I grew up as 1 of 3 boys. Now, I have a son. My friends have sons. And there are boys in my church.
What makes boys different? And how can we help them thrive?
I’ve always known boys are different and need different things to excel. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and read a lot of books. The book that inspired this blog is by Dr. Gregory Jantz and Michael Gurian and is called Raising Boys by Design: What the Bible and Brain Science Reveal About What Your Son Needs to Thrive (2013).
And I need to warn you:
This book is awesome. But we are in a time when, in my view, the understanding of the needs of boys and girls, and also of parenting itself, is in a general state of confusion. So I’m going to write and report things that might surprise and upset you.
But there are some real helps here for our boys to thrive. But we need to step up.
- Why are boys falling behind in schools?
- Why, in the US, are 1 million boys being medicated for brain disorders?
- Why do they get 2/3 of D’s and F’s?
- Why are the majority of dropouts males?
Different kinds of autism used to be diagnosed to the tune of about 1 in 1000. Why is it now about 1 in 50, mostly in boys? Today’s culture create high anxiety in kids. I wonder: What is the impact of lessened social safety nets (more broken families/divorce), or of older parents (lessened strength of sperm/eggs), or of abuse, or of other socializing factors, or of the loss of over-arching systems of meaning-making or faith in many homes?
It’s all very complicated. And this blog won’t address everything. But I’ve taken away a lot from this book (and some others) and think there are some good things to share about helping our boys thrive.
What Makes Them Different and What Are Some of the Challenges?
Well, a lot of things. For one, how they process info in their brains. Male brains use 7 times more gray matter. They are able to focus and spend time doing, feeling, thinking, working and playing. Focused.
Girls use about 10 times more white matter. White matter is a networking grid that connects with other processing centres.
Notice how girls seem to transition more quickly between tasks? Or how boys seem to focus on something and it’s hard to get their attention to transition to something else? These are processes to do with gray and white matter.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Girls have their own set of challenges, and that’s for another blog. But here I’m focusing on boys.
First, many of the ways we deal with boys doesn’t consider their God-given design.
We often interpret, Jantz and Gurian argue, boys’ energy as being disruptive, or resilience as being uncaring. But this isn’t always the case.
I remember when I was in Macaulay Public School. We all looked forward to gym with Mr McQuain. Now, in many schools, physically-based activities are cut back. Therefore, there are fewer outlets for boys to get out what’s built up inside them. The result is often it’s acting out in other ways. Are these program changes disadvantaging boys?
When boys can be active, they do better in school, focus better, and pay attention with greater success.
Many of our learning environments are geared toward the predispositions more naturally occurring in girls.
Second, it’s a time of changing family realities.
Both parents need to be actively involved in parenting. This can be challenging, especially when a dad or mom isn’t in the picture. In those situations, it helps to get another trusted male or female figure involved to be a part of the child’s care-giving. Men and women tend to nurture differently, and the child benefits differently by each.
As adolescent psychiatrist Mark Banschick wrote: “There is no substitute for being loved by parents who are fair and involved.”
Third, we seem to over-protect from hardship.
Naturally, we want to shield our kids from worry or problems. We can even stress games where ‘everyone wins’ and non-competition. That has some value. But the sense of competition and victory can be naturally (and healthily) present in boys. Plus, a non-competition mind-set simply does not jive with the grown-up world we are preparing them for. We are trying to make them thrive in a reality that doesn’t really exist.
Fourth, we overstimulate.
A very troubling trend is that we are over-stimulating our boys (and girls) brains, mostly through scheduling or technology. Although there are some real benefits to technology, “screen time” with the very young has become so prevalent that unhealthy media exposure is starting to retard brain development and cause lower grades.
Plus, it seems boys are “skimming” for information more, especially through the use of technology, resulting in more shallow thinking. Psychologists are starting to diagnose “disconnect anxiety” in young people who have become addicted to technology and social media. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with some TV and (appropriate) video games here and there, but it’s becoming so big that it’s having a massive negative impact.
It deserves a whole blog on its own (forthcoming): Are We Knowingly Giving Our Kids Heroin?
With scheduling, we, well… over-schedule. Kids need time to be bored—it’s good for imagination and brain development. But we so pack their schedules that they start to go nuts.
How Else Can We Help?
First, guide them as a H.E.R.O. Jantz and Gurian use the idea of a “H.E.R.O.” as an overarching theme.
- H = Honour
- E = Enterprise
- R = Responsibility
- O = Originality
They say that “Honour” is adhering to truth, values and compassion beyond self. “Enterprise” is doing big important things for others, himself and the world. “Responsibility” is having people and things to carry minute-by-minute. “Originality” is being a dreamer, a thinker, an explorer.
These guidelines work well for male faith-development too.
These four traits are actually what many boys long for. Look at the superheroes they dream about! They’re all there—and also in godly men around them (if they have any around them).
Second, boys need healthy men in their lives.
Men who they can trust. They also need healthy women. And if these aren’t naturally occurring in the home, why not be intentional about connecting with trusted others, maybe in the church, or wider family, or another organization?
Even when it comes to something like sexuality. That’s huge. And boys are confused about it. (So are most adults!) We often think reading a few books to older boys about “the birds and the bees” is sufficient. It’s not. A boy’s sense of sexuality initially takes shape over 10 years. Parents need to be continually open to discussion and to creating healthy models for love and relationships.
Did you know that (again, with US stats) that by the time a boy is 18, he’s seen about 1 million images of sex and violence. Wow. That’s a massive tidal wave of anger that needs to be guarded against.
Third, we need to be aware of the differences between boys and girls and advocate for them.
Ensure your son is getting the right amount of physical activity—healthy channels of release for energy. Is his learning environment(s) sit-and-listen only, or are they more conducive to his God-given design?
Fourth, we need to create new rules around technology.
(Again, blog forthcoming.) But the one thing I’ll say here is one of the key questions that Jantz and Gurian put forward: Is technology a guest in your house, or a family member?
Fifth, we can help boys process their emotions.
This is a part of understanding their brains. Sometimes “talking about it” ad nauseam is the only route we take when a problem comes up. But what if that actually made boys retreat further within themselves, especially for introverts? We need to know the value of activity and play in helping boys “work it out.”
There are so many things I’m missing. That’s blog-inadequacy. I encourage you to get the book! It has really helped equip me in an age that is confused about most things that are important.
Awesomely Set Apart
Psalm 139: 14 says “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Hebrew language scholar Robert Alter translates it like this: “for awesomely I am set apart.”
That’s my boy. Probably yours too.
I’m going to end with this: “Boys have beautiful big hearts, constantly pumping with energy, pulsing with hope” (104). Let’s not squash that.
Let’s help our boys be the H.E.R.O.’s they were God-designed to be.