Thursday, May 31, 2012

Q & A with the Author of The Achilles Effect

Have you finished The Achillles Effect yet? I have and I'll say this: I'll never look at media the same way again. I thought I was already pretty savvy to the subtle influences of media, but after reading the book, I'm even more acutely aware of the ways in which pop culture defines "male" and "female." I'm also aware that I'm not going to change the dominant culture, at least not all by myself. So it's up to me -- and you -- to counteract the messages our boys are getting from the media.

Read on to see what Achilles Effect author Crystal Smith has to say about raising boys and the influence of mass media:

BBB: What are some of the things that parents perhaps aren’t even really noticing, as far as media and its potential to influence our our boys? 

Smith: The idea that men have to be very stoic. Don’t show your fear. Don’t show when you’re sad. It’s okay to show anger. I think that’s something that really does affect boys, as they become men. They start to, as men, deny their emotions. They bottle it all up and then it comes out in other ways that are maybe not so healthy. 

BBB: Do you think that talking about gender stereotypes can make a positive difference in their children’s lives?

Smith:  I’m not an advocate of banning things or saying that pop culture is always wrong or that it’s a bad thing. You just have to be aware of the messages that are out there and talk to your kids. Get them discussing it. Ask them questions: What do you think of this portrayal? Why isn’t there a dad in that story? Get that process going and get them thinking about what pop culture is telling them.

BBB: An issue that has long bothered me about some of the shows that my boys watch is the way the male characters talk to each other. It’s frequently not very nice. There’s a lot of that trash talk going on. There are very few incidences in the media where you see boys or men having a respectful conversation with one another. 

Smith:  It really bothers me, the way that sort of language is associated with male characters. It does set the tone for the way male relationships “should be,” this whole idea of competitiveness and dominance.  

BBB:  You mentioned competiveness and the dominance. Some will say that is more wired into a male brain than a female brain. What are your thoughts and opinions on that, the nature versus nurture divide?  

Smith:  The things that I’ve been reading talk about how early in life the nurture starts towards these gender roles. From the time boys are born, they’re described in different terms. They’re treated differently. They’re handled more, experience more rough housing as kids. They’re wrestled with more. They’re cuddled less. So it’s really hard to decide, is it really nature or is it that they’ve been treated differently? I don’t have a definite answer, but the books that I’ve been reading, like Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine and PinkBrain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot make it look like nature’s not quite the dominant force a lot of people think it is. 

What did you think of The Achilles Effect?

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Challenge of Raising Boys

Photo via U.S. National Archives
What concerns you the most about parenting boys? 

As you know, I tend to draw on my own experience here at Blogging 'Bout Boys. But your experiences might be different -- or they might be awfully familiar, which will make the rest of us feel a whole lot better!

Right now, I'd say my top 3 boy-raising concerns are:

1) Respect. I want my boys to learn to treat men and women, young and old, with respect, and I'd like that respect to show in their words and deeds. Overall, my boys are respectful and polite children, but we still have a ways to go, particularly when it comes to respecting each other! (Please tell me my boys aren't the only ones who like to trash talk one another!)

2) Strict limitations on physical activity and play in schools. My sons' school no longer allows the kids play touch football at recess. Or soccer. If it's too cold or nasty outside, the kids stay in for recess -- in the auditorium, where they are allowed to walk laps. My boys (and yours, I'd guess) need more activity than that. They need room and freedom to move. I understand school administrators' concerns regarding student safety, but I think their concerns are overblown. On a population-wide level, I think we do our boys far more harm by requiring them to remain still and safe most of the day.

3) A sex-and-alcohol-saturated culture. We live in Wisconsin, a state that perpetually bests others in binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption. Here, it's not uncommon to see adults guzzling beer at a softball game, whether it's their game (yes, I've seen guys drinking beer in dugouts) or their kids' games (yes, I've seen adults drinking beer at 9 am on a Sunday at the Little League game). Add that to a culture that routinely objectifies women and thrusts sexual images at our kids at every opportunity, and you can see why I'm concerned. I want my boys to grow up free of addiction. I want them to be emotionally and physically healthy. Given our environment, though, that's an uphill battle.

