Are you concerned about your boy being too tough or too rough? Maybe his physical play with others is a little more than he can handle. Michael Gurian, author of the critically acclaimed book The Wonder of Boys (Putnam), says this is a common parent concern. But, you can’t change a boy’s innate nature. It is, however, up to you to teach your son to develop who he is with confidence and in a good direction. First and foremost, your son must be allowed to be a boy. “Teach him to be brave, truthful and good to keep him from becoming aggressive,” says Gurian. However, he adds teaching a boy to be gentle is all about teaching him to be himself.
Boys’ self-esteem is fragile. More fragile even than that of girls, says William Pollack, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School who has studied men and boys for more than 20 years. Their confidence can be more easily eroded. Boys are more likely than girls to be treated as discipline problems, to be suspended from school and even to drop out. Finally, studies show that boys suffer from depression as much as, if not more than, girls.
Boy vs. Girl
Boys learn and play differently and resolve conflicts differently. Boys who experience hurt or rejection tend to throw themselves into some physical activity. Gurian stresses boys have a unique chemical make-up that influences them to behave differently than girls. Boys are more competitive, more aggressive and more emotionally fragile. They’re also “hard-wired” with chemically-disposed tendencies, Gurian says. He also says after the age of 10, boys’ formation should be overseen by the father and trusted older male mentors.
The Unwritten Boy Code
Even though you may raise your son to be empathetic and emotionally open, the world outside your family still promotes what Pollack calls the “unwritten boy code.” This “code” emphasizes the tough exterior and states the only acceptable emotion for a male is anger. But to understand where boys are coming from and to defuse the explosive messages of the boy code in our society is to move toward a solution. Group play and team sports offer ways for boys to learn how to deal with their emotions and learn how to react responsibly.
Reconnecting with Boys
Allow your son to feel the entire spectrum of emotions, not just the ones society deems acceptable. Your efforts to downplay your son’s feelings of sadness or rejection help shape his sense of self-worth. Overreacting with shock (“How could you do that?”) or globalizing (“How do you expect to get into a good college?”) will make him feel inherently bad or incompetent. Seek out the facts and understand his motives and feelings to help foster moral accountability and future success. Shaming or humiliating strikes a blow at the core of a boy’s sense of self and encourages him to disassociate from the traits labeled unacceptable.
If he goes silent and hides in his room, give him space. “Time silence syndrome” is a normal response to a painful experience. Boys may want to retreat in order to recover from a bad experience, but always let him know you’re there for him. Finally, boys communicate best when they are in action. In the course of doing something together, be it riding bicycles, taking a walk or even driving to the store, boys will be more prone to reconnect with their parents and talk out their problems.