Thursday, July 11, 2013

Coming Soon! BuildingBoys

I've been pretty quiet here lately, but that's because I'm building something much bigger and better. (I know: I sound like an infomercial, don't I?)

I've been blogging 'bout boys here for 4 years now, and while I've thoroughly enjoyed the adventure, I think it's time to expand the conversation. I can write about boys all day long, but I will never truly know what it's like to be a boy. I can tell you what I think boys need and want, based on my experience and research, but I can't tell you what it's like to be a boy today. I can't honestly tell you what boys need, because 1) I'm not a boy and 2) every boy is different. There is no blueprint for raising boys! 

That's why I'm getting ready to launch The site, which will launch on July 22, will be a one-stop resource for anyone who's interested in helping build boys into happy, healthy human beings. It will include information and strategies that parents, educators and concerned citizens can use to help boys learn, grow and stay healthy. And it will include the voices of boys! BuildingBoys will include regular input from a panel of regular boys who will answer questions such as Why do boys enjoy fart jokes? (Got a question of your own? You'll be able to enter it on the site, and hear a real explanation from real boys.) The boys will also occasionally post their thought and opinions about boys' issues, education and life.

The new site will include video too, and expert input from educators, healthcare providers and fellow parents. It'll include a lot of great content from Blogging 'Bout Boys too; looking back, I realized that we've generated some useful conversations here, so I'll be migrating a lot of content from here to BuidlingBoys.

I hope you'll follow me. I hope you'll tell your friends. I'm excited about this new venture, and I hope you are too.

Got some ideas for my new site? Leave a comment below! I'd love to hear about what kind of features and information you'd like to see on a site about boys. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Boys & Birth Control

Photo by robertelyov via Flickr
1 out of 5 sexually active teenage boys does not receive info regarding condom usage or birth control from their parents, doctors or teachers.

That's according to a report by the Center for Advancing Health. The report, which looked at sexually active teens between the ages of 13 and 19, found that parents were the most likely source of  information regarding birth control and sexual health. 43 percent of the males said that their parents shared info with them regarding birth control, and 66 percent of the males said their parents shared information about sexually transmitted diseases. Only 1/3 said they got similar information from their healthcare providers. 

Think about those numbers for a minute. 43 percent of the sexually active boys said that they'd received info about birth control from their parents or teachers. That means that 57 percent of sexually active teenage boys had not gotten any info about birth control from a parent or teacher, and the odds are good that that didn't hear anything from their doctor either. 44 percent of sexually active teenage boys didn't have info about sexually transmitted diseases, at least not from a reliable source such as a parent, teacher or healthcare provider.

Those numbers are terrible. Those numbers are shameful. 

Our boys NEED information about sex and sexual health. They need to know how to protect themselves and a partner from sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancy. And they need that information whether or not they are sexually active at the moment, because the odds are extremely, very,very good that they will become sexually active at some point.

As a nurse, as a health writer and as an advocate for boys, I strongly believe that 100 percent of teenage boys should not only have information about sexual health, birth control and STD prevention, but that they should also have easy access to condoms  -- not because I want to encourage teen boys to have sex, but because I'm a realist. At some point, those boys-becoming-men will have sex, and I want them to have all of the tools and knowledge they need to keep themselves (and their partners) safe.

As a parent, though, I realize it's not easy. It is much easier for me, as a nurse, health writer and advocate, to say that all boys should have that info -- and much harder for me to actually sit down and talk to my boys about these topics. Much harder to discern when I should make condoms available. Much harder to decide how much information to share, and when. 

So know this: It's OK to be uncomfortable. It's OK to stumble through these questions and discussions, and OK to veer from too little to too much info and back again. Talking to kids about sex is hard because all kids, all parents and all families are different. As a blogger, I have the luxury of talking in generalities: You should talk to your boys about sex. As a parent, you have the difficult job of tailoring the information to your child, of figuring out what to say when and how to present the info in such a way that your kid might actually take it in. 

I can't tell you how to do that. I can't tell you exactly when or how to bring up birth control with your boys. (Though I'm happy to field any questions, and will share some suggestions in a future post.) What I can tell you is that discomfort is no excuse. It is simply irresponsible to send our sons out into the world without solid knowledge of sexual health and birth control.

So be uncomfortable. Stumble through the presentation. Be willing to be awkward and presumptuous. TALK TO YOUR BOYS about sex, and make sure they understand the mechanics of sex and conception and birth control and STD prevention. (They need to know about the emotional and ethical components of sex too, but I'll save that for another post.) 

Before your boys leave your house -- hopefully, well before -- your boys need to know how to protect their sexual health. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Big Boy Trouble, Little Boy Trouble

It's summer here, and that means baseball.

Three of my four boys play baseball -- on four different teams. How can that be?, you may wonder. Well, Boy #2 actually plays on two different teams, his regular team (which plays during the week) and a travel team that plays in occasional weekend tourneys.

All of that baseball means that I spend most of my evenings at the ballpark. And last night at the ballpark, as the kids unwound by playing yet another game of baseball (yes, you read that correctly: the kids who had just finished playing segued into a pick up game with their friends/opponents, siblings and any other kids who happened to be around), the parents talked parenting around the concession stand.

Another mom of boys (she has three vs. my four) shared that her middle son recently got a speeding ticket. The consequences were pretty severe because he still has a probationary driver's license and had one more passenger than allowed under our state's graduated licensing program. But of course, the consequences could have been worse. The state trooper that showed up at the door to inform the parents of their child's driving infraction could have been carrying far worse news.

We chatted some more. The conversation turned to summer school, and I shared that we've already gotten a call from a teacher regarding our seven-year old's behavior. On day 3 of summer school. (For the record, he is taking exactly two classes, Phy Ed Fun and Math Munchies.) Our son, it seems, is being disruptive and not listening in class.

"See?" the other mom-of-boy said. "Little boy problems, big boy problems!" Her boy is in trouble for an offense including  a thousands-of-pounds moving vehicle; he could have died. My son is in trouble for talking during class; he could have landed in the principal's office.

It's true: as our kids grow, the consequences of their actions become much bigger. An older child who makes a poor decision may not be able to find a job, or may run afoul of the law. An older child who makes a poor decision might kill himself or others. Younger kids who make poor decisions often end up in timeout.

