Maggie Dent on why boys need great mates

Kinderling News & Features

It’s a well-researched fact that boys and girls develop differently in their early years.

One of the key areas is verbal, social situations and Maggie Dent - parenting educator, author and mum of four boys – believes boys need some extra help here when it comes to fostering friendships.

Talking to Kinderling Conversation’s Shevonne Hunt, she outlines why our little lads are like this and what we can do as parents to help them grow.

Boys can’t verbalise affection until later

As her sons were growing up, Maggie’s witnessed them having a great time playing and running around with other boys a lot, but not talking much at all.

“With the way little girls develop in those early years, we know they’re capable of using emotional manipulation, guilt, and all sorts of things from around three. But they also are able to use wonderful words that build affection and attachment with friendships particularly with other girls. We know that they’re able to say they miss them and can’t wait to see them. They hug them and they say hello,” Maggie explains.

“Our little boys are actually way behind in that. Quite often without the words, the only way they develop a strong sense of heart connection with another boy is playing beside them for hours.”

For boys, spending real time playing side-by-side is a way for them to feel familiar and connected with another.

Boys often sustain fewer friends

“What we also know is that they don’t have the capacity to sustain many friendships. They might only have one or two little friends. That may stay all the way through primary school. They’ll kinda look like they’re friends with everyone,” Maggie details.

You might not actually realise the small pool of people they really trust until they’re separated from their key best friends at school or day care. This can shatter them and they don’t want to go back.

Boys need face-to-face connections

Boys learn what’s safe in play from the facial expressions of other boys, which is yet another reason to encourage interactive play with others and limit screen-time.

Maggie recommends letting boys play autonomously without parental direction in situations such as nature play. This sort of wild freedom allows them to run around by day and build the bonds of friendship through that experience. It also (hopefully) results in a calmer boy at night (which is also good for you!)

Learning how to win and lose

Playing together also teaches kids how to behave socially around winning and losing. “If you haven’t played a lot, you don’t get very good at losing,” Maggie says. This experience is much more valuable than them playing games on screen, which show no emotional response from competitors.

Maggies says it’s important to invest time in that three- to five-year-old window of playing games with others and being able to validate them when they feel sad about losing. Maggie suggests games like pass the parcel, backyard cricket, connect four and noughts and crosses – games with only one winner. When they lose, they’ll get better at the game and learn to deal with it better (like in all of life!).

Parents should create opportunities for relationships

“They’re not really good at nurturing the friendships so sometimes that’s where I keep saying there’s a massive role for us parents, making sure we create opportunities for them to hang out,” Maggie advises.

Listen to Maggie on Kinderling Conversation:

A fabulous way to encourage this is by hanging out with other families, with different kids of different ages. It enables boys to experience others frequently, in safe environments with people who care about them. With coaching from people who they feel safe with, boys can begin to decode some of those moments where they make really poor choices. This helps them develop an authentic play code – where they come to understand play and social situations.

Maintaining those friendships over time (even if people move or change schools) is also highly beneficial and provide a great example of what strong relationships can be.

Boys need emotional coaching in friendship

We’ve all seen it. When a little boy runs up to his best friend who’s about to leave kindy, and hits him instead. While we think of this action as ‘mean’, Maggie reads it in a different way altogether. “In actual fact what he’s trying to do is show that boy… that he likes them without using words,” she says.

“We can misread that so we have to help our little boys with some of the codes around saying hello and goodbye,” Maggie goes on. “It doesn’t necessarily occur to them naturally.”

By the same token, ‘boy humour’ drives us mad sometimes, but boys deal with social insecurities by acting silly. And silliness is misinterpreted as bad behaviour. But Maggie says what they’re actually doing is trying to lift their own emotional states. We need to gently and warmly emotionally coach our boys in those early years with the big, ugly feelings on either side.

Remember, boys are sensitive

Traditionally, boys have been told to toughen up and get on with it when faced with adversity. Maggie dispels this immediately and says a more nurturing approach is far more helpful for your boy’s development.

“[It’s] just rubbish, and we really have to let that one go because so often they’ll put on a mask to look like something they’re not and therefore deny what’s happening with them,” she explains.

She adds we need to understand how to meet the unique needs of boys. They want close one-on-one chats, but they don’t want them straight after school when they haven’t had time to process it yet. It doesn’t matter if it’s mum or dad, but as many as possible chats during bath time or bed time helps them open up about things they don’t understand, as it takes time to bubble up.

Remember, boys’ poor choices often come up from a place of immaturity and ignorance. Constantly being cross with boys can just create sadness, which Maggie says often leads to angry men. With boys, emotions are often the symptom, not the problem.