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Family Times
What are boys made of?
They're different than girls and need special handling from parents

By Paula Gray Hunker
Meg MacKenzie says raising her sons Michael, 8, and Scott, 12, is "like living with a tornado." But the Arlington, Va., mother says she has grown used to the constant high energy level. "From the moment that they come home from school, they'll be running around the house, climbing trees outside and making a commotion inside that sounds as if a herd of elephants has moved in upstairs," she says. "I'll try to calm them down, but my husband will say, 'This is what boys do. Get used to it.' "
     There is some wisdom in Mac MacKenzie's advice. Boys are naturally more active and impulsive and less likely to calm themselves than girls. Yet both at home and at school, boys increasingly are set up for failure when they don't act "good" like girls.
     "Boys are like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer," says Michael Gurian, a therapist and parenting educator who has specialized in the study of boys. "But, if Huck and Tom were in today's schools, they would be labeled ADD [having attention deficit disorder] and drugged."
     Mr. Gurian, who is from Spokane, Wash., says 95 percent of the children on Ritalin are boys. In his recently released book, "The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men," he outlines an alarming list of statistics to back up his premise that boys are at best misunderstood and at worst morally and emotionally lost.
     Two-thirds of learning disabled students are boys, according to recent Department of Education statistics. Mr. Gurian says boys account for 95 percent of cases in juvenile court and 90 percent of those in alcohol- or drug-treatment programs. Perhaps most alarming to parents are the recent televised images of angry boys using assault weapons in their schools.
     "If anything good has come out of events such as [the high school massacre in] Littleton, [Colo.] it's that the media has finally picked up on this problem that boys have specific needs that society just isn't meeting," says Don Elium, a family therapist from Walnut Creek, Calif., who with his wife, Jeanne, has written a series of books on parenting girls, boys and teens.
     "The best part is that now we're seeing fathers as well as mothers at our lectures," he says. "They're asking not just went wrong, but what they can do to help guide their sons through a healthy adolescence."
     The Eliums say they believe the current crisis has come about not because boys have changed, but because society has.

Confused by feminism
     "We haven't recovered from the massive cultural changes of the 1960s and 1970s," Mr. Elium says. Girls have been aided by the feminist movement and have taken advantage of opportunities in the schoolroom and workplace. But, the Eliums say, boys have been confused by a society that labels masculine attributes -- such as aggression and action -- as "bad" and feminine attributes -- such as verbal dexterity and shows of emotion -- as "good."
     "It's a mistake to blame men for all of society's problems," Mrs. Elium says. "I want my son to feel good about being a male. Women used to feel like a second-class citizen in the workplace, and we have to be very careful that we're not doing the same thing now to our sons."
     Mr. Gurian says parents need to understand the biological differences that make boys tick. "This is important for everyone," he says. "Even if you don't have sons, your daughters will be involved with someone's son."
     He says parents intuitively know there's a difference between the sexes but they don't know how to modify their parenting style to accommodate those differences.
     Boys' uniqueness is attributed to more than raging testosterone -- although that powerful hormone does have a major impact on male behavior from about age 10 through adolescence. Citing recent studies of the brain, Mr. Gurian says the amygdala -- the primary center of aggression in the brain --is larger in males than in females.
     "This offers a basic clue as to why a boy gets involved so much more than the female in morally at-risk behavior," Mr. Gurian says.
     The male brain also is wired to respond in external, rather than internal, ways. This leaves boys at a disadvantage in a school environment, where they're told to use their words and tone down their actions. It may explain why a majority of those who repeat a grade, drop out of school or graduate at the bottom of their class are male, according to a 1997 survey conducted by Metropolitan Life about sexual differences in education.
     The female brain also produces more serotonin, a hormone that helps calm the system. Mr. Gurian says this is why boys have less control over their impulses and are more likely to get into trouble than girls. Girls also use more areas of their brains and are therefore able to do multiple tasks more easily. This may explain why boys -- and men -- jump to solve a problem, often before the situation is even adequately assessed.

Leap before listening
     Mrs. MacKenzie, the lone female in a household of males, says this tendency to leap -- and then listen -- drives her crazy.
     "I can't just tell my boys, 'Clean up.' If I do, they'll put one or two toys away and assume that the task is done," she says. "I've learned that I have to be very, very specific."
     She has found that boys do not respond to subtle hints but need requests clearly outlined. "I'll put a basket of clean laundry on the stairs, and the boys will pass it by 20 times and not once will it occur to them to stop and carry it upstairs," she says.
     Experts warn parents that raising boys is more complicated than coming to grips with he-said-she-said differences. William Pollack, a psychologist and co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital in Cambridge, Mass., has studied boys for years. He says the current generation is in a "silent crisis" --hiding their sadness, loneliness and anger behind the strong, cheerful veneer that society expects of its boys.
     In talks around the country, he urges parents to stop treating their sons like little men and to continue to nurture them -- with hugs and kisses -- into their teens.
     "If we don't let our sons cry tears, then they will cry with bullets," he has said in a number of televised interviews.
     Mr. Gurian agrees, and he urges parents to make a stronger attachment to their sons, not only through their critical early years, but until their later teens. He fears that while boys suffered when the Industrial Revolution pulled their fathers off the homestead and into faraway factories, recent generations have been crippled emotionally as they have lost their mothers to the workplace.

