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From Barnes & NobleHelping our Boys Become Fine Young Men
Every evening on the news, stories of violence and crime reflect a society mired in chaos. Gunplay, robberies, and gangs seem to dominate the headlines, and the perpetrators, more often than not, are young men. When I see yet another young face in handcuffs, I think, "That is someone's son. How do his parents feel right now? Do they know their child at all? Is it possible to raise a boy to be a good man in this crazy world?"
Author and family therapist Michael Gurian says, "Yes, but it takes work." He calls today's state of affairs a "moral emergency," and the only way that boys can become loving, compassionate, and wise men is for us to consciously shape their moral development. "Our boys are in trouble," he writes in the introduction to The Good Son, a supportive and comprehensive guide for parents. "My fear for them grows."
His fear seems justified. More Americans per capita commit violent crimes on a daily basis than in any other country; 90 percent of them are male. More children than anywhere else get arrested for crimes; 90 percent of them are boys. When it comes to acting out against the pain of abuse and/or neglect, boys are ten times more likely to be violent than girls. In the United States, more boys and young men are incarcerated in juvenile detention, prison, and psychiatric hospitals than in any other nation. Though The Good Son begins with these rather grim statistics, it goes on to provide a balance of practical advice and success stories from Gurian's own practice.
Gurian's "good parenting principles" are based on the idea that girls and boys require different kinds of nurturing. While girls may seek support when hurt, boys tend to withdraw and hide their pain, making it difficult for them to stay emotionally open. Further, he claims that boys are aggressive by nature and require specific kinds of attention to direct that aggression into positive, nonviolent activities.
In his previous books, The Wonder of Boys and A Fine Young Man, Gurian covered many of the current theories on male biology and culture. The Good Son, however, has a more practical focus, providing parents with the tools they need to help them raise good men. Divided into three stages -- from birth to age 6, from 7 to 12, and from 13 to 18 -- The Good Son informs parents of what to expect as their son enters each successive stage of development. The discussion of each stage begins with a list of behaviors that fall under the "range of normal," which will have some parents exhaling with relief. Yes, it's normal for a boy to back talk, or to tell a few minor lies at 7 and 8. It's also normal for teenage boys to enjoy activities that parents find distressing, like dirt-biking or watching professional wrestling. Some "bad" behaviors, like lying and stealing, are simply ways of pushing the boundaries of a boy's environment. When a boy gets in trouble, rather than (or in addition to) punishing him, parents should take the opportunity to teach what is right. What matters most is that a boy is learning from his parents how to be a good person who respects others.
Beginning in infancy, it is possible for a parent to help develop a boy's "moral intelligence" by providing a safe space emotionally. Many parents believe that overpraising a child or giving him too much attention will make him narcissistic and arrogant, but Gurian disagrees. While that may be true later in life, he says, it is not possible to praise a child enough during the first two years of life. An infant needs constant contact and validation to develop a healthy neural web. These neural connections form as a child sends out signals and receives a response -- for love, for food, for whatever it needs. If a child repeatedly sends out a signal and does not get a response, he feels unloved, defective, and wrong. In fact, Gurian theorizes that narcissism actually develops because of emotional neglect during this primary stage of development; to compensate for the neglect, the child will act out selfishly and inappropriately.
As the child gets older, parents can engage him in debates over what is right and wrong. Reinforcing a "moral code" establishes a sense of order that a boy can adhere to in times of stress. Gurian does not shy away from discussing spiritual matters, and cites God as a useful parenting ally. You cannot shield your son from the difficult choices presented by his peers, but a solid moral foundation will guide him to the right decisions.
The evening news might not be so grim if boys were guided and consciously shown how to be good men, reasons Gurian. The Good Son provides a wealth of information, from understanding male neurochemistry to how to deal with shoplifting. Gurian's wisdom will give parents and caretakers insight into the minds and hearts of their boys. But insight is not enough if we want the violence to stop -- we must also rise to the occasion.
—Jessica Leigh Lebos