Jun
25

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

(c) Crazedo.com

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.

Mar
26

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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Feb
12

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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Oct
31

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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Sep
06

“Teen brain”

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spock vs kirk brain image

Image credit: LA Johnson/NPR

Parent – “Why did you do that, you knew that was not allowed!”

Child – “I don’t know why, it just seemed like the thing to do at the time.”

The one gender difference in brain development that most scientists agree on is that the prefrontal lobe, the part of our brain called the executive decision maker, does not complete development in females until somewhere between 18-22 and in males between 20-25. This information has been used to explain why adolescent boys are more likely to be impulsive, engage in risky behavior, and make poor decisions.

In working with teachers and students, I point out that this developmental difference is not an excuse for boys to misbehave, but it does explain why they may find it more difficult to do so. The point is that boys need to develop skills in self-control and learn to manage themselves, not to depend on adults to create appropriate boundaries.

Some teachers have found it hard to deal with when I tell them that disciplining their male students will not teach the boys better behavior. All that happens is that the boys learn not to exhibit that behavior in front of adults. As I point out to teachers, you may be able to make sure that the student behaves inside your classroom, or even inside your school, but he has only learned what not to do. What he needs is to learn positive behaviors which he can use in his life outside of school.

Recent research indicates that may not be enough either. A study reported that young adolescents were perfectly able to control themselves when they were asked to perform a driving game as long as they were alone. They did not make rash decisions, they drove carefully, and completed the task safely in the same way that adults did. However, when the children were part of a crowd of other adolescents, they were twice as likely to engage in impulsive behavior and less likely to make reasoned decisions.

What is fascinating is that adults in the same situations, first alone and then with a group of age mates, did not engage in riskier behavior when they were in a crowd. And that’s the core point: that when you are talking to your child about the decisions that he makes, he is not being influenced by his peers. He knows what he is supposed to do, and gives you the answers that you want to hear. Once he is with a group of friends, it’s as if being in that group hijacks his ability to make good decisions, and he becomes rash and irresponsible.

How do you help inoculate your boy against letting his brain be turned to “the dark side?” First of all, tell him what happens in his brain. Give him the article referenced above so that he will hear this information from someone other than his parents or his teachers. After all, he knows that what we have to say is wrong (parenting is not for the faint of heart).

Second, encourage him to be part of groups where adults are present. That is the point of scouting, 4-H, sports teams, interest clubs (robots, drones), academic competitions (Destination Imagination, Odyssey of the Mind), community service tasks, or any other of a host of adult-facilitated community youth activities. Make sure that the adults take their duties seriously and are present while the children are engaged in the activity. Properly run, these activities will give your son the opportunity to engage with age-mates in tasks which are supervised, but can only be successfully accomplished through risky behavior.

Third, give your child the space to make mistakes. Let him invite a group over to watch or play a game, and help him plan how to feed his friends. When the guys are gone, if there is evidence of irresponsible behavior such as food not properly disposed of, or furniture not replaced where it normally resides, he needs to clean up after his buddies. He may then learn that there are consequences for rash behavior.

Finally, when your son gets his driver’s license, do not let him drive with more than one underage friend in the car at a time. Some locations have laws that prevent adolescents from having any other unrelated teens in the car with them unless an adult is also present. If your area does not have this law, have your son look up areas that do and point out why these laws exist.

Remember, your son can make reasoned decisions and can control his impulses as long as no other adolescents are around him. Make sure he knows that and keep him accountable for his actions. Some children believe that the slower development of their prefrontal lobe gives them a free pass for bad behavior. It does not and they need to know that.

