Better Understanding How to Build Boys Today

Boys in shadow against sunset

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Sep 17, 2023

by Katherine Martinko

Until she had four sons, Jennifer Fink admits she had no sense of what it was like to be a young boy in today’s world. She had never stopped to think about the challenges and prejudices that boys face, and how, similar to girls, they experience certain limiting gender expectations.

Fink, a nurse and writer from Wisconsin, spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk. “We’re having all these cultural conversations, which are super important, about how to raise … good men,” says Fink. “And I felt like there’s some foundational pieces that were missing… We have to talk about the boys. And we can’t just treat the little boys as men in training, because boys are not men.”

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a nurse by training and a writer. Jennifer Fink is also a mother of four boys and an author. Her second book is called Building boys raising great guys in a world that misunderstands males. Jennifer joins us today from Wisconsin. Thank you so much for being here. I am so delighted to be here today Lianne.

Such an important topic that we’re about to dive into. And, you know, the subject matter is increasingly on the public consciousness for a host of reasons. Me to toxic masculinity, gender bias, coercive control consent, among other related topics. What was your reason for wanting to write this book?
Oh, well, my initial reason was that I have four sons. And as I was raising them, I realized first, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had never experienced the world as a male. And watching them grow up, I realized that
I didn’t know prior to this, I did not fully realize that boys are also subjected to gender biases. The boys are subjected to gender expectations that limit them, that they experienced prejudice. Due to their gender, I had been unaware of that I grew up as a female. So I knew those things. And then the more my boys grew up, and I researched, I learned that there’s so much about boys that people don’t understand. Don’t know. And so yes, we’re having all these cultural conversations, which are super important about how to raise great guys how to raise good men. And I felt like there’s some foundational pieces that were missing, you know, worrying about men. And we have to talk about the boys. And we can’t just treat the little boys as men in training, because boys are not men.