Huh. If I'd drawn up that list just a few years ago -- say, when I started this blog -- I can guarantee that it would have looked different. Earlier in my parenting career, "guns" or "weapons" definitely would have made the list. Today? I don't even bat an eye when my kids pick up a plastic weapon. 
Sex and alcohol wouldn't have made the list a few years ago either. But now, I have a teen. And a tween. And a 6-year-old who watches for hot girls. I guess my concerns are growing along with my boys!
 What about you? What are your Top 3 Boy-Raising Concerns?

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Boys at a Glance

I missed Wordle Day!

When I signed on for Blogathon 2012, I was particularly looking forward to one theme day: Wordle Day. I was introduced to the concept of a Wordle about a year ago, at the School of the Arts in Rhinelander. The idea that a computer program could take text and turn it into a thematic work of art intrigued me, and I began playing with the program almost immediately. I love the way a Wordle can get to the heart of a text, and in some cases, I've even uploaded bits of journal entries, just to see what the main theme is.

I coudn't wait to see what a Blogging 'Bout Boys Wordle would look like. But in the busyness of life, I forgot! (Because, you know, painting my kitchen is just so much fun.)

So today, I take a break from my kitchen and my reguarly scheduled blogging to give you a Blogging 'Bout Boys Wordle. Kind of fun to see what we've been talking about, eh?

Want to make your own Wordle? Head over to to try it out!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Remembering the Children

My boys, thank God, do not fully understand war. To them, war is battles and weapons, strategy and excitement. They do not know the smell of death or sounds of ordinance. They know war from a distance only -- on TV and safely tucked in the pages of books -- and for that, I am grateful.

Unfortunately, there are many children their age who understand war all too well. There are children who have never known anything but war, and there are children who said goodbye to parents but now grieve at flag-dressed graves.
Photo by U.S. Army via Flickr
This Memorial Day, I remember those children, and pray that they and their families can find some measure of peace.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Snapshot Sunday: Boys Remain

My boys aren't here this weekend; they're at their Dad's. But one thing about boys: They tend to leave evidence of their existence everywhere.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Helping Our Boys Thrive Admist Skewed Images of Gender and Sexuality

You know that scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy spies the man behind the curtain? That's kind of how I feel after reading The Achilles Effect.

After reading the book, it's impossible to miss the gender-oriented messages that are everywhere. Case in point: I had a few minutes to waste before interviewing Achilles author Smith earlier this week. To pass the time, I clicked on Google news. In less than 2 minutes, I stumbled across a story about a new potato chip that's being marketed to males. The bag is black; the product is bold and spicy. And it's going to be launched at a party featuring MAXIM magazines Hot 100 Girls. What does that tell our sons about what men are expected to be?

But there's hope. Parents remain powerful influences in their sons' lives, and there's much we can do to counter the stereotypical message that our boys are receiving from the pop culture. Here a few suggestions from Chapter 7 of The Achilles Effect:

  • Expose your sons to TV shows, movies and books that feature well-founded male and female characters. TV shows like PBS's Arthur are a great choice for preschool-aged boys.
  • Watch and read with your boys, and ask questions. Try asking your son what he likes about a particular book or TV show. His answer may surprise you -- and it might give you the opening to share your thoughts, or to suggest other books, movies and TV shows that he may like as well.
  • Talk about the stereotypes. My boys know that I hate the bumbling Dad stereotype that's present in so many TV shows. I may not be able to control what the TV executives put on TV, but I can be sure that my boys know it's not reality.
  • Model good behavior. Make sure your sons see males partaking in housework and childcare, and women playing sports. Maintain a healthy attitude toward food and exercise, instead of obsessing over body shape and size.
  • Watch your language. Comments such as "man up" are not helpful for little boys. Boys and girls (as well as men and women) should be allowed to cry and express emotion and vulnerability.
  • Teach media literacy. Help your kids see behind the curtain. My kids have become pretty savvy at dissecting the hidden messages of TV commercials. (Have you seen the new Capri Sun commercials that seem to imply that if you love your son, you'll buy Super V? Interestingly, the commercial also seems to imply that moms need to withdraw from their older sons, lest they completely smother them.)
  • Create balance. It's OK for your son to play with plastic weapons and trucks. But he might want to play with dolls or a toy kitchen set also. Offer your boys all kinds of toys, and involve children of both sexes in household tasks such as cleaning and yard work.
 Coming up next week: A Q & A with Achilles Effect author Crystal Smith!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Best of the Blogs

