Being raised as one of four girls, it would be fair to say boys were foreign to me. So when I gave birth to two sons, I felt out of my depth.
As they grow older, the parenting challenges have increased. My four-year-old has introduced me to the joys of toilet talk, punctuated by pew pew noises as they pretend to shoot each other while running through the house. Not to mention their loving cuddles that quickly turn into wrestling matches, with me standing over them tearing my hair out.
This behaviour can be completely mysterious to mums, like myself, who have grown up without brothers. Without experiences of my own to draw on I have turned to the experts to help me navigate the unique challenges that come with raising boys.
Dealing with emotions
One of the biggest challenges in raising boys is balancing out the social expectations and stereotypes. Dr Bronwyn Harman, psychology lecturer and families expert at Edith Cowan University, acknowledges that there is still a belief that boys will behave in one way and girls in another. "This is socially and culturally reinforced, so it is really difficult to break the cycle that we have been brought up with ourselves," she says.
Dr Harman also notes that while we may no longer hear the phrase "big boys don't cry" in public anymore, it's possible that it has just been rephrased to "don't cry, you're okay". Girls are usually encouraged to express their emotions, however boys can often be told to "toughen up".
Kate Toon, mother of five-year-old Orion, has learnt that something as simple as a choice of a red cup over a blue one seems silly to an adult, but can be very important to a child. "Giving him small things to 'control' means he's not bothered about the big things," she says. Dr Harman echoes the importance of choices, "… children also like to think they have a choice; they feel out of control without it."
Rough and tumble play
Rough and tumble play is part of the territory with boys. While I have often witnessed the cry of "tackle!" as my boys run at each other, I'm learning to embrace their desire to partake in this kind of play.
It is important for boys to participate in rough and tumble play as it helps them to learn boundaries and their own strength.
Dr Harman acknowledges that boys "play rougher than girls, especially if there's more than one of them!" All the energy that boys need to expend means that "boys are more likely to want to use up that physical energy on sports," she explains.
Always on the go
Mums of boys will learn one challenge very early. Boys seem to have two speeds – full speed and stop.
This was one of the surprising things for Kath*, mother of two boys, Byron, 4 and one-year-old Linden. She was amazed by "how much energy they have. They are either running or asleep with very little in between."
She has found that her biggest challenge is to keep them occupied constantly. "If they aren't occupied and doing 'something' that's when the fights and inappropriate behaviours start," Kath says.
Dr Harman also feels that "boys are generally more boisterous and (appear) uncaring of risks, so they will climb that tree ... and jump from a high wall seemingly without any awareness of the danger".
Another common difficulty that mums of boys face and echoed by Kate is "cleaning up the wee!" A simple distraction can leave toilet walls and floors covered.
Boys around early primary school age also tend to become obsessed with toilet talk. Underpants are hilarious and calling someone a poohead may also become a regular occurrence.
Tips for managing challenges of raising boys
- Encourage expression of emotion: Dr Harman reinforces the importance of fostering expression of emotion which is sometimes overlooked when parenting boys.
- Set aside time and rules for rough and tumble play to occur safely.
- Involve your boys in household activities: Kath finds involving her boys with activities such as washing and stacking the dishwasher can focus them on an activity, rather than each other.
- Channel excess energy into a physical activity: Dr Harman recommends wearing your son out in the morning and mid-afternoon, for example with trips to the park.
- Use language to tell your boys what to do: For example if the boys are running in the house, instead of saying "don't run", Kath says "walking, boys".
- Use a toilet target: A ping pong ball or a commercial made target can be used to keep wee where it should be.
- Play down toilet talk: The funnier they think it is, the more they will keep it up.
- Pick your battles: For Kate, safety comes first with Orion. "I'd shout at him for running out in the road, but not for spilling Ribena," she explains.
It's not all bad though. What was the most surprising part of raising a boy for Kate? "How much fun it is. Yes, it's tough at the start, but now he's five, he's just a brilliant little companion."