The Emotional Life of Boys

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If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I have mentioned more than once that male humans are more emotional than female humans, and the difference in emotional expression is particularly true in very young boys. As an example, take a look at this segment interviewing adolescent boys which recently appeared on Good Morning America.

photo of boy with binder covering his faceWhat astounds me about this segment is that the young men appear to be so straightforward in their discussion of the pressures they feel as they are growing up. It is rare to find adolescent boys who will actually tell you what they are feeling, unless they know you very well. Boys are usually quite guarded in sharing their emotions, as they are easily hurt. You may also be interested in their fathers’ responses, as these men are a bit uncomfortable with their sons’ honesty about how difficult the boys find their lives. The boys state that they are more likely to talk to their mothers than their fathers about emotional concerns. The fathers understand that, but it hurts. They want to be able to share with their sons their understanding of what the boys are going through, but find it very difficult.

Is this difference due to neurobiology, or is it due to the way we are raising boys? Much of the recent research and writing in this area says that the gender differences in neurobiology are too small to account for the gender differences in behavior, and therefore the differences we see must be due to the way children are being raised. We are admonished not to let boys learn to be too aggressive, and that we should aim to raise children gender-free. In fact, a recent report from Sweden revealed that in some nursery and primary schools in that country, children will be treated without reference to gender, they will be dressed alike, and all children will be encouraged to develop without any connection to a specific sex.

Why then are boys more likely to be identified with ADHD, developmental learning delays, conduct disorders, autism, and early onset schizophrenia? And, for that matter, why are girls more likely to be identified with anorexia, depression, anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder? No parent wants their child to develop any of these conditions, yet these problems are becoming increasingly common. The problem for females is a real one and I know there are those who are addressing that issue, but this blog is about boys.

According to Allan N. Schore, in an article published early this year, the problem stems from developmental delay in the stress-regulating structures in the male brain resulting in attachment problems as well as difficulties in dealing with emotional stress. These differences are present at birth and may be the precipitating factors for the behavioral and emotional problems that we see in boys. You are welcome to read this article, but it is 38 pages of carefully researched science. I share it because I want you to have access to the authoritative source so that you can pass it along to anyone who has a need for this information, which includes teachers and child development staff in schools across the globe.

Schore (2017) believes that this delay has implications for early childcare and, by extension, early schooling. This will not come as a surprise to those of you who are parents of boys who are having trouble in school. Evidence indicates that boys in elementary school are as much as two years behind their female classmates in developing social skills. In classrooms where group projects and social communication are increasingly important, this means that boys are falling behind. This isn’t helped in adolescence – remember that the prefrontal lobes of girls complete development at least two years before that of boys. It’s the prefrontal lobe that essentially makes us adults, since it’s the center of our ability to control our impulses and to make reasoned decisions.

You will be relieved to know that research reveals that males do catch up in adulthood, but at what cost? School and life constantly point out to boys that they are somehow missing something. They have trouble keeping up with verbal skills, they are less likely to be firmly attached to their parents, and they are more likely to be aggressive. This odd assortment of problems is the basis for poor school skills, poor emotional skills, and poor social skills. And it is real.

What can we do for our sons? Protect them from those who would treat them as though there was something wrong with their essential selves as boys. Give them space and confidence to stretch their wings. Be there for them. Help them know that they will grow up eventually, and not to despair. Make sure that they know and work with men who have made it through and who are willing to mentor your son.

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“Perfect” Boys

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I’ve been working on a project about girls and perfectionism (which is one reason I forgot to post something last month), and I believe that some of the information that’s emerged from that project will interest parents of boys. Since I’ve taught both boys and girls, I was certain that the vast majority of students who were perfectionists were girls. What the research reveals is that there might be a few more girls than boys in the perfectionist column, but in truth there is no gender difference in the incidence of perfectionism. However, there is a marked difference in the way that perfectionism is expressed in boys and girls and that made sense to me.

frustrated childThere are two different types of perfectionism: adaptive in which the student is very careful and conscientious, gets all his work in and does it well; and maladaptive in which the student’s need to turn in perfect work actually interferes with his life.

The maladaptive students are the ones who stay up very late studying and then will get up early as well because they are driven to do everything just right. Sometimes, that student is late turning in work because they are checking and rechecking. They constantly ask the teacher to clarify directions on tests or on lessons to make sure that they are doing the correct work and doing it exactly right. Girls are very verbal about checking with the teacher and wanting to redo work and consequently, can get to be somewhat of a problem. The real problem is that the drive to be perfect means that the student has no life other than school work.