But really, isn't it all the same? I want my sons to learn to respect others. To respect themselves. And to live peacefully in society. What my son learns now -- at age 7 -- will affect his behavior at age 17. So while I'm glad that his actions still have relatively tiny consequences, I don't think his problems are any less significant or worthy of attention.

We lay the foundation for our kids in the early years, and spend the next many years shoring up that foundation. What we do now matters, whether our boys are big or little.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Homework Can Be Fun

I'm not generally a big fan of homework. If your boys are in school, you know that are only so many precious hours between the end of the school day and bedtime, time that must be divvied up between relaxing, eating, spending time with family, personal interests, family responsibilities and, uh, homework.

But every now and then, a homework project comes along that feeds my boys' interests -- one that enhances, rather than detracts, from their lives. Those are the homework projects I love. And luckily, we had not one but two of them here in the last 24 hours.

This is Boy #3. He's been studying lumberjacks in 4th grade, and today is the annual Lumberjack Breakfast. So this morning, I got to draw a beard on my 10-year-old.

Boy #2, meanwhile, has been working on an English project. The kids have been learning about similes and metaphors and other literacy devices, and had to dream up an imaginary product and use those literary devices in a commercial to "sell" the product. My son imagined a product, wrote a script and made this commercial:

This kind of homework, I love.

Have your boys done any creative projects lately? Tell me about them!

Friday, April 19, 2013

What Do Boys Think?

I can talk and write about boys until the proverbial cows come home. But I will never be able to tell you exactly what boys think and feel and wonder. That's why I'd like your sons help.

I'd like to collect (and post) some short videos of boys, talking about topics and interests of concern to them. Got a boy who's interested in participating? Email me at I'll send you more info.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Business of Baby

I'm thinking 'bout babies today. Could be because my extended family just welcomed a new baby boy to the family. (Yesterday!) Could be because Jennifer Margulis' new book, The Business of Baby, came out yesterday. Or because I'm passionate about pregnancy and birth. Most likely, it's because it all goes together.

My brother and sister-in-law did not have the birth experience of their dreams yesterday. My brother, like most modern dads, imagined being in the room at the moment of his baby's birth. He wanted to support his wife. And he wanted to see and hold his baby as soon as humanly possible.

That didn't happen. Instead, he waited, alone and distraught in a waiting room while his wife underwent a C-section under general anesthesia.

Baby and Mom and Dad are fine -- and I'm thankful for that! But the whole thing got me thinking, once again, about the importance of information. Because these are the facts about birth in America, circa 2013:

  • At least 1/3 of births are via Cesearan. Rates vary from hospital to hospital, with some hospitals having C-section rates of less than 10%, while other deliver nearly 70% of their babies via C-section. 
  • Almost 1 in 4 women have their labor artificially induced. The rate of labor induction increased 140% between 1990 and 2007 (the most recent year for which I could find data).
  • Labor inductions and C-sections contribute to infant prematurity and health problems. As the number of C-sections and inductions has increased, so have NICU admissions. The link is so stark and startling that medical experts recommend avoiding labor induction or a C-section before 39 weeks of gestation unless absolutely necessary. 
  • More women die of childbirth-related complications now than in 1987. In 1987, the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. was 6.6 per 100,000 live births. In 2006 (the last year for which data is available), the maternal mortality rate was 12.7 per 100,000 live births. 

Expectant parents today have to navigate their way through a birth climate and industry that is infinitely more complex than it was in the past. There are SO many more options, ranging from prenatal tests to delivery choices, and parents-to-be are regularly asked to make decisions that affect the health of their baby and family.

Information is key, I think, to informed choices, and that's where The Business of Baby comes in. Margulis' book explores some of the not-often-talked about facts of pregnancy and birth and baby care. She covers everything from prenatal care options to birthing practices, infant feeding, diapering, vaccinations and well-child care, and she does it by analyzing the available evidence to support (or not support) what have become routine American practices. She finds that many routine practices are not grounded in science at all.

That's a startling statement, in and of itself.

But Margulis goes further. The evidence she finds strongly suggests that profit motives -- not science -- underlie what have become routine recommendations.

Whether or not you agree with or ultimately accept all of Margulis' conclusions, I believe that all expectant parents (and anyone who cares about birth in the United States) should read The Business of Baby. The only way to make informed decisions is to gather knowledge, and The Business of Baby brings to light a lot of important information.

Have a question for Business of Baby author Jennifer Margulis? Leave it in the comment section below. She'll be visiting Blogging 'Bout Boys in the near future to answer your questions.

Full disclosure: Jennifer Margulis and I are both members of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I'm also quoted in Chapter 7 of The Business of Baby. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tips on Dealing with Anger -- from a 7-yr-old Boy

If you have kids, you've gotten angry. Felt frustrated. And quite probably yelled at your kids. (More than once.)
Photo by isforinsects via Flickr

If you're an enlightened parent, the kind who is always striving to do better, who is working hard to raise kids who are kind and compassionate, you're probably felt guilty about yelling. Probably vowed not to do it so much in the future. With mixed success. Because what, after all, do you do with all of that anger and frustration?

Listen to Alissa Marquess' 7-year-old son. The insights he shares in "How to Get Ride of Your Anger" are startling in their simplicity and honesty.

Seriously -- click over and read her post. It's quite possibly the most fantastic and important parenting advice I've ever read on the 'Net.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Homework at My House

1st grade homework project
I might not be a fan of busywork-as-homework. I might even encourage parents to think long and hard about why, exactly, they want to to "make" their sons do their homework. But that doesn't mean that I encourage my kids to ignore homework or to disrespect teachers.

After reading my original blog post, How To Get Boys to Do Homework, Part 1, a reader asked:

Are you teaching your sons to ignore/disrespect authority figures?

The short answer is no.

This is what homework looks like at my house:

The boys come home after school. They settle into comfy chairs (after rummaging through the cupboards) and plug into their electrical devices. I let them. After spending their whole day in school, following the demands of an exterior schedule, I give them time to unwind. To do what they want to do.

