Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys

Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys

Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys

Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys

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Playing off the themes in the Caldecott Medal-winning children's book Where the Wild Things Are, this informative, practical, and encouraging guide will help parents guide boys down the path to healthy and authentic manhood. Wild Things addresses the physical, emotional, and spiritual parts of a boy, written by two therapists who are currently engaged in clinical work with boys and their parents and who are also fathers raising five sons. Contains chapters such as “Sit Still! Pay Attention!” “Deficits and Disappointments,” and “Rituals, Ceremonies, and Rites of Passage.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781414322278
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 02/01/2009
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 53,276
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Stephen James is a private practice psychotherapist in Nashville, Tennessee, where he provides individual, couples, and group therapy as well as organizational and leadership consulting. He has coauthored several books, including How to Hit a Curveball, Grill the Perfect Steak, and Become a Real Man.

David Thomas, LMSW, is the director of family counseling at Daystar Counseling in Nashville, Tennessee. He has coauthored several books, including Becoming a Dad, and is a frequent guest on national television and radio. He and his wife, Connie, have a daughter, two sons, and a fiesty yellow lab puppy named Owen.

David Colacci has been an actor and a director for over thirty years, and has worked as a narrator for over fifteen years. He has won AudioFile Earphones Awards, earned Audie nominations, and been included in Best of the Year lists by such publications as Publishers Weekly, AudioFile magazine, and Library Journal.

Read an Excerpt


the art of nurturing boys

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2009

Stephen James and David Thomas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4143-2227-8

Chapter One The Explorer (ages 2-4)

From the ages of two to four, three of our sons attended preschool together. When they were in Ms. Becky's four-year-old class, Witt and Baker (David's boys), and Stephen's son Elijah invented a game that they acted out on the playground. They called it "Star Wars," but it had nothing to do with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, or Darth Vader, because the boys hadn't yet seen the movie series. What it did entail was our three sons terrorizing the other children on the playground-in particular a little girl named Lea. They would taunt her and shoot lasers from their fingers at her until she'd had enough. Then she would chase them, and they would run and hide.

Humorist Garrison Keillor paints an accurate picture of this unique aspect of boys:

Girls ... were allowed to play in the house ... and boys were sent outdoors.... Boys ran around in the yard with toy guns going kksshh-kksshh, fighting wars for made-up reasons and arguing about who was dead, while girls stayed inside and played with dolls, creating complex family groups and learning how to solve problems through negotiation and role-playing.

We all recognize that boys and girls are not the same. But what is the basis for these striking differences?

The Lay of the Land

The journey of boyhood actually begins before birth. Even while in his mother's womb, a boy is remarkably different from a girl. And these differences will have a great impact on every aspect of his life.

Dr. George Lazarus, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Columbia University, points out that the differences between boys and girls are evident even in the blastocyst stage-one of the earliest stages of development. At the fetal stage, testosterone levels in boys reach adult intensity, which influences the development of the male brain. As early as the eighth week of gestation, boys are bigger than girls. On average, full-term boys weigh 131 grams (4.6 ounces.) more than infant girls in the United States, and the disparity just expands from there. By the time boys are a year old, the 131-gram difference has ballooned to almost 800 grams (28.2 ounces).

The differences aren't just physical. It's probably no surprise that, from birth, boys are more active and wakeful than girls. Girls, on the other hand, show a greater aptitude for communicating and are more sensitive to relationships, compared to boys. At birth, all babies born in hospitals are given an Apgar score. This tool, used to evaluate a newborn's well-being minutes after birth, consists of five components: respiratory effort, heart rate, reflex irritability, muscle tone, and color. In preterm infant girls, Apgar scores are significantly higher than those of boys. This suggests that girls are more sensitive and responsive earlier than boys are.