That verbal-check/ask-for-do-over approach didn’t sound like any of the boys I had taught, and research supported my observations. What happens with the perfectionist boy is that he works on his own, perhaps checking with the teacher, but he appears to be less obviously worried about his work. The ultimate outcome is that if he is convinced that he cannot do perfect work, he may simply give up and do no work at all. That was an attitude that I had run into before – the boy who gave up because he didn’t think his work was good enough and it had to be perfect to be good. Consequently, this student has poor grades even though he is very capable.

The common thread in both the male and female perfectionist is that they doubt that they can succeed even with a huge amount of effort. Both parents and schools put a lot of effort into helping children develop good self-esteem so that students will have the confidence to do well in school, and yet that approach doesn’t seem to help these perfectionist kids. Despite all the positive messages we give, they continue to be concerned that they are going to fail and the solution is to work harder.

What fascinated me was what the research revealed about the cause of perfectionism – parents: the hovering, helicopter parent. The more the parent stepped in to help, the less confidence the child had in being able to do the work. I can’t share the research here (it’s behind a paywall), but an article originally published in 2008 covers all the points about the pitfalls of perfectionism. The more the parent steps in to “help” and the more the parent pushes the child, the less confidence the child has in his ability to produce acceptable work. The result is a child who is trying to please the parent by doing perfect work. I have parents who have proudly pointed out this behavior in their child despite the fact that the child is plainly miserable and has no life outside of school or scheduled activities.

In working with parents, I have noticed that the parents who are the guiltiest of this overparenting are the least likely to accept that they are the ones we are talking about. They are proud of the fact that their child works so hard, and cannot see that their child is wrapped in knots trying to please their parents, their teachers, everyone but themselves. These students are so worried about failing that they cannot see that the grade that they have is very good. It isn’t perfect so they have failed.

I think that the real problem is that the child has no control over his life. This is a theory called “locus of control” and those with an internal locus are far happier and competent that those who believe that the world controls them. The child of the hovering parent has never had the opportunity to try his own way because he is either directed by the parent to do it the parent’s way, or he is doing exactly what the teacher told him to do. In either case, he really hasn’t learned anything except how to follow other people’s directions.

Both parents and teachers need to give children the space to find their own solutions and, most importantly, the space to fail. As the old adage states – the problem is not in failing, the problem is in failing to try. No one can be perfect, everyone fails at some level and the sooner that children learn that failure is the first step on the ladder to success, the happier and more productive they will be.

So, to hovering parents everywhereback off!

Respect your child’s abilities and interests. Let him figure out what works for him. Yes, I know that parents of boys will say that if they do not pressure their sons to work, the boys will do nothing. That is true for a while, but eventually once they realize that they can work their way, they will come around. I promise!

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The Feminization of School

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boy with raised hand in classrommI’ve been saving up some articles over the summer to share with you. One bothered me so much that I have been thinking about it for some time. Years ago, our son and I were in a community theater production of Oliver Twist. It was before we discovered his voice – the voice which allowed him to go to the American Boychoir School (which has just closed, sad to say). He tried out for the part of Oliver, but because he was going to be gone for 10 days in the middle of rehearsals, the director decided to put him in a smaller role which did have several lines and to make him the understudy for the boy playing Oliver. There was some thought that they would make the lead character a girl as there were few boys who tried out, but eventually the part was given to a boy who did a great job. However, at one school in the UK, the school went ahead and cast a girl as “Olivia Twist.”

The mother who wrote the article pointed out that boys did try out for the main part, but the teacher who was directing the play had decided early on to give the part to a girl in the interest of equality. The article was written several years after the event because, over time, the mother realized the effect that this event had on her son. In trying to even the playing field so that students have equal access, the school actually did the opposite, by creating a situation where boys felt that either they were not good enough for the role, or that girls needed help to be as good as the boys. The son of the writer told her that the female teachers usually called on the girls for answers and so eventually he stopped trying.

The second part of the article that flabbergasted me was the writer’s description of how the school treated her verbal, sensitive son who, at 5 years old, liked to talk to adults. Because the boy was not exhibiting what the school assumed was normal boy behavior, running around the playground (in her words) like a headless chicken, the school decided that the boy must be autistic and had him evaluated. The mother was concerned, but pleased when the expert agreed that the boy was not autistic. Her point was that the boy was being judged on his gender, not on his behavior. Not all boys and not all girls are the same – teachers who look at a child who does not fit the stereotype as somehow different, or developmentally challenged, need to learn what the ranges of normal behavior do, and do not, include.