 I'm a little late (OK, a lot late) getting today's post up because I spent the day at a local wetlands with my kindergartener and his class. I found a lot of great content this week, though! Here is this week's Best of the Blogs:

The Issues Our Boys Face.  PigTail Pals -- normally a site about raising girls -- ran this intriguing post earlier this week. The author surveyed her Facebook community to see what concerns moms of boys, and what struck me most about it was the fact that some of the comments seemed downright contradictory. Example: Josh B. says that "Boys get the “male role” installed on them beginning at a very young age," but Amanda J. says, "I wish it was “okay” for a little boy to be masculine."

Personally,  I most closely identify with Amanda's concerns. She writes:

"It seems to me that boys have been stripped of their identity in an effort to groom them to be more sensitive, and the little boy who has no natural inclination to wear a pink tutu or play dolls, runs the risk of being labeled a caveman who grows up to beat his wife...There’s too much political correctness in childhood. Adults are projecting way too much on what should simply be child’s play.”

What issue do you think is most pressing for our boys?

The Latest Trend: Alcatraz Parenting. I've always thought that video baby monitors were going a little overboard. (Heck, soon after bringing my first son home from the hospital, I discovered that audio baby monitors were too much. Trust me, a baby knows how to make his needs known!) Modern technology has made it possible to track our kids at all times -- but is that a good thing?

Drug Use in Pop Culture.  I found this infographic on MammaSaid, but it's all over the Internet. It's a quick look at exactly how thoroughly our kids are immersed in a culture that is perhaps all-too-accepting of alcohol and drug abuse.

Four Things Boys Learn From Their Fathers. Dads are important -- and Thing #1 in this post reiterates dads' importance in teaching boys how to respect and relate to women.

20 Things No One Told Me About Little Boys. Anything that reminds me of the fun of having boys gets a thumbs up on my blog! What would you add to amalah's list?

Did you read anything interesting or amazing this week? Share a link in the comment section below!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

How To Tell Your Son 'I Love You'

It's been one of those days around here. It's almost 7 pm, we still haven't eaten and, as Robert Frost would say, I have miles to go before I sleep. So today, I offer you one of my all-time most popular posts,

14 Ways to Tell Your Son "I Love You"


1. Take him to your favorite restaurant

Not McDonald’s. Not Burger King. Take him to a real, grown-up sit-down place and share a meal. Trust me: he already knows that this is where you take important people.

2. Let him stay up past his bedtime

And do something together. Stare at the stars. Make fudge. Build a model. Being up with Mom or Dad alone in the dark is a powerful memory.

3. Play Risk with him

Or Monopoly. You know – the kind of game you never have time to play. Just get out the dice and roll.

4. Hug & kiss him
 All boys need to be hugged and kissed. Even (or maybe especially) the ones who tell you they don’t.

5. Make his favorite meal

For no apparent reason. He’ll know and appreciate it.

6. Play cars – or dinos or whatever – with him

It’s so hard to find the time to get down on the floor, and so hard to put away your grown-up-sized worries and concerns, but nothing means as much to a boy as playing with him.

7. Don’t complain the next time he comes home muddy

This comes straight from the mouth of my eight-year-old. What more can I say?

8. Watch his favorite movie with him

Pop some popcorn and settle in. His taste in movies probably isn’t exactly the same as yours, but who knows? You might realize you like foreign films.

9. Introduce him to your hobby

Golf, knitting, rock climbing – whatever you do, he knows it’s important to you. Show him the ropes and invite him into your world.

10. Ask him where he’d like to go. Take him.
 But feel free to set boundaries. You might be surprised at where he wants to go.

11. Listen to him

Really listen to him the next time he starts talking about his passion. Ask questions. Challenge him. Show genuine interest.

12. Read him your favorite book.

You know, the one you loved when you were a kid. Tell him why you loved it and read out loud, with enthusiasm. He just may see you in a whole new light.

13. Let him help you

Do laundry. Fix the car. You’ll get to spend time together and he’ll learn new skills.