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Jul
22

Boys and self control

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One of the points that I have been making recently is that punishment doesn’t work for boys. OK, it may make sure that the boy does not do that particular thing again, but it doesn’t change over-all behavior. He’ll just find another way to engage with the world. Years ago, Jean Kerr, the wife of a famous theater critic, wrote a book based on her family experiences entitled, “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.” The family, together with their four boys, moved to the country from New York City, and all of a sudden, Mrs. Kerr had to deal with what happened when you let boys loose in the country. Fortunately, she had a good sense of humor about it all which translated well to movie and TV versions. The title comes from that time Mrs. Kerr had invited some ladies for tea and had warned the boys not to eat the goodies, but forgot to tell them not to eat the floral centerpiece.

impulsive behavior imageTelling boys what not to do doesn’t translate into good behavior. What they need is to learn how to make good decisions and how to control their impulses. These behaviors are controlled by the last part of the brain to develop, the prefrontal lobes. In girls this part of the brain will complete development around 18-22, whereas in boys it does not finish development until 22-25 and perhaps a bit later. If completion of development has a gender difference, you can be sure that children begin development of the prefrontal lobes in a gender specific time with girls before boys.

In small children, emotional reactions are generally centered in a small part of the brain called the amygdala and the response will be emotional. As children mature, they begin to switch from responding out of their amygdala to using their prefrontal lobes, and as you may have predicted, girls begin this switch before boys do. The timing difference in this switch can be quite large and may account for the ability that many adolescent girls have in planning and self-control. You know when a child is using the prefrontal lobe to respond to an emotional event when the child tries to figure out the reason for the event. This is the difference between “stop that!” and “why are you doing that?”

I’ve come across some recent research which supports the notion that many of the problems that boys have in school are due more to their deficits in self-control than to any actual academic problems. Again, the problem is that the teachers do not understand normal boy behavior. A study out this year by Jayanti Owens found that when comparing very young children (four and five years old) with behavior problems in school, that the girls were more likely to be successful in school later on. The problem was not in academics, but in the way that the school responded to the boys’ behavior. The assumption seems to be that boys’ behavior needs correction and that girls’ behavior will get better over time. True, more boys enter school with behavior problems, but the schools’ response to that behavior seems to assume that boys will be problems.

An earlier study looked at the results of elementary aged students on standardized tests. The problem is that girls usually have lower grades on those tests, but get better grades than do the boys. Again, the problem is that the adults in the school give girls an advantage because they appear to be better students because they seem to pay better attention, are more likely to do all the work assigned, and are better organized. Many of those skills depend on early prefrontal lobe development and so some boys are suffering because they are developmentally behind other students. We wouldn’t ask a first grader to play ball with the third graders, yet we compare boys who are not yet able to make long terms plans to children who can and then grade them down for that deficit?

So what can you, the parent, do? Start by pointing out to your son that the world will expect him to make decisions on his own and there is no time like the present to begin. Responsibility for taking out the trash, or at least gathering it into one place where an adult can get it, is a great way to start. Everyone in a family should have a job because otherwise they are just guests. When the trash is not taken out, do not yell at him, he did forget. Tell him that is the reason that he has this job, so that he will learn over time to be responsible. Work with him to figure out what he can do to remind himself about his job – yes, I did say that he will remind himself, not you. If the trash doesn’t work as a chore, find something that involves everyone in the family that is his responsibility. What this does is help him learn how to plan to get things done. It is the planning that he needs to acquire.

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Jun
06

Determination

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boy-lego-leagueSome years ago, someone asked how hard it was for me to go back to graduate school at age 50. “Didn’t I find it difficult working with all of the smart younger students and didn’t I find it hard to keep up with them?” Actually, no. I found my doctoral program much easier to complete than the work I had done for my master’s degree at age 25. At the time, I never considered the difference. It was only later when people would ask how hard it was that I realized that not only was it not hard, but I enjoyed even the most mundane of tasks.

You should know that I have never been a great student. My students love to hear that I almost flunked out of my first year in high school. I failed French and Latin, got a D in English, a C in History, and, while I did get an A in Algebra I, we used the same book I had used at a different school the year before. True, by the time I graduated from high school, I was 10th in a class of 83 so I had improved a great deal.   My university career was very modest, I graduated with a C+/B- average. No one then would have selected me for a doctoral program.