As a 7th grader, I was tall and academically strong, but I was also socially awkward. I didn’t learn how to get along with my classmates until I went to a girls’ school where I could focus on becoming comfortable in my own skin. Had there been boys around, I know I would have retreated further and further into books instead of finding out what I could do. At my 50th high school reunion, my classmates were somewhat surprised at the woman I have become, but I was on my way when we graduated because of the choices that I was allowed to make at school.

We can guess at the skills that a child will have when he or she grows up, but we do not know for sure what that child will become. Children need the opportunity to develop in many ways; when teachers make assumptions about a child’s interests, skills, and abilities, they limit that child’s future. The article that is referenced here states that since almost all teachers are female, the teachers assume that girls are the norm and that their style is the best way to learn. That’s bad enough, but then when they give girls advantages on the theory that girls need extra help, they hurt both boys and girls. Girls, because they assume that they do not have sufficient skills to succeed; boys, because they assume that their skills are not good enough.

Some years ago, there was a big push to interest girls in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses and, as a result, around 10 years ago, the percentage of women graduates from US universities with degrees in mathematics was close to 50%. Last year, that percentage was only 42%, indicating that women are again not choosing to major in technological areas. Why should that be true, when so much effort has been put to encouraging girls in these areas? I think that it’s this very effort to “help” girls that has them thinking that they need this extra help. If schools actually treated boys and girls as equals, this would’nt come up.

So … how to treat children as equals? That’s the bedrock question question. Instead of equalizing treatment, school has tried to create equality by giving girls extra help in STEM and by giving boys extra help in verbal tasks. The result seems to be that girls are less interested in science and boys less able in reading and writing. We need to rethink this push for equality and start teaching children on their own merits.

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Get your boy in motion

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The summer is fast coming to an end and, depending on where you live, your son is just about to go back to school, has just gone back to school, or (for those in the southern hemisphere) is in the middle of the winter term. Look at what he’s doing – is he sitting playing games on a tablet, phone, or computer? Is he sitting doing his homework? How much activity does he get in school? The point of all of this is … how much does your boy move?

photo of boys outsideWhen he was little, it was all you could do to get him to stop moving, right? Little boys seem to be in constant motion. I was traveling on a train this summer (going to the annual meeting of the International Boys’ Schools Coalition) and was walking down the aisle in the train toward the café. As I lurched along with the movement of the train, a young boy passed me, moving quickly up the aisle. Before I could get to the door of the car, he was back, passing me again. By the time I got to the door, he had turned to go back through the car. I got my bottle of water in the café, and when I came back to that train car, the young boy was still at it. He wasn’t running, just walking quickly back and forth in the train car. I was amused. That train is the Crescent, the one that travels from New Orleans to New York City taking over 30 hours. Most people do not go the whole way, but for any little boy, the lack of movement must have been difficult. He had discovered a great way to burn off a little energy, while not bothering other travelers.

I also noticed a somewhat older boy in the same car who was playing with his tablet–that child never moved. He was motionless, sprawled across a seat both times I passed him. I noted the activity level of the two boys because the younger one was so active and the older one was so inactive.

Why might this be a problem? According to some research, the child who gets less activity may have more trouble developing reading skills. It has long been known that infants who watch a lot of TV are slower to develop verbal skills, but the theory is that they are not developing language because they are not being spoken to. This is part of the reason that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under 18 months not have any screen time at all other than face time with distant family members. Other aspects of this have to do with what information the child is being exposed to, the child’s lack of exercise, and the likelihood of increased calorie consumption by the child while sitting in front of the screen. We have also discussed the problem of sleep deprivation because of the effect of the light on the production of melatonin which is a substance thought to help with going to sleep.

Here is another reason you need to get your boy outside. The more time he spends outside, the less likely he is to need to wear glasses when he is older. I come from a long line of people who need heavy prescriptions to correct their vision, but my son does not. I encouraged him to play outdoors a lot when he was little, long before this research came out, and I am so glad that I did. As he ages, he is going to need reading glasses, but he does not need glasses in his daily life. Who knew that would make a difference?

The point is, your boy needs to move, he needs to move a lot, and he needs to move outside. All of this is necessary for him to develop in ways that will make a difference in school. The more he moves outside of school, the less he will feel the need to move inside of school. The more he moves, the better his reading skills may be and if he is outside, the healthier his eyes will be. More importantly, the less time he spends in front of a screen, the better his verbal skills will be and that is a major issue in school.

So, unless your son is asleep or in school, get him moving! Get him up, get him out, and he will develop skills that will help him succeed in school.

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Punishment to fit the crime

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My parents introduced me to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan when I was young and one of my favorite numbers from The Mikado was a song entitled “To let the punishment fit the crime.” I found the song very amusing especially when modernized by various productions. The idea is that when someone does something that’s wrong (or even just annoying), that person should be made to do something that is the opposite, in order to teach them a lesson.

