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Raising a Boy: For the Single Mom


According to family therapist and male development specialist Michael Gurian, "Males raised in homes of single mothers are definitely at more risk for social and personal problems than males raised in two-parent homes." There is little credible research that denies this. However, should one condemn a single parent, or argue that she/he can't raise great kids? The answer is "no".

There are many reasons why it is more challenging for single mothers to raise boys-and knowing those reasons can help a mother do it better.

Brain Science

Because male brains are wired differently than female brains-coupled with different levels of hormones and social expectations-boys are in some ways more challenging to teach, Gurian says. They are naturally more impulsive, for example, because their prefrontal cortex is less active than girls and develops at a later age, and because they have less serotonin in their bloodstream and brain.

Girls and women have 15 percent more blood flow in the brain, are able to process more things simultaneously, and have stronger neural connectors enabling them to retain more from the senses and detect tones of voice more easily. Girls use more parts of their brain for verbal and emotional functioning, whereas boys use more areas for spatial and mechanical functioning.

Since a girl's brain "lights up" in more areas of her brain than a boy's, Gurian says, "She is often more flexible and adaptable and full-brained in her responses to the world around her. He is often more narrowly focused, and may end up with a narrower emotional, behavioral and therefore moral range of response."

So what does this mean? Do we throw up our hands and let innate behavior take its course?

Gurian says science tells us that boys generally need more love, discipline and modeling behavior than they are getting today in order to learn how to respond to situations in a less simplistic way. He says, "no one is saying girls are more moral than boys. What we are saying is that boys need a greater concerted effort on the part of the mom, the family, the elders, the community, and the social institutions in order to inculcate all the moral coding of a social group."

Girls need the same training, of course. But not only do girls absorb these relational skills more easily, a girl's mother is more likely to understand the way she behaves and processes experience.

Boys and Emotions
In the early years, it's easy for moms to recognize when something is bothering her son: he cries, he hits, he yells. But as the brain grows from toddler to child, around the age of five or six, boys start processing their emotions differently. Some of this is because boys are taught to hide pain more than girls. But a lot of it is natural to a male brain.

"Unlike many of my colleagues, I don't worry about boys masking their feelings," Gurian said. "Most boys are going to naturally grow into males who cry less than girls and talk about feelings less than women. It begins in childhood and continues when puberty hits and testosterone becomes a very big influence. I disagree with some colleagues who feel that the salvation for males is to learn how to feel through the use of talking and crying.

"I prefer that each child be provided profound attachment by primary and secondary caregivers-attachment so useful to the child that he will develop his own personal system for handling emotion. That system will include masculinity, masking, femininity, physical exercise, problem-solving, repression, free-expression through art or sport. The list is endless."

Michael Gurian says that the best thing single mothers can do to help their sons be emotionally healthy is not necessarily to get him to talk more, but to make sure he is attached to at least four other caregivers: grandparent, godparent, male mentor, teacher. An unconnected boy is more worrisome than a quiet one.

Communication Strategy
Male development experts tend to agree that one way single mothers raising sons are at a disadvantage is that they have very different styles of communication. As Gurian explains, girls have a much greater need to connect and attach than boys do. He refers to this as the "intimacy imperative." Females will bond by chatting before playing together, for example, whereas males will bond simply by the process of playing.

A single mother needs to learn new strategies of conversation.

According to Gurian, "A mom with a father involved in the boy's life typically does not have to do too much to extend out beyond who she already is. If she is alone in raising her son, however, then she has to hold onto her own identity as a woman and try to extend toward the masculine."

"She finds herself trying to learn how to play basketball with her son. She finds herself trying to learn other ways of processing emotion than feeling-talk or eye-to-eye conversation."

There are things a mother can do to encourage his connection with her, as Gurian and others have detailed. Boys do much better bonding while doing, rather than simply sitting and talking. William Pollack calls this "action talk." For example, start a conversation after engaging him in physical play, or while driving or biking together.

A discussion starter: "You look like you feel angry," or "What do you think about that thing that happened?" Less effective: "How do you feel?"

About the Author:
The following is excerpted from: how to raise a well-balanced child, in Mikki Morrissette's "Choosing Single Motherhood: the Thinking Woman's Guide"

Michael Gurian Family Therapist and Author

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