One study involving two- to four-day-old babies showed that baby boys spent 50 percent less time than baby girls holding eye contact with an adult. It has also been discovered that infant girls cry less often than boys when unhappy and that girls tend to comfort themselves by sucking their thumbs. Anne Moir and David Jessel report in their book Brain Sex that in tests between baby boys and baby girls, the girls were more easily comforted by soothing words and singing. It seems that girls are better than boys at recognizing the emotion of speech even before they can understand language.

From birth, both baby boys and girls like to grunt and gurgle. The difference is that girls prefer interacting with people, whereas boys are equally happy to chatter away at nearby toys or abstract geometric designs. The male brain is wired for activity; the female brain is biased toward personal connections.

Before my (David's) daughter was born, some friends hosted a baby shower for us, and we received numerous gifts-everything from a Baby Bjorn carrying pouch to a year's supply of diapers in every size. One of the items we received was a kit containing every item a family would ever need for baby proofing their home-cabinet fasteners, outlet plugs, doorknob protectors, etc. I remember looking at the kit and thinking, I had no idea our home was so dangerous.

I remember finding that kit somewhere in the basement about six months after my daughter came on the scene. I brought it upstairs and then managed to lose it somewhere in the laundry room. (But at least it was now upstairs.) I found the kit again just after my daughter turned one, and I vowed to baby proof our home, as any responsible parent would. My daughter had long been crawling, exploring, and finding her way around the house. By this point, she was walking (or something like it), and what was interesting was that every time she found an object on the floor, she would make her way over to my wife or me to proudly share her new discovery. We called it toddler show-and-tell. It never occurred to her to put one of Connie's ponytail holders up her nose or stick paper clips in her ears. She was content to explore the object and then hand it over to one of us.

She often opened the kitchen cabinets, but she never attempted to drink the antibacterial kitchen cleaner or stick her finger in an electrical outlet. Despite being encouraged in our childbirth education class to post the number for poison control on the fridge, we never quite got around to it. We never mapped out the quickest route to the emergency room, and my daughter has never required a trip there. Though I'm certified in CPR, I've never needed to remember the ratio of breaths to compressions. Parenting my daughter has been a relatively safe and peaceful journey.

Her brothers, on the other hand, are completely different beasts. I don't remember how many months old they were before they learned to climb out of their cribs; I just remember waking to the sound of a loud thud followed by screaming. I don't remember which of my twins first pulled the blinds off the wall; I just know I've replaced the brackets on several occasions. I've lost count of how many times they've broken the toilet seat by slamming it down or yanking it off the screws. (I kid you not.) One of my boys had been in preschool only for a short time before the school called to say that he had bashed his head open and would likely need stitches.

I've replaced doorknobs, mirrors, cabinet hardware, clocks, lamps, stereos, televisions, picture frames, bath faucets, consoles, refrigerator doors, kitchen appliances, dishes, glassware, bath towels, couches, ottomans, and chairs, and I've had the walls repainted-all before they turned five.

Who He Is: The Explorer

About as soon as they can walk and talk with some proficiency, boys move into what we call the Explorer phase. It's a time when they show a greater interest than girls in exploring the edges of their worlds. A boy's greater muscle mass helps him explore and range farther afield than girls. And boys make fewer trips back to the reassurance of their mothers. One bit of research really illuminates the difference between preschool boys and girls. Scientists performed a test in which a barrier was placed across the room separating a young child from his or her mother. The girls tended to stand at the center of the barrier and cry for Mommy to come and get them. The boys moved to the edge of the obstacle to see if there was a way around it. And some boys even tried to knock it down and climb over it.

For my (Stephen's) oldest son, Elijah, this difference was abundantly evident. When he was born, Elijah entered a highly emotional and sensitive culture. He was brought home to parents who are both counselors, and a very caring older sister. But from the time he could toddle, Elijah was more at home in the dirt than on the asphalt. If we were walking on the sidewalk, Elijah would veer off into the mulch or mud that paralleled the pathway. Watching him walk on flowers and climb over mounds of muck, Heather and I joked that Elijah would go "off road" whenever possible.