So let’s dig into that a little bit more. What do you think that we miss understand fundamentally, or don’t understand about boys, who, first and foremost biggest misconception, I think, is that it’ll sound silly when I first say it. But we’ve kind of gotten to a place where we don’t want to admit that there’s a lot of difference between a little boy and a little girl. Okay. And certainly, as humans, we are all more similar than we are different. However, there are some differences, and they are important. And one of the things that I learned through my research, and through experience, generally speaking, boys, developmental pace is slower than girls. So you think about that, if you are applying the same expectations, the same developmental and cognitive and behavioural expectations to a group of five year olds in the classroom.
Generally, boys and girls are going to respond differently. Because girls brains mature more quickly than boys do. At that point in time, we get to similar places, the girls are more physically and cognitively capable of sitting still paying attention than the five year old boys are at that point in time, they’re more ready to read. Think about 15 year olds, if you’ve ever seen a group of 15 year olds, male and female, it’s pretty clear which looks more adult than the other, it’s pretty clear that there’s a maturity gap. But we haven’t actually thought all the way through what that means. So first, understanding that the developmental path is a little bit different, I think is crucial, because when you know what somebody’s development is, like, you know, what’s a reasonable expectation, and where they may still need some support.
It’s such an important point because it really underpins, to a large extent, I would think your approach as a parent when you have that understanding. Absolutely. You know, it’s kind of common knowledge right now, it becomes common knowledge, let’s say when boys start school, a lot of boys when they start school, they’re enthusiastic at first and they very quickly move towards disliking it, hating it struggling with reading and writing. And the early curriculum is very focused on reading and writing, which we agree are two absolutely core skills. However, boys are not as equipped to do those things at age five, generally speaking, some aren’t as girls. So if you are constantly put into an environment where you’re asked to be doing something that is still really hard for you, just because your brain hasn’t matured to that point, you feel like a failure. And of course, you’re going to hate going to that place. If we the adults can adjust our expectations and continue to support children’s learning while their brains and bodies. bodies continue to grow. It’s a healthier relay.
kinship on both sides.
Jennifer, I have to say I was quite struck by the first paragraph of your introduction in your book, which really cuts to the core, it reads, and I quote, You know what kind of boy you don’t want to raise, you don’t want to raise a sexual predator or mass shooter, you do not want to raise a man who takes advantage of others, unleashes his anger and frustration onto innocent victims, or is so enamoured with his own talent success or perceived rightful place in society, that he doesn’t even realize or admit that his behaviour is problematic?
Why did you choose to start with such a jarring introduction, which, you know, most of us don’t think about that who have boys. But the fact is, you’ve laid out one of the realities of the world we live in today, as it relates to boys.
As we’ve gone through, in recent years, the me to movement happened, the sexual assault allegations, and there’s more and more and more that we continue to learn, I think it has become a primary focus of a lot of parents, this is the picture of what I do not want to race, I do not want these things for my son, I do not want to be part of creating this and unleashing this onto the world. So we’ve got that big picture. I don’t want this. But we don’t really know how to get to there. And that’s the part where I sense we’re still struggling. So I introduced that because I think that is the singular biggest fear of a lot of parents, especially female parents, right now, we do not want to raise that kind of a boy a man.
So then how do we go about as parents in the world we live in with all the noise and all of the distractions and all of the exposure to things that our children have that our boys have? How do we go about as parents raising confident, self assured boys?
Is a question right? I’ll be straight up there is no one size fits all path. There is not it starts with knowing your son.
Knowing yourself, and knowing what your broad goals are. And when you know those things, you can start piecing them together. One of the things that I have seen happen with increasing frequency, but is not helpful. So that part that you read in the intro, you know, we don’t want to raise a boy who becomes a man who unleashes his anger on on others, right? We we don’t want that on innocent people.
All of us who raise boys will have at some point, a four year old who does exactly that. A 12 year old who does that a 16 year old who does that. And it’s easy for us to overreact to those moments because like, this is exactly what I don’t want from you.
a lot of those things are developmentally typical, and normal and coming down hard on boys who exhibit behaviour that we don’t want to see in adult men isn’t necessarily the best way to build confident caring boys. Because what can happen is, the boys feel shame and blame. We withdraw from them because we are repulsed, disappointed, frustrated and angry. And so the boys are very much left to kind of try to navigate this themselves when what they really need are adults to get in, get close, figure out what’s going on with you. It may be the child didn’t understand the child is still learning emotional regulation. We have to reframe how we are interacting with our boys. Because historically what we do is we kind of just withdrawn, let them go to it, we can see that that does not work.
You know, it sounds like if I could summarize Jennifer, what you just said there is let them be and don’t try to change them.
Yes. And that’s so hard to do. Anybody who’s ever been a parent knows that’s hard to do. Because some of what they do, frankly, is annoying to us. It gets on our nerves.
