Raising and Understanding Boys
by Michael Thompson
Michael Thompson, Ph.D. is a consultant, author and psychologist specializing in children and families. Read more »
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Michael Thompson, senior advisor to the PBS Parents Guide to Understanding and Raising Boys, took your questions about the issues facing boys today and how parents can understand what our sons are going through.Liz from Orange, CA, writes::
My question relates to the boys playing good guys versus bad guys. My son, when playing with his toys, most often wants to be the bad guy. He thinks the bad guy is cool. Most pictures he draws involve guns, knives and other weapons. He draws this guy shooting or stabbing that guy. That part concerns me a bit. How normal is that? On the whole, he isn't a mean child. I've restricted his use of guns, but I think that may just bring more attention to it. It's just been hard to figure out where to draw the line.
I understand why your son's desire to play the bad guy and his fascination with guns concerns you, and I understand why you have written to me. Many mothers worry about the content of their son's play. It is tough to be a single mom sometimes, because you don't have a man there to say, persuasively, "Don't worry, he's going to be fine," when a boy does stuff like this. If you had been raised with brothers, you might have had the experience of seeing a brother who loved gun play when he was little turn out to be a responsible, non-violent adult. (I once met a woman who remembers her older brother shooting her with plastic pellets when they were little. He now heads a foundation devoted to ridding the world of chemical weapons.)
Here's my answer: I'm not worried about your son's gun play as long as it really is play. Children's play is just play. Play and real violence are two different things. If your son hits people, gets real angry at them, pokes them in the eye, or does scary things to them, that's a bad sign. If other boys don't want to play with him; if they leave your house crying, that's not good. If , however, he is playing with toy guns, running around the house using his imagination, pretending to be someone big and powerful -- even a villain -- but only only pretending, then I am NOT WORRIED AT ALL. He's just playing.
You haven't told me your son's age, but I think these questions might work for most boys under ten. Is he a loving boy most of the time? Do the teachers at school or preschool tell you that he behaves in class? Does he curl up next to you when you're watching television? Is he respectful of you and his grandparents? Does he like being read to at bedtime? Does he have good freinds? If the answer to all of those question is "yes" then I am pretty sure that he's not going to grow up to be a dangerous boy.
Psychologists know that children need to play out many things in their imagination. Boys seem to love to play at being bad, or having super powers. It makes them feel strong and masculine. It is exciting. If you are a good boy in real life, pretending that you are a bad guy can be exciting, because we all have a few villainous fantasies in our minds, don't we? (Come on, haven't you ever had a fantasy of breaking the law, or getting even with someone you hated? ) Little boys work these tensions out in their play. And I repeat: It is just play.
Schools ban it because they are afraid of stimulating the entire class, or having one boy get worked up and lose control. Fair enough, but you ought to be able to play at home and I think you recognize that at the end of your email when you say, "I feel he may need the outlet at home." Yes, he does. Let him play. He's going to be fine.Susan from Crown Point, IN, asks:
As a mother, how do I get my son to understand that smoking pot is not good for him? It is my understanding that nowadays pot is really not that big a deal. I am told it is what drinking use to be and that it is not as bad as some other drugs out there. This is hard for me to swallow.
I understand why your son's argument is hard to swallow. It doesn't matter whether your son thinks smoking pot "is what drinking used to be." We're talking about an illegal drug that carries serious penalties in the criminal justice system, especially for someone who is selling it to others, and those penalties tend to be a lot heavier than the punishments for drinking before the age of 21. (Perhaps your son would like to explain to the local police that marijuana isn't all that big a deal.)
That said, there is a lot of weed around. Marijuana has three important attractions for adolescents: 1) it makes them feel good and helps them to avoid sad feelings; 2) it relaxes them in social situations with the opposite sex and 3) it is AGAINST THE LAW. I am not a drug and alcohol expert, so I cannot say what the number-one reason for smoking pot is, but I do know this: Boys are really drawn to the risky, illegal aspects of it. Finding, acquiring, sharing and distributing weed makes them feel like big-time entrepreneurs. It makes them feel they have a different and independent life from their parents. It makes them feel like men, because they are taking a risk on their own. Having that exciting, secret life is part of what draws boys to marijuana.
Since the attraction is so strong, and because many boys don't believe it is bad for them (there are more destructive drugs), you may never convince him of your point of view. However, you must make clear to him that he cannot keep marijuana in the house, that you will search his room periodically, and if you find it you will throw it out. You have to make sure he is not driving "high," and if you find that he is, you have to take the car away from him. And, of course, if you are still not having any impact on him, you can require him to get a drug evaluation and be tested. All of this will involve a lot of conflict between mother and son. He's not going to like this, but fighting to keep your son from undermining his academic career (marijuana use results in lower productivity in school) and trying to keep him from getting in trouble with the law is a necessary part of good parenting.Roxanne from New Orleans, LA, asks:
My husband and I are in our early thirties and have a son, our one and only child, who is about a month away from his first birthday. In all your research, is there one bit of wisdom you would impart to parents just embarking on the challenge of raising a boy in America?
Hug him, enjoy him, play with him and develop family traditions and rituals that will support him all the way into adulthood. Have faith every day, even on your worst days, that he will grow up to be a strong, compassionate, interesting and lovable man, just like the man you married.Stephanie from Troutdale, OR, writes:
I am a working mom with two boys ages five and almost four. My husband is able to ask the boys to do something, like put toys away, and ninety percent of the time, they do it. I, on the other hand, have to ask three and four times until I'm yelling before they really do as asked. What do I need to do have the attention and actions taken seriously the first time I ask? I've also noticed that they are quick to respond to other male caregivers and slow to respond to female caregivers. Is this "just how boys are," or is there something more going on that I might not be aware of?