In the Explorer stage, a boy's ability to form images and ideas in his mind-especially of things he has never seen or experienced directly-is powerful and fascinating. As Explorers, boys live in their imaginations as much or more than they do in "reality." Unable yet to separate fantasy from reality, they live in a fairy-tale world.

To his mother's dismay, all Elijah wanted for his fourth birthday was a laser gun. (Hadn't we learned that boys shouldn't play with toy guns?) But after Elijah had demonstrated multiple ways to create guns out of ordinary objects (such as a piece of bread at lunch or a stick in the yard), we acquiesced, and on his birthday he got a Star Wars Imperial Blaster. By the time Eli turned five, his room was full of swords and shields, superhero comic books, a toy bow and arrows, spaceships, laser guns, cannons, and photon blasters. With little encouragement (and sometimes outright discouragement) from his parents, Elijah became caught up in the epic struggle between good and evil, and almost every aspect of his play reflected the hunger for adventure and exploration.

There are some key expressions of a boy in the Explorer stage that make this stage of development one of the most entertaining and challenging for parents. Explorers are simultaneously delightful and demanding. Their moods swing on a dime, and nothing compares to the joy that overcomes them when they make a new discovery. Boys who are in the Explorer stage are active, aggressive, curious, and self-determined. Let's take a closer look at each of these characteristics.


Explorers are bundles of energy. Like little Energizer bunnies, they keep going and going and going. That cute little infant or toddler you once could hold for hours on end is now a squirmy, fidgety, active ball of motion. As parents and caregivers, we spend much of our time chasing Explorers around, up, down, over, and through. When it comes to discipline, Explorers are often stubborn learners. There's good reason for this. The Explorer's brain secretes less serotonin than the brain of a similar-age girl. Among other things, serotonin works as an impulse-control agent and is responsible for inhibiting some of the aggressive effects of testosterone.

Afton, the son of one of my (David's) colleagues, is a classic Explorer. When he comes to the office, he climbs the chairs, the cabinets, the couches. During the holidays, he found the Christmas tree and attempted to scale it in an effort to pull off candy canes. One day, while his mom was returning a phone call, he made his way into the waiting room, scaled a chair onto an art table, and helped himself to a bucketful of permanent markers. Before he was corralled again, he painted some fascinating marks across his cheeks, forehead, and chin, like a miniature Apache war chief. When I saw what he had done, I bowed and saluted him like the great Native American chief he'd made himself out to be, and he smiled and laughed throughout the ritual, pleased with his efforts.


All the activity in an Explorer's life helps to fuel another common feature of this developmental stage: aggression. As strange as it sounds, boys in the Explorer stage demonstrate love and affection through wrestling, head butting, and sometimes even hitting. Now that's not to say they don't also hug, kiss, and cuddle, but it does show that aggression as a male form of intimacy starts early. (Ever see two grown men jump up and slam their chests into each other as a means of celebrating a touchdown? Classic residual Explorer behavior.)

The Explorer's aggression can be an emotional response and a means of communication. At times, by being aggressive, Explorers will signal to us that they are overstimulated. It's their way of telling the adults around them that the environment is simply too much to handle at a given moment-which is why tantrums are common with Explorers. Losing his grip can be an Explorer's way of saying, "I'm tired" or "I'm hungry."


One of the more economical decisions made in my (David's) household started when my sons turned two. We began wrapping up old cell phones, calculators, and remote controls for them at Christmas and for their birthday. We tried the educational toy route, believe me. But regardless of what fantastic, cleverly designed gizmo we purchased and placed in front of them, my sons always found their way back to those common household objects. They would stare at the colored buttons, examining the various shapes and sizes, and then they'd punch away with force and delight. The exploration was considered a success if they could hit the side bar that changed the tone and volume of the ring.

Explorers are deeply curious. Investigation is the means through which they discover and engage the world around them. In the beginning of their development, boys are kinesthetic learners, meaning they need to touch and feel everything. In this phase, you'll hear things like "Let me see!" (which means "I want to hold it!") or the ever-popular "Why?" If you have ever walked with an Explorer through a store, then you have witnessed his need to touch, handle, and study every object he sees.