So you have to work on yourself. One of the things that I had to do as a mom of boys and I have all boys, I don’t have girl children. I learned that I had to increase my tolerance for movement, for noise for chaos. Please note that this does not mean I had to constantly live in noise, mess and chaos. We had boundaries. We had a safe place where I could go and be surrounded by quiet aka my home office. But I needed to increase my tolerance because these were who these humans I was living with work. They needed space to move to experiment and they needed
room to be who they were, and have that be accepted and encouraged.
Now, you mentioned male stereotypes. And you know, it’s such a massive topic in the world we live in today. So how would you go about telling a parent that they can best support, they can optimally support a son in the face of negative male stereotypes?
Best way, is to reassure him that there are good men, there are good boys and to surround him with examples of those. So if you are fortunate enough to have such men in your family,
engage him with those men make sure he spends time with those men. Talk about those contributions. You know, there are a lot of good guys in our families and in our communities, who they’re the quiet good guys, we don’t talk about what they’re doing, they quietly go on about their business, highlight what you enjoy and appreciate about their contributions. So I would say that that is is step one. And I think it is also really important, you and I are both women. So we understand where these messages of female empowerment are coming from. And we absolutely see the need to continue that.
boys who are only 15 years old, don’t have the historical context that we do. So when they are encountering messages that may seem pro female, to the exclusion of anything pro male, help them understand the context. And you can do that and develop developmentally appropriate way. The conversation will be different with a five year old than a 15 year old, help them understand the context. And then help them understand and appreciate and talk about positives of being male, good examples, solicit their input and opinion as well, because boys do want to talk about these things.
Just when we think they don’t write their salutely. Yeah, you know, the other really interesting part about this book, Jennifer, you know, you talked about your lived experience, not having had, let’s say exposure to boys to that degree prior to having 123 and four of your own, like what got you through that particular period, I know that you blogged. And some of the blogs, content appears in this book, building boys. But I wonder when you’re in the throes of it as a parent, and you’ve got all kinds of things happening, what got you through that
there is a certain amount of I am in the throes of it I have no choice but to keep moving forward. And it’s not entirely fair to say that I hadn’t had a lot of exposure to boys prior to this Lianne. I have four brothers and a sister, but I grew up with boys. And yet, you know, I was focused on me, I didn’t pay attention to what they were doing. However, once I had my boys, and as I was in the absolute throes of parenting them.
I did rely on their dad for guidance about like, is this normal? Is this typical? You know, he would reassure me things like them randomly running up and jumping on the couch and chasing each other. You know, yeah, that’s normal. Why I don’t get that I never did that.
He would do a lot of things with them. I also tapped into those four brothers of mine. They’re fantastic uncles. And so it’s great to have those perspectives, and then connecting with other parents. And for me, I found it most helpful to connect with other parents, who also had boys who could understand what were some of the issues that we were dealing with, what were some of the challenges that we were encountering, and who were living similar experiences.
Jennifer, could you take us through your approach in terms of researching and then writing, building boys.
This is a subject that I have been researching for 20 plus years, because I’ve been raising boys for 20 plus years. So because I had been doing a blog about boys that I had started first in 2009 rolled over into a newer one in 2013. I had a lot of that content that I would go back to and look at. I also started a podcast on boys podcast in 2018. And that’s five years old now in through the course of that we have connected with and interviewed some of the top minds in parenting boys and raising boys in psychology and education. So I had all of that to draw upon as well. So step one was kind of going through and trying to make sense out of what I had, and then looking for the gaps and finding additional research.
The internet is my friend. I reached out to and interviewed a variety of parents and the actual writing of the book, a long time and hard work and I’d never written anything of this length before so it was very much I approached it almost like a series of long articles like a long article on one
Topic a long article on another topic, and then we’ll have it all together.
Now, speaking of those topics, you’ve got a chapter in there on emotional intelligence, what is the thrust of your message on that topic?
Boys, as well as girls, as well as all humans, we need to learn to recognize and manage our emotions. Historically, we haven’t really addressed that in our boys, historically, and even in present day, in a lot of cases, guys tend to feel that the only emotions that are allowed to be expressed our anger,
and happiness, and that is it.
All humans experience frustration, all humans experience disappointment, shame, feeling jealous, and I know I’m just naming negative emotions there. But when we help boys be able to recognize these and give them some tools to learn how to navigate and manage these emotions. We’re doing two things. Number one, we’re preparing them for healthy relationships with others. That’s everything, from friendships, to school relationships, to work relationships, to intimate relationships. And when we teach boys to recognize and respond to, and manage emotions, guess what, they also become humans who are more able to recognize and respond to emotions and other human beings.
Makes perfect sense, right? You can’t
