Boys and self control

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.