After awhile, I ask about homework. Boy #2 usually doesn't have any; he typically gets all of his assignments done at school. Boy #3 may or may not have homework -- a math worksheet, a science packet, or part of a larger project that needs to be completed. He is also required to read and practice math facts each month, and receives a grade based on how many math minutes and reading minutes he's completed at month's end. Boy #4, a 1st grader, inevitably has to read a book. He might also have a math worksheet to complete.

Boy #1, my high school freshman, is completely responsible for his own work, and that amount of work he has varies on a daily basis.

I do not push or force Boy #3 to do his reading and math minutes. As I discussed in Homework, Part 1, he knows that his grade reflects his effort. He knows what he has to do if he wants to earn an A. And often, he puts off his reading and math minutes 'til the end of the month. He has done a whole "month's worth" of reading in just three days.

If he has homework, or a looming project, I will remind him of his work. I may set aside some time to work with him. For instance, when he did a project about tourist destination in our state, I scheduled time for a family field trip to the destination. I helped him figure out Power Point; he'd decided to do a Power Point presentation, so we figured it out together. I reviewed his work when he asked me to, and I offered him opportunities to practice his presentation. (Each student was required to present their work to the class as well.) But when he declined my offer, I respected his decision. To practice or not practice -- that is his choice. He will get the resulting grade. And if it's not as good as he'd like, perhaps he'll make a different choice the next time around.

Boy #4 and I read together after supper. Sometimes, he asks if he can read the book to himself, instead of aloud. I say yes. I know from experience that he always stops and asks me words he can't read anyway. ("Mom, what is e-x-c-i-t-e-d?") We also talk about his book; I can tell from his answers (and his questions) if he's read and understood the material.

Boy #1 handles his homework on his own. He manages his time. He decides how hard (or not) to work on a particular assignment. I provide support as requested. I've proofread papers and projects and offered feedback -- but only when requested. I've discussed ideas and books with him. (Right now, we're both reading Cannery Row.

That's it. I don't get into homework battles with my sons, because it's their work. They -- not me -- bear the consequences of the choices they make. And in the end, if one of my sons decides to settle for a lower grade on a particular project or assignment because he doesn't want to put in the additional work for a higher grade, I don't push or prod or argue. His choice. His grades. I care more about sons' overall development than I do about any one particular grade.

How about you? What does school work or homework look like at your house?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How To Get Boys to Do Homework, Part 2

Photo by Lone_F

Are you tired of the homework battle? Here are some nitty-gritty tips to help you (and your son) get a grip on homework:

(First, if you haven't already, read How to Get Boys to Do Homework, Part 1)

Talk to your son. Does your son think homework is a problem? Why? It's crucial to get your son's input. If he truly doesn't understand the assignment, encourage him to talk to his teacher. If he thinks the homework is pointless, ask why -- and listen to the answer. While many boys struggle with homework, you need to understand what's going on with son in order to effectively intervene.

Talk to the teacher. If you son's homework is of the truly pointless variety -- if you son already understands the material, or could easily pass the test or complete the rest of the assignment without doing part of the homework -- schedule a meeting with the teacher to discuss the issue. Ask for alternatives. Perhaps your son could test out of certain homework assignments. Or do half of the assigned problems instead of all of them.

Beware: your son may not want you to talk to his teacher. He may be afraid that the teacher may simply assign more (and more difficult) homework. And that may well be the case. If the teacher wants to assign additional homework, though, ask if it can be tailored to your son's outside interests, or completed in an innovative way. (Could he make a website instead of writing a paper? Submit a spreadsheet from his side business instead of re-creating one from the textbook?)

Let him go outside. Forcing your son to sit down and do homework the minute he comes home from school is rarely productive. Instead, send him outside or to the gym to burn off some energy. You can even intersperse homework sessions with activity -- say, a half-hour stretch of homework followed by 15 minutes of physical activity before returning to homework. Believe it or not, those brief bursts of activity will actually improve your son's productivity.

Talk to your son about his goals. What does your son want to do in life? Help him see how his homework directly relates to his life goals. And whenever possible, link your son's homework to his goals. A boy who loves video games, for instance, might fight nightly reading -- but might be willing to read a video game magazine for a few minutes before bed.

Get outside assistance, if needed. If your son is truly struggling with a certain subject, or needs help with study skills, consider enlisting a tutor. Ask around at school; your son's school may offer resources such as after school study times or check-ins with teachers. School personnel and other parents may also be able to point you toward private tutors. (College kids and retired teachers make great tutors.) Outside assistance may also be necessary if your son has a learning disability.

Make it meaningful. Consider setting up an incentive system to encourage your son to do his homework. If he absolutely must get it done for whatever reason -- your sanity, his learning, whatever -- consider offering him a personally meaningful reward if he does his homework X number of nights in a row, for instance. So instead of fighting about homework on a nightly basis, pre-agree on a series of behavior expectations and rewards. Maybe you can make him his favorite dessert. Or maybe you can go to the park or museum together.

Some parents tie homework to negative consequences -- you know, the old, if-you-don't-do-your-homework-you're-grounded! scenario. And while that can work, in the short-term, it only reinforces your son's belief that homework is odious. It also takes away your son's responsibility for his homework, because effectively, you become the one who makes sure his homework is done.

Make it fun. Inject a little fun whenever possible. If your son has to practice math facts, consider writing numbers on a white board and letting him "shoot" the right answer with a Nerf gun. (One homeschooling mom I know tried this technique -- and ended up with all the neighborhood boys in her kitchen!) Practice spelling words in chalk on the driveway. Or trace them in the sand. Read outside.

Do you have any other tips to share? How do you help your sons with homework?

Monday, April 8, 2013

How to Get Boys to Do Homework, Part 1

Photo by mrsdkrebs via Flickr
My boys are back to school today after a long and
wonderful Spring Break.

They -- like many other kids -- were less than enthusiastic about going back. And clearly counting the days 'til the tyranny of school is over for another year. (47, according to my 10-year-old).

How's school going for your boys? Are they loving it? Hating it? How's the homework battle going?

If getting your son to do homework is a struggle, rest assured: You're not alone. I have heard "he won't do his homework" tales than I care to count.

Why Boys Hate Homework

Often, the boy in question is not dumb. Quite the contrary: He's usually pretty intelligent. So intelligent, in fact, that he sees through the homework games. He knows that the assigned work is just busy work, a way to make teachers and parents and administrators feel like they're feeding his mind after school.