comprehend empathy, for example, if you haven’t received it. So, you know, I completely understand what you’re saying there. And I do think that has been an issue because we have not, as a society shown a lot of empathy to our boys in recent years. And when we don’t treat young boys with empathy, when we don’t treat them with compassion and care, how can we expect them to become teenagers, and adults who treat others with empathy, respect and care? The longer I’ve been parenting, and my oldest is now 25. My youngest is 17. The longer I’ve been parenting, the more I am convinced that the most powerful parenting tool we have is modelling. Because you can say all kinds of things. But if you don’t do it, it doesn’t mean anything. And ultimately, regardless of what you say, they see what you do. They see what you do over and over and over. And they may not admit that that is having an influence on them. But it is and it will.
Now Jennifer, was there any research that you uncovered in the course of putting this book together that really struck you personally?
For me, the biggest piece was when I was looking at the importance of connection. And when I was looking at the importance of acceptance. And I ran across research that back in the 1920s, be then president of the American Psychological Association. So you know, pedigreed man, wrote a best selling parenting book, advising parents, to push their children away, to reject their children to not coddle them to not kiss them to not hug them.
This was a appalling to me, like, I could not believe that this was mainstream advice. I kind of thought that this was just maybe my family’s history, as it is in a lot. No, this was mainstream advice. And I dug further because I was very curious about this. And he and his wife had two children, both sons, they practice this parenting.
It didn’t go well.
One of the sons died of suicide as an adult. And the other one admitted to having mental health struggles and relationship struggles his whole life and said that he believes that his brother’s death was directly related to this.
That’s so powerful to me. All Humans need acceptance, we all want to be seen and valued for who we are. And boys are no different. But for some reason, we sometimes forget that.
Now, in building boys, you also contend that boys should be challenged with chores and caregiving. What do you mean by that?
Boys also need to learn how to take care of a home. Boys also need to learn how to take care of other humans, both small humans, so infants and toddlers and people younger than them, as well as older humans. So perhaps a grandparent or an or an elderly neighbor, in our society right now. Still, caregiving. And the work of maintaining a household is still highly gendered, and it is still more often females who are taking on those tasks. Those are tasks that all humans need to do.
Learn. And I admit in the book, I didn’t necessarily do a great job of this as I was parenting, I was muddling through like everybody else trying to get through the day. I wish I had put more effort into that.
But I see so much value especially think about caregiving.
We want boys to be compassionate to others, many of them will grow up to be fathers, they need experience working with children. And when boys are given a chance to interact in ways with people of other ages, they learn about themselves, and when they can help somebody.
That’s tremendous. It’s a tremendous confidence boost. When boys learn how to do useful things and use those in real world situations, which I also talked about in the book, that is where they develop true competence and confidence, confidence is rooted in knowing that you can do something that makes a difference.
You know, as I hear you describe that I’m struck by the fact that oftentimes, this is purely my observation, that it’s the females in those boys lives, the present the obstacles to them learning how to be the caregiver, how to do the chores, were women being caregivers naturally and, and all of the things that we know about women intervene, and then become the enablers and large part to supporting that kind of behaviour. That is to say that not having boys do those types of activities. Absolutely. And that’s mixed up in all kinds of cultural expectations. You know, there are still many women who feel judged often by other women for the state of their house. And so if that is the case, you feel obligated to rush around and make it look presentable and redo the work and maybe just do what yourself rather than let somebody else do it. But when we do it all, we take away opportunities for other people to learn. And moms will fall into this trap with dads often, because we think we know the right way. Well, there’s multiple right ways to put a baby to sleep to feed a baby. There are as hard as it may be to hear this, there are multiple right ways to load the dishwasher. There are multiple ways to clean a floor, we have to give our boys room to find their ways. When my boys were quite little, we did a thing sometimes where we would literally slosh water on the floor. They had their swimsuits on gave them towels, and they could just play slip and slide all over the floor run slide. They had fun, the floors got at least cleaner than they were.
And then the towels got washed. And then we had clean towels at the end of it as well.
I love that. Um, Jennifer, so let’s let’s pivot a little bit to the tween years and the teen years because this is you know, a pain point for many families. What would be your best advice based on your own lived experience and the research you did for building boys? In terms of how parents can best support that time in their son’s life where there is so much change physically, emotionally, devant, developmentally, etcetera, etcetera? How can parents best support their tween teen sons? First, I’m gonna give you a multi part answer on this one. First, remind yourself again and again. And again, this is a stage, it is a stage I guarantee you but it does not feel like it at the time. It feels like if I don’t do something to change the trajectory right now, this child will forever be disrespectful, disorganized, and unkind.
He’s going to grow. Even if you do nothing different, even if you do not shift your parenting at all. He will mature through this. Some of it is just the hormonal upheaval. So number one, remind yourself that this is a stage number two, take care of yourself. Because when you are not settled, when you are emotionally reactive, it’s much easier to jump and aggressively respond and to act with blame rather than to act with compassion and understanding. So start there. And then the third thing that I would say is to really focus on supporting your son support his interests. A lot of people right now are probably thinking, well, all he’s interested in is video games. And that may be true. And I understand parents that you want his life to be bigger than video games. But if all he is showing an interest in is video games, and you spend all of your time nagging him about video games, and trying to restrict his action, his act