Recent research suggests that boys may not hear and respond to the higher-pitched female voice as readily as they respond to a deeper voice, so that is one possible explanation for why boys respond more quickly to their fathers. However, it is also true that there are many more female caretakers in the lives of children. Kids hear mothers' voices saying: "No...not now....stop that, please...we can't buy that...put your coat on...pick that up, etc., etc." Because they are so accustomed to these voices, they don't jump quickly; it is like background music. And because they have figured out how much latitude there is in the system, they know that moms are more forgiving. They may have seen their dads get really angry, and it scares them because they aren't sure what will set off a man, so they obey him more quickly. There is also a kind of power to the deeper voice and the bigger body of men. Yet single fathers raising their children tell me that their boys get used to hearing them give all the instructions and so they are slow to respond--they drag their feet and they leave their stuff everywhere, just the way most kids do for their moms.
Marie from Shoreline, WA, writes:
My son is nearly three years old. He's also an only child. All of the neighbors' children his age are girls, likewise all of my friends with children his age also have girls. Do you have suggestions on giving him ways to socialize with other boys? I'm particularly worried about this because I keep hearing about having kids "school ready" with "socialization skills" when they are toddlers and preschoolers. Often at the playground, my perception is that other kids are more aggressive than my son. I don't want to have him be the boy that would be perceived as passive, or worse yet, be picked on.
I'm not worried about your son; he's only three. He is developing all the socialization skills he is going to need in his play with the girls in the neighborhood. At three he doesn't need to have all the "boy" social skills he needs because he has plenty of time to develop them. He will when he is four and five.
You don't need to toughen him up, you don't need to do something special for him. It is also important to remember that some of the toughest toddlers can be "bossy" girls--remember Lucy in "Peanuts" or Angelica in "Rugrats?"--and so I am certain that he has some experience with conflict.
If he is a bit more peaceful than other children on the playground, that may be his temperament--he's calmer boy than most--or it may be that he is an only child. Only children tend to be a little less aggressive than other children because they don't have to fight for things at home all the time. Girls and boys start to play in gender-exclusive groups when they are between the ages of three and four. That's when he'll learn the rules of boy play. I want you to have confidence that he'll learn what he needs to know on his own. I can't guarantee it, but I'd bet money on it.Libby from Garden Grove, CA, writes:
In "Raising Cain," you showcased a boys-only school that appeared to be having excellent results. However, I have been trained to believe that boys and girls learn to get along with each other by interacting with each other in various setting and situations. After all, out in the "real world" the genders are not segregated. What is your personal position on gender-segregated school settings? What do you believe would be the implications of not having had extensive experience in interacting with the opposite sex from early on later in life--in relationships, the workplace, etc.?
I agree with you that boys and girls need to learn about one another so that, as men and women, they can get along better. You use the words "extensive experience interacting with the opposite sex." Does that mean they have to go to school together every year of their childhoods? Does that mean there shouldn't be single-sex schools or single-sex camps? I think it is also important for boys to be in a male-only environment, and learn to make close friends with other boys and learn to manage the intensity of boy-to-boy competition. I also believe that every girl should spend time in a female-only environment, and come to understand the comforts and stresses of female companionship.
If I were in charge of everything, I would ensure that every child had both co-ed and single-sex educational experiences during their childhoods. But when I am pushed, when people say to me, "Do you recommend a single-sex education?" this is what I say: "The most important thing about a school is that it is a good school, with excellent teachers, high morale, a coherent mission, small class size and academic standards. If I had to choose between an excellent coed school and a so-so boys' school, of course I would choose the better school, the coed school. Without a doubt. If I had a choice between two equally good schools, one coed and the other a single-sex school, I would consult my values and try to choose a school that was the best fit for my child.
(One personal note: I attended all-boys' schools from the age of three until I was eighteen. As an adult, I have worked in a profession, psychology, where the majority of my colleagues are women. I work in elementary schools, where a majority of the teachers are women, and I have never felt that my all-boys' school background was a problem. I have also been happily married for twenty-five years to my wife, Theresa. So I think I turned out okay. But, of course, I could be blind. You'd have to ask my wife and the women who work with me!)Sharon from China, MI, writes:
I have three boys, ten, eight and six. The oldest is very hyperactive and is easily distracted. He is very demanding of his younger brothers and he balks at authority and discipline from parents and teachers. He was diagnosed as an anxious child. Would a very structured and strict routine be best for him?
Anxious children tend to appreciate a predictable routine because it holds fewer surprises for them. However, for many anxious children the key issue is feeling either in control or out of control. They need to feel as if they can calm their anxiety with familiar patterns, such as being able to retreat into their rooms for an hour when they come home from school or play a favorite game.
Too much structure imposed by adults (which children can translate as too much authority) can make anxious children feel as if they have no control over their own lives and cause them to become oppositional. For your ten-year-old, I would think you might have to experiment with some mixture of a predictable routine and allowing him times to have control over his own life (as long as his choice of routine isn't bossing his brothers around). A "strict" routine might make him feel hemmed in.Jacqueline from Boston, MA, writes:
Your PBS show was a great relief for me. It made me feel my boy is "normal" and helped me understand him and his behavior much better. Nevertheless, most mothers of toddler boys I know tend to judge very negatively little boys who are allowed to express their aggressive behavior either by playing with weapons, telling stories or wrestling. How should I handle mothers (or parents) who do not allow their boys to express their aggressive behavior? Should I find new friends, show them your video, ask my child not to shoot with his weapon "finger" around such children?
