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.

In Defence of Kindness, Not the Snowflake

When I was sitting at my graduation in Grade 13 (remember the days when there was still such a thing?), I knew even then that I had completed a truly  meaningful era of my life.  My high school experience was more full of intellectual challenge, emotional growth, and lasting friendships than I would receive during my upcoming university education at one of Canada’s top institutions.

And if during my commencement, I had to listen toa middle-aged man smugly spouting platitudes about leading “unique” and “extraordinary” lives while telling me I’m not “special”, I’d have been very glad to have a few ripe tomatoes on hand.

I have no contention with the entitlement argument; how could I?  In my late 20s, and wanting more creativity in my life, I went on a couple of dates with a 35 year old artistic type who quit working lucrative contracts in animation because they were boring and used only 5% of his potential.  He was now stretching his wings as a film director.  What had he directed, or what was he working on?  Well, nothing – but it was just a matter of time.  Until then, how did he pay for his himself and his spacious apartment?  His aging, immigrant Chinese parents helped out as needed with savings from their former convenience store, although they were rather a nuisance, not understanding his need for creative expression and all.  Hot, no?

At the same time, David McCullough, Jr.’s commencement speech bothered me.  How does purposely embarrassing a large group of people celebrating a key milestone further the cause against the special snowflake?  Those students are people, not all of whom are obnoxious, lazy, and talent-less.  It seemed to me an example of how it’s acceptable to treat young people with less respect than other people.  I couldn’t help thinking that the commencement speech was less about trying to inspire nobler sentiments in young adults than it was about someone trying to make a distinctive speech, basically at the expense of a silenced group of people who could not do much about it.  And there seemed more than a little irony that this missive was coming from the school  system which, with its standardized tests, and rewards and punishments for a pre-determined, inflexible curriculum, is probably not especially conducive to nurturing creative and independent individuals.

Whatever useful message lies in that speech needs to be given to parents, educators, and the villages that are raising children to over-inflate themselves while under-achieving.  The answer can’t be to mock them once our own shortcomings in raising them start to take form.

I watched both the video clips on view for this month’s At Issue topic.  I laughed at the comedic sketch because, well, it was funny.  But there were real people on the end of that commencement speech, at least some of whom will better our world in more and less obvious ways, and I can’t help feel like they deserved more kindness than they received.