14. Talk calmly, even when he frustrates you
 Again -- straight from the mouth of my eight-year-old. Keeping a level head shows your son that you respect and value him as a person.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Blogging Tips

It's time for another Blogathon Theme Day! Today's theme: If I started blogging today, I would...

I started blogging in 2009 because I heard it was the thing to do. Writers everywhere were started blogs, and I'd knew be behind if I didn't at least learn how to blog. So I took a class. I signed up for Jane Boursaw's Blogging for Fun and Profit. Her class gave me the nudge and support I needed to start Blogging 'Bout Boys. (My very first post was less-than-inspiring, but hey, it got me going!)

At the time, I was pretty clueless. I'm not a techie person, so I chose Blogger as my blogging platform, because I heard it was easier. But if I started blogging today, I think I would use WordPress instead. I've heard many good things about WordPress from other writers and bloggers, and I've actually worked in WordPress for various clients. It's not as hard as I thought. Plus, it seems to have more useful features and add-ons. Plus, I'm not a big fan of this new Blogger format.

Now, I'd like to migrate my blog to WordPress. I know it can be done, but the truth is, I'm intimidated. Has anyone here migrated a blog to WordPress? I'd love to hear about your experience.

What else would I do differently? I'd...

  • love a better template.  For a few years, I had a really cute, free Blogger template. But I lost that just over a year ago, when the woman who designed the template (and many others) lost her free PhotoBucket storage. I was bummed. I stepped away from my blog for awhile, in fact, because it no longer appealed to me. Finally, I decided some blog was better than no blog, so I resumed blogging with this template. I'm not in love with it. Anyone else have a better idea?
  • blog on a regular basis. My long-term readers know that my blogging has been sporadic over the years. It's easy to get caught up in life and paying work, and very, very easy to neglect blogging when you're in the midst of a nasty divorce. But when I blog, I connect with interesting people. And when I connect with interesting people, I learn and grow. When I learn and grow, I have something to share. Blogging regularly, I've learned, helps me maintain my enthusiasm for my blog and topic, and introduces me to others who share similar passions
  • write with abandon. Truth be told, one of the big reasons I didn't blog much last year was because I was self-censoring my posts before they were even written. It's one thing, I think, to be conscious of how much you share about your life and family online. It's quite another to shut yourself down completely due to fears of what other people might think. The Blogathon has taught me that people respond when I write openly and honestly.
Do you have a blog? What would you do differently, given the chance?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Doing the Best We Can

I've been thinking a lot lately about how other moms treat one another. Blogging 'Bout Boys reader Elise made a very insightful comment to my post Mommy Wars? What Mommy Wars?:

 I think one of the problems in this parenting world comes about when a parent states one of their philosophies but then says "I'm not judging anyone else, this is just the way I do it." In the end, other people still feel judged. My kids are now 15, 18 and 19 but I will give an example of something I did when they were younger to show that I was just as guilty of this as anyone else. I did not spank my kids and I would willingly tell anyone about my philosophies if we happened to get into a conversation about it. I would never be the first to bring it up and I would always make sure that I told them that I thought it was okay for other parents to spank but I just chose not to spank. Looking back I realize now that even though I always said that, I am sure the other parents still felt judged. Even if I said that I wasn't judging them, I probably came off as sounding like I felt superior.

She's right, I think, and I'm as guilty as anyone else. Because you know what? The truth be told, sometimes I did feel superior. Like many of you, I've done a lot of reading and writing and reflecting about parenting. I've read the works of the experts; heck, I've even interviewed some of the experts! Plus I get compliments all the time about how intelligent and polite and pleasant my children are, so I must be doing something right -- right?

Secretly, I have believed that I know the "best" way. In general, I believe that natural childbirth is better for moms and babies, that breastfeeding is better than bottle feeding and that it's important for kids to have a secure attachment to home and family before they venture out into the world. In general, I believe that homeschooling is a wonderful educational option, that children's opinions matter and that kids need lots of time and freedom to play.