When another mother glares at your son for shooting with his finger or a toy gun, turn to her and say, "I see that worries you? Do you think that childhood play leads to violence?" If she is honest, she will probably say, "I don't know. It just makes me uncomfortable. I don't like shooting of any kind." Or she might say, "Maybe. If boys shoot toy guns, maybe it will want to make them use real guns when they are older."
You might reply, "Yes, I understand your discomfort, and I used to worry about it myself, but after I talked to so many peaceful, responsible grown men who acknowledged that they had engaged in pretend gun play when they were young, I stopped thinking that it was going to lead to real violence. Now, as long as they aren't poking each other in the eye with the guns, I think it is just play." (If you want to say, "I saw the video 'Raising Cain' and was reassured about boy fantasy play," of course, please do.)
Don't get defensive when she glares at your son; all you can do is acknowledge the other mother's discomfort and then reassure her that you have thought the issue through. What I know for certain is that she doesn't have any research on her side that connects boy play with later violence. All she has is her fears, and you can help her let them go, if you are willing to address them directly.C.M. from Cleveland, OH, writes:
I have a 15 year-old son who is not involved in any outside activities after school. All he wants to do is be left alone to play video games all night every night and on weekends. He plays games about seven hours a day in the evenings. When I tell him to do other things or try to get him interested in other activities, it ends up in an argument, and I never seem to get anywhere-he just goes back to playing video games. Underlying factors are that he has few friends, he is extremely shy and is very overweight.
Does he have any friends at all? Do they play video games? Does he ever invite them over to play? Does he ever get invited anywhere? I am a lot more worried about your son's isolation and loneliness than I am about his game-playing. You see, I don't think there is anything wrong with video games in the context of a balanced life. For a boy who is doing well in school, who participates in extra-curricular activities and who has friends, I am likely to say: Let him play. Your son, however, has no other options but the games. And being overweight, he has every reason to hide away.
The problem is that if you have never limited his game time in the past, he is not used to it. Now, at fifteen, he is going to resent it deeply and fight back. I think you may need to require him to get some kind of a weekend job, so he will be rewarded (by a paycheck) for leaving his games, and he will feel competent at something. A job may also help him socially. If his father or uncle (I am assuming that you are a mother writing to me) can invite him to go engage in activities in the evening, that would help. He needs to feel useful and competent at something other than games, but simply telling him to "do something else" won't work. There has to be a rewarding option.
You also need to talk to his doctor about his weight. Your son is at risk for diabetes. Please tell his doctor how much time he spends sitting and get his doctor to address the issue with your son. Also, check on whether he is depressed. Natural shyness is one thing, social withdrawal is another, and it can be a sign of depression. Please be sure to check on that. Talk with his teachers. Do they think he is withdrawn and depressed?Christine from Cape Coral, FL, writes:
Should tackle football be allowed as part of recess? Recently, tackle football was banned from my son's third grade recess activities. He and nine other boys were written up for an infraction of the newly instituted policy. The classes receive fifteen minutes of recess after lunch, weather permitting. There is no structure to the recess other than the ban on tackle football. Do you have any suggestions regarding recess to enhance the school day of a third grader?
I understand why schools ban tackle football when the boys have no protective equipment. Nine out of ten times (or even ninety-nine out of a hundred times) no one will be hurt with a game of informal tackling, but the school system is worried about injury and lawsuits, and so they have to ban it. A ban, however, is not enough; they have to provide some interesting alternatives. The boys need a teacher to go out with them and teach them to play two-hand touch football. That is the traditional alternative to tackling, and it is a lot of fun. The teacher can help them to do it correctly, really emphasizing the two-hand touch aspect rather than the tackling. They'll learn. Soccer is, of course, what is played at recess around the world and involves relatively less contact. Has the school made soccer balls available at recess? Is there a teacher who can teach a bit of soccer to boys who don't know the game?
There has to be something that boys can do at recess. It isn't right for the school to ban their favorite game and then give them no alternative equipment or options.Fawn from Covington, KY, writes:
My son is going to be four in a couple of months. When he's upset, he will hit himself on the arm and tell me he's "being bad!" What's the cause of this, and how should I respond?
Young children often have very simple views of right and wrong, and extreme views about punishment. They also get very easily frustrated. Sometimes all these feelings get mixed up, especially when things don't turn out the way they want. When your son cannot make the world work the way he wishes, he may feel that it is "My bad!" and want to hurt himself. Hitting himself is a variation on punching a wall, something adolescent boys do with some frequency.
Part of growing up is coming to understand the differences between mistakes and crimes. Children do not yet have a sense of proportion--the punishment must fit the crime--and they often think natural, human error requires punishment. This is part of normal developmental attitudes of a child at four; his views will become more balanced and moderate as he grows older. For now, you need to stop him from hitting himself. Take his hands in your hands and say, "No, honey, you're not bad. You're just angry that such-and-such happened. Please don't hit yourself when you're upset."Sonya from Detroit, MI, writes:
I am a newly divorced parent of a 14-year-old son. My son can be so loving and caring. At other times, I think he could hurt everyone in sight. I have thought about finding him an anger management group or a male mentor. He loves basketball, but every time something goes wrong with his attitude, the coach pulls him from the games. This breaks him down every time. I fully support him, but I can't overrule their calls. How do I get him to understand that his attitude/reaction to situations controls the outcome? When he feels he is right, there is no changing his mind.
This sounds like a case of displaced anger. I wonder whether your son is mad about the divorce and he is acting it out on the basketball court. Sometimes when boys are angry about something very big and they feel quite helpless to change the situation, they became rigid and stubborn. They also tend to take out their anger on family members, or on teachers and coaches who they know can contain them. Has your son ever talked about being upset? Has he ever discussed the divorce? Has his father moved out? Does he blame one or the other of you for the divorce?
