It nearly brought me to tears. Here it was, the book about raising teenage boys that I had needed for over a decade, and it is perfect. Dr. Cara Natterson’s new book, Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons, doesn’t give us an idealized view of the boys we love best but rather looks at the real teen in our home.
Dr. Natterson’s book sits on a simple, yet radical premise. Our boys go quiet when they are teens, not all of them, not all of the time, but in general. There is no scientific evidence that this is caused by rising levels of testosterone, but the correlation is certainly there. And we, as parents, make a fundamental mistake in response to the closed door and the monosyllabic behavior. We let them withdraw. We let them retreat into themselves, their friends and their electronics. We do what we would never do with our girls and we let them shut down and shut us out.
Listen to an excerpt of Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons HERE.
Fathers, who remember doing something similar when they were covered in acne and wearing braces, see this as acceptable behavior. After all, they emerged from this male cocoon speaking in full sentences and fully engaging with the world around them. They often take the tack, that they were fine and their sons will be fine. But Dr. Natterson disagrees, and explains,
…not talking to your son about his evolving physical, emotional and social self is the biggest parent trap of them all. Because if you don’t have the conversations, someone else will: a friend who’s got it all wrong, or a family member who doesn’t exactly share your ideology: or the Internet with its endless treasure trove of image-based content, presenting still pictures and videos that once viewed, your son can never unsee.
We talk to our teenage girls and we listen to them. We teach them about what is happening to their bodies and minds and we are attentive when they share the experience they are having. We arm them for adulthood with the information they need about relationships, about caring for themselves, about facing the external pressures surrounding their appearance and about knowing and understanding themselves. We need to do the very same for our boys.
Dr. Natterson graciously sat down to talk with us about how we can make these changes in our own homes. Her book is packed with practical advice about how to reach your son. We knew we would love her and her book when she admitted to sitting outside her teenage son’s bedroom, on the floor, with the door cracked open, just to get the dialogue going.
Her book covers hormones, puberty onset, sex, body image and changes, addiction, porn, aggression and much more. In the first chapter she offers ten ways to talk to boys. She gives us the tools to open the door that our sons may have slammed shut. Readers, this is parenting gold.
Dr. Cara Natterson Answers Tough Questions about Sons in Decoding Boys
There are very few books looking at raising teenage sons, what made you want to address the topic?
Boy puberty is happening earlier than ever before. No one talks about it. And we need to because the world in which we are raising them demands it. Those are the three pieces to the book. We don’t “see’ boy puberty the way we see it with girls, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t demand our attention in the same way.
You make the case that talking openly to our teenage sons is not optional, but essential, yet we know this has not always been done. Your book tells us not to let them withdraw as their fathers might have. What has changed?
First, I don’t think all males are quiet, but I think that most get quieter during puberty. Second, we need to look at the bigger picture of the world we are raising them in. We cannot afford, as parents, to raise our boys in silence. When you look at online porn and exposure to porn and the fact that by the end high school nearly 100% of them have watched violent aggressive porn and the average age of first viewing is between 11-13.
When you look at body image issues which, despite everything we have been taught, are split 50-50 between boys and girls. Boys feel all the pressure and have all of the body dysmorphia and eating issues that girls have.
How can we raise our sons, when you look at a world like that, and not give them voice, not give them the words to articulate what they are feeling and seeing in this environment? We have done a wonderful job with our girls and I would like to give that same gift to my son.
You write that saying “no” to our kids is not enough. So often we want to retreat into, “because I said so” but you lay out why this is not the most effective strategy. Why is that?
I would say that once your child is in kindergarten every rule should be followed with a why, every single one. They cannot take your rule outside of the house if they don’t understand your rationale. Over time your rule becomes easier to enforce because there is a rationale behind it and this allows them to understand and internalize your rules. As they get older they will have a different rationale and they will start to push back and they will share their opinion, which might be different from yours. And that is an incredible conversation when they explain themselves and why things might have changed as they have gotten older. That is a two way dialogue and a chance to learn from our kids.
We think of body image issues as largely a challenge for our girls but you say that this is just as much a problem for boys?
Body image has two components and both are equally tricky for boys and both are equally blown off by society. One is the physique piece-this pressure has been around forever and no one talks about it. When you look at the data of what boys are doing to their bodies to gain muscle including taking supplements, most of which do nothing at best or cause problems at worst, and then the data about boys who take anabolic steroids, you see evidence of the pressure they feel to look a certain way.
It is probably no greater than the girl pressure, but it is unspoken. And then there is height. We live in a society that deeply values height – so many studies describe this. So when our boys grow late or wind up shorter than their peers, they need some support and again, no one is talking about this. Parents of shorter boys can validate how their sons feel but they can also point to the adults whose lives have not been held back by their height. And, frankly, parents can (and should) let go of their own biases.
CARA NATTERSON, MD, is a pediatrician, consultant, and New York Times bestselling author of puberty and parenting books. A graduate of Harvard College and Johns Hopkins Medical School, Cara trained in pediatrics at University of California at San Francisco. She began practicing medicine in her home town of Los Angeles, joining Tenth Street Pediatrics in Santa Monica where she cared for thousands of infants, children and teenagers. Eight years later, Cara founded Worry Proof Consulting, a practice that gives parents time their primary doctors often don’t have to cover medical, behavioral, and parenting issues in depth.
She is also on the Medical Board of Advisors for The Honest Company, serves as an Advisor to Zemcar and has held seats on the boards of Baby2Baby and The John Thomas Dye School. But more than any of this, Cara’s greatest feat to date is parenting her teenage daughter and her tween-age son with her husband Paul, a beloved cardiologist in Los Angeles.