But in the last few years, I've come to recognize that most of us are doing the best we can with the circumstances at hand. My divorce taught me that, in a very painful and real way. You see, I still believe that homeschooling is the best educational option for my boys. But my ex doesn't agree, so for awhile, our homeschooled kids took two classes a piece at a local public school. Then the stresses of single parenthood set in. Trying to homeschool while earning enough money to support a family of five is hard, and I realized that I was shortchanging both homeschooling and my job (not to mention myself). I was constantly trying to be in two places at once: if I was upstairs with the kids, I was watching the clock to see when I'd next need to bound downstairs to do an interview. When I was in my office, I'd feel guilty that I wasn't more present for my kids. Homeschooling, the way I liked to do it, requires a fair amount of relaxed and unstructured time, and that simply didn't exist anymore, at least not in great measure.

So I made the difficult decision to send three kids to school full-time this year. That decision has allowed me to concentrate on my work during the day, and to be fully present for my kids in the afternoons and evenings. And things are working out just fine. My kids are thriving, and so is my career.

Through tough experience, I've learned that our circumstances affect our parenting decisions, and that what we say (and how we say it) affects other people. Elise's comment came to mind when I read this comment from Cassandra, written in response to my Helping Boys in a Sex-Soaked Society post:

We don't allow our kids to watch TV or surf the web alone. We homeschool. I have a seven-year-old son and there is no way he has any idea what the word sexy even is. I'm curious about how much media your kids are exposed to? Although the media does show us a very skewed and almost gross portrayal of 'the perfect woman' or what sex is all about.. it's our responsibility to protect our kids from these images and messages, isn't it?

She's not directly judging me, or calling me a bad parent, but it feels that way. Her well-meaning comments seem to imply that if I cared enough, I would make sure that my 6-year-old had no exposure to anything that would remotely smack of "sexy."

But, I want to say, but...
  • He's the youngest of four boys. It's a lot easier to keep the channel tuned to PBS when your oldest child is 7. It's a lot harder when your oldest is 14.
  • Even if I instituted a media-blackout, he'd watch at his dad's. Turning off the TV is a great idea, in theory, but what if both parents aren't on board?
  • I homeschool! Or at least I did, as long as I could. And besides, aren't there many different philosophies of homeschooling?
What I want to say is, I'm doing the best I can!  

I think Casandra could understand that, if we sat down together.  If she knew me and the circumstances of my life, I think she'd understand that I am doing the very best I can with the cards I've been given. 

You are too. And so are the moms and dads around you. Each of brings our past and present to our parenting decisions, and each of us must adapt our parenting style on a daily basis. Every day, we make decisions based on our values and circumstances and yes, on whether or not we've had our caffeine for the day. Sometimes we make good calls; sometimes, we flounder. That's OK. That's part of parenting. The biggest parenting secret of all is that there is no best way; there's only what works for you and your family, in a given moment.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Haiku: Teenager

Flickr photo by ST33VO

Steadfast and stubborn

The young tree no longer bends

But stands like an oak

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Summer Saturday and Strep Throat

It's been been one of those weekends around here...

It was going to be a crazy weekend, no matter what. Boy #2 is playing in a baseball tournament Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Our church also has a lot going on: Sunday service, all-church breakfast, member pictures, and youth group. Which I was supposed to be coordinating.

When I realized it's impossible -- or at least highly stressful -- to be two places at once, I called the pastor and told her we'd have to cancel youth group. She completely understood, and bonus! Turns out that most of our youth group is playing in the tourney, so no one was planning on coming anyway.

Perfect. The puzzle had been solved. Or so I thought.

Then I went to pick my boys up from school yesterday afternoon. (Because, you know, we had to be out at the tourney within the hour.) As soon as I saw Boy #3, though, I knew. He was sick.

It was nearly 80 degrees outside, yet he was wearing his hooded sweatshirt. With the hood up and pulled tight. And he kind of slouched to the van while looking like he could cry at any time. So I did what any mom would do, given the circumstances: I dropped Boy #2 off at home, told him to get ready for the tournament and took Boy #3 straight to the walk-in clinic. Diagnosis: Strep Throat. (Apparently, he wasn't kidding when he complained of a headache and sore throat off and on over the last few days.)

Does this happen to anyone else? You tweak, you nudge, you plan, and still an added complication gets thrown into the mix.

Somehow, we survive, right? We move on to Plan B and Plan C and Plan D, if necessary. We call in  help from family and friends. We skip events, if we have to. Somehow, we survive.