You would think that he would be able to control his temper in basketball, because he knows what is going to happen if he can't; his coach is going to pull him out of the game. The fact that he cannot manage himself in games means he is emotionally stuck inside. At the very least, I think you should speak to the coach. Tell him that you support his actions but explain that your son is under a lot of pressure. Is there any way that the coach can "coach" your son out of his anger or negotiate a way for your son to return to the game? If there isn't--if your son's reaction is too extreme--then I would schedule a visit to a family therapist. Go with him and tell the therapist how worried you are about the way your son's behavior has changed since the divorce.Kathy from Lancaster, PA, writes:
My son is in second grade, and his teachers are eager for me to seek a diagnosis of ADHD for him, and seem to be advocating for medication. We, his parents, don't want to start down that path yet, particularly the medication. But we recognize that there are some real challenges to having him in the classroom. He is certainly very active, although not aggressive, and he does have real trouble focusing on schoolwork. What's the best next step?
Is he the most active boy in the classroom? Is he constantly in trouble? Is he falling behind the other boys in his schoolwork? Is he getting sent to the principal's office? I suggest that you ask the teachers these questions. Because if he is not aggressive, if he has friends, and he is keeping up with his schoolwork, then I wonder why they are in such a hurry to have him on medication. He may be very active, but is he hyperactive?
Clearly, you are mistrustful of the teachers and their recommendations; perhaps you don't like the idea of psychologists and psychiatrists. Please know that just because you take him for an evaluation does not mean you have "started down that path." Not all children with ADHD need medication, not all benefit from a trial of it (you should know whether it works or not in two weeks), and there are other techniques that can be used before you have to consider medication. May I recommend you read Ned Hallowell and John Ratey's classic book Driven to Distraction, or their recent updated version, Delivered from Distraction? Both men are successful doctors, both have ADHD; they are very sympathetic to active boys in school. Once you have read those books, you will have a very good idea of whether your son fits the diagnosis or not.Janet from Concord, MA, writes:
I am an early-childhood educator currently teaching kindergarten. I have read your books, heard you lecture, and viewed the PBS show. During writing workshop, I see the same gender-specific writing themes that you highlighted. I would like to know how to support what is typical and help with the confusion they experience by overexposure and early exposure to violence in the media.
This is a huge and important topic and one that I cannot address in a couple of paragraphs. It is not just the boys who are confused about media violence. I think that most adults are confused by whether media violence makes boys violent, or whether what boys seen on television is just art, just play, nothing that will corrupt their lives. I tend to believe that play violence is not violence and does not cause real violence (humiliation, seeing real violence and being hit does) , but at certain ages it can be overwhelming.
Allow me to recommend both the PBS Parents Guide to Understanding and Raising Boys and some books by experts who were part of the Raising Cain documentary film. Tom Newkirk, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, has written a marvelous book called Misreading Masculinity in which he gives many suggestions about how to react to children's interest in violence and the violence in boys' fantasy stories. Jane Katch, the Kindergarten teacher from Grafton, Massachusetts, has written with great insight about Kindergarten boys and their preoccupations with media violence in a book called Under Deadman's Skin. The classic book which explains why children need violence in their stories (but not their lives) is Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment.Louis from Chicago, IL, writes:
You talk a lot about fantasy versus reality play and how to understand it better as a parent. My nine-year-old son writes stories that are very detailed, with some very scary instances of violence (stabbing a girl in the chest for instance). He has created a written fantasy world (with "books", illustrations, casts of characters, etc.) that seem to only focus on the bad guys. I'm not sure if the good guys ever win in his stories. He is not exposed to this level of violence in the home (no video games, no cable TV, rarely a computer game). He has seen the original Star Wars trilogy and many of the things in his stories seem to mimic these movies.
Does your son hit people? Is he angry much of the time? Has he ever hurt a little girl? If not, then I'm really not worried about what he writes in his stories. I am concerned about children's behavior, not their fantasies, because I don't think that writing stories about evil characters leads to violence. Quite the contrary, both Sigmund Freud and Bruno Bettelheim believed that reading and writing vivid, gruesome stories helped children to tame the angry, destructive feelings that all human beings experience. I think that they were right. Many of Shakespeare's plays end up with dead people all over the floor; every episode of Law and Order starts with the murder of some person, usually a young woman who gets stabbed. Disney's most popular animated films involve the violent death of a mother (Bambi), the treachery of an uncle and the killing of a father (Lion King) and attempted murder (Snow White). We all like stories that are dramatic, dangerous and that involve evil; all myths and fairy tales have criminal characters. Stories don't have to have happy endings in order to reassure us; what reassures is that the evil is contained in art, in writing or in pictures.
What should reassure you is the knowledge that your loving nine-year-old boy is writing vivid stories, and he may grow up to be a screenwriter, or a theater director, or an English professor (they read such stories all the time). When he asks you to read a story, you should react to it as a work of art, not a premonition of bad things to come, but as a work of fiction. Tell him, "Wow, that was scary! That was shocking. It made me afraid." He'll smile and realize that he is a successful author. Please don't worry anymore.Wendy from Dover, NH, writes:
My seven-year-old is the youngest in his class. He does well academically, but struggles very much with respecting others' personal space. During playground time he has recurring outbursts. He hates to be embarrassed or to lose, and usually reacts verbally, then physically when challenged on the playground. I have been working with the school, but we don't witness any angry behavior at home. He is an only child and doesn't often interact with other kids in our home environment. My concern is that he has been offered "alternative recess" instead of going out on the playground. I suggested that perhaps he could use extra physical activity instead of restricted physical activity. We currently have a "hands-free" behavior plan that tracks his activity each day. However, he has been removed from a lot of group situations where he tends to get distracted or tends to lash out physically--a desk of his own instead of round-table seating, a bathroom chaperone and the "restricted recess." The school's concern is that they've removed the triggers but not modified his behavior. They have even mentioned anger management. I am strongly anti-drug, but want to do the best thing for my son.
