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Shaming and How to Avoid It
• Talking and Listening to Boys
• How to Tell When Something's Wrong
* Life with Boys: Adult Survival Strategies
"I treated my two kids exactly the same," said Marianne. "But by the time my little boy was three years old, he acted so different from his older sister at that age!" Her daughter, Evie, always loved playing in a corner with a friend, "pretending" complex stories that they made up as they went along. Her son Gregory's play relationships, on the other hand, didn't seem to go any farther than knocking down towers of blocks and running around the house screaming like wild men.
As Gregory got older, Marianne said, the differences between her children only became more pronounced. "I always swore that my son would be an exception, but I've learned my lesson," she laughed. "You know that rhyme about what little girls and little boys are made of? Well, at seven, Gregory's pretty much all nails and puppy-dog tails. He'd rather wrestle on the rug with his dad than talk to me about his problems at school. I know he needs my support just as much as Evie does, but it's so much easier for me to relate to Evie! I think I end up letting Gregory fend for himself more than I should."
Boys are different from girls-partly because their biology is different, but more often because we unwittingly treat them differently from their earliest infancy in what we have described as the Boy Code. (See pages xxi-xxii.) Although there are important exceptions, as a group they tend to be more action-oriented, more confrontive, less quick to communicate verbally and more likely to hide their feelings of tenderness, hurt, or shame.
Of course, boys are different from one another, too, as are girls. In fact, many girls share traits with some of the boys described in this book, or some boys may act in the same way girls might act. But as things stand right now in our culture, these patterns describe the ways many boys in fact behave and feel.
It's normal that the boys in our lives often present us with problems we may not know how to handle. But there's also something very wrong. Our culture has developed a rigid code of behavior for boys-the Boy Code. If we fall into line with it and enforce it, we lose out on the pleasure of close connections with our boys, and they lose their own crucial rudder through life.
The world we live in expects our boys to prematurely disconnect from other people and from their own feelings, in order to "stand on their own two feet." And even if we aren't the ones enforcing the unspoken rules, boys hear them everywhere-on television and on the playground, in school and at camp.
But as caring adults-like Marianne-we can find ways to connect with our boys and give them the support they need to negotiate the hurdles of growing up. We can understand boys' developmental process, and know what a boy needs at each stage. We can listen and talk to boys without shaming them. We can create family rituals and school and sports programs that foster connection, trust, and supportive relationships. Knowing the difference between action and aggression, we can search for ways to encourage the positive and productive expressions of a boy's energy.
Most of all, we can discover ways to relate to a boy so that he isn't left to "fend for himself," as Marianne put it. This chapter will introduce some key concepts in the Real Boys approach, along with some practical exercises to make those ideas work effectively for parents and teachers.
SHAMING AND HOW TO AVOID IT
"Should I worry that my little boy, Franklin, seems to need me so much?" asked Harriet. "He's afraid of the dark, and even with the light on, he cries at bedtime. I have to sit in his room until he falls asleep." At four, Franklin clings to his mother when she leaves him at day care, when she introduces him to friends, and even when he goes to visit his father on weekends. "My sister told him he'd better stop acting like a baby, or they'll gang up on him when he gets to kindergarten."
In her heart, Harriet said, she feels that Franklin really does need her right now. "This has been a tough year for him, with his father leaving," she said. "He'll grow up in his own time." But she worried that her sister might be right. "Am I setting him up to be the one everybody picks on?" she asked.
Harriet's sister is only trying to help: She doesn't want to see people looking down on her nephew. But her words may echo in Franklin's ears in the years ahead, making him ashamed of his normal need for loving shelter and emotional support in times of trouble. At the scary times in his life, he might think he needs to take on a stance of bravado. He might feel shame about his true feelings of vulnerability and sensitivity, and may learn to shut them out altogether.
As she talked through the situation, Harriet became more certain that Franklin's fears at bedtime and other times of separation, or his anxiety around strangers, were a reaction to his father's recent departure. "If his father can just leave," she asked, "how does he know his momma won't leave, too?" She decided to keep giving Franklin what her instinct told her he needed-"plenty of hugs and love whenever he wants it."
Think about the boys in your life. Looking through the "Dos" in the above list, can you think of situations where you could put these ideas into action? Describe one of them here:
TALKING AND LISTENING TO BOYS:
ACTION TALK AND TIMED SILENCE
As boys move away from their closest caregivers and into the world, they'll be under tremendous pressure to conform to the Boy Code. They'll be desperately afraid to look babyish on the playground, to look dumb (or too smart) in the classroom, to look inept on the playing field, to look awkward on a date-in short, to make any wrong step that would humiliate or shame them in the eyes of others.
We adults can give boys safe ways to express their real feelings as they take these important and scary steps toward independence. We can spend time with them daily, simply joining them in activities they enjoy. We can share our own stories, opening the way to listening with empathy to theirs. By staying connected to our boys, we can help them stay connected to their own true selves.
Action Talk: How to Talk to a Boy
Many parents and teachers worry about how to get boys to talk to them at all. "His sister is always ready to hang out with me and gab," said one mother. "But my boy's always on the go. Even if I can get him to sit for a minute, I can tell he'd really rather be doing something else."
But "doing something else" can actually provide just the opportunity this mother is looking for. Many boys feel more comfortable expressing their feelings of closeness and affection through actions rather than words. He may not actually speak the words "I love you," but you'll see his face light up when you invite him to help check out a problem under the hood of your car.