This idea was used by a father and reported in a Reddit post.

“So my son confessed to stealing gum from the store. He’s 5. When I had my back turned he apparently just picked it up and walked out. I found this out after he was chewing it and offered me a piece (because 5yo logic). So I asked him if he paid for it and he told me no. I told him how proud I was for him telling me the truth, but disappointed that he had to resort to stealing. So how to punish this? I want him to understand real world consequences [of] theft, but not through just being grounded or taking something away.”

dad talking to little boy


One of the difficulties in taking little boys to the store is their tendency to touch everything. Handling objects is how they interact with their world and how they learn, but the result is that objects get broken or, in the case discussed here, find their way into the young man’s pocket unpaid for. He wasn’t stealing; in fact, a child of this age probably doesn’t actually understand the concept of property. He offered a piece of gum to his father so he was not trying to hide what he did. At some level, he did know it wasn’t right, but he didn’t grasp the concept of why taking a pack of gum was so wrong.

The father’s response was totally right. Trying to get the point of stealing across to a young child is difficult, so the father simply pointed out that the gum cost money and his son would have to earn the money to pay for the gum. Taking something without permission or without paying is stealing and is not to be tolerated. The father fit the punishment to the crime and the lesson was learned.

Years ago, when I taught at a boy’s school, if a boy was late to evening study hall, I made him stay afterwards for two times the number of minutes he was originally late. My point was that you were enjoying your time when you should have been here, so now you will pay that back by staying in study hall while everyone else is out playing.

The standard punishment at the time was to give the boys demerits, which they might have to serve on the weekend. The problem with that? The punishment was not directly connected to the crime, and so far removed from the original transgression that the student might not remember why he got the demerits.

When I was scheduled to proctor study hall, it was not uncommon for one boy to say to another, I have to run, Mrs. James is proctoring study hall tonight and if I’m late, I’ll have to stay afterwards. If a boy was late to my study hall, he almost always came bearing a note from a teacher describing the legitimate reason that the boy was delayed. The students knew that I would consistently enforce the start time of study hall and that the punishment was immediate and somewhat irritating. Let’s face it, if a boy was two minutes late, he only had to stay four minutes afterwards, but it was the principle of the thing.

The point of any punishment is that it only works if it is immediate, or as immediate as can be arranged, and that you are consistent in enforcing the rule. The young man in the story had never taken anything before, at least as far as his father knew, but that was not the point. He had stolen and he should have known better, so his father made him earn the money back. The father did not describe the most important part of this lesson – making restitution. Facing the storeowner with the money in hand may well be the most important part of the whole experience.

Is this going to be embarrassing for the parent? It shouldn’t be, but some parents will simply just lecture the child because such small offenses are not worth much money. However, if that is all that happens, the child is likely to take items again because a lecture is totally worth the price of a pack of gum. The point is that children need to learn what the cost is to the other person because one day, someone will take something from them and then they will be furious.

The punishment has to fit the crime. If the crime is theft, the item must be returned and the child should repay if the item is damaged. If money is needed to make compensation, the child must earn that money himself. If the crime is vandalism, the child will clean up and pay for repairs. If the crime is bullying, the child will apologize and offer to include the victim in some playtime. All of these restitutions will take place under supervision.

The point is that children need to learn that their behavior has consequences. If they do something right, you need to point that out and praise or thank them for their behavior. If they do something wrong, they need to apologize and make it right if possible. Most importantly, children need to learn that every action they make affects someone else and they need to pay attention to others.

Yes, boys are impulsive and often do not realize the effect of their actions. That is what parents are for, our job is to help our sons learn those lessons. It is also our job to help our sons recognize when something they have done has positive consequences, as boys may not notice those effects either. Respond to your son’s behavior and he will know you are paying attention – to him, that means he knows you love him.

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This semester, I’ve been teaching a university level class in human growth and development to a bright bunch of high school students. One class requirement was to observe a child between the ages of 1 and 6 and report how that child’s behavior was reflected in the theories we were studying in class. First, my students were fascinated that they did see behaviors in their subjects that could be described and explained by theory. As one student said, “I never realized that what we learned in class had any application to the real world.” Second, all the students were astounded by how much the little children interacted with the world around them and how much the children were learning from that interaction. This observation sparked a long discussion among the students about what they remembered from their first years in school. None of my students remembered any formal instruction, but all remembered a great deal about their interaction with other students in play.

kindergarten graphic

Maria Montessori has been quoted as saying, “Play is children’s work” and certainly the schools that are based on her work believe that to be so. The idea is that if children engage with their world, they will learn a great deal about how the world works. Additionally, they will develop interests in areas that they might not have otherwise known about. This is not an endorsement for these schools, but simply pointing out that some experts do believe in play as a part of early education.

