A CONVERSATION WITH MAGGIE DENT
“LITTLE BOYS BRING YOU JUST TO THE BRINK of insanity before gently easing you off the ledge with a sweet kiss and laughter from a perfectly timed fart.” Ah yes, they’re sweet … but just when mothers of young sons might be tempted to give themselves a pat on the back, something changes.
All the progress your boy has made in life thus far – becoming articulate, sensitive, aware of basic hygiene practices – seems to halt in its tracks (or even reverse), and your previously sweet son begins to mutter and grunt; he shows signs of reduced empathy; and he SMELLS! As any parent of boys knows, they reach a point in their development in which they resemble cavemen! WHAT TO DO???
Enter Australia’s MAGGIE DENT – to the rescue! Maggie is a proud Mum to four grown sons … a former teacher, counsellor, author, speaker and bonafide ‘boy champion’. And she has a real heart for – and insight into – helping good boys grow into great men. While her latest book – From Boys to Men – was still at the printshop, we were lucky enough to connect by Skype with the marvellous Maggie …
GRAPEVINE: What motivated you to choose a subject like this: boys becoming men?
MAGGIE: Well, I wrote my first book, Mothering Our Boys, to help mums understand their sons better, but I didn’t manage to tackle the teenage stage. (It was a big enough book as it was!) When that book began to sell well, publishers sat up and took notice. And one of them – who’d tried a couple of my simple strategies at home and found that they transformed her relationship with her teenaged son – she reached out and said, “Look, Maggie – you need to write a book about TEENAGE boys!”
So that was the original motivator. But also, the stats on teenage boys: they’re just getting worse. We’ve always had a generation gap between kids and parents, but what we have now is a chasm! I wanted to try to get a bridge up, put the guardrails on, and give parents really practical strategies and ideas – because so many parents just throw their hands up in the air and stop trying after a while.
I wanted to show some love and compassion for those grunting, smelly, monosyllabic, and unbelievably forgetful teenage boys – so they can develop into good, healthy men, instead of continually seeing themselves as something wrong and bad.
GV: You believe there’s been a backlash to the recent spotlight on toxic masculinity – and many boys are now struggling to be seen as healthy and valued. What’s going on?
MAGGIE: The ‘Me Too’ movement demanded recognition that this kind of behaviour was no longer okay – and really, it was long overdue. But this idea of ‘toxic masculinity’ has started to paint all males with the same brush, when really the percentage of good men is so high compared to the dodgy ones. In truth, there’s nothing wrong with masculinity, just as there’s nothing wrong with femininity – but what we need to do is stop portraying the worst versions of it.
Good men come in droves to my seminars, and they’re all there wanting to understand how to be better dads. But what we had was a world that was portraying something different. And then the digital revolution (with its violent gaming, pornography, and insistence that disgusting sexual harassment is just ‘boys being boys’) created an even bigger distortion of what it means to be a man.
We need to celebrate all the awesome things about males that are actually quite different from us females, while getting rid of those unhealthy stereotypes. It’s a two-sided shift, because as women are emboldened and empowered, men also need to be given permission to be vulnerable. We lose too many men to suicide. We need to give them permission to feel low at times, and to recognise that it takes enormous courage to reach out for help. And we must correct the perception that badly-behaved men are the norm.
GV: So, let’s talk about our boys. What advice can you give us mums and dads when our previously-sweet young lad is replaced by a grumpy, uncommunicative teenager? And who are these ‘alien’ imposters sitting sullenly at the breakfast table?
MAGGIE: It does feel a bit like an invader’s replaced your beautiful boy! When that loving bond with your son suddenly disappears, it breaks your Mama-heart a little. You miss the boy he was. And it’s tempting to think that something’s wrong – that you’ve got to figure it out and fix it! But the challenge (and it’s a tough one) is to surrender into knowing that this journey that they’re on – which is causing changes at every level of their being (hormonal, physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual) – is the way it is supposed to be.
One day you’re going to meet the amazing, evolved person at the end of the journey – but in the meantime, the evolution process is HUGE!
I studied anthropology in uni, and it was perfect preparation for becoming a parenting educator, because when you look back at traditional closed communities, you recognise that this separation from parents and focus on peers is a primary biological drive. We can become frustrated with these changes in our boys, but they don’t even know what’s happening!