Once you join a boy in doing something, you'll find that the two of you establish a comfort level that leads naturally to better communication. If he has something else to focus on as he talks, he can protect himself from shame he might experience as he shares his worries and fears. This kind of "action talk" provides a potent technique for breaking through the mask that boys so often wear.
Here are just a few examples of "action talk":
Most days, when he gets home from work, Bob goes out in the driveway to shoot hoops with his ten-year-old son, Curtis. "The exercise feels great," he says. "But the best part of it is getting some time alone with Curtis. Sometimes we take a break for water and end up talking about both our days." He laughs. "Sometimes it's actually more break than basketball."
Rachel and her fourteen-year-old son, Sebastian, make pancakes every Sunday morning for the rest of the family. "We try out different recipes," she says. "He likes to put in different ingredients, like chocolate chips or nuts. And he likes to make complicated shapes out of the batter. We call it Rachel and Sebastian's Creative Pancake Jamboree."
Last summer, when his father had a stroke, Barry had to travel to Florida to help arrange his care. "I decided to make the trip by car," he says, "and to ask my teenage son, Jared, to come along. We've never spent such a long time alone together, and at first it was a little uncomfortable-I was pretty upset about my dad, I guess. But Jared and I ended up talking about it a lot. Once I even kind of cried in front of him."
Tom, a high-school math teacher, stays after school every Tuesday to offer extra help to students. "One boy, Stanley, has been coming this whole semester," he says. "At first we stuck to geometry, but as he got more comfortable he told me about his hopes for college and his dream of being a writer. I sometimes bring him a book I think he'd like, and after he reads it we talk about it."
Bob, Rachel, Barry, and Tom haven't done anything expensive or complicated here. They weren't lecturing or correcting their boys. They've simply made time to share their lives and emotions with their boys. They didn't worry about winning or losing the shot, about botching a pancake, about shedding tears, or about stepping outside their area of expertise. Making yourself vulnerable in ways like this teaches a boy that it's safe for him to do it, too. And you'll be giving him memories of closeness with you that will last his whole life.
When you were young, did you ever share time with an adult who mattered to you? Who was it, and what did you do?
Can you think of ways that you already share time and talk with boys in your life? Make some notes about it here:
Do you have a story about your own hopes or experiences that you can imagine sharing with a boy you care about? Make a note about it here:
HOW TO TELL WHEN SOMETHING'S WRONG
How do you know when a boy's behavior is normal for his particular temperament and stage of development, and when you ought to be concerned? What are the signals of trouble? The answer lies in a combination of trusting your instincts, gathering information, and keeping the lines of communication open.
"Pete's always been a reader," said Cathy about her thirteen-year-old son. "But this year I notice that he's more reclusive than ever. He spends every day after school holed up with his science-fiction collection, and he never seems to have any plans. He's not exactly giving us trouble, but his father and I still worry a little. Our friends tell us we're lucky, but he seems so antisocial! I almost wish he'd get in a little normal trouble."
At thirteen, Pete may simply not want to spend much time with his family. Carving out his private space and having time with friends his own age typically has far more appeal at this stage. Pete's always had a quiet nature, so it's possible that his solitary behavior is fine, especially if he's working out for himself some of the important life changes that adolescence brings.
Yet if he has no close connection with even one other boy, girl, or adult, there may be cause to worry that he is depressed or in serious emotional trouble. He doesn't have to have a whole crowd of friends. Even having one person he's close to-such as a grandparent, a special teacher, or the girl he's known forever-shows that he can make emotional connections. But if Pete is totally isolating himself-or if his only "connections" are the impersonal ones in Internet chat rooms-his behavior may signal that he's in trouble. His parents are wise to want to find out.
Given Pete's introspective temperament, one of his parents might succeed in simply finding a quiet time to sit down for a gentle talk about how he's feeling. Otherwise, they can turn to "action talk," as described above. For example, his dad could invite him to go see a science-fiction movie together, and then go out for a snack afterward.
Desmond, at age seven, is giving his teacher fits. "He stomps around the classroom like a crazy man, yelling at the top of his lungs," she complained. "He has tantrums whenever I don't choose him for chalk monitor, or if his sandwich is in squares instead of triangles. I know this is normal for some boys, but maybe his behavior is a signal that there are problems. Do I need to refer him for psychological screening?"
Something is clearly going on with Desmond-his behavior is a symptom that he's in distress. His teacher is right to be concerned, although from just these symptoms, she can't tell either the level of severity or the nature of that distress. Before recommending a psychological evaluation, she needs to gather some more information-by talking with Desmond herself, or by calling his parents in to talk.
While teachers don't have a lot of time for individual counseling with their students, an occasion for action talk might present itself. If possible, Desmond's teacher should pick one of his "good days" to do this, and then join him in something he enjoys, either in class or outside. She can offer him the opening he needs to say what's bothering him, whether it's at home or at school.
If Desmond's teacher chooses to call the parents, she should take special care to ally herself with them in the initial conversation. Rather than telling them their son has a problem, she might say things like, "I've noticed that Desmond seems upset in class. Have you noticed a change in his behavior at home?" She can ask them what their concerns are, and perhaps gently prompt them: "Is there anything happening in his life that might be upsetting him? Does he talk to you about school at all?" The key here is for teacher and parents to stay connected in their mutual caring for the boy. It's important to help the parents not take sides-either with the teacher or with their son against the teacher.
If the parents and teacher agree that something seems wrong, they can ask for further evaluation by a school counselor. It's possible that Desmond is suffering from some problem like depression or a learning disorder, and that treatment could alleviate the problem.