A recent article by Christopher Brown, who describes himself as a former kindergarten teacher and present educational researcher, considers the notion of what place kindergarten should have in children’s lives.   To begin with, you should be astounded that he was a kindergarten teacher, as the number of men teaching at that academic level is extremely small. I am also astounded that he is an educational researcher who actually taught – most university professors of education have almost no actual classroom experience at the primary or secondary level (but that is another matter altogether).

Dr. Brown’s concern is that today’s kindergarten looks much more like first or even second grade and less like a the playspace that he believes that it should be. Little children need time to assimilate what they are learning and to have the opportunity to take academic risks which will enable them to learn to love learning. What Brown sees are programs which are teacher-led and highly structured in an attempt to begin the learning process as early as possible. Recess is an afterthought as it is considered a waste of instructional time.

This structured approach to kindergarten is based on a belief that learning begins with the teacher and that the best way learning takes place is by direct instruction. No question that this method can work well with adults and, to some extent, with older children. But kindergarteners learn best by exploring their world and by figuring out how each new experience fits into what they already know. This is the process of assimilation and accommodation that was described by Piaget years ago.

This structured approach sets many children up for failure right at the beginning of school and makes school an adversarial situation. This can lead to academic stress which in all of its forms, is a major issue in middle and high school. Many of the schools I work with are interested in developing ways to help their students learn to manage their stress. The highly structured and teacher-led kindergarten are starting a pattern of stress that is only going to create more problems for students as they go through school.

Add to that a consideration of how boys react to this, because, as we know, our sons are the ones who are slower to develop verbal skills as well as being less likely to be able to control their behavior. A highly structured classroom is not a place where a young boy is going to be able to learn. Boys are inquisitive and want to put their hands on things. They learn best by engaging with the lesson and figuring out how everything works. A lesson which requires all students to do the same thing is only going to frustrate a young boy. When that happens, you and I know the next step, the boy is going to be identified as a problem and labeled as having learning issues.

I was at a boys’ school some years ago watching the 2nd grade write essays about the monsters they had been learning how to draw on their tablets. It was astounding to see these boys write several paragraphs about their monster’s life, which was remarkably like their own. In the kindergarten class in this school, the computer was a place where the boys could play educational games involving shooting down objects that began with a particular letter accompanied by hoots of laughter the faster they got at the skill. The kindergarten class did spend a little time working at their desks, but not for long and not everyone doing the same task. After a child had worked on a task for ten or fifteen minutes, he could go over to the play area and engage with toys or do dramatic play. Remember, by the time these boys get to 2nd grade, they are writing. The stories they were writing were not complicated, but each child was eager to write his story because he saw school as an exciting place where his interests were part of the learning process.

We need to let all children play in school, and at every level. My high school students were required to watch the movie Monsters, Inc. and apply the developmental theories for children ages one to six that we learned in class to the child in the movie. The students were fascinated by this open-ended assignment as it allowed them to use their knowledge in a more practical and inventive way. Does your child’s school have such an approach to learning?

My students will tell you that my classes are interesting and demanding. It is that balance that makes for good learning. Focusing in kindergarten on demanding only is going to convince a lot of children that school is not for them. At the very least, help your son at home by encouraging him to engage in his world through active play.


Gun Culture

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boy with toy gun

I grew up in a rural area and most people I know own guns. I myself own them, including a small rifle which we use to deal with rabid animals. This gun is not an automatic, it requires cocking each time you want to shoot, making accidental firing almost impossible. The other gun we have is an air rifle that we use to shoot small pellets at deer, mostly to keep the deer out of our garden. This pellet gun is not powerful enough to pierce hide, so it doesn’t hurt the deer, it just encourages them to leave the cucumbers alone. In both cases, the gun has a purpose, and that is exactly the purpose we put them to.

When our son was little, we, like many parents our age, were determined that our son would grow up not being exposed to guns. When he was four, I found him in our back yard with a piece of wood and a stone with a sharp edge. “What are you doing,” I asked him. “Making a gun,” he told me. I have no idea where he learned about guns as he had never seen the ones that we had – they were stored on a top shelf in my husband’s office, and when our son was older I asked him if he knew where we kept the guns. It turned out that he wasn’t aware that we even had the two guns. So, I gave him every Nerf gun he wanted and made targets at which he could shoot. He aimed at his dog once and the dog growled at him and we took the toys away for a week, as we had made a big deal about not aiming the toys at living creatures. As an adult, he has gone to shooting ranges and tried various weapons, but has decided that he isn’t interested in shooting as a sport.

