The book, “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” has been on my “to read” list for a few years. You know that they say about good intentions....
Last night I tuned in to PBS to watch ”Raising Cain: Boys in Focus,” based on the book, and I found reinforcement and encouragement for many things I believe and try to practice as the parent of boys.
The program’s host and leading expert is Michael Thompson, a psychologist who works with children and families. Through the lens of specific boys’ experiences (ranging from babies and preschoolers to high schoolers) the program delved into the often undervalued and oversimplified inner life of boys. We often forget that even when they possess a man’s body, mentally they are still boys.
Though there were in-depth discussions about problems specific to those living in poverty or without fathers, it thankfully also provided a balanced look at the average boys who live in the suburbs with two parents.
Where big differences, both good and bad, occurred was at school. If a teacher understood that sometimes a boy’s fidgety behavior isn’t always something requiring medication, but could be managed with a walk around the school or an opportunity to blow off physical steam, they were more likely to succeed.
I had heard about the anti-boy bias that exists in some schools. When my guys were young I didn’t believe it exists. But I’ve seen it and it raged unchecked in their old school. One of the biggest reasons I pulled them from that environment was that they no longer felt comfortable in who they were there. They weren’t valued for their individuality.
I think it’s high time educators openly discuss how they treat boys and girls differently and what steps they can take to tailor instruction to meet ALL children’s needs.
Fifth grade is housed at Bay Middle School in our district. Essentially, these kids are still elementary students. Being in the middle school, however, they no longer have recess. Try telling a 10- or 11-year-old to sit still from 7:50 a.m. to 3 p.m.
But Patrick’s teacher is incredible in her understanding of how kids need to move and how they learn. She gets them up from their desk and does activities on the rug, then moves to tables and she keeps the pace moving. Fortunately, she has the space in her classroom to spread out.
She also understands Patrick’s apprehension about his fluency in reading. The class is reading a long book, averaging three chapters per night with a worksheet of comprehension questions and vocabulary. Good readers will plow through this story in no time. For Patrick, it could take hours.
Without his asking, she sent him home with the book on CD. So now he reads along with his headphones on and feels as if he’s “reading” and understanding the story without the stress of spending hours trying to get through the chapters. Best of all, he’s enjoying the story and reading more of it on his own. He's buoyed by the feeling of success.
Ryan’s seventh-grade science teacher is fabulous with the boys in her classroom. Rather than fight the excitement the many football players in her labs would have on game day, she would ask them about their games and encourage them in their efforts. As a result, she has their undying affection and has Ryan convinced that he wants to be a middle school science teacher.
But he does have one very young teacher who admitted to me during conferences that boys mystify her. I laughed, but she was serious. Their physicality intimidates her. To her credit, she has attempted some language arts exercises that tap into the competitiveness of boys. But she told me they were falling all over each other at the board.
Again, I laughed, knowing this is typical of boys. But this isn’t typical of her experience. She’s new to teaching and boys and since at least 50 percent of her student population will be male, she really requires some professional development training in educating and understanding 13-year-old boys.
For example, a 13-year-old boy isn’t going to put a pretty border on a social studies project. Their neatness is not always the best. But is the content there? Is it correct and presented in an intelligent fashion? If so, then knocking off points for not having decorative borders seems a bit unfair to me.
Michael has a tough time distinguishing between someone dying and someone getting killed. While we were getting ready for the day, he picked up a photo of my grandparents. He knows my Gram well, but my Grandpa died long before he was born. He asked, “How did he get killed?”
I tried to explain the difference between someone being ill and dying and someone getting killed. He still mixes it up, but I’m not overly concerned because though he thoroughly enjoys World War II movies, playing war and roughhousing with his older brothers, I know he’s just playing. Besides, he’s also a compassionate and caring friend.
And that was another issue raised in the documentary. Adults need to understand the distinction between a boys’ fantasy life (playing) and his real life. Playing war, macho posturing and wrestling is a way to express their feelings. When we come down on them for doing so we are effectively dismissing their inner life. And that’s dangerous to their development and maturity.
Here’s a synopsis of important statements from the program:
1) Americans are afraid of their boys. Think about a time you saw a group of teenagers gathered. Did you suck in your breath as you walked by? Did you assume they were up to no good? Did you feel threatened by them?
2) Boys want to feel safe in their home and school environments.
3) Boys will talk if we really listen and if they feel safe both physically and emotionally.
4) We need to find ways to connect with them somehow: sports, music, movies, art, drama, science, or games.
5) Boys need adult men as role models for compassion and caring.
What was most amazing about this program was that I watched it with Ryan. He came in a few minutes into the program after finishing his homework and he was riveted. “What is this?” he asked. “It’s a program about raising boys.” I didn’t say anything else but let him stay and watch as along as he wanted. He stayed for the entire program.
Afterward he looked at me and said, “That’s so true, mom.” Then he got up and went to bed. Perhaps I'll read that book now.