Raising boys and understanding how they learn

As a parent of boys, it is vital to know that raising boys is different to raising girls. Although biologically they produce the same neurochemicals – such as serotonin, testosterone, estrogen and oxytocin – they do so at different degrees and process them in different ways. These differences affect the way boys and girls develop, and as a result affect the way they learn. Girls tend to be more ‘sensorial’, emotive and more self-critical, taking their problems and failures more personally. By contrast, boys see their problems in more focused ways and will assign their failure to a particular area of study, rather than over-generalise and see themselves as lacking.

The biological differences between boys and girls have implications in the classroom. Boys’ brains are structured to compartmentalise learning, so they may not be as good as girls when it comes to multi-tasking. Boys also produce less serotonin and oxytocin, making it a challenge for them to sit still. When boys fidget or act impulsively, it may not be because they are trying to be defiant – they simply find it hard to calm down. This explains why boys benefit from rough and tumble play.

According to Michael Gurian, one of the world’s foremost gender experts, the male brain renews, recharges and reorients itself by entering what neurologists call a ‘rest state’. This makes boys more vulnerable to ‘zoning out’ at school. Boys who appear sleepy or bored in class may actually be recharging their brains! In comparison, girls can recharge without entering this state. The male brain is better suited for symbols, abstractions, diagrams and pictures.

These typical ‘boy’ qualities in the brain helps to explain why boys generally learn math and physics more easily than girls do, why more boys than girls play video games that involve physical movement, and why more boys than girls tend to get in trouble for impulsiveness, displays of boredom, and fidgeting, along with their more generalised inability to listen, fulfill assignments, and learn in the verbal-emotive world of the contemporary classroom.

The early years

Development is the term used to describe the changes in your son’s physical growth, as well as his ability to learn the social, emotional, behavioural, thinking and communication skills he needs to flourish in life. In his first five years, your son’s brain develops broader and faster than at any other time in his life. His early experiences, relationships and interactions stimulate his brain, creating millions of connections. These years are optimal for laying the foundations for learning, health and behaviour.

In the early years, your son’s main method of development is through play. Play allows him the opportunity to explore, observe, experiment, problem-solve and learn from his mistakes all while having fun. Play-based learning activities are effective in helping your son achieve the essential developmental milestones – including social and emotional milestones, language milestones, cognitive milestones and physical milestones.

As a parent, you play an important role as your son’s first teacher in these early years. Your involvement at home is critical – by reading to your son, exploring together, getting your hands dirty and having conversations, you teach him key life skills. Your praise and encouragement plays a role in helping him develop good behaviour and habits. Early childhood education may even be something to consider for your son during this age.

adolescent teenager with headphones looking up


The preadolescent years can be a challenging time for a parent – your son, once cute, cuddly and always willing to climb onto your lap, suddenly wants little or nothing to do with you. He has changed and is changing physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively.

Boys undergo substantial physical development during this period. They will experience a growth spurt, weight gain and muscle growth. Puberty will bring him pimples and hair growth; his body proportions will change and his voice will deepen. This can be a particularly different and embarrassing period for you son, so your involvement is necessary to support him during these changes.

During preadolescence, your son is also maturing mentally and socially. At this age, his school focus shifts from being play-centred to being academically-based. His friends will become more influencial in his life – they will affect the way he behaves and the things he is interested in. Boys can become increasingly self-conscious or self-centred, they may go through mood swings or begin to develop romantic feelings.

As a parent, you play a significant part in helping your son understand the changes he is going through. Encourage open communication while still respecting his privacy. Discuss the importance of good friendships and guide him in choosing the right group of friends. Reinforce the benefits of healthy habits, eating the right food and limiting screen time. And ultimately, help him to understand that he isn’t alone in what he’s experiencing.

Teenage boys and adolescence

Adolescence is the period of transition between childhood and adulthood. In this period, your son is working out who he is and where he fits in the world. You can expect your son to try out new clothes, listen to new music, spend time with different friend groups and be greatly influenced by media and culture. He will desire more independence in how he will get around, how he spends his time, the people he surrounds himself with and where he spends his money.

Teenage boys seek new experiences, some of which are potentially risky. This is completely normal as they explore their limits and abilities. However they may struggle with thinking through the consequences of their behaviour and the potential risks before trying something new due to how the teenage brain develops, As a parent, help your son to consider the consequences and give constructive criticism. Work with him to develop a set of joint values - your words and actions will help shape his sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Being able to manage conflict is essential in maintaining a positive home environment. As teenage boys mature, parents are no longer the only influential figures in their life, meaning that family routines and dynamics will change. Further, boys’ mood and feelings will fluctuate unpredictably, which can lead to increased conflict at home. During testing times, as a parent, remember that conflict tends to peak in early adolescence and these changes indicate that your son is maturing – he is beginning to think more abstractly and question different points of view. As boys mature, they will develop their ability to deal with their emotions and understand the emotions of others.

During adolescence, boys grow into men. Here are a few tips to help maintain a healthy relationship with your son:

  • Give your son your undivided attention when he wants to talk
  • Listen calmly and concentrate on hearing and understanding his point of view
  • Try to be understanding, even if you don’t always approve of his behaviour
  • Avoid negative and critical comments that will embarrass your son or encourage him to withdraw
  • Make an effort to praise him frequently and appropriately with positive language.
Teenage boys on a water slide looking happy

Raising good men in the 21st century

It’s one thing to raise your son and get him ready for the ‘real world’, but it’s another thing to raise a man of good character and integrity. Raising good men really begins with teaching your son good values. Boys today are bombarded with everyday social pressures, so establishing their own morals is essential. For parents raising teenagers, one of the most effective ways to do so is by asking questions that encourage reflection. Helping your son come to his own conclusions is far more powerful than lecturing him on how he should think.

Modelling the rights habits is also necessary in raising good men. If your son sees you living a happy, content and successful life, he will be inspired to live in a similar way. Meeting boys’ emotional needs and providing them with stable, supportive and loving relationships will result in men who are well-adjusted, generous and respectful adults.

One of the biggest challenges young men face in the 21st century is mental health. Poor mental health affects an individual’s thoughts, mood, behaviour or perception of the world. There are many different factors that can affect your son’s mental health and capacity to make good choices – from peer pressure and bullying, to managing exam stress and studying for exams. Encourage a healthy mental state and decision-making process by listening to his concerns, providing reassurance, creating a sense of security, building his strengths, creating space for him to be vulnerable, and seeking additional help where necessary.

Whilst advancements in technology and global connectivity are hugely beneficial to society, they also pose negative implications, such as over-use, accessibility to inappropriate content and a reduced social presence in the ‘real world’. Parents can enforce practices at home such as limited screen time and password protected internet use to reduce frequency and exposure.

With technology at hand, pornography is more easily accessible than ever and exposure can have many negative consequences for boys. Teaching boys to respect women in every aspect of their life is critical to raising good men. Boys need to understand that pornography does not resemble real sex and that women are not to be objectified. Though this can be a daunting topic to talk about with your child, it is a necessary conversation and there are ways to make it easier. Ultimately, boys will find it a relief to know that they have someone to talk openly to about the tough topics.