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.

A Pocket Guide to kids are worth it!

Someone once told me that they read parenting books looking for experts who support their child rearing beliefs and when they find the one that does just that, all the rest are garbage.

I have my fair share of parenting books.  Some have been given to me, like Trees Make The Best Mobiles and others I bought in a panic hoping to get a handle on a particularly trying situation, I Brake For Meltdowns: How to handle the most exasperating behavior of your 2-5 year old.

I have what I refer to as my parenting handbooks.  Books by Alyson Schafer, Michelle Nicholasen, Barbara O’Neal and Barbara Coloroso are always kept close at hand for when I need guidance, a quick how-to, or a solid suggestion – something to ground me and keep me from tipping over the edge.  These books empower me and give me confidence because let’s face it, being a parent can be a lonely job, fraught with insecurity and unknowns.

Some times I find the answers that I am seeking and other times I just roll my eyes and put it back on the shelf.  Whatever the outcome, when I flip through the pages of these books, I instantly feel a connection to a community of parents, and my situation doesn’t seem so unmanageable.

Alongside my handbooks sit my theory books.  Leonard Sax reigns over the shelf with a few titles by other experts thrown in for good measure.  I read these when I am reflecting on what kind of parent I want to be, to check of my own behaviour and when I want substantial answers that a Google search cannot provide.

There is one parenting book that has yet to be usurped from its place of prominence on my bedside table, A Pocket Guide to kids are worth it! by Barbara Coloroso.

This tiny, pocket-sized book is a compilation of highlights from my all-time favourite book, kids are worth it!  Each night before going to bed I read a few pages and like an affirmation, I feel equipped to handle the next day’s challenges.

On page 19 Coloroso outlines the four steps of discipline:

  1. Shows kids what they have done.
  2. Gives them ownership of the problem.
  3. Gives them options for solving the problem.
  4. Leaves their dignity intact.

The principles seem so simple, but parenting is emotionally charged and easily influenced by stressors like lack of sleep, financial worry, feeling overwhelmed, etc.  By reviewing a page or two nightly, it’s like rehearsing for a fire drill.  The more times something is practiced, the more ingrained it becomes and the more like second nature it feels mitigating those pesky external stressors.

I am definitely not winning any Mother Of The Year awards but when I do make mistakes (which is daily) I want to know how I can do better and Barbara Coloroso always shows me how I can be better.

Image credit: http://www.amazon.ca

 

“I deaded you!”

“Oooh, you died.  I deaded you!”  My three year old squeals.

“No, I am not died.  I am going to kill you!” My four year old responds.

This banter has been going on for a few minutes and I cringe  listening to such violent play.

“Boys!  Enough!  We don’t kill people.  We are kind to people.  We don’t use guns or play with guns!  They are dangerous and hurt people.”  I make a final plea.

I have got to hand it to my boys.  They are definitely creative.  There are no toy guns in our house.  There are no photos of guns.  None of their toy characters have guns.   No one we know owns a gun. My husband and I don’t own guns and I am fairly certain that neither of us has never shot a gun.

Yet my boys can craft a gun out of anything.  Toilet paper rolls.  Broom handles.  Pencils.  Their fingers.  The latter is difficult to take away from them.

I am not sure where this “kill ‘em” business came from but if I were to guess, school would be my bet and of course, pretty much most entertainment that is marketed towards boys has some sort of violent component to it.

It amazes me to see how much the boys have learned during the short school year.  Jack, who is four, is using words like liquid to describe melting ice and explaining to me the root system of our tomato plants.  Sam, who is three, clicks puzzles together faster than I can turn over the pieces and he counts aloud to twenty while staring at the ceiling waiting for sleep to come without skipping a beat of flubbing the sequence.

But they learn other things at school, things about guns, war, weapons and death.  They are fascinated by the death of things – ants, flowers, batteries and yes, people too.  Together with their friends they play light-sabers, soldiers, police and bad guys and even, thanks to our recent trip to the movies, cars.

I respect and appreciate their curiosity and imagination.  But I also hate it.  It’s absolutely impossible to shield them from everything.

To me, it’s more important to expose them to things and then explain to them how their father and I feel about it.

This is what I tell myself to quiet my desire to lock them in their rooms with a few stuffed animals and a plethora of mommy-approved books.

My mother-in-law who has raised many boys insists to me that it’s futile.  As cliché and perhaps as offensive to some (click here and here) as it may seem: boys will be boys.

