Friday, February 22, 2013

How to Help Boys

There's been a lot of talk lately about boys -- specifically, how boys & why boys are falling behind girls academically -- and I've been strangely silent.


I could, quite legitimately, blame the fact that I has a nasty case of influenza, which worked its way through my household and wrecked havoc on my schedule. I could also plead laziness; I just returned from a much-needed (see influenza, nasty) getaway to Mexico. But the truth of the matter is that I get tired of stories and articles that endlessly debate the reasons our sons aren't doing as well as we might hope.

As a mom of four boys, the reasons for boys' underachievement seem glaringly obvious: Lack of unstructured outside time. A school environment that too often equates learning and teaching with sitting down and filling in worksheets. A culture that frowns on very typical boy behavior -- rough-housing, pretend gun play, competitiveness. Very one-note depictions of boys, men and masculinity.

I get it. The deck is stacked against our boys. And while part of me is thrilled that this fact is beginning to attract national attention, I'm less-than-optimistic that all of this conversation will lead to real changes in our educational system and culture. So why even talk about it anymore?

And then it occurred to me: What is missing from the conversation is how to help our boys thrive right now. My boys, and yours, may be attending schools that offer far too little recess and far too many worksheets. Your boys, like mine, may find themselves in trouble time and time again for wiggling or squiggling in school when they're 4, 5, 6 or 7 -- when, in reality, the school is not meeting your sons' educational needs. And your boys, and mine, are surrounded by negative examples of manhood and masculinity. So what?

The fact is, we can't throw up our hands or simply sigh and bemoan this sad state of affairs. We have boys to raise. Our job, as parents, is to help our boys thrive, no matter what. 

So how can you help your sons thrive in the current environment? Try these tips:

  1. Love him, no matter what. Boys, like all human beings, need love and affection and approval. Boys need to hear you say, "I love you," and they need hugs and kisses and physical affection as well. Keep in mind that boys don't always give and receive love in the ways you might think. Here's a list of 14 Ways to Tell You Son 'I Love You.'
  2. Accept him, as is. Some boys love running around outside and playing sports. Some love theatre. (Some love theatre and sports!) Some are quiet; others are extroverted. There is no one mold for boys. Boys come in many different permutations. Show your son that you accept and value him by supporting and validating his interests. 
  3. Give him room to explore. Let your boys get dirty. Let them experiment and see what happens. (Today's experiment, at my house, involved food coloring, water and a tornado cup.) Try to carve out and protect plenty of free, unstructured time.
  4. Read to him. The science is clear: reading to children increases their vocabulary, their reading skills and their academic success. Boys big and little enjoy hearing stories. (Need some help getting started? Here's a list of Books for Boys.) Independent readers may or may not want to sit around for a read-aloud, so make sure you leave interesting reading material strewn around the house as well. 
  5. Don't rush academic education. Kindergarten, first grade and even preschool today are not at all like what you may remember from your childhood. Kids today are expected to sit still and read and write at much younger ages than we ever were. And while some kids can handle early academics, some -- primarily boys -- cannot. To learn more about boys and school, check out my Parents magazine article, Help Your Son Succeed in School
  6. Speak up! Are you concerned about a lack of recess at your sons' school? Upset about a reading curriculum that forces girl-friendly titles on your boys to the exclusion of books that interest your sons?  Talk about it --  with other parents, with your sons' teachers, with the school administration, with the school board and with anyone else that will listen. As a parent of boys, it can be easy to assume that everyone knows what boys need, but that's simply not true. Expressing your concerns and proposing alternative solutions will go a long way towards helping create more boy-friendly environments. When my boys were upset because the school banned ball play at recess, I scheduled a meeting to talk with the principal. I'm happy to report that balls (including footballs) are once again allowed at recess.
I firmly believe that change toward a more inclusive, boy-friendly environment will come slowly, and only when parents insist upon and work toward boy-friendly solutions. So let's tackle this problem, one family at a time.

How are you helping your boys succeed in the current climate? Have you ever taken a stand for your boys' needs or rights?