Boys are misunderstood. Too often, they are disciplined and shamed by their teachers, parents, or grandparents because it is falsely assumed that good boys should act just like good girls.
Raising boys is a topic of numerous books, but one that stands out is Raising Cain, by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. I had the privilege of hearing them speak at a conference, and their wisdom impressed me deeply. Here are my notes and thoughts from two of their sessions.
Emotions. Give boys permission to have an internal life. Give approval to their wide-ranging emotions, as long as they behave civilly. Their tendency will be to hide their emotions at every turn, but this is not healthy. Help them use words to express their feelings effectively, since it is not in their nature or in their culture to speak openly about their feelings. So, give respect to their inner life, and speak about your own inner life. Share your likes, dislikes, fears, sorrows, regrets, hopes, and weaknesses with each other.
Activity. Accept the high activity level of boys as a healthy part of who they are. Give them a safe place to express their need for action. Embrace their physicality as natural, normal, and in need of channeling, rather than suppressing. Boys need to learn to manage their physicality, but they do not need to be shamed for their exuberance.
Speak to them. Talk to boys in their language – in a way that honors their pride and masculinity. Be direct with them. Say what you mean and mean what you say. And when possible, use them as consultants and problem solvers. They will love feeling important to you. It is important to communicate with them in a way that honors their wish for strength and respect.
Re-define courage. Teach boys that there is more to being a hero than physically defeating an enemy. Widen their view of courage to include emotional strength. Show boys that empathy for others, standing up to social bullies, and winning an inner personal battle are all feats of heroism. We need to speak of it and recognize out loud the many examples of emotional courage in our lives; for instance, the child who plays soccer in spite of a handicap, the boy who fights the bully to protect a classmate, or the girl who gives a speech in spite of stage fright.
Build character. Use discipline to build character and conscience, not enemies. Discipline is better than mere punishment. Boys need discipline that is clear, consistent, and not overly harsh. The best discipline is built on a kind relationship between adult and child – where the child wants to please the adult. If a boy is unduly shamed or harshly punished, then they are likely to react to authority with resistance (either active or passive), rather than a desire to do better. Be firm, but be kind. Explain clearly that you are not happy with their action, but you will always love their inner being.
Be a friend. Boys need to see men who are good friends with other men. Boys imitate what they see. If what they see is emotional distance, guardedness, and coldness between men, then they are likely to emulate that behavior. Boys need to be encouraged to initiate friendships, maintain them, and resolve the conflicts that arise in male friendships. They need adults to show them the way, since most of their peers are not savvy with relationships.
Re-define manhood. Teach (show and tell) boys that there are many ways to be a man. Culture defines manhood in three main ways: being strong and athletic, being wealthy, and being sexually active with a good-looking girlfriend. Yet very few boys (or men) are tall, handsome, athletic, successful with women, wealthy, and physically fearless. Yet that is the narrow mindset of most boys and many men. We have to teach boys that there are many ways to be brave, to be a good friend, to be loving and strong and successful. We need to celebrate the natural creativity and risk-taking of boys, their energy, and their boldness. We need to praise the artist, the entertainer, the missionary, the athlete, the soldier, the male nurse, the store owner, the teacher, and the CEO. There are many ways for a boy to make a contribution in this life.
And just for fun, enjoy this little commercial which reveals a lot about our boys.