In an effort to understand this play, I turned to Leonard Sax’s book, Why Gender Matters, for some insight as to why my boys are so obsessed with rough play.  Here is what Dr. Sax has to say:

According to the section, Lessons From The Playground (pages 58-65):

  • Boys fight more often than girls to, including being physically aggressive towards each other.  He insists, and cite studies to back this up, that boys although they fight more frequently than girls often become better friends with their mates.
  • It’s normal for boys to show a preference for violent fairy tales and games.  It does NOT mean that they have a psychiatric disorder.  (Phew!)

The section in the book that most rang true for me is Grand Theft Auto.  Sax describes on page 71:

“. . . Don’t buy any video game that employs what I call a “moral inversion”- where good is bad and bad is good.  Playing those games for hours on end can warp your mind.  If your son absolutely has to play violent video games, choose something like SpyHunter instead.  In SpyHunter you’re a James Bond sort of character, assigned missions such as escorting diplomats to embassies while various enemies try to shoot you and the diplomat you’re escorting . . . You lose points if you kill or injure a civilian.  You can’t just fire your weapon blindly.  You have to avoid the civilians (who become more numerous as you advance in the game) and make sure you’re right on top of the bad guy before you can fire.”

If I am to be truthful, and it’s hard to be, I would admit that I am also embarrassed by their boisterous play.  My own ego and insecurities whisper to me other mothers are watching and judging, deeming my boys the “bad ones”.

But when I look around at other boys in the playground, I see the same play and hear the same words that fill-up my home coming from other little bodies.

“Boys, let’s just say “get ‘em”, okay?” I try again with my little warriors.

“Mommy, don’t worry. It’s not a gun, see?”  My son holds his tiny hand out to me and opens his palm.  He looks up at me with the sweetest eyes, and smiles his toothy grin and says, “It’s a sword.”

photo credit: http://www.openmarket.org

Are There Really More ADHD Kids or Just A More Intolerant Education System?

The Globe and Mail ran a six part series on boys and education.  As a mother of three boys and a former teacher, I was interested in reading the opinions of various experts.

The stand-out point for me was the discussion surrounding the alarming number of students being medicated for Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder (ADHD).  Along with the rise in diagnosis is the number of children being prescribed Ritalin with the majority of cases being identified in young boys.

The article identifies that the only way ADHD can be diagnosed is by reviewing reports authored by parents and teachers about a child’s behaviour.  The question that comes to my mind, is it possible that we have created an educational system that stifles a boy’s natural instincts (to be fair, some girls too) to be physically active and in constant motion?  Is it possible that we are trying to manipulate a square peg in a round hole?

Generations ago children played outside, walked to and from school, were responsible for helping with household chores.  In effect these actions helped to “get the beans out”.  Maybe our sedentary lifestyles, complete with video games, t.v., car-pools and heavy after-school programming has attributed to children being under-stimulated, both physically and emotionally.  After all, playing outside for hours on end not only encourages children to use their imaginations but also to be active.

Who knows?  Maybe thirty years ago there were just as many ADHD kids but we just didn’t have a name for it.  Maybe those kids were labeled “bad”.  Regardless, if the numbers of boys being diagnosed ADHD is on the rise, then do we not owe it to our boys to review the education system where they spend between six and eight hours a day?

I grew up in the “girls are just the same as boys” era.  We were told that we were the same as boys and could do anything that our counterparts could do.  But now, as the mom of three boys, I see that message is flawed.  Yes we can do the same things boys can do but there are some fundamental differences between the sexes.  Leonard Sax and Barry McDonald both have researched and written extensively on the subject of boys and gender differences.  I have found their findings to resonate with me and have helped me to understand my boys’ behaviour.

For example, they physically are not able to sit at the dinner for 20 minutes without fidgeting, they have to jump on couches, everything must be tossed into the air like a ball (forks, shoes, books, etc.), physical contact is necessary in relaying their messages especially when they are toddlers . . . it’s not their fault.  It’s in their genes.  It’s in their wiring.

I understand that there are societal norms that my boys have to adhere to, but I want to know that the education system is taking steps to understand how the sexes learn differently.  Prescribing drugs is a dangerous band-aid solution that may  simply prove to only sedate our children while damaging their self-esteem.

photo credit: http://encefalus.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/ritalin.jpg