Very often, the boy is right. Take a look at your son's homework. Is it really helping him learn and understand a new concept? Helping him expand his mind? Enlarging his understanding of the world? Or is it merely asking him to repeat skills over and over? To fill in the blanks?

Most of the homework I see still falls into the mindless repetition category. And if that's the case for your son's homework, is it any wonder he's resisting it? Why would he want to spend precious minutes of his life doing something he already knows how to do, over and over again?

Boys also hate homework because it almost always requires them to sit and be still -- after hours of sitting inside, being still. Most boys would rather be out in the world  in some way, doing something with some meaning. Homework, instead, asks them to devote their time and attention to a very tiny little thing, in a very tiny confined space, towards no visible higher purpose.

Boys hate homework because homework, as far as they can tell, has no point. Boys tend to be very goal-oriented. But like most human beings, they like to work toward goals that have personal meaning. And while there may, perhaps, be a larger point to the homework -- your son's teacher, for instance, may believe that he must master square footage calculations in order to live successfully in the world -- you son doesn't see or value that connection. What he sees, instead, is that the homework is an obstacle between him and his goals.

So how you do get your son to do his homework?

Address Underlying Fears

First, take a step back. Why do you want him to do his homework?

That question might seem ridiculous to you. You might be screeching at me through the computer screen right now. But humor me.

Do you want him to do his homework because you're afraid that it will reflect poorly on you or your parenting if he doesn't? Because you believe that he must do whatever he's instructed to do? Because he'll get bad grades if he doesn't do his homework? Because he won't get into a good school if he doesn't complete his work?

Let me tell you something: Most of those worries and concerns -- most of parents' worries and concerns regarding their kids' homework -- reflect parental fears. Most of them have absolutely nothing to do with your sons' learning. To effectively support your sons' learning, you need to honestly and realistically admit and attack your fears, before turning toward your son.

Your kids' grades are not a direct reflection of your parenting abilities. Your kids' grades, at best, are an incomplete picture of their effort and ability in school. Academic grades are affected by a variety of factors, including student effort, effective teaching, parental support and the kids' overall environment.

One of my boys must read a certain number of minutes every month; part of his reading grade is directly aligned with the number of minutes he reads. If he reads X minutes, he earns an A. But if only reads Y minutes, he gets a B. My son knows the grading scale. He also knows how to read. As far as I'm concerned, his choices are ultimately what dictates that portion of his grade. Will I be a "better" parent if I push him -- force him -- to read X minutes so he earns an A? I don't think so. Will reading X minutes under duress make him a better reader? I don't think so; I think it's more likely that he'll learn to hate reading. So I let him control his own reading minutes.

Do you believe your son should do his homework simply because it's been assigned? Because we all have to do things we don't want to do? Think about this:  If your boss assigns you a task that you completed last week, would you say something? Or would you simply repeat the work?

If your son truly understands the material, do you really think he needs to do every single exercise? Why?

If you're worried about bad grades, again, ask yourself why. Do you think your son's bad grades will reflect negatively on you? On him? Do you think they'll keep him out of school, or make it difficult for him to achieve success in the world? Let me ask you this: When was the last time someone asked to see your report card? Do you believe that your success is truly linked to the grades you earned in grade school, high school or even college?

I write this as a former 4.0 valedictorian. Clearly, at one point in my life, I valued good grades highly. But you know what I've since learned? Good grades don't necessarily reflect learning. They don't reflect compassion or potential. And while it's true that my good grades helped me get scholarships, no one has asked to see my transcript in years. The truth is, no one cares what kind of grades I earned.

Instead, they care about how I make them feel. They care about my ability to work with others, my ability to communicate, and my ability to put ideas together. They care about my honesty and dedication.

Those qualities are what will bring your sons success as well. And your son can have those qualities in spades, even if his report card is littered with Ds.

So before beginning any homework intervention, separate your fears and concerns from reality. If your son is happy and joyful, learning and growing and engaged in the world, are the grades on his report card really so serious? Do your son's grades  reflect a problem with your son's learning, or something else?

Tomorrow: Concrete steps you can take to deal with homework 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Spring Break

Know what my boys are doing for Spring Break this year?


Well, not exactly nothing. They're doing chores. Playing Minecraft. And eating Easter candy. Right now, they're outside playing a game called Survival with two friends. I don't know what exactly this game entails, except that there are two teams and it involves mud.

In other words, this Spring Break is almost completely unstructured and unplanned.

I felt bad about that at first. Last year, we went to Chicago over Spring Break.

This year, I neglected to pencil Spring Break into my work calendar -- and my boys' 11-day Spring Break co-incidentally coincides with a slew of April deadlines for me. The result? Spring Break at home.

And you know what? The boys are having a great time. After weeks and weeks and weeks of structured time -- think school and sports -- they're loving the fact that they get to decide what to do when. They're more relaxed than I've seen them in a long time. And they're using their brains and bodies to explore and experience the world.

Sounds like a perfect Spring Break to me.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Flash Cards for Boys

You probably already know that most boys love toilet humor. And a parent of boys, you've already figured out that the traditional sit-down-and-learn approach doesn't work well for many boys. 

And if you're anything like me, you've probably used those facts to your advantage. Like many parents, I placed magnetic letters on my fridge, hoping to entice my kids to build words. Nothing. Until I carefully arranged the letters to make a sentence about poop. Soon, I had 5 boys -- my 4, plus a friend -- gathered around my fridge, competing to see who could create the grossest sentence. 

That's why I think these flash cards are a brilliant idea.

Susan Levy, the creator of ABC Flash Cards for Boys, emailed me recently to invite me to check out her product on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding site she's using to secure the financial backing she needs to launch her brainchild out into the world. I usually ignore emails like that. I didn't ignore this one, and I'm glad I didn't. As soon as I saw her cards, I had to learn more. 

BbB: Tell us a little about your ABC cards. How did you develop the idea? 
Susan Levy

Susan: A little over a year ago when I was working with my son on his ABC’s he was completely uninterested in the products that were available.All the flash cards available were boring and didn't hold his attention. He could have cared less that “A” was for Apple. I wanted to create something that would make recognizing, learning and remembering ABC's fun. This is when I started thinking about what held a boy's attention and made them laugh. The topic that stood out the most was anything and everything to do with potty humor. This discovery was what ignited the idea for Alpha Cards. I began joking with my husband and my now eight year old daughter about ABC’s..."for boys eyes only".  I started making a list in a notebook of funny potty words for each letter.