You and your son's teachers have done a good job identifying some of the triggering situations that make your son explosive, but I don't think we yet know what is making him so angry. Is he overwhelmed by the noise of school, the social demands of the boy group? Is he a perfectionistic and anxious boy who gets tense because of the academic expectations of school? I can't tell for sure, but I suspect he might have sensory integration problems. It is critically important that you find out what is bugging him because explosive, angry boys lose friends and may not be able to get them back. (That's why they have him in a restricted recess. I do wish some adult could take him and play a vigorous game with him during that time.)
I would suggest that you have your son psychologically tested and evaluated by a child psychiatrist, so that you can know more about how his brain works and what he is experiencing inside. You have made a good start, but keep up your investigative work. Don't put him on medication until someone whom you trust can persuade you that it is the best course of action. The teachers are frustrated, and I understand why, but don't rush into things. Time, his development and the experience of his teachers will produce an answer. You might want to read Ross Greene's "The Explosive Child."Debbie from Pasco, WA, writes:
I have a 15-year-old who seems angry and unhappy most of the time. His grades haven't suffered, but he is pretty much a loner except for his sports team. We are a two-parent family, and while we both work full time, it's only been that way for the last few years. We spend most weekends together and have a relatively calm home life--none of the big issues as any kind like abuse, poverty, etc. We don't spoil our kids with stuff, but he has never wanted for any basics and we're not total Scrooges either. I have tried like crazy to help him focus more on the positive than negative. I would like to think this is intense hormones, but I worry about him making himself miserable in life. When I talk to him about depression, he gives me mixed signals. Should I force him to go to a doctor even if he says he doesn't need to?
I think there is a strong possibility that your son is depressed; it is not normal for a boy to be "angry and unhappy most of the time," in the way you described. Sometimes parents think that being angry or withdrawn is normal teenage behavior, but they are mistaken. Normal teenagers experience strong feelings; they have higher "highs" and lower "lows" than adults, but they shouldn't be sad all the time. Because boys try to hide their sadness, they often come across as withdrawn and irritable.
I do think your son should see a doctor. However, I would advise against sending him on his own, unless he wants to. Boys generally don't like to go to psychiatrists and psychologists, because it feels like an admission of weakness. They fight being labeled as "sick" because it makes them feel as if they have failed, or lost control. I suggest you find a family therapist or an expert in adolescence who will meet with all of you together. You can then describe your worries about him. Make yourself and your concerns the focus until either your son convinces you and the doctor that he is really fine, or your son is willing to acknowledge that he has some bad feelings that plague him. You can then turn to him and say, "Do you want to talk to the doctor on your own about this, or do you want us to stay and try to help." At that point your son will be able, with the doctor's help, to take care of his own treatment.
Please don't delay for too long. Most depressed adolescent boys do not get an accurate diagnosis until they have depressed for three years. Good luck.
Tracy from Wayne, NE, writes:
Our son is almost nine. He has all As and B-pluses this semester, but he "spaces" and does not listen to directions and needs to be redirected frequently. He is very mellow and polite--so hyperactivity is definitely not a problem. The teachers have asked him why he is not paying attention. He says that nothing is bothering him and does not know why. His reading teacher talked to the special-ed group at the school. They had him do some different activities, and he does very well one-on-one, he also does well when he works independently. The problem is when he works in groups. The teachers have him sitting in the front row and try to make as much contact with him as possible. But that does not really seem to work. My husband and I would like to help him and the school any way we can.
I don't think there is a problem here. Your son is getting As and B-pluses this semester; he's mellow and polite and not hyperactive. He learns very well in a one-on-one situation and when he is working on his own. The problem seems to be that he gets bored and his mind wanders when he's in a group. That's pretty common in school; actually, that's pretty common in life. Indeed, I wish a had a dollar for every boy in school who is day-dreaming when the teaching is talking. I bet I'd have about fifteen million dollars or more in my pocket (there are currently twenty-six million boys in school.)
I am having difficulty understanding why your son's teachers are so upset about this. He's only eight years old. He will mature and his brain will develop. He will learn to focus better, even when the material is not that interesting to him. And though he will get better at listening in a group, he may, for all of his life, prefer to learn on his own than in a classroom. We're not all cut out for classroom learning. We don't all have school brains. He's getting good grades, he knows how to learn. I hope you can relax and that his teachers can too.Jennifer from Monroe, NC, writes:
How do we suggest to our teachers that more physical activity is necessary in the school day? My six-year-old son gets a "red dot" every day since he doesn't follow directions or sit still. He thinks he is stupid and bad now because of this, but they get NO recess to burn energy. I have asked what sort of physical activity they get and I'm told they play "follow the leader" on occasion. I am worried that my very intelligent son will not be successful in school.
I share your concerns about the school. I think boys would benefit from two recess periods each and every day; they would learn much better if they got to run around a bit. Instead, we pin them down in chairs and nag them all day for moving around too much. It is unfair to boys to wish they were like the girls; three-quarters of the boys in a class are more physically active, more impulsive and developmentally immature in comparison to girls of the same chronological age. Boys and girls are different. We mustn't make girls the "gold standard" in schools and then treat boys as if they were defective girls. It is unfair, and if we do it they will learn to hate school.Lisa from Austin, TX, writes:
Our eight-year-old third grader, who has been tested and identified as gifted, is having behavior problems at school. Sometimes he finishes his work early and has spare time. He really enjoys the attention he gets by being a class clown. He doesn't always know when his humor is appropriate and when it isn't. His teacher is usually great at redirecting him, but I'm afraid she is losing patience. I want to help him make the right choices so he does not have more obstacles to overcome by being on the wrong side of his teacher. How can I help him? How can I help his teacher deal with him?
