actually letting children play on the play equipment at school until 45 minutes after class finishes two or three days a week, trying to make that the day that they pick up their children. So that again, we’re just prioritizing slightly longer pockets of time. Some schools are ordering a coffee van. That’s just a great idea. I love that.
And then the last one is let’s really look at our streets and our neighborhoods, because we can actually become agents for change. We can actually get the kids back out around our streets. There are pockets everywhere they can play. There’ll be a parent within screaming distance. That’s great. Multiple numbers of children are safe out in our neighborhoods. So we need to look at how can we facilitate that.
There is a program that started in England where we shut a street on Sundays and bring everyone out, the scooters and the skateboards and bikes. And then what’s happening is we’re also getting the elderly coming out on the street reconnecting with the children of the neighborhood. This is what we need to do for all of our children so that they know they belong. They just need a lot more opportunities so they can develop the social and emotional competence to interact as humans.
Janet Lansbury: That sounds wonderful. I remember you were saying earlier about finding ways to be outdoors together, walking to school, just finding ways that we can let children have opportunities to socialize and play with things that we are doing anyway. Just kind of re-envisioning them.
Maggie Dent: Because I think what we’ve done is we’ve created a lot of organized sport and organized opportunities that aren’t child-led. We’re now finding in some of these schools that started putting in more nature play, what works best is opening up a patch of bush of woodland and just letting the kids do what they need, and that is what’s creating longterm negotiated play with boys, because they love a base. They love to be able to negotiate what’s going on within it.
So what we’re finding is that those things happen naturally. We have to really start working out how we can bring some of those things back, and I’m hoping there’s an awful lot of parents nodding heads right now going, “We can do this, we can do this.” And finding a creek where we can hang out for an hour or something once or twice a week with a whole bunch of kids. They will get wet. If you’ve got boys, they will be wet.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, it’s really important and it uplifts everyone’s experience. So we can enjoy that, too, when we get out of some of our habits, when we’re forced to because we want to help our children.
I wanted to ask you because you’ve brought it up a couple times in this talk and I know that you share about it a lot in your other resources. But for my listeners, I would love to hear more about the rooster child versus the-
Maggie Dent: Lamb.
Janet Lansbury: The lamb. And especially in terms of emotional vulnerability.
Maggie Dent: Beautiful. So essentially, it’s the temperament spectrum, and we don’t know what we’re going to get, do we? So what we tend to find is that one end is the extreme end, it’s our alpha girls and boys. They are feisty, lots of energy, opinionated, argumentative. They want to escape. They will take enormous risks, but they don’t want to share, don’t want to share their stuff. They want to win at all costs. So they’re at one end.
And at the lamb end we have our sensitive and gentle children, who really care about Mummy. They often take themself off for a sleep. They can get upset quite easily about little things. They’re often slow to warm socially.
So what we want for our children is to get them in the middle of that spectrum so that as children, as they grow, that our rooster feistier kids can learn some empathy and to learn that they can impact other people with their behavior and choices. And then we want our lambs to have some assertiveness and strength.
So essentially we don’t want them stuck at either end because we have victims and then we have bullies. And in that journey you’ll tend to find that they do manage feelings very differently. So you’ll tend to find that our rooster children will come out fighting and argue. And whereas often lambs withdraw and take it away and take it into the bedroom and keep it hidden. So they don’t always necessarily cry more easily. They just bury it. So again, it’s giving permission for both ends of that spectrum to know that emotions are very normal and valid, and it’s getting our kids in the middle.
Another thing that really influences that is, what are you? So if your temperament was a rooster, you can get really frustrated with lambs because they don’t ever much get up and go and you want them to get up and go. You want them to speak to people and you can find that frustrating. And at the other end our lamb parents can find roosters really frightening and a bit power driven.
So we need to remind you again, you are the parent. With our roosters. It doesn’t matter that they’re four and they’re really giving you a hard time, you still need to have the swagger to be the parent that is the leader of the family. You can do it gently, but, gee, there’ll be times that you will just lock yourself in the bathroom, wonder why you ever had children, because it can be really hard work.
Janet Lansbury: Yes, I can definitely relate to that one. My oldest daughter is quite the alpha and it really brought out a whole side of me that realized I could be a leader, and it’s actually given me so much confidence in my life that I never would have had. And that’s why I love helping parents with the journey of learning how to be a leader and set limits and have boundaries and feel good about yourself and that you deserve to say no to things and do what you want to do.
Maggie Dent: It’s interesting though because people often judge you if you have the rooster child, who’s challenged you publicly or is arguing with you publicly, that you are some sort of poor parent. And I laugh every now and then you’ll hear somebody say, “Oh, look, I was like that. And then I had my own.”