BbB: What kind of feedback have you gotten from boys? From parents and educators?
Susan: The greatest part of this experience so far has been the feedback from kids, parents and educators. Parents who have seen them are so excited for the prospect of having a  tool that will actually engage their child in the learning process. There have been numerous occasions when I have been able to share my cards with kids and each time their reactions confirms my expectations for the success of my product. Children get it immediately and just start cracking up. I also have had great support from teachers and principals; they are ready and willing to use what works to help kids to learn, recognize and remember their ABC’s.

BbB: Some people completely reject the idea that boys and girls learn differently, and consider any attempts to personalize education for “boys” or “girls” to be sexist? How would you respond to those people?
Susan: As a former classroom teacher (I taught first and second grade)I feel confident in saying that each and every child learns differently no matter if they are a boy or a girl.  The key is taking the time to find out what makes each child tick.  That is the reason a great classroom library is stocked with a wide variety of genres and subject matter.  Alpha Cards are meant to add another diverse teaching tool to the market.  Yes, it says ABC’s for boys, but that does not mean girls won’t  love them and learn from them too. My daughter enjoys them as much as I do! If something works in helping your child get prepared for a lifetime of reading I say, “use it!”

BbB: You’ve already exceeded your Kickstarter goal. What do you plan to do with the rest of the money?
Susan: The success of Kickstarter has been amazing.  The money raised is going to allow me to order a larger quantity of flashcards.  This will give me the opportunity to get them into more stores sooner!

Want to order a set of Flash Cards for Boys? Visit Susan's website,

Monday, March 25, 2013

Why I Want My Boys to be Just Like Pa

The real Pa Ingalls
I loved Little House on the Prairie when I was the kid. Loved the books, loved the TV series. I watched the TV show every week, and read and re-read the books more times than I can count.

So when I had kids, I naturally wanted to introduce them to characters and stories that had brought me such pleasure. I bought the books -- and my oldest, like me, read and re-read those books more times than either of us can count. We purchases Seasons 1 through 3 of the TV series, and spent many enjoyable hours watching together as a family.

But that was many years ago, before my divorce and before my youngest was a fully functioning big kid. I didn't want him to miss out though, so a few months ago, I read him Farmer Boy. This boy loves farming and outside work and hates school; I figured Farmer Boy would appeal to him on many levels, and I was right. He was thrilled when I told him there were more books in the series.

We've since worked our way through Little House in the Big Woods, and are currently reading Little House on the Prairie -- a good time, I decided, to introduce the TV show.

This weekend, we sat down and watching Episode 1 of Season One, "A Harvest of Friends." And I fell in love with Pa.

As a kid in the 70s and 80s, I'd always focused on Laura and Mary and their adventures. But now, as an adult who thinks and writes a lot about boys and men, I found myself drawn to Pa.

He loved his wife! His eyes twinkled when he looked at Caroline, and you could hear his love in the banter he shared with his wife.

He loved his kids -- and wasn't afraid to show his love. Pa was harsh when needed, according to his culture and time, but he was also compassionate and forgiving. He shared music and stories with his kids. He brought them along and involved them in his work and interests, at least some of the time.

He was honest and trustworthy. Pa was nothing if not an ethical man.

He was hardworking. The man built homes for his family with his own two hands, with minimal materials. He did whatever was needed to provide for his family, often working long, physical hours.

He was a good neighbor. Pa helped others; he wasn't too busy or too poor to assist someone else.

Pa, in short, is the polar opposite of what passes  for a "man" in today's popular culture.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about less-than-ideal male role models. The post started off with this comment from a fellow blogger:

The current culture portrayed by the media denigrates both men and women into sex-starved animals. 

Our boys are surrounded by inaccurate depictions of male strength and masculinity. Men, our popular culture implies, are strong and powerful. They sleep with a lot of women. They dominate other men. They are sarcastic and self-interested. And they are completely incompetent as partners and parents.

I'm not sure why the popular image of men veered in this direction. Men and women have made tremendous progress since the Little House TV series premiered in 1974. Men today are more likely than their fathers to be involved in childcare, to help with the household chores. But you don't see that on TV.

Instead, we surround our children with unhealthy and unrealistic images of manhood, and then bemoan the fact that boys today are taking so long to become men, that so few boys are growing into full, healthy men.

Do we not see the link?

What would happen if we once again presented healthy images of manhood in the media? What if we surrounded our boys with people like Pa Ingalls and Cliff Huxtable?

I don't know. But I'd support an effort to try.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep reading  and watching Little House with my boys.

Are you troubled by the media's depiction of men? How do you help your boys make sense of male stereotypes? Do you think Pa is a good role model? 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Best of the Blogs: Self-Care, Sex & Age Sixteen

Sure, I write a lot about boys. But as a mom of boys, I'm also aware of just how stressful parenting boys can be. And I've learned from personal experience that I have to take good care of myself if I want to take good care of my boys. After all, it's pretty hard to model patience and acceptance when you're running on four hours of sleep. 

Like many parents, though, I prioritize my kids and pay lip-service to the idea of self-care. That's why I love this post from Meagan Francis, aka The Happiest Mom:

Our culture loves to give lip service to self-care for moms, but we tend to trivialize the topic. I know I’m guilty of that myself. Feeling stressed or tired? Seek a little retail therapy; do something nice for yourself, it’s easy to say. Have a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Relax.
But while bubble baths, massages, and manicures are wonderful things, they’re no substitute for taking real care of our health. And that can involve messy, uncomfortable, inconvenient, and un-pampering processes like screenings, blood tests, mole removals and mammograms.
In her post, Self-Care is More Than Bubble Baths and Pedicures, Meagan, a mom of five,  reveals that she's recently been diagnosed with invasive cervical cancer. And while her prognosis is good, her post is a stark wake-up call: To truly take care of our kids, we need to take care of our health. 
The conviction of two teenage boys in the Stuebenville rape trial generated a ton of online conversation. I entered the fray myself, with Boys & Rape. (If you click over, be sure to read the comments. My readers added some great points!)
Marie Roker Jones shared some interesting thoughts over at Raising Great Men as well. In "The Real Talk We Need to Have with Our Sons About Rape," she wrote:
Our first mistake is rushing to tell boys what rape is instead of asking them "What is rape?"
Why did I not think of that? If the Steubenville trial showed us anything (and I'd argue that it showed us many things), it showed us that many boys, men and women are confused as to what, exactly, constitutes rape. And the best way to find out what misconceptions our boys hold is to ask them what they know and understand.
The Good Men Project also ran a great Steubenville-inspired piece. The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21 offers a ton of specific ideas for teaching and talking to boys and girls of all developmental ages and stages. It's the single best article I've ever read about consent.
 Like me, Jen Singer of is a mom-of-no-longer-little-boys. Maybe that's why her post, "My Son Turned 16 and I Know Where the Time Went" touched me so deeply. 
Or maybe it's because, in a culture that so often pits parents against one another and parenthood vs. "real work," it's nice to see a mom who honors, recognizes and pays tribute to the millions of minute moments that go into making a man. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Are Single Parents Bad for Boys?

Are my boys doomed to failure because their father and I divorced?

Some, apparently, would say yes.

An article in today's New York Times declares, "Study of Men's Falling Income Cites Single Parents" and essentially blames men's economic woes on the fact that just "63 percent of children lived in a household with two parents in 2010."

The article offensively continues:

The single parents raising the rest of those children are predominantly female. And there is growing evidence that sons raised by single mothers “appear to fare particularly poorly”

Never mind the fact that families aren't necessarily either "household with two parents" or "single female-headed." Many, many children, including my own, straddle the messy in-between place. My kids don't live in a household with two parents, but they sure as hell have two parents who love them and spend time with them. 

Never mind the fact that studies such as this seem more than willing to heap the blame on single moms who, more likely than not, are probably struggling with a whole host of challenges, including poverty and lack of social support, which could also contribute to any perceived or recorded differences in their kids' educational and vocational achievement. 

Now, the actual study on which the article is based -- Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets & Education -- is actually a very thoughtful look at the challenges that boys face today. The study highlights the growing disparities between boys and girls and men and women, as well as the fact that marriage no longer confers the same kind of economic benefit for women that it once did. While women once married for economic security, many of today's educated, accomplished women see no need to latch onto a man, especially when so many men are struggling in the job market. The study even mentions the fact that high male incarceration rates due to tough drug policies have drastically reduced the number of eligible men in many neighborhoods.

It postulates that a lack of a consistent, positive male presence may harm and hinder boys' development -- and I agree.

But out of all the thoughtful things in the report, why oh why does the media have to seize on the single parent link? 

Because it's easier than explaining all of the complexities that affect boys and women and families? 

Probably. But we do a disservice to one another when we focus on only part of the problem. If our boys are ever again to have truly equal opportunity in this country, we need to acknowledge (and address) all of the factors that are stacked against them:
ALL of those factors, together, conspire to hold our boys back. Alone, none of them has the power to keep our boys from achieving great things. That's why boys of single moms (and dads) can and do excel: the marital status of your parent really doesn't matter all that much if you have a community of support around you. But when that community conspires against you -- when boys are suspended for drawing pictures of guns, when boys go days without experiencing a single positive interaction with an adult male, when boys are forced to stay inside just so they can stay safe -- the odds of success are no longer on your side.

So let's stop focusing on the "single" part of the equation, and open our eyes to the myriad ways we can help the boys around us. Let's work together for the good of all our sons.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Boys & Rape

Photo by sboneham
The verdict is in. The two boys accused of raping a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio have been found guilty.

The discussion, though, is not over. While pundits and Internet commentators parse the details of the trial and the crime, parents everywhere are trying to figure out how to prevent this from happening again. No one wants their daughter to be raped. And no one wants their son to be a rapist.

So letters like AskMoxie's "A Letter to My Sons About Stopping Rape" are circling the Internet, and moms (why does it always seem to be moms?) are saving the letter to show to their sons when the time is right. But do we really need long letters about sex to 8- and 11-year-old boys get the point across?

I don't think so. Remember, kids -- especially boys -- tune out words. Ever notice how simple, direct instructions catch your sons' attention so much better than long, rambling requests and explanations? That's because their brain is wired to catch essential info.

Boys (and girls) are also much, much, MUCH more likely to follow our example than our words. So if want to teach our boys not to rape, we need to:

1. Demonstrate consistent respect for humanity. Our kids need to see us showing respect for every single member member of humanity. Even the people we don't like. Even the ones who annoy us. Even the ones who act provocatively, in any way.

Our kids need to know that beneath every human exterior lies a person with a heart and soul and hopes and dreams, and I'm a firm believer that the best way to teach our kids this essential fact is to treat others with kindness and respect. Look people in the eye. Speak gently to them. Do not make derogatory remarks about others' appearance or history or behavior, and never, ever imply that someone deserves something due to the way he or she behaved.

Teach your children -- by example -- to give people the benefit of doubt. Teach them to treat others as they'd like to be treated.

2. Talk about our values. I will never be able to change the culture to conform to my values, and neither will you. I am also unable (and unwilling) to completely shield my boys from the world in which they live. But that doesn't mean that I need to stand silently to the side when TV shows, movies or music depict any kind of abuse or degradation of another human being.

When the media depicts an act or behavior you don't approve of, or seems to honor a celebrity for less-than-stellar behavior, talk to your kids. Talk about what you don't like. (My kids are well aware of what I think about Charlie Sheen's poor choices.)  Talk about why don't like it. Talk about what kind of behavior you value instead, and why. And whenever possible, serve up for-instances and examples of exemplary behavior.

3. Respect boundaries. It's next-to-impossible to expect our kids to respect other people's boundaries if we don't respect theirs. So when your son starts asking for privacy in the bathroom, give it to him. When he declines your offer of a good night hug, simply wish him good night; don't guilt trip him into hugging ol' Mom, or he'll learn that he should stuff down his internal instincts in order to keep other people happy.

Respecting your sons' boundaries may also mean listening carefully when he tells you he wants to quit a chosen and once-treasured activity. Certainly, you'll want discuss his reasons for wanting to quit, and it's best to ponder the decision together. But ultimately, you want your son to learn to trust his inner voice, the one that tells him when something doesn't feel quite right. And the only way you can do that is by listening to your son, considering his wishes and respecting his boundaries.

