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Michael Gurian: If I Were a Parent of a Boy…

For the next several months a group of writers focused on the issues of boys and men are collaborating through the writing and sharing of blog posts in order to bring greater awareness to the unique challenges boys and men face in the 21stCentury.  Twice a month these writers will be posting the same posts on their various media formats to spread the word and to introduce their audiences to the great work of their peers.  Today’s post features New York Times Best-Selling Author Michael Gurian, whose book, The Wonder of Boys, is credited with launching the modern boy’s movement.

                In working with her family therapy clients over the last twenty years, my wife, Gail, has said, “If I were a parent of a boy, I would really be worried.”  She is referring to her fear for the social, economic, emotional, and spiritual lives of America’s boys.
As we raised our daughters, we asked our girls what they thought of the gender landscape around them.  Gabrielle (then 16) came home from school in 2006 and said, “We had a discussion in social studies about boys and girls—everyone was talking like girls had it hard but boys had it easy.  They were in denial.” 
Davita (then 19), came home from college for the holidays last year and reported a discussion with her college friends.  “I’m really glad I’m a girl, not a boy.  The boys aren’t sure what to do, but the girls are doing everything.”
These discussions were anecdotal, of course. Both girls and boys, and women and men, can experience suffering in our world.  Girls don’t have it easy.  Women don’t have it easy.
But it is also true that boys and men are in substantial trouble today.  They increasingly fill our principal’s offices, ADD/ADHD assessment clinics, and rolls of the homeless and unemployed.  Boys and men are more likely to be victims of violence than girls and women, commit suicide at four times the rate of females, and suffer emotional disturbance, behavioral and other brain related disorders in higher numbers. They are suspended or expelled from school in much higher numbers than girls, receive two thirds of the Ds and Fs in schools, and lag behind girls in standardized test scores in all fifty states.  They abuse substances and alcohol at higher rates than girls and are incarcerated at exponentially higher rates (for more data in all these areas, please see www.whitehouseboysmen.org).  
Especially telling, the majority of government and philanthropic funding for gender friendly-programming goes to programs and innovations to help girls and women. The existence of this funding is to be celebrated, but the disconnect between the reality males face and the social justice attention males get needs to be examined by each of us. 
We are in denial about our males.
I believe this denial will continue (and we will ultimately rue and mourn the dangerous, socially debilitating consequences) unless we change our academic, media, government, and philanthropic programming to include a new ideological truth:  just as the traditionalist paradigm regarding girls and women needed to be deconstructed and replaced by the feminist paradigm in the last century, the feminist paradigm, especially as it regards boys and men, needs to be deconstructed and, at least in part, replaced now if we are to meet the needs of both genders
Why does it need to change?  Because it posits that females are victims of a masculine society that oppresses them systematically, and this isn’t true in the developed world anymore.  While individual girls and women can be dominated and demeaned by individual boys and men (and vice versa), we do not live in a culture that systematically teaches girls and women that they are second class citizens and boys and men that they are superior.
While some areas of life are still male dominant (mechanical engineering, senior leadership at some corporations and some areas of government), other areas of life and work are female dominant (management, medicine, education, mental health professions).  The original feminist paradigm posited systemic male dominance in our culture, but male dominance is only systemic in small pockets of the culture and female dominance also exists in others.
Can our culture open its mind to our new reality?  To answer yes, we will need to make a distinction between gender issues in the developed world and the developing world.  In many countries in the developing world, systemic and brutal patriarchy does prevail and the feminist model of male dominance/female victimization is essential for encouraging social justice.  My own parents, while they served in the State Department, helped build schools for girls in Afghanistan against impossible odds.  In that world, systemic degradation of females was and is prevalent.
But in the developed world, we can’t keep operating out of a gender lens that blinds us to reality.  If we do continue to remain blind, we will continue to avoid fulfilling our most human of imperatives:  to take care of our children.  If we do not fix what ails our sons–if we do not love them in the ways they need to be loved–we will create an increasingly dangerous society for girls and women, too.  No parent of either gender wants that.

Copyright Michael Gurian 2013
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Boundaries Teach Boys Self-Discipline

This past season, several high-profile college head football and basketball coaches have been vilified and lost their jobs due to the perception that they harshly enforced disciplinary methods upon a player or players in their program. I’m not defending these coaches’ methods as I do not know the situation, but here’s what I do know. Many young men today, especially talented athletes, have been raised without a father or any other form of accountability or boundaries in their life. They have gotten whatever they want their entire lives. They do not understand the value of true leadership or the concept of respect. These young men rebel against any kind of discipline and despise authority figures. Even though they may in truth crave discipline, they have steered their own ship for too long. They have learned to do what they want, when they want, and so any kind of restrictions—whether it is healthy for them or not—are very uncomfortable. They instinctively resist accountability and become self-focused and self-absorbed. Without willingly acceding to the mentorship and authority of other men, young males with this attitude will struggle their entire lives, creating problems in the lives of those who love and depend upon them.