So, my first suggestion to parents is: be well-informed. Which is exactly why I wrote the book.
WORTH KNOWING …
If you know what ‘brain-pruning’ does to your son … if you know what surges of testosterone do … if you know why he makes really lousy decisions sometimes … if you know why he’ll explode at you in anger sometimes … then you’re also able to educate him.
Girls go through these changes, too, but BOYS!?! I mean, this is why they sometimes kick the chair and stomp out of the room when the milk runs out at breakfast – leaving you completely baffled at what seems like a ridiculous overreaction. Yes, for sure, it’s disproportionate – but it helps to keep in mind that they’re once again like toddlers: all of this is developmentally-appropriate, it’s happening for a reason, and ultimately they’re as confused and frightened as we are.
GV: You’re passionate about not leaving this transition from boyhood to manhood to chance, right?
MAGGIE: Absolutely! In traditional communities, the boys were often surrounded by loving women until about age eight or nine – so they got all the tenderness and nurture and attachment, the fun and freedom of being around both girls and boys. And THEN they’d be brought into the care and nurture of the MEN. It was a very coordinated cultural development that took place through story, song, ritual, and mentorship – learning how to make spears and all of that.
This didn’t happen when you just hit a certain age (the way it does in our culture today, when boys reach age 18 or 21). Your whole group of men decided when you were ready. And we just don’t have those sorts of rites-of-passage anymore.
GV: Mentoring and traditional male rites-of-passage have largely disappeared – so how can we replace these things for our teenagers today?
MAGGIE: My sons tell me that the people who loved them when they were little boys and then stayed connected all the way through their journey into adulthood – they were the ones who reassured them that they really mattered.
A LIGHTHOUSE FIGURE:
It’s clear from my conversations with boys that what made the difference for them was having one significant, loving person in their lives who never gave up on them. The role that this sort of ‘lighthouse figure’ can play in a boy’s life can’t be overstated. For many struggling boys, when a person like this steps in, that’s when their life changes.
We urgently need to understand that, in our communities, we have a collective responsibility to help raise our young males – it’s not just up to the individual nuclear family. Neighbourhoods, clubs, schools and religious communities all need to recognise the need to get beyond punishment and behaviour-management programmes when a boy is struggling. We need to recognise that he’s not ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ – and, instead, help give him the skills and time to navigate this stage as supportive allies.
GV: That’s tough, especially these days, when we’re more isolated than ever by technology … and a global pandemic!
MAGGIE:True. Kids are spending so much more time online now – so they’re not connecting with others … and kids will choose the thing that gives them the higher dopamine response.
If it’s a choice between going fishing with Dad and staying at home gaming, there’s a pretty good chance that the gaming will win! Dads try once or twice to invite their son along, and then they give up and leave them behind. They just think, “No, they’re having more fun there, so I won’t bother.”
But it’s our moral responsibility to keep trying, if we want to raise healthy, happy men.
GV:You make a point about a boy’s ‘pursuit of self-worth’ and the link between shame and feelings of worthlessness in boys. What’s the connection there?
MAGGIE: One of the core differences between men and women is how we develop ideas about ourselves. As females, we tend constantly to judge ourselves internally. Males, on the other hand, tend to plan an external event or experience, and how well they do at that determines how good they feel about themselves. It’s part of the competitive nature of men. And if they don’t achieve what they’d hoped to, they often attack themselves. Then, to make matters worse, others criticise or ridicule them … because there’s this perception that males are so tough. So they really internalise those feelings of shame.
Think of those boys who can’t run fast – who aren’t naturally rough and tough or athletic: they need us to validate the fact that they’re valuable and worthy of our respect. We need to celebrate their contribution to the world – that boys can dance, boys can paint, boys can create! We need to send the message that who you are is who you’re meant to be!
My big challenge to all teens is this: you’re on the earth to make the world a better place – you’ve just got to work out how to do that. And you can start by making your Mum a cup of tea!
