Boys Behaving Badly?

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An interview with Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

This is part 2 in our 2-part series about Boys & Emotional Intelligence

When I was pregnant with my son, I was nervous about raising a boy. I felt anxious when well-intentioned people said I was “in trouble now” since he would not be as mild-mannered as my first-born daughter. Everywhere I turned, society seemed to be sealing the fate of all little boys with blue onesies blaring words like “Mommy’s Little Monster.” I vowed I would never succumb to a “boys will be boys” mentality. However, being a mother of both a boy and girl, my boy does offers up different challenges that fall into the stereotypical category of male behavior. My son has to run, wrestle, find sticks, and kick balls — he needs different outlets than my daughter. I question how I can guide my boy to explore the world his way yet still take time to practice empathy and kindness. Michael Thompson, Ph.D., author of Raising Cain, lends his invaluable perspective and advice on raising boys with emotional literacy. – Erin Janda Rawlings, Mommy on the Spot, TMC Contributing Writer

People like to use the old saying “boys will be boys” to justify bad behavior. How do we help our sons avoid this cultural trap?

I certainly don’t like it when people justify bad behavior by boys, but you could also make the argument that boys get punished a lot, certainly far more than girls. Two-thirds to three-quarters of school suspensions and expulsions are directed at boys; zero tolerance policies in school fall almost exclusively on boys. Parents hit and spank boys more. One of the ways out of our problems with boys is to treat them with more empathy.

Though it is important for teachers to understand and empathize with boys’ higher activity levels and the frustrations they encounter in the classroom, it is also important for classroom teachers to design lessons that involve five things: movement, teamwork, competition, a public product (a short video, speaking line from a play, a science project, etc.) and some kind of psychological hook which could be an explosion in a science class, a mystery in book, something compelling.

How can we encourage the nurturing parts of our sons’ behavior once they enter preschool and are inevitably exposed to aggressive kids and war play (guns, swords, etc.)?

I was just at an elementary school that had a rule at recess that declared, “No Hands!” How stupid is that? Boys are built for rough-and-tumble play. They have to be able to put their hands on each other (so do girls). They asked me how to change the rule and I said, “No Hurting Anyone.”

Sword play and gun play is just play. There is no scientific research suggesting a correlation between childhood play and later adult violence. It may not be to many parents’ liking—mothers often find it unnerving—and it certainly doesn’t appeal to many women teachers, but it is not dangerous. I always wonder why people call it “violent play” instead of “heroic play” or “play courage.”

Do you have any tips for helping boys channel their aggression in healthy productive ways?

Yes, parents need to offer more physical outlets. They should meet other families in the park. Everyone rings their hands about computer and iPad use, but they aren’t willing to go outside with their children anymore. Do it early and often.

Boys should be allowed to run their own games, create their own rules and take responsibility for their own leadership. They need practice to get this right. Adults should guide them to see that leadership involves empathy. As for channeling boys’ energy, they should be given the chance to care for younger children. It will also teach them empathy.

Can you offer any tips for helping our sons maintain a balance between fun, healthy rough-and-tumble play and respecting the personal boundaries of others?

Boys are biologically wired for rough-and-tumble play. We need to give them space to play and understanding, not constant censure.

When nervous moms ask me about rough-and-tumble play, I always ask, “Have there been any broken bones, any lost teeth, any stitches, any blood?” If they say, “No,” I ask them why they are worrying so much? Your boys are clearly exercising self-control. They haven’t been hurting one another.”

Michael Thompson, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist specializing in children and families. He co-authored Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys and wrote and narrated the two-hour PBS documentary, Raising Cain. He also authored Life of Boys and It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen, and his newest book, Homesick and Healthy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow.

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