4. Speak up. Don't participate in the culture of silence. Don't keep shameful family secrets. All kids need to know that it's OK to speak up, OK to let someone know that something is wrong. So if you see someone being hurt, stop. Speak up. Intervene.

I once pulled the van over at the middle school when I saw two kids physically harassing another. I didn't know the kids, didn't fully know the situation, but had watched just long enough to know that what was going on was not fun for all involved. I parked the van, left the kids in the car, and got out. The bullies scrambled. I made sure the other kid was OK and stayed with him 'til his ride arrived.

I still don't know the kids' names. I don't know what, exactly, my kids took from that situation, but I'm pretty sure they know that 1) their mom is not going to sit by while a kid gets hurt and 2) that onlookers can help.

Am I being overly simplistic in thinking that these four steps can help stop rape? I don't think so. Rape was never about sex anyway. Rape is about power. Rape dehumanizes another. And learning to respect all humans, I think, will go a long way toward changing our rape culture.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Spring Gardening

This is what your garden might look like

If you have 4 boys

And it's early spring

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Mattel, Moms & Toy Cars

Photo by jencu
The headline -- "Mattel Thinks Moms Need Help Playing with Hot Wheels" -- drew me in.

So did some of the comments, both within the article and elsewhere online. One mom said she found the concept "insulting," while another mom wrote, "But where do the ribbons go? Can I put play makeup on a car? I'm really confused. Which end is up, again?"

Clearly, Mattel has tapped into the culture wars, and that, precisely, may have been the point. ("If a debate breaks out around the value of this toy, that is really good for Mattel and very good for Hot Wheels," a child psychologist told Bloomberg BusinessWeek.)

So I'm reluctant to weigh in. I'm reluctant to help Mattel promote their agenda (which is to make money off of my family), and I'm reluctant to take seriously the comments of bloggers who were invited to Mattel's penthouse pow-wow to learn more about the play potential of toy cars. Because let's face it: being wooed by one of the nation's most powerful toy companies, in Manhattan, while drinking bloody marys, is a pretty heady experience. If Mattel served me mimosas and bloody marys for breakfast, I'd be pretty inclined to say that whatever they told me was a good idea too.

But in this case, I think Mattel is right. While it's always dangerous to make generalizations based on gender, I don't get toy cars.

Hi, my name is Jenny. I'm a mom-of-boys, and I hate playing cars. 

Now, the Mattel executive who foolishly stated that mom "has never played with [toy cars]" is not quite right.  I did play with toy cars as a kid. But only as a gender statement.

See, the boys in my class used to race Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars down a concrete drainage ditch near our playground. The boys raced cars. And as a budding feminist, I thought that girls should be involved also.  So I saved some of my money, headed to the local 5-and-10-cent shop and bought my very own vehicle, a blue van.

I took that car to school and I won some races. And you know what? I stopped playing soon after that, because I just wasn't all that into racing cars.

Of course, that wasn't really the end of my racing career. I had four brothers. And a sister. And while the six of us have many diverse interests, the one activity that we all enjoyed was racing toy cars down our Fisher Price garage ramp. The one that looked like this:

In fact, we loved that activity so much that this past Christmas, my sister gave each of us our very own vintage Fisher Price garage. That way, we don't have to fight about who gets the original.

But I'll be honest: In the nearly 3 months that I've had the garage, I haven't raced a single car down its ramp. Because I really don't enjoy playing with cars. Every single time I've played with cars, it's because I wanted to a) spend time with the people who were playing cars or b) prove that girls can do anything boys can do.

I don't get the appeal of toy cars. Not the way my boys do.

My boys -- every single one of them -- could make the "vroom, vroom!" sound of a toy car before they could speak. "Truck" was the first word of at least one of my boys. (Except he couldn't make the "tr" sound yet, and substituted the "f" sound instead.)

If you look hard enough, you can probably find a toy car of some kind in every room of my house. My boys have played with them in the bathtub, on PlayDoh, down the stairs and even through the front porch window. (That little incident ended up costing me $75.)

Me? I quickly bore of car games. I've tried to play along, but just can't seem to summon any real enthusiasm for what, to me, looks like the same thing over and over and over.

My sons, though, don't experience it that way. My sons see every race and car launch as an opportunity to learn and observe something new. This might be the car that make it all the way to the front hall!

When my boys play with toy cars, their imaginations are completely in gear. Sometimes, they're making up stories, as when my youngest manages an entire road crew of mini-machines on a chunk of PlayDoh. Sometimes, they're experimenting with science and physics. (The front porch window fiasco is just one example.)

Sometimes, I don't know what they're doing, and that's OK. I may not be innately attracted to movement and crashes, like many boys are, but that doesn't mean I need a lesson or tutorial in how to play with cars. It doesn't even mean that I need a toy executive to tell me why my son enjoys playing with mini-cars. It just means that I need to have confidence in myself and my children.

Successfully parenting children does not depend on shared interests, or even shared play. Successfully parenting boys does not require an understanding of the biological and social constructs of gender, though a basic understanding of both can be helpful.

To successfully parent my kids, all I need to do is watch my kids. I need to pay careful attention to what catches their interest, and support those interests. Then, I need to give them the materials, time and space they need to explore their world in a way that makes sense to them.

I don't need to understand why my boys are so intrigued with cars, and I don't need to get down on the floor with them. I definitely don't need a toy executive telling me that I need to buy his cars in order to enhance my sons' life.

All I need to know is that my boys enjoy playing with cars.

That's enough for me.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Life Lessons from Billy Joel & Michael Pollack

I'm a sucker for Billy Joel.

It might be all those mix tapes that my friend Bill made for me, way back in grade school. It might be the fact that Joel can deftly create a story, a mood and an atmosphere in a few words and phrases. And it might have something to do with the fact that I've always loved the piano.

But that's not why I want you --and your sons -- to watch this video. This video of Joel and Vanderbilt University student Michael Pollack caught my eye because of what it can teach you (and your boys) about success. 

Take a look. Then let's discuss. 

Pretty amazing, huh?