Teaching boys’ self-discipline is difficult and requires effort on your part. Like most things worthwhile in life, it is hard. Boys learn best by what is modeled for them, not spoken to them. Teaching them self-discipline requires that you be disciplined. Constantly indulging your son in his every desire isn’t good for him. It doesn’t mean you have to be harsh, but you do have to say no sometimes–even frequently. For some parents today, pushing their sons to teach them self-discipline almost feels like child abuse. But the truth is that the more you can teach them to have a strong sense of self-discipline, the happier and healthier they will be throughout their entire lives.

Boundaries are a must during the teenage years. Boundaries help instill self-discipline. Without boundaries boys do not know what the rules are and what is expected of them. They may rebel, but remember no matter what they say, the very fact that you thoughtfully and consistently enforce rules of behavior makes them feel loved and valued. They might complain to their friends that you are mean and tough, but they will say it with a sense of pride too. I’ve known many at-risk young men who have told me that they wished their parents had loved them enough to make them follow a set of guidelines designed to keep them safe.

Recognize though that boundaries need to be flexible to grow and change as your son does. Just like your son is constantly growing and changing so too his boundaries should be dynamic. To hold a seventeen-year-old young man to the same boundaries he had as a thirteen-year-old boy would certainly cause rebellion at best and psychological damage at worst. As he shows more maturity and responsibility, his boundaries should be loosened to help him continue to grow in his decision-making and critical thinking skills process. Our goal is to help him become a healthy, functioning adult by the time he is out from under our umbrella. By not allowing him to grow, we are doing him a disservice by ensuring his failure in the world.

That said, all children (even teens) need clear-cut rules, structure, and guidelines in order to develop self-discipline. They thrive under firm supervision and guidance—they need strong boundaries and discipline from adults. They don’t need you to be their friend. They have plenty of friends. They need you to teach them the things they will need to be successful in life. And sometimes that requires courage on our part. Teens (especially strong-willed ones) know how to push buttons—they are developing their critical thinking skills so they like to argue. They are masters at manipulation. They wear you down—it’s part of their battle strategy. That’s one reason it is important for a husband and wife to be on the same team. They must work together to ensure that a child is raised with consistency and with the same agenda. The bane of many divorced families is that Mom and Dad have a differing value system in their respective homes. Kids are confused from week to week as to what is expected of them.

Discipline comes in two forms—internal and external. Internal discipline or self-discipline is what we strive to teach our kids by applying external discipline. External discipline is applied in a variety of forms—allowing them to suffer the consequences of their actions, teaching them the pleasures of delayed gratification, understanding the relationship between hard work and success, and through personal accountability. Kids, who are not subjected to healthy discipline while growing up, tend to live unhappy lives and create chaos in the lives of those around them. When we discipline our kids, we are actually preparing them for much more fulfilling lives.

Think of it this way. Self-discipline is a gift you give your son that will benefit him his entire life. It will benefit your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren as well. Like all things that are important in life, though, learning self-discipline is difficult and requires hard work. One of the most effective ways to teach boys self-discipline is by holding them accountable for their actions and choices. The sooner they learn that every decision they make (or don’t make) has consequences associated with it, the sooner they start making disciplined and healthy choices. This will be extremely important when he becomes a man and his choices have magnified consequences to both him and his family. Want to see this in action? The next time your son wants an item from the store, tell him, “Sure, you can have it if you buy it with your own money.” You’ll quickly see what he places value on when he has to be responsible for purchasing it himself.

Excerpted from Rick’s book, That’s My Teenage Son” by Revell Publishing. To find out more visit www.betterdads.net.

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Teaching Boys Criticial Thinking Skills

Perhaps one of the most important things a person can develop is the ability to think through an issue and discern the important aspects of that issue while not be distracted by the parts that are of no consequence. Your son needs to learn to distinguish between fact and opinion. He needs to understand how to compare and contrast information. Too often important issues are clouded by emotions or hyperbole. In addition, with today’s technology it is easy to establish something on the internet that quickly becomes assumed as fact. As an example, books, magazines, or newspapers printing “facts” that are not backed up by well rounded research and cited are really just printing their opinion. Television news programs are notorious for this today.

If you want your son to be someone who is not easily swayed by political agendas, misinformation, or opinions, he needs to develop good critical thinking skills.
How do you help a boy develop critical thinking skills which are crucial for him to learn in order to develop into a good problem solver? First, as difficult as it may be, allow your son to argue or debate issues that do not relate to emergency circumstances. He is developing the process to understand how to look at an issue critically from different sides. You’ll notice that sometimes he may even switch his opinion in the middle of an argument if you agree with him and argue the other side. Also, while it may be annoying, allow him to ask a lot of questions. That shows he has an active mind and is searching for information and knowledge (or else he’s just being a pain).