If what I read in the paper is true, this is not the experience of a great many young people. They are unfamiliar with guns until they lose their tempers and try to use the gun to settle an argument. The result is all too frequently that one of the combatants dies and the other’s life is ruined. A group of people in Chicago are very concerned about this and have started a program to help young people learn to deal with their emotions in a more positive way.

This program, called de-escalation training, uses a two-pronged approach to help young people learn to find non-violent approaches to solving problems. The first step is to use scenarios to illustrate how situations that started calmly can quickly spiral out of control. For example, a cop stops a young woman driving a car for a minor infraction. She goes for her purse to get her license and the purse slips to the floor. She leans down and the cop thinks she is reaching for a gun and the situation gets out of control. Watching the scenarios, the participants in these workshops develop some understanding of how easily a situation can escalate from nothing to a major conflict based on assumptions and fears.

The second step is based on neuroscience. One of the effects of an extremely stressful situation is adrenaline flooding where the body goes into hyper-drive and the brain does not function clearly. The result is, all too frequently, a reaction that is far in excess of a reasonable response to the situation. What the workshop participants learn is how to distract someone so that they begin to think about something else and their brain can calm down. Something as simple as asking whether the person prefers mustard on their ice cream can get them to disengage. The participants also learn to use deep breathing techniques that will trigger the relaxation response or, at the very least, helps them learn to back off.

This is a new program, but one which is based on good science and good learning principles. Many young people respond when they are provoked because they have not learned any other responses and because they believe that they need to stand up for themselves. The scenarios help them understand that many of the assumptions that they have about standing up for themselves are not correct and that the best solution may be to back down. The man who can control himself will survive and that is far more important than making a point about a pair of shoes (for some reason, a common source of conflict)

Help your son by talking about situations that he sees on TV or in real life. Discuss what the real issue is and help him realize that fighting over something as silly as a pair of shoes is not worth losing one’s life. Then help him learn to recognize in himself when he is responding too quickly and too physically to a perceived threat. Training in martial arts has helped many young men learn self-control. Most of all, make sure your son knows you are more interested in him than anything that he has. Make sure he knows what is important – his survival.

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WHO’s happier?

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Last year the World Health Organization released a study of the health and happiness of European adolescents. You can find the study entitled Growing Up Unequal by clicking this link.

In essence, the report found that boys reported that they had greater life satisfaction than did girls, but noted that boys were more likely to be involved in fights and to suffer physical injury. Boys were also more likely to use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, but the report indicated that girls’ use of these substances was increasing as girls began to mimic boys’ behavior

What do you think? Is your son happier than girls his age? Personally, I don’t think that boys are happier; I think that the problem is a difference in brain maturation. Even if the experts disagree on the effects of cognitive gender differences, all agree that there is a large difference in the rate of maturation of the prefrontal lobe – with girls completing maturation on average several years before boys. Remember, that’s the part of the brain that helps us make reasoned decisions and control our impulses. There is, however, little evidence to indicate when that part of the brain begins to mature, because it has been maturing all along, but the agreement is that there is a difference in the rate of maturation. One indication of this occurs when we switch from reacting to events in our lives with the amygdala and start using our prefrontal lobes.

Don’t worry, I’ll explain. The amygdala is a small portion of the brain approximately at the intersection of lines drawn through your ears and through your eyes to the back of your head. That portion of the brain is involved when we experience strong emotions and it develops a bit faster from birth in boys. Whether or not that can explain young boys’ boisterous behavior is not something we can probably ever know, but it may give them “permission” to be noisy and very active. Certainly, there are boys who are quiet and calm and others who seem unable to control themselves and that difference is probably due to the influence of the amygdala together with societal expectations.

At some point during early adolescence, girls begin to respond to emotional situations with their prefrontal lobes while boys are still responding from their amygdala. When girls start asking – “Why did she say that?” instead of “That is a mean thing to say,” you know they are now responding more with their prefrontal lobes because they are thinking about the effect of the behavior.

So part of the problem with happiness in adolescents is that the boys are just responding to emotions whereas girls have begun to think about how they feel and how their feelings affect them. Combine that approach with the likelihood that girls ruminate (think over and over) and you can understand how girls will begin to report that they are less happy.

