Boys and Education: Sometimes the teacher must be the student

I have a confession to make. In addition to being a great mother before I had children, I was even a better fifth grade teacher. I couldn’t understand why library books didn’t come back on time, I’d shake my head at a family’s disorganization and as embarrassed as I am to admit, I would harrumph, and roll my eyes at the “excuses” for homework not being done.

That was before.

I will also admit to feeling gob smacked when I learned that I was having a boy. And another. And then another. How could I, poster child for the girly-girl, have three boys?

Living with boys hasn’t come easy to me. It has been a learning process of how to best communicate with them and Dr. Leonard Sax’s book, Why Gender Matters, has been my instructional guide.

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“Did you know that most boys and men build friendships around activities and don’t really care to share their inner most feelings with each other?” I asked my husband, somewhat incredulously.

“Um, yeah,” he muttered back to me while absently staring at the tv and flicking through the channels.

“Did you know that most boys and men prefer to communicate shoulder-to-shoulder, you know, looking at problem together, rather than making direct eye contact?” I say this like it’s some sort of a revelation.

“Ya.”

“Okay, this explains a lot. Did you know that there are structural differences in the ears’ of boys and girls, and this guy is suggesting that sometimes boys have a hard time hearing their teacher and don’t intend to be disruptive?!”

“Sorry, what’d you say?”

And there you have it. My life with boys.

I read somewhere that women speak thousands more words in a day than men. In my case it’s true. I live my life according to a script.

“Wake up! Teeth brushed, beds made, clothes on! Knees off the table. Use your spoon. Dishes to the dishwasher . . . “

And when the boys are fighting, I am more likely to get into a discussion (albeit one-sided) about feelings and anger, and controlling impulses. Down on my knees, arms wrapped around each boy, sandwiching myself in between them, I talk. And talk. And talk. I’m usually there to intercede immediately after the first fist flies.

By contrast, the boys’ father will swoop into a room after the fighting has reached a level he has deemed too violent (usually just before or after bloodshed) and clip, “Enough!”

With that simple command, the boys will scamper to their respective corners, like lion cubs retreating after they’ve caused the leader of the pride to roar.

“You engage with them too much sometimes. Just say it once and mean it.” This is my husband’s advice. In fact this is how he lives his life. He keeps his sentences brief, and speaks when it counts. Years ago he told me that when someone talks to hear their own voice others would eventually learn to shut it out.

Dr. Sax would say that I should let the boys be physical and competitive because they are just doing what comes natural. He is quick to assert that doesn’t mean letting them pound each other to a bloody pulp or allow them to use violence to solve their problems, but that I should just back-off, and not make the jump to “Oh my God! They are going to grow up to be sociopaths if I let them pretend to shoot each other!”

But it’s hard for me. As a woman, I like to talk about everything and hash-it all out. My girlfriends and I will talk all sides of a story and debate tone and inflection until exhausted, we move on to another topic. My friends with daughters often remark how their little girls come home from school and they talk for an hour, getting the play-by –play: what the teacher wore, what so-and-so said, where they sat on the carpet and what the story was about. They will know the dynamics of friendships and whose feelings were hurt and who has made-up.

My boys come home and it’s like prying teeth to get them to share the happenings of their day. I have resorted to asking very pointed questions on our walks home from school, should-to-shoulder, avoiding direct eye contact. I used to think that they weren’t sharing things with me because they were embarrassed, or possibly nervous of my reaction, but no, I was reassured with a shrug of their shoulders and an, “Oh, I dunno. I forgot.

It’s important to note that my boys and I have a very close relationship and they will tell me their inner most secrets, but I’ve had to learn what’s news to me, isn’t news to them and like their father, they use fewer words than I do.

So what does all of this mean when it comes to the classroom?

I usually breathe a sigh of relief when I learn that my son’s teacher is a mom to a boy.

She gets it. I think.

I hope.

And usually she does. She usually gets that boys think fart jokes are hilarious, and that they generally like competition, even if it’s just with them. She gets that sitting for more than one-minute necessary can have a disastrous result. She gets that even when they don’t say anything, it doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting, or needing help. She gets the nuances of being a boy.

And that’s what I didn’t get when I was a teacher. Make no mistake; I thought that I got it. But I didn’t. I couldn’t.

Can you really blame me?

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*Dr. Sax refers to gender and not “sex” differences. It’s an important distinction.

* Dr. Sax also writes about the disjointed messages our girls receive from society while growing up and how damaging they can be. Fascinating food for thought.

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6 thoughts on “Boys and Education: Sometimes the teacher must be the student

  1. I’m excited that you wrote about this book. It made an impact on me as a mom, especially in advocating in an educational setting. BUT, I’m never comfortable recommending it because the end of the book takes a sharp turn away from his field of expertise (brain/physiological differences that impact behavior and needs) and into the field of discipline with some strange “why you should beat your boys” (paraphrasing, with a side of Irish exaggeration) conclusions. I always want to recommend the first 70% of the book. So much good information.

  2. I completely agree. I take what I like from it (what I do with all parenting books). Some of it doesn’t apply to our family or mesh with my style, but the science behind it is interesting. I also respect his comments about the mixed messages we send girls: be strong, be smart but society inundates us with images of “sexy” women everywhere (oh, JLo why oh why did you do that Booty video?).

  3. That was great Beth-Anne! I have often said that I am quite sure I was a very sarcastic , judgemental teacher before I had my own children. As a Principal now, I often remind my staff- make sure however you speak to a child, you would want someone to speak the same way to yours.

  4. Thanks Beth-Anne. Good advice for a mother of a boy and a teacher of many.
    I was just thinking of you in your Grade 5 classroom. : )

    • Amy, there are days that I miss it terribly. I realize now what a wonderful group of teachers I worked with – all so inspired and dedicated. Even if there wasn’t necessarily love between everyone there was always respect and that definitely translates into how one teaches in the classroom.

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