Don't drop the ball
     "The invisible demon that we are now fighting is this lack of attachment," he says. "Even parents who do well in the early years tend to drop the ball when boys hit 8 to 14 years."
     Mr. Gurian says that although boys of this age naturally will gravitate away from their mothers and toward their fathers, both parents should stay close and engaged until their son leaves home as an adult.
     He adds that modern society's move from a family-centered agrarian culture has disconnected boys from the larger community and nature, leaving them without important rites of passage or the support of an extended network of mentors.
     Mr. Gurian urges parents to create spiritually based rites of passage as their sons travel from boyhood to adulthood and also to help their boys find role models in coaches, relatives and other community figures.
     John Rosemond, a parenting expert and author from Gastonia, N.C., where his Affirmative Parenting Center is located, wishes parents would just "let boys be boys."
     "Boys are more active, more physical, more aggressive, have shorter attention spans," he says. "Girls will work out conflict emotionally, boys aggressively. That in itself is not good or bad, right or wrong." He says parents put too much emphasis on urging children to express their emotions and not enough "on teaching them how to control them."
     He would rather lower parents' concerns than raise them and hopes that parents will not feel compelled to pressure their boys into emoting like girls because "we'll never train boys to be emotional in the same way." Instead, he hopes parents can instill self-discipline and responsibility and encourage healthy creativity by minimizing television and other media influences.
     "Parents need to understand what a boy is," Mr. Rosemond says. "They're a little aggression machine, and parents need to find healthy outlets for that aggression and energy. There's nothing more important than a father being a strong role model in the home."
     Mr. Gurian, a father of two young girls, says society's biggest mistake is not realizing how morally fragile its boys are.
     "The reality is that most boys will not go off and shoot up their schools," he says, "but we are in a moral crisis, and unless we provide a spiritual and moral system to protect these beautiful souls, we will not see them blossom into the beautiful men that they could become."
More info:
     Books --
  • "The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men," by Michael Gurian, Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Putnam, 1999. Written by the author of a number of books about raising boys, including the groundbreaking "The Wonder of Boys," this book offers a tip-filled parenting plan.
  • "A Fine Young Man: What Parents, Mentors and Educators Can Do to Shape Adolescent Boys Into Exceptional Men," by Michael Gurian, Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Putnam, 1998. This practical book offers parents and educators an outline to help guide young men through the difficult adolescent years -- from age 10 through 20.
  • "Raising a Son: Parents and the Making of a Healthy Man," by Don Elium and Jeanne Elium, Celestial Arts, 1996. Written by parenting authors and educators, this book follows the Eliums' previous book, "Raising a Daughter," and emphasizes boys' specific needs and problems in an easy-to-follow format.
  • "John Rosemond's Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children," Andrews and McMeel, 1989. This book by a psychologist and family therapist gives parents a simple plan to free themselves from guilt, exhaustion and anger by creating a parent-centric rather than a child-centric family.
  • "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood," by William Pollack, Henry Holt and Co., 1998. William Pollack is a clinical psychologist and the co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School. This book, based on Mr. Pollack's research at Harvard, explores what he considers this generation's crisis, which has left many boys sad, lonely and confused and without the tools to ask for help.
  • "Raising Boys: Why Boys Are Different -- And How to Help Them Become Happy and Well-Balanced Men," by Steve Biddulph, Celestial Arts, 1998. Written by an Australian author and parenting lecturer, this book gives parents simple steps to help their sons develop emotional health.
  • "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys," by Daniel Kindlon and Michael Thompson, Ballantine Books, 1999. This book by two child psychologists premises that the culture gives boys too narrow a definition of masculinity, which makes many boys feel trapped by the "tyranny of toughness."
  • "Boyhood Daze: An Incomplete Guide to Raising Boys," by Dave Meurer, Bethany House, 1999. This book, a humorous look at parenting boys, gives priceless advice, such as telling parents never, ever to give a boy a carbonated drink because it will only lead to loud, embarrassing (to the parents) belches.

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Copyright (c) 1999 News World Communications, Inc.
Reprinted with permission from The Washington Times.
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