The myth of the “bad boy”

I don’t know if your son has ever gotten into trouble at school, but mine certainly did. He’d come home with a note saying something to the effect that “your son received a discipline notice today because he [pick one of the following] yelled at another student | threw his books on the floor | hit a student | kicked a desk | made a mess in the lunch room | was rude to the teacher. Your son will be required to stay after school on Friday to make up the time he was absent from class as a result of his misbehavior.” My son went to a small, rural school where students were allowed to run outside at recess and at lunch, which helped him, but still he got into trouble.

mad boy imageOne question I learned not to ask him after one of these episodes was “why did you do that?” He always gave one of two answers. Either “it wasn’t my fault, the other student started it,” or “the [adult in question] hates me.” There was no question that he had trouble managing his emotions and I was somewhat baffled as to how to help him cope. He wasn’t in trouble more than other boys in his class, but he was my son and I hoped that he would learn to manage himself. In fact, he was in college before he learned this lesson and he still has trouble with his temper, as do I. Plainly our temper problems are somewhat genetic, but I did learn to manage myself — mostly.

Recent information about the way that boys develop has shed a lot of light on this issue. A very long and involved research report, “All Our Sons: The Developmental Neurobiology and Neuroendocrinology of Boys at Risk,” in the Journal of Infant Mental Health, has revealed that the emotional development of boys is slower than that of girls and is the cause of a great many problems, particularly separation anxiety and other stress related problems in little boys. A great deal of misbehavior in children early in their school years is certainly related to environmental stress connected to family and school issues. In young children the result is frequently anger, which does not necessarily mean that the child is angry. The problem is that young children don’t have a lot of emotions, so when they are upset or sad or frustrated, little kids simply lose control of themselves and the result is anger.

Schools frequently see this behavior as if the child were an adult and react that way. When a child loses his temper, the school comes down hard to make sure that the child never does that again. If the school is consistent and tough, children learn not to misbehave in the presence of adults, but – and this is the central issue here – they do not learn how to manage themselves in the world. That is the lesson that they need to become successful adults, and that “zero tolerance” approaches to discipline do not deliver. The “crime and punishment” approach to school discipline and punishment do not work, particularly for very young boys, but also for tweens. I’ve said before, repeatedly, that what boys need is to be taught self-control.

One school in Ohio, when faced with a lot of discipline problems, developed a system to help the students deal with their emotions and the result is a huge drop in conduct referrals. A piece in The Atlantic, “One Ohio School’s Quest to Rethink Bad Behavior,” captures the story well. This school teaches the students impulse control and empathy, giving them methods to help them control their own behavior. When the teachers apply the theories consistently, the system works very well. One obvious problem is that it can be hard for seasoned teachers to change their classroom practices. One teacher who agreed that raising your voice did not result in better behavior in the students was seen yelling at the students.

The problem is that adults frequently see children as miniature adults, and assume that children have the same control over what they say and do as adults would have. In reality, children don’t have the same control, nor do they see the world in the same way that adults do. When we are in a crowded place, we do not take it personally if another person bumps into us, we understand that they probably couldn’t help it, since there isn’t as much space. Children, on the other hand, can take it very personally if another child lurches into them, and cry out, “he pushed me!” What quickly develops is an argument with one child denying that he pushed the other on purpose, and the child who was pushed claiming that the hit was purposeful. Learning a bit of empathy will help both children understand how the other sees the event.

The problem with misbehavior begins with the fact that children find it difficult to control themselves, and that they see the events in the world only from their viewpoint. Everything becomes personal, and the immature child will have continuing problems with his classmates. Boys, in particular, have trouble developing emotional control and stability, which is certainly part of the reason that they are more frequently in trouble than their girl classmates and peers. Helping boys get the space and time they need to develop self-control will help them throughout their lives.