Raising strong boys: Things parents can do to keep their sons happy, healthy

November 10, 2018

While the past 50 years has redefined what it means to be female in America, some experts argue that boys in higher numbers have fallen way behind.

Generally, more boys in the U.S. get in trouble at school, withdraw or become depressed, said Michael Gurian, a Spokane family counselor and author of several books, including “Saving Our Sons.”

What Gurian calls a “boy crisis” has raised recent national debate, in the wake of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault, and because in a vast majority of cases, killers in mass shootings are male. In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in February, comedian, author and father Michael Ian Black wrote an essay for the New York Times titled “The Boys Are Not All Right.” In it, he wrote, “Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity, where manhood is measured in strength, where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others.”

This notion of “toxic masculinity” has taken hold in the popular culture, but Gurian argues it is a myth. Instead, he pushes for a dialogue centered on dealing with depression in boys and men – depression that sometimes results in violence.

“People say guys are violent because of toxic masculinity, but that’s not why they are violent,” Gurian said. “That’s kind of a mythology of this culture-based paradigm that doesn’t really look at male development.”

Gurian said boys who are depressed are biochemically more inclined to fight or flight. Major causes of depression are trauma, environmental toxins and lack of attachment, especially to a father.

“Males’ biochemistry is 10 to 20 times higher testosterone than females,” Gurian said. “That floods all the cells including the brain, and that’s how the brains are set up ahead of time in utero.

“When you have depressed males, you’re going to have more fight or flight, so you will have more of them who will become violent than females when they’re depressed. That includes more suicides – male suicides are four times higher than females – and violence against others.”

He co-founded the Gurian Institute that conducts research and training to help boys and girls thrive, applying research on brain science, development, emotional intelligence, motivation and depression. They’re clues for parents and educators on how they can help both males and females excel, he said.

Although each child is different, girls tend to have more verbal centers in the brain, allowing them to use more words and connect them to emotions. Boys generally access verbal functions on the brain’s left side, while the rest is “doing other stuff” in spatial, mechanical and visual realms, Gurian said.

That’s often, “my body is an object moving through space and I like to throw things,” he said. “I want to build something, knock it down, throw it to someone, and against the wall.”

Boys’ tendencies to be more physical, to learn better while in motion, and to react to stress is often at odds with social and school systems, Gurian added.

Eva Dwight, a positive discipline coach, recently retired from 32 years in Arizona public schools, mainly as a middle school counselor. About 15 years ago, she started noticing a higher percentage of students having academic and discipline issues were boys.

“Yes, we’ve got lots of successful boys, but look at how many are not,” Dwight said. However, she added it’s essential to treat each child as an individual while understanding differences on a spectrum regarding brain science, with many students being closer to the middle.

“When we talk about the gender brain research, we need to be very clear that we’re talking in generalities.” But being familiar with that research will help parents and educators reach more children on each end of that spectrum, and in the middle, she said.

Here are factors experts suggest are crucial for adults to understand about boys:

When “use your words” fails. Gurian said most people don’t understand that a 3-year-old boy won’t use words the way that a 3-year-old girl can, until they see brain scans and research.

“That 3-year-old girl has word centers on both sides of the brain and is connecting words to feelings, words to senses, words to the limbic system, the midbrain, where emotive things happen, connecting on both sides of the brain in six or seven different centers,” Gurian said.

A young boy, meanwhile, is more likely to communicate with physical touch, sometimes a little bit rough. “That’s a dopamine rush in the brain that’s activated; I’m a boy showing love there, but if I jump on someone to get that tactile love, and they don’t like it, that creates an issue.”

Parents and educators can teach boys words to describe feelings and emotions, perhaps through reading or while doing activities, Dwight said. “What we tend to do to boys when they have a physical response is say, ’Stop that. That’s wrong. Use your words.”

Many males after a conflict need to be given time and space to calm down because of what’s happening physically within their bodies, before adults ask them to talk about an outburst, she said.

Learning in motion. Preschools often lack enough space, and boys quickly get in trouble if they touch someone or roll around at story time, Gurian said. Boys often absorb more words and information if they can move.

That’s linked to the cerebellum, Gurian said, and when the cerebellum is active, it activates more of the boy’s upper brain. “When we test them, we see they actually retained more of the words and more of the story if they rolled around, but if forced to sit still, they retained almost nothing.”

Some schools give the option of movement while instruction happens. Nick Senger, principal at St. John Vianney in Spokane, said students in second, third and fourth grades can choose to sit on stability balls instead of chairs.

“They have a choice if they’d like to use them or not,” Senger said. “Boys more often than girls tend to want to use them. It’s a way to try to occupy their bodies while they’re trying to learn.”

Water and walking. Both Dwight and Senger say they’ve learned strategies often helpful to boys when they have a physical reaction causing a discipline issue. It’s frequently better if they aren’t required to speak at once and instead “take a walk” or do some physical activity to calm down.

“I’ve definitely seen it helps to give them a bit of physical movement, before working with them, maybe walking with them down the hall and back,” Senger said.

Dwight often walked side-by-side with the student on campus, without requiring eye contact or even conversation at first. She’d have the student drink a bit of water to help flush out stress hormones.

“There were some girls who responded well to this strategy, too, but more often than not, it really helped when boys were ramped up,” Dwight said. “After walking a bit, you talk about something that didn’t have anything to do with the conflict.

“After he’s back into a place of calmness, he’s thinking more from the frontal lobe and we can talk about what happened, what led up to it, what’s going on with him, what he can do differently.”

Child care and schools. Looking at boys disengaging in schools, Gurian believes adults and parents often are unaware about the gender-specific brain differences and biochemistry affecting children.

“For parents, one big take away is to support all those teachers and study them, to make sure they understand boys, so we won’t start losing these boys so young.”

Dwight recently worked with the parent of a boy kicked out of preschool several times. He finally thrived at school that worked with him. Otherwise, the message can be, “I don’t belong in school. There is something wrong with me, and he’s already on track for disengaging.”

When Dwight is in schools now, she’s less inclined to tell boys to stop certain behaviors. “When you look at how boys nurture each other, a lot of it is physical interaction, competitive games, nonverbal gestures like high-fives, grabbing each others’ backpacks, chest-pumping.”

Remove toxins and limit screens. Gurian cites research on harmful effects to the brain from toxins linked to plastics, foods and beverages, damaging to both boys and girls. Parents also should control screen time until age 14, he said.

Gurian said parents can limit use of plastics that might release chemicals, especially when heated. “And as much as we can, go organic.”

“For boys, talking about the depression spectrum and then violence, these neurotoxins are attacking not only cells but they’re attacking testosterone. Male testosterone levels have gone down a little over 30 percent in 30 years.

“Lowered testosterone is one of the reasons that we have so much violence.”

Adult influences. Gurian said it’s actually harmful to require all adults to mentor a child in a consistent way. “That is incorrect for brain development,” he said. “The brain wants diversity of influence.”

He recommends at least one trusted male mentor once a boy hits ages 10 to 12. If parents are divorced with joint custody, “it’s good to be different,” he said, and to find influences of relatives and coaches who mentor differently. “That’s how we turn out the most successful kids.”

Dwight and her husband took a cross-nurturing approach in raising two boys. Her husband used empathy nurturing strategies, while she found ways to connect to their boys by doing a lot of physical activity with them or playing games.

“My husband would hug them every night, snuggle them into bed, rock them when they were little; they still say ‘I love you’ and hug each night.”

“Men tend to offer nurturing, connection and care by helping people feel stronger; women tend to offer nurturing, connection and care by helping people feel better, and don’t we need both of those in order to be resilient?”

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