Explorers are self-determined and desire to do things independent of other people. That's why parents at this stage hear so much of "Mine!" and "I can do it myself." Explorers need to be given an opportunity to do some tasks independently. If not, they will become more and more demanding.

Throughout this book, we will discuss a boy's hunger for purpose and power. When we afford him the opportunity to exercise power and control in certain areas that are safe (and minimal, in the big scheme of things), we honor a developmental and emotional need of his. When we deny him some opportunities and turn every exchange into a power play, we function in opposition to some of his basic needs.

Instead of telling Afton to stop climbing all the time, my colleague simply finds safe places within our office for him to exercise his need for being active as well as his desire for self-determination. She's a great mom, who understands that his need to be active, aggressive, curious, and self-determined are all part of his developmental journey.

What He Needs: Space and Structure

At his core, the Explorer has an energetic drive to understand how things work and how his world operates. Because Explorers are marked with specific characteristics (such as being active, aggressive, curious, and self-determined), they also come with a unique set of needs. Most of what an Explorer needs from his parents and his caregivers comes in the form of discipline, structure, and patience. For a boy to thrive as an Explorer, he requires boundaries, open space, consistency, and understanding.


"Mine!" the three-and-a-half-year-old screamed. "Mine!" Arms flailing and feet stomping, he pushed and shoved his little sister. Then he fell to the floor, crying, in a full-blown tantrum.

Match an Explorer's activity level and aggression with his curiosity and determination, and you've got a lot on your hands. Because of where he is in his development, an Explorer is incapable of self-regulating. He needs help in setting limits. Perhaps the Explorer's number one need is that of boundaries.

Explorers will push their limits-they're explorers, after all-and this can be a trying part of dealing with boys at this age, but they do need boundaries. Boundaries help a boy feel safe and let him know what he can and cannot do. He depends on the external parameters that come from attentive, caring adults. It's in the context of these loving boundaries that a bond grows between a boy and his caregiver. This responsiveness from his caregiver helps the Explorer's brain develop the capacity for creating and maintaining healthy emotional relationships.

A common mistake that parents make with Explorers is to place unrealistic expectations on them to control their own behavior. Requiring high levels of self-control at this stage only sets up an Explorer for failure. This is the one part of the journey of boyhood where we need to expect less from boys and be pleasantly surprised when they self-regulate. We are not suggesting that you have no expectations, just realistic ones.


Excerpted from WILD THINGS by STEPHEN JAMES DAVID THOMAS Copyright © 2009 by Stephen James and David Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: "Wild Thing!" ix

Part 1 The Way of a Boy 3

1 The Explorer (ages 2-4) 11

2 The lover (ages 5-8) 27

3 The Individual (ages 9-12) 47

4 The Wanderer (ages 13-17) 67

5 The Warrior (ages 18-22) 91

Part 2 The Mind of a boy 113

6 A Boy's Brain 117

7 Different Learning Styles 137

8 "sit still Pay Attention!" 155

9 Deficits and Disappointments 169

Part 3 The Heart Of a boy 191

10 Noble creatures: Nurturing a boy's Heart 197

11 A Boy and His Mother 229

12 A Boy and His Father 249

13 Rituals and Ceremonies, and Rites of Passage 273

14 Sailing for Home 293

Hot Topics 299

Spanking and Discipline 300

Screen Time 301

Sensitive or Intuitive Boys 302

Competition and Relationship 304

Talking with Boys about Sex 306

Dating 308

Masturbation 310

Boys and Pornography 316

Homosexuality 318

ADD and ADHD 321

Five Ways to help boys with ADD 324

Bravado and Depression 327

Emotional Literacy 329

Boys and Sexual Abuse 331

Single Moms 335

Acknowledgments 337

Recommended Resources 339

Notes 341

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