access to video games, that is not building your relationship that’s not building trust. That’s just creating distance and contention. Begin by supporting what you see and hear he’s interested in. And if need to work to expand that a little bit by giving him real opportunities in the real world. A lot of times this takes saying yes to things that your first instinct might be to say no to letting him try things, and valuing interest in activities that are beyond school, grades, homework and academics.
Or a lot of parents getting to that place of reasonable risk taking, we could call it that
is a challenge, right? Yes. How do I support the independence while making sure that they’re not going to have a crazy idea, whether as an individual or the group think mentality with his friends, like, how can that be navigated safely and successfully?
I can’t 100% guarantee that it will be safe, that there won’t be any hitches. However, one of the things that I’ve done to remind myself as a parent is that there are also risks and downsides to not taking risks. And I realized this when the boys were very little, they wanted to climb an apple tree at my parents house. And I was fine with that. My parents were freaking out, well, they could fall off, they could break the arm, they could this they could this. And I realized two things, then I realized, hi, but this is why I never even tried to climb a tree as a child.
And I realized that when children don’t climb trees, they lose out on a lot, they lose out on that experience, they lose out on learning to trust their bodies, they lose out on exploration. So remind yourself that there’s benefits to the risks, try and allow the smaller, less crazy risks before the big ones. So when my youngest wanted to, for instance, mow lawns, he was 10. Right? I was not going to send him out there with a lawn mower, all on his own. Even though he was quite savvy. He did, he did it first with an adult who was concerned about his safety, who taught him with a push mower who showed him the safety things before he graduated. So introduce with an adult, if possible, talk about safety. And sometimes, sometimes it really is a matter of just looking away, closing your eyes and hoping for the best, because they often are still much more competent than we are. But our anxiety is contagious. And I have done that sometimes when the kids were trying to jump a bike off the picnic table, I just had to look away until they landed and it was fine. They were fine. I needed that for my safety and sanity.
You’re bringing back memories from each other.
Um, so one of the things that I think is also really interesting about your story is that you homeschooled your sons, what made you decide to take that approach. So our oldest was halfway through first grade, halfway through first grade, when he started saying he hated school.
Like I knew that what happened, but I thought that was awfully soon. And the more we dug into it, it was a collection of factors. And partly, he wanted to be able to go at his own speed. He had other interests that he there weren’t room for in school. And we were already seeing at that point that by the time you go to school, you know, the school day, and then you come home and whatever reading and homework, and then his dad would come home from work. And then there’s bedtime, like there wasn’t much time for him to do other things. So we opted to make the leap. And you know, we started it as let’s see how this goes. And he had more opportunity to learn in ways that made sense for him to follow his interest to learning and to explore things that he couldn’t have done in school as a first grader. And so we continue that for a number of years. Seven and a half years. We homeschool.
Wow. So you also had that perspective in terms of lived experience to bring to your book. Jennifer, can I ask you, what do you want readers have building boys to leave with after reading your book?
I want them to leave with an increased understanding of boys. I want them to feel less alone and more supported. A lot of the things that I write about parents of boys have sensed and they’re experiencing but unless you’re talking with other parents of boys so often we feel like something is wrong with my son or I am doing something wrong. You
And I want to share with parents that these are common concerns. You’re not alone when you understand your son, you can support him. And here’s how you do that. Because as we as a culture continue to navigate these discussions of masculinity, and how do we want men to be in what will be the role of men as we move into the future? As we have those conversations, our boys are growing up. We can’t wait for those conversations to finish. So I want you to understand boys, and I want you to have some strategies to help support him and I want you to feel less alone.
What would you say is the best part about being a mom to four boys?
They have expanded my world in ways that I wouldn’t have
imagined otherwise. Thanks to my boys, I have jumped off a 30 foot cliff into a lake. I never would have done that before. I have spent time at dirt bike races, never would have done that before and snowmobile races. And I have seen that the boys who I know hate getting out of bed to go to school, they will get up before 6am on a Saturday to fill out paperwork to be in a snowmobile race. So don’t tell me these kids don’t care about things and they aren’t capable they are. And all of these things. They’ve just enhanced my life so much. And
I now know like, there’s a different experience to the world that sounds so trite, but understanding that men also can be harmed and hindered by gender expectations. That was a big one for me. So I think that through raising my boys, I have become a more compassionate, more well rounded person who is willing to do things like jump off a cliff into a lake. And if that is not an analogy for raising boys, I don’t know what is.
Jennifer Fink, author of building boys. We so appreciate your time and your insight today. Thank you. Thanks, Lianne