One of my favourite stories (which I share in Mothering Our Boys) is about a mother whose eight-year-old son came to her and told her he was going to dig to China. She responded enthusiastically – they had a big backyard, so it wasn’t going to mess up the garden – and showed him where to find the shovel. This little guy dug for hours and hours. He kept it up after school, even enlisting the help of mates at times. His dad was cheering them on and helping out occasionally. Eventually it dawned on the boy that he wasn’t going to achieve what he’d set out to do, so he went to his mum and said, “Mum, you can’t dig to China …” And she replied, “Never mind, Love!”
How many of us would have nipped that idea in the bud before he’d even begun?! “Don’t be stupid – you’ll never be able to dig all the way to China!” We shame a boy who’s demonstrating some curiosity and initiative, when really, we should let it play out so he can learn some lessons along the way – and have fun doing it!
GV: Speaking of mums … as our teenage boys struggle through those hormonally-charged years, they can sometimes become aggressive and emotionally-volatile with their mums. How do you suggest we mums handle this?
MAGGIE: There’s so much going on for boys at this age. When your son blows up at you, you don’t know what’s overloading his nervous system. So you need to take a step back and try to understand …
LETTING OFF STEAM:
This isn’t intentional, malicious aggression. He might need to eat or go to the loo, he might’ve had a tough time at school. And, when he comes home, you’re the safest person in the world for him. He knows that you’re the only one who’ll love him after he’s discharged all that emotion.
Anger has a lot of energy in it, and it’s a matter of build-up – which is why I really like them to walk or ride home from school, because I find it really shifts the aggro. So, the very first time your boy acts like this with you, just step back. Go outside and calm yourself down. And then I recommend taking him a cup of hot Milo and a biscuit, maybe 20 minutes later. Just knock, tiptoe in, and back out again. No words. Because that reassures him of your love – it tells him “We’re okay!”
Then you can ask Dad (or a father-figure or grandfather) to have a gentle, quiet conversation with him to let him know that speaking like he did to his mother is not okay. Because, even though he’s volatile and he didn’t mean it, he needs to recognise that the behaviour isn’t acceptable. We might like him to come and apologise; however, if that hasn’t been modelled since he was a little boy, it’s going to be really difficult. But if he does spontaneously apologise later, we need to fight our instincts to revisit the whole thing. Just accept the apology and move on – don’t try to dissect it!
GV: Is there any way to prevent or reduce the outbursts in the first place?
MAGGIE: We have to think about what we’re doing to discharge the excess stress and cortisol in their bodies naturally: food, fun, activity, sport … and we’ve got to find what helps do that for each of our boys, because it’s not always the same thing.
(I swear that all boys should have a dog in the house – dogs offer a kind of unconditional love and are a great natural ‘de-stressor’!)
There’s so much stress in our teens’ lives – more than ever before – and they can’t escape it. So we should remind ourselves: this is a stress response from an immature brain in a heightened limbic system – and I’m bigger than this; I’m going to be the safe place they need.
GV: You suggested getting a father-figure to speak with boys at times. What can dads do to maintain a relationship with their sons at this key point on the parenting journey?
MAGGIE: Dads need to work on their ‘micro-connections’ with boys – just frequently make contact in some way … a gentle punch on the arm as you pass him … go and have a listen, if he’s into music … make sure you’re welcoming and farewelling your son … have bedtime rituals … ‘Dad-time’… And, of course, food’s a great bonding-tool: just making toasted sandwiches for everyone … or going out for a meal together. It’s not rocket science.
JUST BEING THERE:
If a dad and his boy share a common interest, that’s a powerful thing. The petrolhead dad tinkering around cars with his son, with the rugby game on the radio in the background, or whatever – that’s a win! Dads should know how much their presence matters – it doesn’t need lots of conversation.
One of the things boys love about their dads is that they don’t talk too much – they can offer simple reassurance, lighten the mood, or chill things down a bit.
My boys’ stepdad comes from a large family as well, and he’s such a generous-hearted soul. When he picked one of the boys up from swimming training or football, he’d ‘secretly’ take them for hot chips – and, when they returned, they weren’t allowed to tell anyone else in the house. Of course, when they’d come in the others would all ask, “Did you get chips?” and they’d say, “Nope!” Now that they’re all grown men, the commonality of those conversations during that special time together has continued into adulthood.
