Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy


Jelani Mandara

“Girls do better with more communication and emotional responsiveness, which boys need too, but boys need more help with structure, organization and focus.”

Helping Mothers of Boys Know Best

By Marilyn Sherman
Helping Mothers of Boys Know Best

Associate professor Jelani Mandara knows that boys are more likely than their sisters to head toward problem behavior, including drug use, delinquency and academic failure. And African American boys are the highest-risk group of all. However, he’s had success preventing the prevailing trend through parent training for the single mothers of African American teenage boys.

Important Tactics for Parents

What kind of parent prevention training can work this kind of magic? Mandara’s eight-week B-PROUD (Black Parenting with Respect, Order, Understanding and Discipline) program is based around four primary strategies — all shown by research to be associated with fewer problem behaviors.

"The main one is authoritative parenting,” Mandara says. The others he describes as academic socialization, ethnic socialization and discussion of risky behaviors. "These can be taught,” he maintains, especially when the parents have buy-in and attend class regularly.

Authoritative parenting combines warmth, responsiveness and freedom for children to make decisions with conscientious monitoring, limit setting, enforcement of rules and high expectations. Research, including Mandara’s, has consistently shown authoritative parenting — compared with authoritarian, permissive and neglectful parenting — to be most effective for promoting achievement, self-regulation and less risky behavior.

As for the other tactics, academic socialization consists of parent involvement at school and home, with activities such as monitoring homework and staying in touch with teachers. Ethnic socialization involves "teaching boys to be comfortable in their skin, whatever color their skin is,” as Mandara says. And actively communicating with boys about drug use and other high-risk behaviors is the fourth key strategy.

Earlier parent programs have been effective at reducing behavior problems, but these programs have mainly targeted white, economically stable families. The group Mandara addresses — single, African American, mostly working-class mothers in urban areas — has "parenting issues along with financial issues,” he notes. "Sometimes the child development stuff gets pushed down when you’re trying to pay the rent.”

Gender Counts

Drawing on extensive research, Mandara coaches moms on parenting strategies that have proven effective, as well as how boys learn differently from girls. For example, he notes that social nuances have more influence with girls than boys: "Guilt can be effective for modifying girls’ behavior, but it usually doesn’t work for boys. The relationship issues girls are concerned about aren’t as much of concern for boys, and girls often pick up on nonverbal cues that go over boys’ heads. … Mothers need to be aware of those things.”

Cognitive differences affect the parenting of boys too, he finds. "Girls are smarter earlier on, such as with fine motor skills, and boys often can’t keep up. The expectations become very different in terms of her potential versus his,” Mandara says, adding that boys who get good parenting typically catch up. "In general, girls will get better parenting overall — more monitoring, more responsibilities around the house. They might not like it at the time, but it makes them more mature. … That’s what a lot of my research shows,” he explains.

For his parent education program, Mandara focuses on single moms because he finds more gendered parenting in single-parent homes. In two-parent homes, fathers are likely to be the more demanding parent, he says. "When you take the dad out of the picture, there’s an imbalance.” As a result, boys of single parents are at risk because they don’t get authoritative parenting to the same degree that boys in two-parent homes do.

While Mandara recognizes cultural differences, he finds the main concern is fundamental parenting issues. "A lot of parents, particularly African American, are a little too punitive and not responsive enough, sometimes too controlling,” he says. "Also, they may actually be permissive with their sons, often giving in to their demands.”

The Blow of Low Expectations

One area where he finds mothers often need coaching is about the changes that happen once a boy goes through puberty. "He acts different, is more distant and doesn’t want to talk, but it’s not necessarily pathological,” Mandara says. "They need to look at him as someone growing up into a male adult.”

However, a particularly toxic factor is parents having low expectations, according to Mandara. As a psychologist, he refers to parents "having avoidance goals,” where they focus on not failing instead of on success. "There’s a different psychology underlying it, and there are different consequences of it,” he notes.

The mother-son relationship has other potential psychological hazards, including the temptation to keep boys dependent. "Lots of single moms are kind of lonely, and boys can serve that companion role. … You sometimes find the girls off to law school and the boy living in the basement.” During one session, Mandara shows mothers pictures of two black men: one dependent and one professional. He gets a strong reaction when he asks the moms, "Make a choice. What do you really want for him?”

Gender Gap in Schools

From the start, Mandara thinks that traditional schooling poses problems for boys, especially since both home and school tend to be feminine environments. "It creates some issues for boys. They try to hold onto what they perceive as their maleness.... It’s an issue that I think negatively affects their motivation and academic achievement,” he says.

The other main issue is the early cognitive differences between girls and boys. "Girls are cognitively more advanced in ways conducive to academic achievement,” such as fine-motor skills and writing, and tracking in reading can cause problems for boys too, he adds.

Primarily, boys need more discipline in school than girls, according to Mandara. "Discipline is more positively correlated with boys’ behavior than with girls’. … Girls do better with more communication and emotional responsiveness, which boys need too, but boys need more help with structure, organization and focus. For adolescent boys, focus is a big issue.” Because of differing male-female needs, Mandara believes strongly in gender-segmented schooling.

Gearing Up for the Future

In planning his parenting program, the toughest challenge for Mandara was figuring out how to help mothers “change their expectations of their sons’ ability and future.” To help raise low expectations, he focuses on the value of effort and hard work.

To follow up the success he’s had with small-scale programs, Mandara intends to expand to larger groups. He also wants to extend his prevention program to parents of younger boys. For the future scale-up, he plans to train facilitators, publish a curriculum manual and increase his research with programs at different sites involving several hundred families.

For now, as he measures changes from pre-tests to post-tests, he’s pleased with the impact of his program and the response he gets from mothers. “Moms say it’s a positive experience,” Mandara reports. And the statistics bring home just how much difference it makes.