But don't you ever wish that life would stop handing you extra degrees of difficulty? I do!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Best of the Blogs

WAT Book Club Four Great Books for Boys. Full disclosure: I used to write for an editor who is now part of the We Are Teachers (WAT) team. But that's now why I'm recommending this blog post. I'm recommending this post because I'm always interested in seeing great book suggestions for boys -- and I'm particularly enthusiastic about this post because it introduces four books I'd never heard of. (For the record, The Achilles Effect is not so keen on "Books for Boys" lists. You can be sure that we'll talk cover that topic in my upcoming author Q & A!)

Dictators with Mommy Issues. You know I'm a fan of Kate Stone Lombardi, and that I loved her book, The Mama's Boy Myth. The last lines of this post, though, are just precious:

Let's see....Stalin and his mother were savagely beaten by his alcoholic father. She fought the father to try to keep her son in school. Yup, must have been that close relationship with him mom that made Stalin the monster he was. 

My Son Looks Like a Girl. So What? I've been thinking a lot of gender lately, and the messages we send our boys about what's OK and what's not. So Catherine Newman's post about her 12-year-old son's long, pink-dipped hair caught my attention. Really, what does hair matter anyway? Isn't it what are kids are inside that matters?

My Vote of Dweebiest Superintendent of the Week. According to Lenore Skenazy, five high school seniors in Indiana decorated the interior of their school with post-it notes. (With inside adult assistance.) The kids were suspended. The custodian lost his job. Actually, a total of 67 kids were suspended. Did the superintendent might the right call? Or do you agree with Skenazy? Why?

 Integrating Tech Tools Into Learning. Shameless self-promotion: This is a blog post I wrote for But I have a feeling that some of you may be interested in fun and educational tech tools as well.

How to Work From Home and Homeschool. Yeah, this one is mine too. ;)

Did you see any blog posts that caught your eye this week? Share a link below!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Joshua Ledet is My Hero

Don't know who Joshua Ledet is? You're probably not watching American Idol.

I have been, passionately. I'm not much of a TV watcher; in fact, the only thing I watch these days is American Idol. What can I say? I love music, my oldest son loves to sing, and last season, the boys and I started watching together. It kind of became "our thing."

Tonight, the top 3 singers -- Joshua, Jessica Sanchez and Phillip Phillips -- were winnowed down to two. Joshua "lost." Note the quotation marks.This boy can SING, and I'm confident that he'll have a successful career.

But it's what he did after he got the news that earned him my undying affection. While singing his farewell song, "It's a Man's, Man's World," he went down in the audience, grabbed his momma's hand, and brought her up on stage with him.

Understand, I've been reading a lot about boys and their mothers lately. Last month, I read The Mama Boy's Myth, which hopes to debunk the idea that boys have to emotionally separate from their mothers to become strong men. Today, I finished Chapter 3 of The Achilles Heel, Separating Boys From Their Mothers' Influence. For eons, popular culture has told our boys that they need to pull away from the moms to thrive.

Yet tonight, Joshua Ledet walked down into the audience, grabbed his mama's hand, and pulled her up on the stage with him. While singing:

This is a man's, a man's, a man's world

But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl

Amen, brother!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Virtual Book Club: Thoughts on The Achilles Effect

First, mea culpa!

I promised to announce the winner of a free copy the The Achilles Effect: What Pop Culture is Teaching Young Boys About Masculinity last Friday, and I didn't. I was so excited to share my Best of the Blogs list that I completely forgot to check my blog calendar, which would have, of course, reminded me to draw and announce the winner.

But it's not too late. The winner of The Achilles Effect is...

Cathlene Bell!

Congrats, Cathlene. Given the fact that you're passionate about media literacy and that you're expecting your first child, I think you'll enjoy it very much. Hopefully you're copy will arrive soon, and you're chime in with some questions and comments.

I'm about two chapters into the book, and I have to tell you, I have conflicting thoughts. On the one hand, I can absolutely see how media images influence and reinforce our sons' ideas of masculinity. Smith carefully analyzes a lot of familiar characters, and looks at the unspoken messages our sons may be getting from Power Rogers and Anakin Skywalker. Male characters, she writes, typically embrace the warrior stereotype of masculinity: they're powerful, they have a temper, and they don't hesitate to use force if necessary.