Dads who’ve had good, connected dads themselves might do those sorts of things instinctively. But some guys have tough dads who shamed them, or withdrawn dads who were emotionally unavailable. Those men don’t have a template for how to be a good dad – and that’s why, sometimes, our expectations of them aren’t always reasonable.
Most men want to be better dads, but we need to help them find the tools.
GV: As our boys become more independent, we need to allow them increasing freedom to make their own choices … but that ‘letting go’ is a tricky process! How do we nurture strength in our boys and give them opportunities to be independent at this stage of their lives, especially when they’re lacking in common sense and good judgment?!
MAGGIE: Let’s say our boys are headed out to a party. Our temptation is to tell them (or remind them of) everything they shouldn’t do. Well, what happens when I say, “Don’t think of a blue elephant!”??!
It’s much more helpful to just check in with them … confirm that they have your phone number, they have a plan, and they know they can call you at any time. Then give them some scenarios: “What would you do if a whole heap of outsiders gate-crashed the party …?” or “What would you do if someone slumped onto the ground and became unresponsive …?” and let them work it out.
(I think that every teenager from 14-up needs to know basic First Aid and how to do CPR – because when they have those tools, they step up.)
When you ask the ‘what if’ questions, you may discover that they have a good grip on things. It’s about collectively educating … it’s mentoring, not lecturing … it’s listening to what they already know, and adding to it … it’s about encouraging them along the way, and empowering what they CAN do, versus just dictating what they CAN’T do.
And that gives teenagers a real sense that their parents respect them.
GV: And, of course, we as parents are also responsible for how we respond to our boys’ behaviour – especially when they mess up!
MAGGIE: Absolutely – our response is crucial. The key, when they muck up, is to meet them with compassion and tenderness – because they’re already attacking themselves. Their self-worth is being chewed away.
NOT WORTH LIVING?
That’s when they experience those big, vulnerable feelings of not being worthy of love, happiness, friends, family … When I was working as a counsellor, I had boys in my office who were prepared to end their lives rather than see the look of disappointment, particularly on Mum’s face …
What we really want is for your boy’s ‘bugger’ moment to be a teachable lesson. Throughout his boyhood you want to cultivate the idea that he should tell you when he’s mucked up so you can handle it together. You want to establish family values, like respect for the people and the spaces around us … and then, when they do muck up, you need to make sure they recognise that they’ve made a poor choice. (And don’t jump to conclusions: actually ask them, “What were you trying to do?” – because accidents happen!)
With all of this, you want to cultivate the thinking process while he’s a boy … so he takes it into manhood with him. And, of course, when he’s made a mistake, that’s where accountability steps in. Most parents will tell their son how he’s going to make it right – but, in adolescence, we want to encourage him to be reflective and figure that out for himself.
He needs to be a participant in this process, so that later he becomes the driver of it – he becomes the young man who’s accountable, who has a conscience, who doesn’t just blame his circumstances, but is willing to step up and own it.
The final step is to wonder – together – what could he could do differently next time to prevent the accident/damage from repeating itself. Sometimes you actually have to help him with this bit, because the teenage brain isn’t as good as ours at looking at possibilities – and if we can’t help him find the possibilities, the chances of him repeating a poor decision are really high.
GV: Do you have one final word for parents as they face this sometimes-daunting stage of parenting their boys?
MAGGIE: It’s helpful for us and our teenage boys (before they hit puberty, if possible) to work out how they feel our love – what their ‘love-language’ is – because it’s slightly different for each of them.
FOR THE JOURNEY:
The greatest gift you can give your son is the constant reminder that your love is fierce and unconditional – nothing they do will stop you loving them. “No matter whether you’ve pranged the car … failed your exam … put a basketball through the window – I’m never going to NOT love you!”
Our job is to give them the skills so that, one day, we’ll be out of a job. That’s why we get them to pack the dishwasher, wash their own sheets, learn to cook – because we want them to fly out our door one day and find a sense of purpose and independence (not necessarily happiness, which comes and goes) that absolutely makes them proud of who they are … and makes the world a better place!
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT MAGGIE DENT AT WWW.MAGGIEDENT.COM – HER BOOK ‘FROM BOYS TO MEN’ CAN BE FOUND AT ALL GOOD BOOK SELLERS.