Your gifted son needs more challenging work, teachers who like him and a lot of understanding. Many boys who are bored in school find being the class clown an entertaining side career. How do they learn what is appropriate and inappropriate? They learn by clowning around and getting into a little trouble. And when the trouble has passed you hope they have a teacher who allows them to read a good book or a comic book after they have finished their work. That's a boy's reward for resisting the impulse to play to the crowd.Ryan from Kansas City, MO, writes:
I'm a father of two young boys, one two-and-a-half years and the other four-months old. I didn't have a father figure growing up. Should I be concerned that the lack of that relationship/experience could affect my relationship with my sons?
Your sons are lucky to have you as a dad. I know that because I see that the lack of a father figure in your life has already affected your relationship with your sons in a good way. It has made you determined to do a wonderful job of fathering them. If that weren't true, you wouldn't have written to ask for advice.
We are all shaped by our own childhood experiences and we repeat some of those things in our parenting. Our experiences of being loved when we were kids come out in our capacity to love our children later in life; our unhappy experiences are played out in our lousiest parenting moments. What if you had had a father who criticized you constantly? What if you had had a father who hit you around? While it is hard to father without a model--because you don't have much that you can remember, imitate and repeat--you also don't have a bad model. Much of parenting is an intuitive and creative act. With love, goodwill, some ingenuity and a willingness to learn, you can do a great job. Just take all the great things your mother did with you and try to translate that into your fathering. Then watch other dads, watch your friends and brothers-in-law (if you have them). Copy what you see talented teachers and coaches do. But mainly you should do what feels right to you, because you have lived a life and you know what people need in order to feel loved and nourished. Give that to your sons. And hey, if you aren't the perfect parent, try to remember that no one is. Children only need us to be good-enough.Kathy from the Bronx, NY, writes:
I have a nine-year-old boy, who at times I'm not sure if I know or can really understand who he is. He's not very communicative with me, but he is with others, such as childcare providers. I tell him that not only am I his mom, but his friend. His dad is absent from our lives, and that gets him upset--he doesn't understand why he left. I have a boyfriend now who really wants to take my son under his wing, but sometimes the tantrums come out, and he is extremely emotional. He often cries at the silliest things. To me they are very unreasonable and I wish we knew how to deal with it. It's OK to show emotions, but sometimes I can't comprehend my own son.
Most nine-year-old boys do not to communicate a lot with their moms, especially not in words and long sentences. Here's why: They think you know pretty much everything about them already, and if you don't know it immediately, they imagine you'll figure it out by this evening. You see, your son imagines that you can read his mind, because you nursed him, diapered him, anticipated his moods, knew when he had to go to the bathroom and figured when he was about to get frustrated. You are his mother and he thinks you have a sixth sense about him. He doesn't need to tell you everything.
That's not true of childcare providers and teachers. Your son cannot take for granted that they will understand him, and so he fills them in. I understand why you are a bit jealous of that fact, but it won't do any good to tell him that you are his friend. He won't believe you: friends are friends and moms are moms. As parents we can enjoy very friendly moments with our children, but at the end of the day someone who tells you when to go to bed, who makes you take a bath, who forces you to turn off the TV and do your homework, etc. is not your friend. She is your mother. And so you hide some things from her (all children do) so you won't worry her or make her mad.
It is also the case that boys pretend that they don't need their mothers because it makes them feel more grown up and strong. That doesn't fool anyone and it shouldn't fool you. He needs you more than he can ever say. He needs you to hold him when he collapses and cries, even if he can't tell you why he is so frustrated and mad. Just sit with him and say, "Honey, I know this hurts you. I don't understand what you are so angry about, but I'll sit her until you feel better." Ask him if he is upset about his dad---just a quick sentence---or because he's not good at something he wants to be able to do. Tell him that if he is upset about his father abandoning the family, well, then he's not wrong to be angry.
Don't indulge a tantrum, but don't punish it either; try to be calm and relaxed until he recovers his self-control. If you tell anyone that what they are distressed about is no big thing, they will often get madder because they feel misunderstood. It is better to say to your son, "I know you're upset, I know that anger has got a hold on you. I'm sure you'll be able to get free in a couple of minutes."Linda from Edina, MN, writes:
I have twin five-year-old boys. When one of them gets mad, he will kick, hit, spill, throw anything in sight. How do I help him release this energy in a healthy, acceptable manner? I've tried to get him to walk or run with me immediately before he throws, but he refuses. If I begin the walking or running and if he wants my attention, he will chase me yelling and screaming the whole way. He can go from happy and calm to outraged in seconds.
Five-year-old boys have strong, muscular bodies and big, big feelings. They feel the injustices of the world very strongly and outrage is exactly the right word for what they experience. Some boys think they can take the world by storm through a display of kicking and throwing. Your son is one of them. I hope he isn't kicking you, spitting at you or throwing things at you. I'm hoping that he has enough self-control to aim his anger at other targets. If so, you can work with him without having to restrain him physically, which you would otherwise have to do to prevent him from hurting someone.