So what made the difference? I’ve been reading Angela Duckworth’s new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance and I think I know the answer. If you haven’t seen this book yet, I highly recommend it. She begins by pointing out that many people who seem as if they should succeed do not. She points out that she was confusing talent with what she calls grit – her point is that the ability to do something does not predict success. Duckworth quotes Will Smith, the well-known actor. “I’ve never really viewed myself as particularly talented, “he once observed. “Where I excel is ridiculous, sickening work ethic” (p. 46).

The reason that I found my doctoral program enjoyable and, unlike many my age, that I completed it, was that was passionate about my subject – the education of boys. I had spent many years teaching boys and I really wanted to know everything about what made them learn. The second factor in grit according to Duckworth is perseverance. That is what I lacked when I got my master’s degree. That program was two years long, and by the end I couldn’t wait to finish. My doctoral program took four years and I enjoyed it so much I entered a post-doctoral program. Even now, I spend a good deal of my time reading research and trying to see how those studies inform what I have to say to parents and teachers of boys.

If you have read these blogs before, you know that the International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) annual meeting is coming up and this year I will be speaking on the subject of the latest information supporting the education of boys. One study that came across my desk this year points out that self-discipline is the most important factor for students to enable them to be successful in school and boys in general have very poor self-discipline. I get the feeling that Duckworth’s grit is what boys’ need. I see that characteristic in boys who are dedicated to a sport or a musical instrument, just not to their academics.

So if grit will help a boy succeed in school, what can parents do to help their son develop this characteristic? Years ago, Diana Baumrind proposed a way to describe good parenting. There are two continua for parenting: Demanding-Undemanding and Involved-Uninvolved. The demanding parent requires the child to follow the family rules and the undemanding parents allows the child to do pretty much what he wants to do. The involved parent knows what the child is doing, what the child is interested in, and can be rather nosy. The uninvolved parent does not pay attention to the child, but insists that the parents’ desires come first.  Putting these two continua in a chart results in the following types of parenting.

 Involved  Uninvolved
 Demanding  Authoritative   Authoritarian 
 Undemanding   Permissive  Absent

The Authoritative parent is the one who is both involved in the child’s life and insistent that that child follow the parents’ direction. This is the parent who is most likely to produce a child with grit. The Authoritarian parent’s dictum is “my way or the highway” and the child either does what the parent directs never learning how to do things on his own, or runs away. This child may develop grit because he needs to survive on his own. The Permissive parent’s dictum is “let him do what he wants to do,” but the child rarely learns how to make himself complete tasks because he has never been required to do so. We won’t discuss the Absent parent; those problems are obvious.

The students in my Introductory Psychology class are usually surprised to discover that the children of the Permissive parents usually have the most trouble in life because they never learn grit. They can have all the advantages in the world, but because no one held them accountable, they drift off and never complete anything. They are also surprised that children of Authoritarian parents are not as bad off as they would think because they frequently do develop grit – their parents make them finish tasks.

Yes, being an Authoritative parent is difficult and sometimes unpopular, but it is the way to make sure that your son develops the skills to succeed in life. By being demanding, you make sure that he develops skills in persistence and by being involved, you make sure that he becomes aware of his passions in life. It does take both. And when the child of the Authoritative parent fails, his parents are there to make sure that he picks himself up, they don’t do it for him. As Duckworth says, talent is nice to have, but you won’t succeed if you only have that.

Parenting is difficult and no parent can be authoritative all the time. Every good parent slips into the authoritarian realm every now and then, usually when things involve safety or education. Problems crop up when we are tempted to be permissive, letting the child run the show. Remember, the child of the permissive parent will not develop grit, and it is grit that will help your son succeed in life.

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Apr
13

Emotions and Boys

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sad boy with skateboard imageWhen I talk to parents about the differences between boys and girls, it is easy to tell who has only daughters. Those parents are usually visibly shocked when I mention that boys are at least as emotional as girls and possibly more. The stereotype is that girls are more emotional than boys, but those of us who are parents of boys know how emotional they are.

