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Michael Thompson, Ph.D. is a consultant, author and psychologist specializing in children and families. Read more »
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As a psychologist who makes his living as a traveling lecturer, I speak to audiences of mothers, fathers and teachers every week. Over the course of a year, I probably answer more than 1,000 questions from parents, and the majority of those queries are, naturally, about sons. Occasionally someone asks, "What is the most-asked question about boys?" and it always makes me ponder: What is the one thing about boy behavior that most troubles parents?
I used to think the number one question was about how to get boys to talk. "How do I get my 15-year-old to speak to me?" moms would ask. "Why won't my son talk to me about college?" an exasperated father would wonder. "I can tell my third-grader is angry and hurt, but when I ask him about it, he won't answer me or he says that things are 'fine,'" a mother reports. Lack of talkativeness in boys is a big issue and a frustration for mothers, but mostly in middle-school and teenage boys. Many little guys are still telling their mothers everything (or their moms just seem to know everything).
Perhaps the number one question is from parents wondering why boys hate school and homework so much. "How can I help motivate my son?" a father asks. "He doesn't seem to care about school at all," a mother worries, "He just spends a few minutes on his homework." There is no question that more boys than girls seem to dislike school and fight back against it; no question that boys get more C's and D's than girls. More boys drop out before finishing high school. Academic underachievement is a big concern for many parents of boys.
Then there are the questions about boy bullying, aggression, anger and dumb behavior. And, what about their bad judgment? Why do they get so explosive and do such stupid things sometimes? Why don't they seem to grasp social cues or follow the rules the way girls do?
In the end, however, when I mentally add up all the questions that I am asked about boys of all ages, I have to conclude that THE number one question is about the high activity level of boys; their constant need for movement, running, and what seems like--but mostly is not--physical aggression. Boys' need to touch, to poke, to wrestle and to take physical risks is, at times, both baffling and frustrating for adults.
"My son can't sit still in class. He's always getting in trouble with the teacher. The school wants him evaluated for ADHD, but I think he's a normal boy. He's so sweet at home."
"Why does he want to run all the time; why does he run into the street?" wonders the mother of a 2 ½ -year-old.
"My son's school has a Zero Tolerance policy; they suspended him for stick-fighting at recess. He's only in Kindergarten, and he didn't hurt anybody."
"Why can't they sit still and listen when we're reading out loud. Why do they always pile on top of each other?" asks a Kindergarten teacher.
"My sons fight and wrestle every day. It's so upsetting to me," says the mom of two boys, 11 and 13, fearing that it means her sons won't have a good relationship when they grow up. I reassure her that many loving brothers wrestled as boys and continue wrestling into their twenties, thirties and forties.
Most of these questions come from women. They haven't lived inside a boy's body, and as a result they sometimes have a hard time identifying with how it feels to have the body, the muscles, the hormones and the physical drive of a boy. But men know. They remember how hard it was to sit still when they were little.
My basic answer to all these questions is biological: Most boys are made this way. Some boys are calm and quiet. But by school age, three-quarters of the boys in a classroom are more restless, more impulsive and more developmentally immature than any of the girls.
You cannot hold boys to a "girl standard" when it comes to physical movement. That said, there are some boys who are so distractible, impulsive and hyper that they need our help. How do we tell the difference? How do we know what is normal? When a boy is in trouble in school, is it because he is hyperactive or is the problem teachers who have no tolerance for normal boy behavior? It can be difficult for parents to sort these things out. That's one reason they turn to PBS Parents for advice.
So tell me, what's your number one question about your boy?
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