I think we can all agree that the opportunity to play for Mr. Billy Joel is a tremendous opportunity. But what struck me most about the video was the very active role Mr. Pollack played in his success.


1. He asked. Can you imagine raising your hand and asking Billy Joel if you could accompany him on the piano? I can't. I mean, Billy Joel is, like, a musical genius and a piano virtuoso. Who am I to ask? Besides, we're not supposed to ask those kinds of questions. Those, anyway, would be the thoughts going through my head.

But not this kid. He had enough self-confidence and guts -- and was willing to risk a NO -- for the chance to play with Billy Joel.

Life Lesson: If you don't ask, you might miss out on a lot of amazing opportunities. Ask for what you want. You just might get it.

2. He put himself in the company of a master. Clearly, this kid has some talent. (And, I'd guess, years of training.) But the best way to get better is to spend time with those who are even better than you. Watch them. Learn from them.

Michael Pollack knew this secret. And now, he's benefiting from the fact that a) his name is linked with Billy Joel's all over the Internet and b) Billy Joel himself gave him a shout-out and predicted that he'll be successful.

Life Lesson: Spend time with those who truly excel at whatever you're interested in. Seek out and find mentors for your sons too. If one of your boys is truly passionate about fishing, seek out other, more advanced fishermen, and see if they'd be willing to spend some time with your son.

3. Be willing to help others. Billy Joel did not have to say yes. He's already an international superstar, and I'm sure he'd long ago negotiated his speaking fee with the University. He could have kept the stage to himself and cashed his check and been none the worse for the wear.

But he didn't. He took a couple of minutes to share his experience and expertise with someone else.

Life Lesson: Very few of us succeed independently. We all rely on the help and support of others. So reach out a hand to help others reach their goals, every chance you get.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

In Defense of Boys & Guns

Photo by sean_oliver via Flickr

This is a PopTart. It's a pretty non-threatening almost-food that is commonly eaten by young children and adults who hope to recapture a moment of youth. 

Photo by Jennifer L. W. Fink

This is a boy. (One of mine, actually.) Adding a boy such as this to a Poptart does not turn the Poptart into a deadly weapon of any kind, even if it is chewed into the shape of a gun. Not even if the boy also says, "Bang, bang!"

John Welch, a 7-year-old boy in Baltimore, was recently suspended from school for -- you guessed it -- allegedly chewing his PopTart into the shape of a gun and saying, "Bang, bang!"

Of course, this is not the first time that a boy (or girl) has been suspended from school for fashioning a "gun" out of something else. And the debate surrounding Welch's suspension has been completely predictable. Many, many parents, including the boy's father, who called the decision "insanity." School officials cite privacy, but clearly feel the need to cover their collective behinds in wake of Columbine and Sandy Hook. What other possible explanation could there be for the fact young John's school sent a letter to parents that read, in part, "a student used food to make inappropriate gestures?"

Zero-tolerance discipline policies -- the kind of one-strike-and you're-out policies that have resulted in the suspension of kids for everything from hugging to making pretend guns -- have also been blamed. (And rightly so, in my opinion.)

But for too many people, this incident will be yet another vaguely disturbing news anecdote to discuss for a few days, at best. That's a problem, because John's run-in with school law represents a very clear collision course between boys, schools and society.

It is a well-known fact that boys aren't doing so well in schools these days. Girls have overtaken boys in almost every area of academic performance, and girls consistently lead boys in both grades and attendance. The proportion of men attending and graduating from college, for instance, has steadily declined; females now make up the majority of college students at every level.

Boys, meanwhile, are

  • 30% more likely to flunk out or drop out of school.
  • Four to five times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD . According to news reports, John has ADHD.
  • More likely to be placed in special education. Two-thirds of special ed students are male. 
  • More likely to face suspension or expulsion. 1 of out 5 black boys were suspended during the 2009-2010 school year. That's 20 percent! 1 out of 14, or about 7 percent, of white boys were suspended during the same year.

When will we see -- and acknowledge -- the link? When will a majority of Americans demand that our educational system be reformed to meet the needs of all students, instead of severely penalizing some for exhibiting developmentally appropriate behavior?

It is not unusual for boys to chew food into gun shapes. It is not unusual for boys to want to run around, nor for them to compete in physical and non-physical ways. (Think of the old, "Yeah, well my Dad can..." contests of one-upsmanship.) It's not unusual for boys to prefer a hands-on style of learning, for boys to be attracted to weapons and war games, or for boys to laugh and joke about "disgusting" matters and bodily functions.

Yet all of the above are considered unacceptable in most school settings.

Thankfully, none of my boys have been suspended from school. We have, however, had our share of ridiculous run-ins with stupid rules. Shortly after my second son enrolled in school for the first time -- he'd been homeschooled previously -- I received a note from his teacher, alerting me to the fact that my son had drawn a disturbing picture of an animal killing a human.

He drew a shark attacking a surfer.

He was 10 years old. (Today, he says, "That's what you get for letting me watch National Geographic.")

This year, my youngest son, age six, was forced to redo a drawing of a giraffe for art class -- because he drew a dark pile on the ground beneath the hind end of his giraffe and labeled it "poop." The drawing, I was told, was inappropriate. (Never mind the fact that giraffes really do poop, and that the poop was placed in an anatomically correct position.)

What do these incidents have in common? In every case, a young boy got in trouble for using his imagination to create something. A young boy got in trouble for expressing what was on his mind. (And we wonder why men are reluctant to share their thoughts and feelings?)

If we want our sons to learn, we have to be willing to meet them halfway. We, as adults, need to rediscover the line between fantasy and real-life. We need to remember and review the reams of research that suggest that weapon play is not to be feared in young boys; the playing and acting out aggressive fantasies and scenarios may, in fact, be one way that boys copes with the world around them, while learning what's OK and what's not.

We also need to remember that boys (and girls) are not mini-adults; they're kids. So while some Internet commentators suspect that young John was coached to say that he hadn't intentionally created a gun -- that he was trying to make a mountain instead -- I believe him. Have you ever watched a young child draw? Don't they almost always draw something, and then, as they work, as they see what they've made, declare it a "bird" or "gun" or whatever? I know my kids did -- and that the "subject" of their drawing could change as they colored. Should a boy be punished for honestly stating that his PopTart now looks like a gun?

I don't think so.