Tips & Advice

How Raising Boys Has
Changed Over Time

by Cara Natterson, MD

Photo credit: Mint Images - Tim Robbins/Getty Images

I grew up in a house full of boys. We were four kids with an age difference of a dozen years between the oldest and the youngest: my big brother — an early entrant to Gen X, my youngest — a cusp millennial. As my mom navigated parenting through the late 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s (she would argue she’s still navigating it now!), the world around her morphed dramatically. So much so that today, watching me raise my son, she marvels at how much has changed and where parenting has landed, which among other things is a place of deep asymmetry in the way we talk to our daughters compared with our sons.

It is conversations about their bodies and their feelings that will protect our children – regardless of gender – along the road to adulthood.

Now in fairness, some tween and most teenage boys get quiet, a few downright silent. This may be a direct effect of newly surging testosterone, though no one really knows – the connection between testosterone and rage has been studied quite a bit, but testosterone’s impact on verbal retreat is not the same hotbed of research. It’s not unreasonable for parents to respond to their boys’ single syllables by becoming quieter in return. It’s the opposite, though, of what has happened in the decades between my own puberty and my daughter’s, as our culture harnessed adolescent girl “chattiness” and encouraged females to find increasingly louder voices. Somehow, despite that girls and their parents talk far more openly than ever before about body changes, sex, and all the rest, boys have gotten lost in the equation. Which is particularly odd since we all know that the emotional well-being of our boys is just as important as that of our girls. In Decoding Boys, I argue that it is conversations about their bodies and their feelings that will protect our children – regardless of gender – along the road to adulthood.

It is never too early to open up dialogues with your children. Frankly, they need it sooner than we realize because puberty is starting earlier than ever — for both genders. In a sense, this means that the path through physical maturation has accelerated. Over the past 20 years, researchers have documented a dramatic shift in the start of puberty, with girls developing breast buds and flexing mood swings up to two years earlier than their mothers or grandmothers did. Today, the average age for onset of puberty in girls sits somewhere between eight and nine years old. That’s third grade. It’s worth noting that the big landmark event of a first period has barely accelerated, though, holding steady around 12.5 years of age for the typical girl. What this means is that the duration of the process – from emergent breast buds to menses – has basically doubled. In other words, it’s beginning younger, yes, but it’s taking much longer to get through.

‘They’re just being boys,’ many of us think.

Data clearly shows boys have experienced a similar downward trajectory for the start of their puberty, but most people haven’t gotten this memo. They simply think it’s a female phenomenon. So, when I tell parents that the average age for a boy to enter puberty is between nine and 10 (a generation ago it was north of 11), they often don’t believe me. That’s understandable, because boys don’t transform quite as outwardly – instead of noticeable curves, their first change is slow and subtle growth of the testicles, made all the less obvious by boys’ increasing sense of privacy at just about this same time. And it’s not as if they act much more mature. In fact, their early pubescent mood swings can masquerade as profound juvenility. Our tween and teen sons find fart humor amazing, grow a little bit aggressive, or retreat into themselves by shutting their doors and their mouths – often they do all three. They’re just being boys, many of us think. Yes, they are, but they’re also often in puberty.

Today’s downward age shift in body maturation is being met by particularly seismic social changes. Every generation lays claim to resetting cultural tone, but Gen Z has a particularly solid case: they live in a world governed by screens, making far-flung friendships possible, even easy, while also making the viewing of pornography equally accessible. In fact, the vast majority see hard core pornography well before they ever even consider becoming sexually active themselves, a fact that is confusing enough, even before layering on things like consent rules and the swapping of nude selfies. Their entertainment, from music to games, is packed with messages about drug culture, misogyny, and violence; and speaking of violence, the number of guns in the United States has surpassed the number of people, so they are growing up amidst unprecedented access to firearms. It’s not all doom and gloom for them – not in the least! – but the hurdles they face feel higher than the ones we encountered, their consequences more dire.

If there’s ever been a moment to start talking to your kids, it’s now. The tricky part is: many boys don’t want to talk. Or at least, they don’t think they do. Sure, their sentence length shrinks as other things grow — like the likelihood that their bedroom doors will be closed indefinitely. But I believe they do actually want to hear from us and share in return. Or at the very least, they want to be asked … about friends, fears, choices, highs, and lows. They may not gravitate to conversations with us as easily as our daughters, but they deserve to be engaged in them nonetheless. In fact, they must be. Because in this day and age, when the body begins to mature at an impossibly young age and the world expects kids to juggle mindboggling imagery and understand the consequences of their actions, talking to them is sometimes the only way to protect them.