Janet Lansbury: And what you were saying about parents with the opposite type of child… I actually work with a lot of parents who, it turns out they are similar to their child and that tends to trigger them because they were not accepted for those-
Maggie Dent: Strong traits or gentle ones.
Janet Lansbury: Right. You’re too shy or you’re too mean, or you’re too much a bully.
Maggie Dent: Bossy. Bossy is a good one. They come out with that one.
Janet Lansbury: Right. You’re too bossy.
Maggie Dent: I got told that a lot.
Janet Lansbury: And they were shamed for that. And therefore when they see that in their child, it just taps into all of their own feelings about themselves. And so to be aware of that and then learn to kind of separate it out and say, Okay that was me and I wasn’t accepted for these things, but I can give that to my child. Getting to that point where we can see our stuff and the difference between our stuff and what our child-
Maggie Dent: And it’s interesting because every now and then I’ll have a person say, “Oh Maggie, mine seems to be in the middle,” as though that’s a problem.” I go, “Yeah, great, good. Relax. That’s where you want them to be: in the middle.”
Janet Lansbury: And let your children’s feelings be, and trust them. There’s always a reason, and it’s okay to be a sore loser and sad when you fall…
Maggie Dent: Let them feel it. Let them feel it and it will come out and it will go. It actually needs to come out. So rather than us stopping it in the first place… I’ve talked about this before that we can’t talk to little boys in the heat of the moment. They’re flooded with cortisol. They can’t hear. They have no idea what the heck’s going on. That we particularly as mummies need to give that a lot of calm down time before we want to have a conversation about what might have been the trigger behind the behavior that has created that. Because we’re so quick to want to know what’s going on. Sometimes it may be bath time a few hours later or a pillow chat. Even the next day is much better when we can say, “Can you tell me what happened?” Some can do it straight away, but I’m thinking we all need a bit of space. I’m not good straight either. Give me some space. Don’t talk to me yet.
Janet Lansbury: Right, just being that safe person that lets the feelings do their job.
Maggie Dent: There’s nothing wrong with them.
Janet Lansbury: They’re healing.
Maggie Dent: Feelings are part of being human and I think we’re starting to recognize that. I think we’re just a bit too overenthusiastic about positive feelings and we started to label the others as problematic, and I think we’re starting to realize that if feelings are feelings and they’re valid, and as long as we’re not hurting others or the world around them or themselves, then our job is to allow them to be.
Janet Lansbury: Right. The best thing in the world is that they’re coming out instead of staying in. That’s what I tell parents. If these feelings aren’t being expressed, they’re being maybe repressed.
Maggie Dent: And they can come out all at once at some point. I got to tell you that’s not good.
Janet Lansbury: Right, so it’s always the best thing a child could be doing when they’re expressing something.
Well, thank you for being here, and again, your book, Mothering Our Boys, is the one that I was grateful to be able to turn so many parents onto the last time that we spoke, and that’s definitely should be one on everyone’s list. You’re just an amazing woman. I don’t know. You do so much out there in the world and you’re such a giver. And I’m thrilled to have you here with me in the flesh, finally meeting you in person. It’s so exciting.
Maggie Dent: Again, I want to say the same is that when I found you, you made sense of what I had found and it was like, oh gosh, it’s not just me who’s being able to bring information to our confused and overloaded parents to make more sense of the unique dance that parenting is, that there’s no perfect one, that these moments are part of the learning. And in the messiness and the chaos is actually where we all grow. That you’re not a bad parent or a lousy parent. This is what parenting is. It was never a perfect art form. And I think in the Insta world, we’ve kind of made that really a bit difficult for some of us. So again, enjoy the chaos.
Janet Lansbury: Yes. And you’re bringing up such an important point, too, that our being vulnerable with our children, dads, moms, all of us is the most amazing modeling we can do if we want our children to be able to have the courage to have their own feelings. So taking those moments where we feel like we messed up or we did something we’re not proud of, even if it’s 10 years later or more, bringing that up, being vulnerable and demonstrating repair.
Maggie Dent: Repair is beautiful because it’s that acknowledging that every single one of us has days that we don’t travel as well. We have lousy days when we eat too much chocolate and we feel grumpy, and I think we need to know that’s also okay for our children who don’t have a prefrontal lobe. So cut us all some slack that there are those days, and our job then is to create a safe place for them to land, so they can regroup themselves.
Janet Lansbury: Wonderful. All right. Thank you so much.
Maggie Dent: Thank you, beautiful lady.
Janet Lansbury: Thanks for listening. We can do this.