What those of us who are parents of boys know is that when boys think about what happens to them, they also are unhappy and deeply so. If that were not true, there would not be a higher suicide rate among males and that statistic is true worldwide. The point is that if you ask a boy if he is satisfied with his life, if he is not actually thinking about his troubles at the time, he is likely to tell you his life is fine. Because of their ruminative habits, girls may be thinking more often about their troubles and that certainly will make them believe that they are miserable.

My point here is that just because a well-respected study comes out and says that boys are more satisfied with their lives is not proof that every boy is. Boys are more likely to fight with others and to use drugs, alcohol, and tobacco and yet the study did not suggest that such behavior might indicate some unhappiness on the part of boys. Another factor is that boys are reluctant to share their emotions with just anyone. Yes, the study was anonymous, but boys are not always honest with themselves much less someone else.

I’m not trying to make a case for boys being unhappy, but I am trying to point out that just because boys may be reluctant to share their emotions with others, that does not mean that those emotions do not exist. Boys are very concerned with what their male peers think, with one facet of this being that boys may be unwilling to state their true feelings, believing that their friends are satisfied with their lives. Once you get boys sharing their feelings, you might be surprised at what is going on inside. The movie Stand By Me has a great scene where two of the younger boys share what their lives are like and then one begins to cry. He makes a disparaging statement about crying and the other boy comforts him. That is a very honest scene because that sort of conversation does happen between males of all ages, but they are not likely to share that knowledge.

Make sure that your son knows that you have good days and bad ones and that we all are dissatisfied with our lives every now and then. Point out that the important point is to keep trying and not to expect success all the time. Success and a happy life come, if we are lucky, after we strive and fail. As Charlie Brown replies to Lucy in the classic Peanuts panel below, “Life does have its ups and downs, you know.”

peanuts cartoon panel

(c) Peanuts Worldwide LLC

keep calm and turn over a new leaf imageThe year is about to turn again, 2017 will be here before we know it, and this is a great opportunity for students to turn over a new leaf and take a fresh perspective on school. Of course, if this is a regular practice, your son may be one of what a friend calls “Fall Boys.” They have turned over so many new leaves that the ground is littered with them and it looks like fall.

Well, fall is past and spring will soon be here, bringing with it new opportunities and new approaches. Here are some possibilities you and your son can try that might help him manage school.

  1. Activity – if your son is restless in school, he needs to work that restlessness out. Get him one of the activity trackers and challenge him to walk/run 10,000 steps in a day or 5 miles – or whatever seems appropriate for your child. He should clock some of that movement before school each day and certainly after school. The tracker will remind him to keep moving especially if it is connected to an app on his phone or computer. Most boys will rise to the occasion when there is some sort of competition. See if you can beat him!
  2. Along with this increase in activity, see if your son and his friends would like to train for a competitive race. Most communities have races that have children’s classes and your son might like to get a group together to compete. Even if the only prize is a T-shirt, it will give him some sign of task completion that he can wear with pride. And, who knows? He may try for a marathon or a half-marathon one of these days.
  3. If running doesn’t seem to appeal, how about walking? But walking as a game. We live in the country so it is easy to make a game such as how many squirrels do we see today or how big are the new leaves getting? Those of you who live in cities can count the number of people you see as you walk around the block or what signs have been put out. Have your son keep a log of everything that he sees on his daily walks. The walks don’t have to be long, but keeping records of what you see will make the walks more interesting and there is the benefit of developing writing skills as well. Have him record the weather – temperature, precipitation, what the sky looks like – each day. A simple outdoor thermometer and a small rain gauge will make it more interesting. As he gets more skilled, you may have to find a small anemometer to measure the speed of the wind and a barometer to help predict what the weather will be. Paying attention to the weather as you walk may help your son develop skills in observation.
  4. Chores – One way to help boys develop the organizational skills necessary to succeed in life is for them to have regular household chores. The beginning of a new year is a great time to begin new habits especially if you include yourself in the new behaviors. The point to be made is that everyone in the family does chores. That is part of what makes a family – they work for each other. If he does no chores, you put your child in the same position as a house guest, which means he is not valuing the ties that bind you all together as a family unit. Make sure that the chores are not too simple or he will think you do not respect his abilities, but also not too complicated or he will stop out of frustration. A great time to begin the new chore is when he’s on a school break, but make sure that he knows that this will continue once he is back in school. After all, you do a lot more around the house than he does, and you also likely work outside the home.
  5. Cooking – many boys enjoy cooking as it may seem like an edible form of making a mess. Start by including him in the daily part of cooking. Take him to the grocery store with you. On the way, discuss what you are planning for the menu for the next several days and what you need to buy to make those dishes. If the meal is one of his favorites, he may be better motivated to help you. There is a great deal of math and science in cooking and having him measure the half cup of milk or the two teaspoons of salt gives him a lot of experience. Yes, it will take you longer to include him at first, but as he gets more skilled, he will be a legitimate sous chef and eventually will be able to prepare meals for the family. The real lesson in cooking is how to organize what you are doing so that everything ends up on the table at the same time.

