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'Decoding Boys' Author On Raising Sons


We've been focusing this hour on answering practical questions about the coronavirus outbreak and the new way of life it's created for many Americans. And not to minimize anybody's discomfort, but we think it's fair to say that the last couple of weeks have been especially hectic for parents. Juggling school cancellations and new work routines is a lot on its own, not to mention when you're trying to learn as much as you can about the coronavirus.

Our next guest, Dr. Cara Natterson, is a pediatrician who's spent a good part of her career guiding parents through one of the trickiest times in a child's life, adolescence and puberty, in part because she's the author of the wildly popular best-selling series "The Care And Keeping Of You." she makes the point that this has always been a hard time in young people's lives, but in recent years, girls have been given permission to talk about this in a way that boys have not.

So that's why she's written her latest book, "Decoding Boys: New Science Behind The Subtle Art Of Raising Sons." And she's also kindly agreed to lend her medical expertise to some coronavirus-related questions. And she's with us now from her home in Los Angeles.

Dr. Natterson, welcome. Thank you so much for talking to us today.

CARA NATTERSON: Oh, I'm thrilled to be here.

MARTIN: So let's talk about your new book. It's called "Decoding Boys: New Science Behind The Subtle Art Of Raising Sons." You say in the book that it's been - in part because you've spent so much time working on guides for girls and their parents that boys have really been left out of this conversation. Why is that?

NATTERSON: I think there's been a tremendous movement over the past couple of decades to find voice for our girls, for our daughters, to help them articulate everything that's happening to their bodies and their social lives and their emotional worlds. But all the while, we have not as a society done the same for our boys.

And I think part of that is that when boys are in puberty, many of them - not all, but many - get quiet. And when they get quiet, as parents, we expect it. And we sort of go, oh, well, this is what they do.

And we leave them to their quiet. And so we have essentially handed girls a microphone to talk about everything that's happening to them while simultaneously giving our boys permission to retreat behind a closed door and assume that he's just going to come out when he's ready, and he doesn't want to talk about it. And I think that has left a very large imbalance between the power that girls have to ask questions and to advocate for themselves and the lack of power, really, that boys have to do the same because they don't build the language.

MARTIN: But as we said, this book is - has a lot of detail, and it covers so many things that parents might be concerned about and might not even have thought about. But can you just name, like, what do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about teenage boys and what they're experiencing? And what's some practical advice for parents in addressing it, especially now that we're all spending a lot more time together?

NATTERSON: (Laughter) You know, I think the biggest misconception is that boys don't want to talk. I think they do want to talk. I think they don't know they want to talk. Just because they get quiet or monosyllabic or grunty (ph) doesn't mean they don't want to engage in the conversation. They just may not know how.

Or they just may be feeding off of the cues they're getting from you because if their first-pass response is just a single-syllable grunt, and then you shut the conversation down, they're not going to engage any further, right? So I think the biggest hurdle for parents to get over is if your son doesn't seem to want to talk about it, OK. Go there again.

And I'd say that the biggest tip that's repeated over and over not just in my book but in parenting books across the board is there is no such thing as one talk anymore. You know, we used to think the sex talk, and it was a singular. This is not reality. Parents are responsible for keeping their kids safe and healthy. This is our job. And in order to do that, we need to have hundreds of conversations with our kids about dozens and dozens of different topics, many times over. And you need to do it over the course of several years.

MARTIN: So that's good advice. It isn't one conversation, and it never was (laughter). But disabuse yourself of the idea that there is the talk. There are talks that you're going to have.

So the question of safety - perfect segue to the issue that engages, I think, just about everybody right now, which is the whole question of the coronavirus outbreak. You're a pediatrician and a parent. I know people always talk about age-appropriate, communicating this in an age-appropriate fashion. I'm not even sure what that really means because kids are all different. But how - is there some general guideline for how people should communicate to their kids about what's going on right now?

NATTERSON: We can break kids into general age group buckets and address what they need to know based upon where they are. So let's take the extremes. Teenagers, the oldest group of kids, and 20-somethings, who are really still kids - these are individuals who are hungry for good information. They respond really well to understanding why something is happening. We shouldn't shelter them from true information. We should empower them with information.

So my advice is to pass along articles that explain what's going on. Let them dive deep into understanding the biology of the virus, understanding concepts like social distancing and hand hygiene. I think one of their frustrations right now with coronavirus is that a lot of young adults are not necessarily socially distancing as aggressively as some older adults are. And I think it's because they don't realize the implications of their behavior. So let's educate all of our kids and young adults.

When you go to the youngest group, we don't need to over-inform our youngest kids. And, in fact, I think that's the way to spare them a lot of anxiety, is to give them the information they need, which can sound something like this. There is a new virus going around our community. Viruses go around the community all the time. You get colds when you go to school or when you get exposed to someone who's sick, and those colds are caused by a virus.

And you might hear about a new virus going around, and it is called the coronavirus. The best way to avoid getting it is to wash your hands really well. Let me teach you how to wash your hands. That's it.

The group in the middle is very much in the middle. For middle schoolers, I love video content. They tend not to be voracious readers as much as voracious video watchers, so get them good video content about what's going on around them. And then sort of scale down from there if you've got grade school-age kids. Give them short-form video, again with just good basic information.

MARTIN: That's Dr. Cara Natterson. She's a pediatrician. She's the best-selling author of "The Care And Keeping Of You" series. Her latest book is "Decoding Boys: New Science Behind The Subtle Art Of Raising Sons," and it's out now.

Dr. Natterson, thank you so much for talking to us. I hope we'll talk again.

NATTERSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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