Encourage him to think logically. Use concrete examples whenever possible that lead to logical conclusions. For instance someone may be able to effectively argue against the validity of gravity but they will still fall on their head if they jump off a building. Logic takes the emotion out of an argument. Also, allow him to think through an issue or problem—do not rush in and give him the answer right away. It takes the male brain longer to process information than it does the female brain.

Think out loud in front of him—that way he can see and hear how you puzzle through the process of solving a problem. Finally, challenge him to always look at both sides of an issue. Encourage him to research an issue from a variety of reputable sources—both pro and con. If you only get one opinion of a subject you cannot truly understand it. One of the great lessons I have learned in life is that you cannot understand another’s pain if you have not walked in their shoes. This will serve him well later in life when he has a wife and children and issues are seldom simply black and white but are complicated shades of gray.

Article gleaned from That’s My Teeange Son: How Moms Can Influence Boys to Become Good Men, by Rick Johnson, Revell Publishing, 2011

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Teaching Boys Discipline

This past season, several high profile college head football and basketball coaches have been vilified and lost their jobs due to the perception that they harshly enforced disciplinary methods upon a player or players in their program. I’m not defending these coaches’ methods as I do not know the situation, but here’s what I do know. Many young men today, especially talented athletes, have been raised without a father or any other accountability or boundaries in their life. They have gotten whatever they want their entire lives. They do not understand the value of true leadership or the concept of respect. These young men rebel against any kind of discipline and despise authority figures. Even though they may in truth crave discipline, they have steered their own ship for too long. They have learned to do what they want when they want, and so any kind of restrictions—whether it is healthy for them or not—are very uncomfortable. They instinctively resist accountability and become self-focused and self-absorbed. Without willingly acceding to the mentorship and authority of other men, young males with this attitude will struggle their entire lives, creating problems in the lives of those who love and depend upon them.

Teaching boys’ self-discipline is difficult and requires effort on your part. Like most things worthwhile in life it is hard. Boys learn best by what is modeled for them not spoken to them. Teaching them self-discipline requires that you be disciplined. For some moms with their nurturing nature, this can present difficulties. Constantly indulging your son in his every desire isn’t good for him. It doesn’t mean you have to be harsh or mean, but you do have to say “no” sometimes, even frequently. For moms who feel guilty about the circumstances in which they are raising their sons, this can be difficult. For some parents today pushing their sons to teach them self-discipline almost feels like child abuse. But the truth is that the more you can teach them to have a strong sense of self-discipline the happier and healthier they will be throughout their entire lives.

What is the best way you’ve found to teach your son self-discipline?

Excerpted from, That’s My Teenage Son: How Moms Can Influence Boys to Become Good Men, Revell Publishing, 2011.

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Angry Young Men

Ever notice we have a lot of angry young men running around today? One of the reasons is that our boys today have a certain amount of repressed anger. It results in more bullying in school, but also in a more escalated level of violence. This is caused by not allowing young males to solve their social issues as they have for thousands of years—on their own. In the past when two young males disagreed about something, they went on the playground and tussled around until one or the other acceded—generally they both just got too tired to continue and quit. They then shook hands and forgot about it. In fact many boys I fought with we went on to be good friends. Today however, with adult (feminine) interference, boys are not allowed to solve their own problems. They are taught that any kind of aggression or (gasp) violence is bad. So they are forced to repress those feelings which eventually cause them to fester into frustration, anger, resentment, and bitterness–far more powerful feelings than they were originally faced with. Eventually those powerful repressed emotions spill over and explode into greater levels of violence evidenced by the shootings and stabbings we see of young men across the country.

I’m not promoting that we should teach young males that violence is the way to solve problems. But in the “old days” when a gym teacher had two boys who had problems with each other he put boxing gloves on them both and told them to settle their differences. Afterwards they were made to shake hands and forget about it. Even in the most adversarial unsupervised playground scuffle seldom was anyone injured beyond a bloody nose. Males always respect their opponent after doing battle with one another and frequently become good friends because of the respect they earn for one another. We did not see the problems then that we face today with high levels of violence and killing of our young men.

Our more feminized world of total tolerance does not allow a young man to seek justice which causes him to be resentful and angry. Males are taught it is bad to fight or even be aggressive over any insult no matter how egregious the offense.
Again, I’m not promoting violence, bullying, or unchecked aggression, but this kind of feminization of young males not only results in a more intensified level of aggression, but also produces passive men who often internalize this anger and frustration which then manifests itself in destructive passive-aggressive behavior.

Why do you think young men are angry today?