Male characters who don't fit the warrior archetype generally fall into either the "nerd" or "bully" category. Consider Geronimo Stilton, a popular children's book character who embodies many positive characteristics:

Stilton, Smith writes, is the bookish and sensitive male editor of a big-city newspaper. Geronimo has many good qualities, like loyalty, intelligence, and compassion, but he is clearly positioned as a weakling. The adventures he chooses are rarely of his own choosing. He is often pushed or cajoled into his various expeditions, is scared of his own shadow, and very clumsy. He is frequently reduced to tears and his constant crying is depicted as ridiculous, not as a legitimate emotional response.

I get it: Geronimo may be subtly teaching our boys that it's not OK to cry. But couldn't his awkwardness just be a way for awkward-feeling boys to relate? Might it not be a bit like Scooby Doo? As a kid, I hated the cartoon; it was too scary for me. But as as adult, I see that part of its appeal to kids is that Scooby and Shaggy are afraid of everything, and that they ultimately learn there was nothing to fear.

(For the record, The Achilles Effect talks about Scooby Doo too. Fred, she says, is portrayed as the man's man. Shaggy is clearly the weakling.)

I have mixed feelings about the book's discussion of TV shows as well. I agree that much of what passes as male conversation in kids' TV shows is probably harmful for our sons:

By implying that insults and the language of aggression and typical and even expected in male-to-male interactions, the creators of these mildly bullying characters [such as Harry from Horrible Harry and Buford from Phineas and Ferb] are, however, subtly, indicating that competition and jockeying for position are essential elements of male relationships.

But isn't jockeying for position exactly what happens almost any time you get a group of males (of any age) together? And that's my main issue with the book: How much of what we see in the media is essentially just a reflection of what we see in the real world?  In chapter two, for instance, Smith writes about the fact that mothers show up far more often in children's books than fathers do, and that it's almost always mothers who are shown doing the child-rearing, particularly in books about young children. Sexist as that may sound, isn't that still the reality in most families? The archetype of the distant,work-focused emotionally withdrawn father is still a reality in many homes.

Which brings up some questions: 
  • Should media actively work to create different male archetypes, in hopes of changing behavior?
  • Should parents restrict children's media consumption to media that presents a more balanced and egalitarian viewpoint?
  • If they do, does it help or hinder their child as the child negotiates the real world, which still includes a fair amount of sexism and gender imbalance?
  • What matters more? What a child sees or reads in a book or on TV (or in a video game or movie), or what a child sees at home?
  • Can boys who are steeped in mainstream media become well-rounded, emotionally intact men?
I think -- or at least hope! -- that the answer to the last question is Yes. The rest, I'm not so sure about. I'm definitely looking forward to talking with the author later this month!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Real Life With Boys: Just Add Water

This is what my boys did on Mother's Day:

If you look closely, you might notice the corner of our sandbox about midway up along the left side of the photo, near my son's hand. Yes, you guessed it: This major excavation project did not take place in our sandbox, but rather right next to it.

We've had a good-sized sandbox for years. In fact, it was the very first home improvement project my then-husband undertook when we moved into the house. (And we only had ONE boy back then!) But while the sandbox has seen its fair share of action over the years, the true magic happens outside of the sandbox.

Forget wishes of a lush lawn. My boys have completely excavated and reconstructed the perimeter of the sandbox. There's an ever-changing channel leading from the edge of the driveway to Fink Pond, the boys' name for the "pond" you see them sitting in above. (That pond has even held fish!)

On nice days, the boys place the garden hose at the edge of the channel, crank on the water, and watch the water fill in the pond as they construct various dams and levees along the way. Sure, they get dirty, and sure, my lawn and yard look less like Better Homes and Gardens and more like Home Education Magazine. But isn't that the point?

My priority was never to have a perfect yard or home. My priority is to raise well-loved, comfortable children. I want my children to have the freedom and opportunity to explore their interests, and when it comes to "perfect yard" or "let the kids dig up part of the lawn," I let them dig up part of the lawn.

Lest you think I"m entirely self-sacrificing here, I'll confess that peace and quiet is a huge part of my motivation. Because when the boys are busy with the water and hose and pond, they're leaving me alone! And, most of the time, not fighting. That's worth a few extra dollars on my water bill, as far as I'm concerned.