Those missing pieces inspired her latest book, Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males (April 2023). There are some things that parents often fail to understand or acknowledge about boys, Fink told Castelino. For example, their developmental pace is often slower than girls’, which leads to frustration at school, where they often feel like a failure. “Of course you’re going to hate going to that place,” says Fink, who is also a blogger. “If we adults can adjust our expectations and continue to support children’s learning while their brains and bodies continue to grow, it’s a healthier relationship on both sides.”

Often boys’ habits are misconstrued as bad or disruptive, even though they are natural. For example, parents may overreact when a child acts aggressively because they are fearful it is indicative of who that child will become, despite such outbursts being developmentally normal. Boys need to be allowed to feel a range of emotions, in order to become more emotionally intelligent, compassionate, and empathetic themselves.

Fink, Jennifer.HeadshotIn the course of researching her book, Fink admits to being particularly struck by evidence around connection and belonging.

“I ran across research from back in the 1920s from the then-president of the American Psychological Association,” she says. “A pedigreed man, wrote a best selling parenting book, advising parents to push their children away, to reject their children, to not coddle them, to not kiss them, to not hug them. This was appalling to me. I could not believe that this was mainstream advice,” she says.

“I dug further because I was very curious about this. He and his wife had two children, both sons, and they practiced this parenting. It didn’t go well. One of the sons died of suicide as an adult. And the other one admitted to having mental health struggles and relationship struggles his whole life and said that he believes that his brother’s death was directly related to this,” says Fink. “That’s so powerful to me. All humans need acceptance. We all want to be seen and valued for who we are. And boys are no different. But for some reason, we sometimes forget that.”

Fink talks about the importance of getting boys to pitch in with household chores and caregiving duties. This is still highly gendered work in our society, but we need to train our sons to do these jobs if that is to change: “When we [moms] do it all, we take away opportunities for other people to learn.”

After 20 years of researching this topic, Fink maintains that the most powerful parenting tool is modelling. “You can say all kinds of things, but if you don’t do it, it doesn’t mean anything.” This is wise advice for any parent.

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Jennifer Fink also discusses:Book cover.Building Boys.Fink, Jennifer

  • How parents can support their sons in the face of negative male stereotypes
  • Parental strategies for handling the hormonal rollercoaster of the teen years
  • How to support independence and reasonable risk-taking
  • The best part of being a mom to four boys

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