My son will be 12 this year, and one of the things I’m desperately holding on to is our nightly routine of the ‘tuck-in’. Yes, he’s old enough to get himself into bed, and definitely doesn’t need me hanging around—but one of the reasons I love bedtime so much is that it gives us some quiet time to catch up on our increasingly busy days—his more so than mine. School work, test prep, cricket, football, not to mention the constant lure of the Playstation and the Xbox, all fight for attention for the few hours between getting home from school and bedtime—which is fast becoming a stretchable hour constantly being negotiated, and sometimes eased up to watch the death overs of an ‘incredible’ match. But there’s always so much to talk about. Sometimes, it’s nothing but banter—but there’s nothing more that I look forward to every day. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” I’m routinely reminded by friends whose sweet pre-teens suddenly become these uncommunicative young adults who would rather post a message on the family WhatsApp group than talk to the people around them IRL. But for the moment, just before he falls asleep, my son will share things that are perhaps not quite as easy to talk about.
One night, he was turning in a homework assignment on Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand. During the course of his research, he came across videos of the recent shootings. He’s old enough to know what terrorism is, but not old enough to understand why people are motivated to do the things they often do. Who can blame him? I’m in my 40s, and I struggle to understand it. How can someone hate a person he doesn’t even know, he asked. We talked about society, and immigration, and of stereotypes and racism, but he wasn’t convinced about the genesis of hate. I wasn’t sure how to answer it in a way that he would understand, and told him that. Maybe with time, he would, I explained. More increasingly, he’s becoming aware of the fact that even mom and dad don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay—it’s okay to not have all the answers, or even have an answer that’s a work in progress. He needs to know that it’s okay to take the time to look for answers, and also more importantly, to accept that sometimes you may have the wrong answer—accept a mistake, and apologise. It’s okay to say sorry, and more importantly, to mean it.
Too often, we will make excuses for our boys—it’s a boy thing, we’ll say. It’s the easiest thing for us to do—blame it on their gender. Yes, boys are different from girls. And yes, understanding those differences is the first step in figuring out how to parent a boy. But it can never be an excuse to justify bad behaviour.
Boy or girl, it’s not easy being a kid these days. There’s much to process, and things can be confusing. But as parents, how do we help our children navigate their reality? And as parents of boys, in the time of #MeToo, how do we make sure we raise boys who understand boundaries and learn respect and empathy?
I’m no expert—I have only one child, and he’s only 12—but psychiatrist Dr Anita Sukhwani, who is also a mother to two boys, aged 12 and 22, has plenty of experience in the matter. “Technically, raising boys should be no different from girls, but sometimes boys behave and react differently from girls. Understanding their individual needs and supporting them would be most advisable. Behaviourally, help boys express themselves. Share your experiences with them, and ask them questions about their experiences and feelings.” She also adds that parents must be assertive, yet remain calm when dealing with a young boy. Here are some more techniques that can help.
1) Harness their energy
As any parent of boys will tell you—they have a lot of energy. Give them the time and space to play. Let them pick a sport they like, and run with it. Cricket, football, Kabaddi, the options are endless. The talent is irrelevant—it’s not about excelling at the sport but about letting off steam. A team sport teaches them about working with other people towards a common goal (literally), and also imparts valuable lessons about dealing with both victory and loss.
2) Communicate, communicate, communicate
As they grow older, they’ll be more preoccupied. They will have a lot on their mind, and not necessarily things they want to share with you. But persist. Respect their privacy—as you must—but it’s okay to push them to talk. Sometimes it’ll be like drawing water from a stone. But be patient—that time will pass, and your persistence is bound to pay off.
3) Don’t skirt issues
Avoid the temptation to change the channel if there’s a slightly awkward scene—instead, bring it up. Watching Selection Day recently with my son, there’s a scene that seems to allude to a gay relationship between two young cricketers. Talk about it. Your pre-teen knows a lot more about sexuality that you think he does. Children are curious. You’d rather talk to them than have them look it up elsewhere, like the internet, which is a dangerous place. Support the school when it has conversations on gender, sex and sexuality. Ask how you can support the conversations at home. Even when it involves words like erection and breasts. “Understand their views on the topic and have healthy discussions,” suggests Dr Sukhwani, adding that you must help your child understand situations better and never ridicule them for what they are expressing.
4) Keep them aware of the world around them
Don’t shield them from the news—share it in bite-sized age-appropriate nuggets. Sites like Current Kids are great at this. They don’t need all the details, but they do need to know. Your concern that this will make them paranoid isn’t unjustified, but assure them that they are safe, yet need to be aware of their surroundings. And you can never tell them enough—never talk to strangers.
5) Be open about the human body
Don’t hide the fact that you get your period—don’t use euphemisms for it. Respect your body. Talk about taking care of your body, and how he must take care of his.
6) No means no
It’s non-negotiable; it can start off small—doing something you ask them not to, or going somewhere you ask them not to. But your boys need to understand that when someone says no, they mean it. Not maybe, just no. They need to learn from the very beginning about respecting physical boundaries—that cannot be ignored.
7) Let them cry
Don’t tell them to man up. It’s okay to cry; it’s okay to feel bad about things; it’s okay to be overwhelmed. They need to learn to recognise those feelings and work their way through them.
8) Don’t let the stereotypes trap them
Let them wear blue, or pink, or yellow, or any other shade they want. Let them colour their hair, or pierce their ears, and wear beads or jewellery.
9) Let them clean up their mess
Literally and figuratively. And teach them to cook and clear the table. Teach them how to separate light colours from the dark before they load the washing machine. Make them get their own breakfast and fill their own snack bags. Housework is for everyone, not just the help, and definitely not just for mom.
Not just hear what they’re saying, but really listen.
11) Pre-teens will claim to hate girls and will think they’re weird, but shut that down
Don’t give in. Tell them that kind of trash talk is unacceptable.
12) Enlist a village, or at least the family
Let them build communication with different members of your family and extended circle of friends, so they can reach out to talk to a trusted someone.
13) Be patient
You’ll need to repeat things several times, in several tones, in several decibels. Do it. The persistence will pay off.
14) Let them make their own decisions
Develop problem solving skills—they may not always get it right, but every mistake is a learning experience. Dr Sukhwani suggests using positive reinforcement and affirmations, encouraging them to do better, and rewarding good behaviour.
The truth is, it’s all a work in progress. Trust your instincts. If something feels wrong, trust your gut and follow it through, even if everyone around you says you’re being paranoid; you know your child better than anyone. And remember, mother knows best.