The difference is caused by the development of the amygdala, a very small portion of the brain that develops a bit sooner in baby boys than in baby girls. This portion of the brain is involved when an individual is expressing strong emotions or when someone around them is expressing strong emotions. The problem for little boys is that they don’t have the verbal skills to communicate these emotions and so they tend to run about, yell, throw things, kick, punch, or exhibit other forms of physical expression. Adults pay attention when a child says they are sad or upset or when that child cries. On the other hand, when a child yells or throws a tantrum, adults do not always get the point that the child is very upset, just not able to tell you. Saying “use your words” doesn’t help if you don’t have words yet. The girl is able to express her emotions in a way the adult can understand. The boy simply seems out of control.

Another difference in the amygdala occurs as individuals develop. When responding to emotional situations, all children use the amygdala at first. The frontal lobe is the portion of the brain where we make reasoned decisions and control our impulses and completes development in girls before it does in boys. As children develop, girls start using the frontal lobe to respond to emotional situations before boys do with the result that girls are better able to control their emotional responses sooner. Because the stereotype is that girls are emotional and boys are not, many boys never learn to air their emotions in constructive ways or even to admit that they are emotional.

A recent piece by Andrew Reiner speaks to this issue. In this essay, Reiner discusses the problem that many young men have in expressing their emotions. The stereotype is that “big boys don’t cry.” The result of being told that real men are not emotional is that they find it difficult to connect with each other and with women. The result is a generation of young men who feel isolated and disconnected from others. Their lack of emotional understanding results in individuals who find it difficult to recognize what matters to them and therefore what they want from life.

The research I have done indicates that the strongest tie for young men is to their male peer group. The problem is that they may have bought the sexual stereotype that emotions are not for men and so these groups spend their time having fun –using alcohol and drugs, engaging in risky behaviors, and treating women as sex objects. Any expression of honest emotions is seen as weak.

I was visiting a third grade classroom in a boys’ school one day. I had been in this class before and was surprised to see one student picking on the boy sitting next to him. The teacher kept trying to get the boy on track, but with little success. Finally, when the class was over, she dismissed the class except for that one boy. When the other boys were gone, she said to him, “What is going on? This is not like you.” The boy promptly burst into tears. I left to allow the teacher and student to deal with the problem without me around. When the boy left the classroom, he turned and hugged his teacher and then ran off. I raised my eyebrows in surprise. The teacher told me that before he came to school this morning the boy’s parents had told him they were divorcing. He just needed someone to pay attention to him. We discussed ways for her to help this boy and that she needed to inform the administration. As I left, the teacher said, “I’ve been teaching for ten years and this is my first year in an all-boys’ school. I’ve never had a boy cry in class before.”   I told her to get used to it. In a good boys’ school, the students will find a place where they can be emotionally safe and while tears may not be quite as frequent as in a girls’ school, they will happen. I’ve had high school seniors cry in my office because their beloved grandmother died or they did not get into the college of their choice. No embarrassment at all, simply an honest expression of emotion.

Here’s the nugget: make sure your son feels comfortable expressing emotions. Teach him emotional words such as frustrating, upset, excited, amazing. Otherwise, he will be stuck with mad, sad, glad which will limit his ability to describe how he feels. When he becomes physical as the result of emotions, don’t stop him, redirect him. If he wants to throw something, give him a wet washcloth to throw – just make sure he throws it at something that won’t break. Soft objects don’t give you the same satisfaction when you throw them that something harder does, but the harder objects are likely to cause damage. A wet washcloth is just the right size to throw and has a great sound when it lands! Once he no longer needs to throw, ask him what he was feeling and what upset him so much. If he is little, he will tell you. If he is older, you may need to share some of your feelings with him so that he understands that sharing is OK.   You will help your boy become a man who can express his emotions in an honest and caring way.

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