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How to Parent Tween Boys

Neither little kids nor teens, tween boys are special little people who, we hope, will develop into fabulous men in their roles as sons, friends, partners—and perhaps even fathers. Having worked with parents and their young sons for more than two decades, the most frequently asked question about tween boys by their parents is how much space to give them, particularly when it comes to expressing feelings and gestures of affection. A close second is how to discipline them.

And while boys and girls may present differently, tween boys have a similar set of needs for intimacy, affection, approval and limits.

As parents, we need to give our tween sons the space to express their feelings.

Here's where the confusion lies. Our society's stereotype is that boys should present as strong, invulnerable and certainly not like "wusses." This is, in many ways, a shame because boys—just like their female peers—have a set of feelings but are often confused about where to go with them. Girls, on the other hand, are encouraged to express all sorts of feelings, and this makes them appear sensitive and compassionate, rather than "wuss-like."

As parents, we need to give our tween sons the space to express their feelings. We should also honor their feelings and provide them with a private space where they can talk to us. They certainly don't want to have an audience. After all, you want them to be able to save face, particularly if they are going to cry.

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That said, here are some statements to avoid when talking to your sons: 1) You are too sensitive. 2) Handle it like a man. 3) Just get over it. These are all dismissive and invalidating comments, which and perpetuate the stereotype that a real man has few feelings and expresses no vulnerability. My suggestion instead is to 1) Listen to what they have to say. 2) Let them know either verbally or nonverbally that you are always available to hear their feelings. 3) That you are even proud of them for their openness.

Another major question and source of confusion for parents, particularly mothers of tween boys, is about how much affection to give their sons. The tween boys that I know have said they love a pat on the back and don't mind a hug or a kiss—but do have a strong preference for this to be done privately and not in front of their peers. Yep, they are still afraid of being labeled "mama's boys." Do remember, however, to express your affection, love and approval verbally. Boys, like girls, have similar needs for recognition, love and intimacy. Don't let them confuse you too much.

A third issue I hear primarily from the boys is that both teachers and parents discipline them more harshly than the girls. We see boys as tougher, more restless and more aggressive, and we're inclined to believe that they are more likely to get into trouble and can tolerate harsher punishment.

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And, yes I believe that teachers are harder on tween boys, who tend to be more active than girls and less likely to be people pleasers. My suggestion is that we become more mindful of this double standard and adjust our expectations and punishments accordingly.

Boys may not be aware of their strength, and this should be explained to them. Second, before parents and teachers begin to punish tween boys for hitting, kicking and shoving when they are frustrated, they should first teach the boys to use their words to express their feelings. Males at every age—but particularly between the ages of 9 and 12—lack the vocabulary to express the whole host of new feelings they are experiencing. Hence, they and their testosterone turn to aggression.

In our effort to raise men who are caring and loving, as well as strong and competent, it is our parental responsibility to be respectful of their feelings and their need for affection, and to be careful not to treat them too harshly. Trust me, your sons will be grateful.

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