Your son will not figure out that what he is doing is preparing to do work and so he will be eager to learn these new skills or engaged in these new activities. Work, any sort of work, will help him develop the skills necessary to succeed in life and in school. When children are engaged in real work, they are usually very eager and get absorbed in the activity. That sort of concentration will help him the rest of his life.

Happy Holidays, and I hope that the new year brings you joy and peace.

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The Value of Free Play

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Have you seen the movie, Stand By Me? If you’re the parent of a male child, you MUST see that movie. It’s the finest portrayal of what the life of 12-year-old boys would be like if they were allowed to decide. The movie takes place in 1959, and in that year, I was the same age as the younger boys in the movie. No, I never did anything exactly like that, but I remember the freedom that we had to go places with other kids. It was that freedom that enabled us to learn to solve problems, to negotiate with other kids, and to find out what we were good at, and what we weren’t.

Would I worry if my 12-year-old son had taken a trip into the woods with three other boys? Absolutely. However, I’d be also very proud of his ability to manage such a trip. My son had 10 acres of woods with a stream on one side in which to play. From the time he was six, the only rule was that he had to be within earshot of a whistle from our back door. Yes, he could have fallen in the creek and hit his head and drowned, but my husband and I decided that we wanted to give him the opportunity to cope with life rather than prevent him from taking reasonable risks.

Several years ago, I was talking with a university professor who told me that he lived in a cul-de-sac that had a large tree in the middle. The tree belonged to the children in the neighborhood and adults were not allowed in it. At any time when the children were not in school, there were likely to be a variety of the neighborhood kids playing in and around the tree. The kids were a variety of ages, and they all learned to get along. Older kids watched out for younger kids, and any kid who lacked the ability to “play well with others” was not invited to join in the fray. There was no need for adults to monitor the activity, because the parents trusted the children to do things right. The important point was that the children were in full view of everyone, and yet left alone.

playharbor-nytimes photo

image credit: Holly Andres for The New York Times

A father in California has taken this notion to another level and provided a house where children are free to play. Mike Lanza has developed a neighborhood play space, what he calls a “Playborhood.” I have to admit that I’m not entirely comfortable with children playing on the roof of the house, as Lanza allows, but the rest of his play space sounds just fine – and pretty terrific, if you’re a kid.

Several years ago, I read of a play space created by making small doors in the communal fences in a suburban area. There were about six houses that backed up to each other and the children could enter other children’s yards by going through the little doors. If a child wanted to play, she would simply choose a door in her fence and see if there was a child in the neighboring yard that wanted to play. This allowed children the opportunity to play with each other without adult intercession, or supervision.

The concern of allowing this free play is two-fold.

One is that the modern child, who is so addicted to screens, will not want to engage in this sort of free play. However, one reason that the child spends so much time in the screen world may be because his own real space is so boring or totally adult-driven. Many children only play in adult created worlds – for example, they only play soccer on a team, never in a pick-up game in a back yard. Computer games are all written and devised by adults. There seems to be a need by parents to control their children, which can result in children who have no original thoughts, or ability to self-manage.

The second concern is that children need adults around to make sure that no one hurts another child or engages in play that excludes others. Children left by themselves have good ways to deal with these sorts of behaviors and research is clear that children who play regularly in mixed-age groups learn to get along with each other. As it is now, when a child is not comfortable with the actions of another child, they have learned to go and whine to their parents. Then the parents sail in to fix the issue. The result is that the child grows up to lean on others to solve problems rather than learning to stand up for him or her self. What we have done is taught children to be offended by “microaggressions” rather than learning to say, “hey, don’t say that, it’s rude.”

Don’t get me wrong, I know that allowing children free rein to play with others may not always have great results. That’s what Band-Aids and knee patches are for. But the child who never learns to stand up for himself will not be able to do so later in life and will remain dependent on others to referee interpersonal exchanges.

Another important point raised in the article was how happy the children were in Lanza’s Playborhood. They were not always giggling, but they learned to manage themselves and to get out of a situation if they were not happy.

The rate of teen suicide is rising. and while I don’t think that free play is going to solve that problem, it will help teens learn to solve problems. Most people who commit suicide believe that they have no options and that their life is doomed. The child who has learned to cope by managing his own life is likely to understand that there are always options if you just consider what they might be.


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