What about you? Do you let your boys make messes? Do things they're not "supposed" to do? I'd love to hear about it?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Guest Post: Criminal or Clueless? When Sex Means Jail

Photo via NorthUmbria Police
“Can you identify the person who allegedly raped you?”

“Yes your Honor,” says the girl. “He’s right there.”

She points and all eyes land on the pimply teenager, flanked by power suits—clearly his attorneys. The boy drops his head and a tear slides down his nose.

Could this be your son?

As a mom of a grown daughter, I cringe at the crime called date rape. (By law, it is stripped of its condition and simply called rape.) It’s dirty and traumatizing and ugly, no matter its circumstance.

As the mom to two teenaged boys, I cringe at the crime for different reasons. Perpetrators in 20% of the 182,000 rapes reported by girls between 12 and 17 in 2008 were intimately known (spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend) by the victims. That’s a staggering number. Someone’s doing the raping.

Could it be my son? Could it be yours?

It’s shocking to consider, isn’t it? But can we close our eyes to the possibility? 

Do my boys really know the difference between grinding on the dance floor when nothing but a little skimpy cloth separates it and the real thing? 

Do they understand that action isn’t always invitation? 

Can they decipher between a No that means Yes and a No that means No?

And have I ever had a conversation with either of them that goes beyond the birds and the bees and don’t do it ’til you’re ready and make sure you are protected?

It would be easy to sit in that courtroom and vilify the pimply boy from the example above—he should have known better. Where were his parents?

But hello. I’m raising boys. Teen boys. And sometimes, despite all the lectures and lessons and sharing, there are days when they lose their feet on the way to tie their shoes.

To think they will make the connection between crime and passion in the heat of a hormonal moment when  sex, even aggressive sex, is touted on every show, every video and every song might be asking a bit much from their construction site called a brain. When they receive images of nude classmates on their cell phones (because 1 in 6 teens between 12 and 17 have received them), why on earth would  they all of a sudden realize, when every sign says Go!, that what they are doing is a crime?

I’m just sayin’.

Should boys be given a carte blanche pass then? No way. I’m a firm believer in responsibility and accountability.

What I am saying is that while it seems they should know better, we really ought to make sure they do.

I’d much prefer to stick to informational sex talks. I’d much rather tell my boys to just not go there and have them comply.

But statistics force me to address my Pollyanna wishes. I need to address these issues in my home, with  my boys, before an officer knocks on our front door.

Uncomfortable? Absolutely. 

But who ever said raising boys would be comfortable?

Carrie Schmeck is a features and business copywriter in northern California. She has 2 boys, ages 15 and 18, and a 22-year-old daughter. See more of her work on her website, Bizziwriter.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mommy Wars? What Mommy Wars?

Flickr photo by Praziquantel
Enough already.

Enough of the conversations about who's Mom enough. Enough of stay-at-home vs. work-out-of-the-home moms. Enough attachment parenting vs. Tiger mothering vs. Bringing up Bebe. Enough!

Elizabeth at Clarity in the Chaos wrote a fabulous blog post today that touches on those subjects exactly. Life is hard, she says:

For a while there I think maybe I thought life was easy, but it's really not. Not for anyone. It's hard whether you're working or parenting or both or neither. 

What gets me the most about the so-called Mommy Wars (besides the fact that really, we should be supporting each other instead of tearing each other down) is the inherent naivete, the hidden and unspoken idea that you will remain whatever superior thing you are right now, at this moment. But you know what, ladies? That's rarely what happens, because LIFE CHANGES.

In the 14 years I've been a parent, I'm been a full-time work-outside-of-the-home mom, a part-time work-outside-the-home mom, a full-time stay-at-home-mom and a combination stay-at-home/work-from-home mom. I've been a married mom and a single mom; a homeschooling mom, a mom of parochial schooled kids and a mom of public schooled kids.

Through it all, I've done what moms around the world do each and every day: I've parented and nurtured my kids to the best of my ability, given our circumstances.

Flickr photo by kwbridge
Flickr photo by Diganta Talukdar
That's what moms do. So let's stop fighting and start celebrating instead. Moms have an amazing ability to love and care for their children, no matter what the circumstances.

 This Mother's Day, let's remember that, and ditch the Mommy Wars once and for all.