I like the fact that you can anticipate his blow-ups. When you see one coming you can tell him that you need to stand back because you don't want to get hurt. Don't run away, but you can back away a couple of steps, remaining deliberate and calm. (What's his twin brother doing when this is happening?) Tell him that you don't want him to throw things, that you know he is angry, but you expect him to get his feelings under control. Look at him seriously, take him seriously, but try not to give him a lot of response; don't get worked up yourself, if you can help it. And then reward him whenever you see him making an effort to get himself under control. Tell him how much you appreciate his effort and that you see he's getting more grown-up. When it is over, try to move as quickly as possible back into some pleasurable routine. If you need more hands-on techniques, may I recommend Ross Greene's "The Explosive Child."Leah from Green Bay, WI, writes:
My three-year-old is a smart and imaginative little boy, but beyond stubborn. We try our best to reward and encourage his good behavior, but after a while he realizes what we are doing and goes against everything we say. He does not care if he has his toys taken away or is spanked. He will often look right at us, or make sure we are looking, when he does things he knows he is not supposed to do. It is also getting harder and harder to control him just because of his sheer size and strength (he is 42" and 44 lbs). What can we do?
You've got a courageous little guy who is trying to assert his independence and strength in the world, and he is willing to take on his parents. Your son has a bad case of the "The Terrible Threes." (Whoever coined the term, "The Terrible Twos" got it mostly wrong; we usually see these kinds of displays at three years of age.) The problem here is that he is starting to look for fights and settling old scores when underneath he probably feels pretty frightened and disconnected from you.
You do need to find out what kinds of praise and punishments work best for him. Since spanking has not worked, and probably makes him more defiant, I would try not to hit him. See if you can keep the battle from getting to that point. You are doing absolutely the right thing to try to reward his good behavior. Don't get discouraged; keep up your system of rewards and praise. That is more powerful than punishment and it will succeed in the long run, even though it doesn't always feel like it is working.
You should also try to anticipate his misbehavior and divert him to some other activity if you can. If you see he is heading in the wrong direction, say, "Let's do some cooking. Do you want to break the eggs so we can make some brownies?" Or, take him outside and let him use the hose and spray it all around (I guess that won't work in the winter in Wisconsin. How about throwing snow or building a fort?) Get him some drums to pound on. Many things come to mind. Does his dad wrestle with him? When his dad sees him about to do something wrong, perhaps can he scoop him up, throw him over his shoulder and say, "I got you, you rascal." Anything that avoids a confrontation. Does he have an older brother who can wrestle with him without hurting him? That might be an excellent diversion.
You may want to try to ignore his provocative behavior whenever you can. Look the other way and get interested in something else. If he cannot "bait" you with mischievous behavior, it may not be so appealing to him. If his behavior does not get better, consult a preschool director or someone else who can observe him and make suggestions. There may be something in the interaction that I cannot perceive from a letter. Perhaps your mother-in-law might have some ideas. Was your husband like this when he was three? He won't remember, but his mother sure will.Donna from London, CT, writes:
My six-year-old son has always dominated his five-year-old brother, but since his younger brother has started school, the six-year-old's behavior has become more mean. He often tries to gang-up on my son when they are on group playdates (e.g. not letting him be on the same team, excluding him from playing with him and their other friends). He also likes to tell my younger son how much better he is than him at various games, sports, etc. I've tried time-outs, taking away toys and activities, and explaining how hurtful this is to his younger brother. When I ask him why he does this, he simply says "I don't know". My older son doesn't exhibit this behavior at school with his classmates, only some gentle teasing. What should I do?
The closer in age two boys are, the more intense the sibling rivalry between them. When your older boy was in school and his younger brother was not, the older one could feel more "grown up," and he could imagine that he had his own territory. Now, he has to share school and share his friends. It is vitally important to him to be older and "cooler." I think he's showing off for his friends. That's what is making him meaner.
The question I have for you is whether your younger son is being crushed by all of this. You use the word "dominate." I take that seriously. Does that mean he is getting punched, hit and is constantly getting the worst of it? When the older one boasts, does it hurt the younger one's feelings, or does it just make him more competitive? Does your younger boy like to provoke his older brother; does he ever land some "blows," either verbal or physical? Most importantly, does he keep seeking out his older brother's company? Do they play cooperatively when it just the two of them? If the younger boys does have some power in the relationship, the "domination" may not be as harmful as you believe. Indeed, the younger brother may often enjoy testing his strength against the older one.
If they really are at each other's throats every day after school, for a period of time I would try to arrange some separate play-dates for your younger son, at someone else's house, when his older brother has friends over, or vice versa. I bet they will miss each other and when they ask to be together tell them, "I can't let you play with each other when friends are over because it gets so mean that I cannot stand it." See if the older one will clean up his act a bit when he sees that you are prepared to separate the two of them.Cliff from Woodbourne, NY, writes:
My son is seven-years-old, and he has been bullied in his second-grade class. I spoke with the teachers, principal and the superintendent. I requested that the school switch him to a different class, and they refuse. My son is afraid to step foot in the school. I have been keeping him out of school for the last week. I really don't want to send him back into that environment. I am getting prepared to home school him. Am I doing the right thing?
I am so sorry to hear that your son is afraid of school. That's not good. It sounds as if he is an anxious boy and he is getting more anxious with what is happening at school. I have some questions: does anyone at school see the bullying or acknowledge that it is going on? Does the teacher see it? Is there a counselor or social worker at the school experienced with helping the victims of bullying?
The school may not be willing to switch him to a new class, but the teacher should step in and protect your son, or give you an explanation of why he or she cannot. Educators do have experience with this kind of situation; I would give them a chance to help your son. Home-schooling is, of course, always an option, and your son will certainly feel protected by you if you home school him. But if you take him out, you may need to be prepared to home school him for a number of years. Unless he works it out at school, he won't be eager to go back for third grade.Lisa from Marcy, NY, writes
My son is twelve-years-old and really struggling in school. He has previously taken Ritalin in second and third grade with little difference noted. Currently all of his teachers say his problem is focus. The only thing that really captures his attention is video games. He has been tested and has an IQ in the high average range, with exceptional math skills and poor written expression and reading skills.
I really don't have enough information here to give you a thoughtful answer. Many middle-school boys don't like school. Boys with poor skills in writing and reading can get discouraged in elementary school, where the curriculum is four-fifths language based, and start to withdraw their energy. Boys who are doing badly in school often they declare that "everything is boring." And, of course, almost all twelve-year-old boys love video games.
So, let me ask you some questions: Is this just about academic performance? Does he like some aspects of school? Does he have a good relationship with any teacher or does he really HATE everything about it? Is he in disciplinary trouble? Does he have friends? Does he have any friends who get good grades? How sad and discouraged is he?
If there are aspects of school such as friends or sports that work for him, you've got a good chance of re-engaging him. A talented tutor who can work with him both in math and in writing might help him feel successful again. Boys who have trouble focusing in a large classroom setting can often get a lot out of a one-to-one situation. Perhaps you could hire a cool high school student who could work with him two days a week. The new relationship, a sense of mastery and an upturn in his grades might re-motivate him.
If however, he doesn't have friends, isn't engaged in anything, and doesn't want to go to school, we have to consider whether he is depressed. You need to talk to a counselor at school and decide which road to take, tutoring or an evaluation for depression (or a re-evalution for Attention Deficit Disorder.)Juli from Russellville, AL, writes:
I have three-year-old son who is extremely independent and bluntly defiant. How can we manage his temper fits without damaging his independence and spirit? We tried time outs, spankings (which I feel contributes to his rage), and taking things away. It all does not seem to matter to him. He is trying to control us and we are just trying to teach him the correct behavior. I'm ashamed and sad sometimes that I do not like to be around him.
Three-year-old boys can be tyrannical and ferocious...and unpleasant. Their behavior is quite a shock coming so soon after being the wonderful, sweet little babies they were just months before. And it always comes as a shock to parents when they find they are not liking their own beloved child. I appreciate your honesty.
Here's what you need to know. Raw aggression peaks in human life between ages of two and three. When I say "raw aggression" I mean hitting, kicking, spitting, and tantrums; I mean the kind of anger that doesn't take other people's feelings into account at all. That's the kind of behavior your son is displaying and that's why you are feeling the way you are. Is his behavior normal? Yes. Is your son an above-average angry boy? Probably. After all, there is a range of temperaments in boys, from the sweet and calm to the hard-charging and easily frustrated. Has spanking him made him angrier? Probably, and that's what you have observed. I admire you for being willing to change disciplinary methods when one, like spanking, isn't working.
First of all, let me reassure you that you are going to win this struggle---he's not going to be like this at seven---and that he needs you to win so he can grow up to be a good person. He needs you to not be overwhelmed by his determined autonomy strivings, backed up by his quick temper. He needs to know that he can come back from being ferocious and find a loving mother there to comfort him. He is, after all, a little boy. Your job is to experiment with many different kinds of techniques: anticipating difficult situations and diverting him before he blows up, systematic rewards for good behavior, ignoring certain behaviors until he lets them go. (If you can. It is hard to really ignore obnoxious behavior, but if you can completely ignore it, it will extinguish some of his most provocative techniques.)
You may need some help. When you are feeling exhausted (and want to take revenge on him), get your husband to take him outside on some long adventure. Wear him out with physical activity in a setting where he cannot get in trouble. You may need to put him in a play-group run by an experienced childcare person; he will act differently when he is surrounded by other boys (believe it or not, that can help.) Finally, you may want to get a book full of suggestions for managing high-energy, low-frustration-tolerance kids. Stanley Turecki's "The Difficult Child" is a classic. Ross Greene's "The Explosive Child" is full of good ideas. Good luck. Years from now, he will thank you because you hung in there with him through these years.Kim from Franklin, IN, writes:
I have a five-year-old son who won't talk to adults. He's in kindergarten, and he still won't talk to his teacher. He also wouldn't talk to his preschool teacher. The school thinks he might have selective mutism. Our doctor said he will grow out of it. He talks at home and to other kids, but not to adults.
I think your son has just decided that the only adults he is going to deal with are his parents. The rest of them, he has decided, don't really "get" him and he's not sure he wants them to have power over him. So, he is exercising a power that he has over them: silence. Selective mutism is unusual, but it not necessarily bad.
It is a great sign your son talks to you at home and he talks to other kids. If he is not defiant, oppositional or unhappy in school, and if he follows directions when his Kindergarten teacher asks him to do things, I'm not worried about him. I agree with your doctor that he will almost certainly outgrow it (there are no mute sixth graders!) . He may also be temperamentally very shy, and he has found the Kindergarten classroom to be quite a shock. Was he at home up until he went to Kindergarten? Was he in a sweet, little day-care situation where he was known and loved? If this selective mutism just started this year, it may be a transitional behavior which will disappear when he feels more comfortable in school.Paula from Green Bay, WI, writes:
I have a sixteen-year-old son diagnosed with PDD-NOS, who presents a lot of ODD. Every week brings challenges. This week he was banned from lunch, sent to the office with a referral for duct taping another student's hands, failed two core classes, and refuses to have dinner with the family. Next week we have a court appearance for battery. He refuses further therapy. How do I not give up on this child?
You need all the help and support you can get because your son has two tough problems. He is very delayed in his development (PDD is Pervasive Developmental Disorder, for those who don't know) and that makes him feel different and behind. ODD, or Oppositional Defiant Disorder, is a very tough problem to manage in an eight-year-old, but it is especially tough in a sixteen-year-old, because he is large and can strike out.
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