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Julie Baumgardner

Last week I wrote a provocative column concerning men and marriageability. I ended the piece by asking, "What will we do to help our boys succeed in life and relationships?" The good news is, we can do all kinds of things to ensure that boys and girls have the same opportunities in education, earning potential and life in general.

Many researchers believe that the educational system itself plays a large role in how well boys do or don't fare. Others cite technology and video games, the breakdown of the family, the focus on women's equality or the lack of positive male role models as reasons, just to name a few. The reality is that all of these things contribute to whether boys succeed or fail.

Will Honeycutt, assistant director of counseling at The McCallie School for Boys, believes that technology plays a role in disconnecting boys from real life. Whether it's binge-watching episodes of "Game of Thrones" over a weekend, playing video games or being entrenched in social media, technology is isolating boys from valuable experiences, interacting with others, engaging in conversation, learning emotional regulation and figuring out who they are as a person.

So how can we help boys thrive in an ever-changing culture? Troy Kemp, executive director for the National Center for the Development of Boys in Chattanooga, has some ideas we can put into practice, whether at home or in the community.

One thing we need to keep in mind is that boys are different than girls — not better than — but different. Their bodies and brains mature differently, take in and process information differently, and boys and girls have varying strengths and weaknesses. Teachers need to choose reading materials to reflect the interests of boys. Research shows that teaching in educational settings leans heavily toward the strengths of the female brain, so actively addressing variety in learning styles and responses is a great place to start. Boys need to be surrounded by positive influences that will help them break through the popular culture's narrow definition of manhood, and having more male teachers in the classroom would be a step in the right direction.

What about at home?

Kemp feels that parents need to educate themselves about how boys (and others who wiggle) learn best and what intrinsically motivates them. Boys need examples of excellence, and using words and visuals can help them see things more fully and hold their attention. It is important that we don't automatically assume boys aren't trying if they don't respond the way we want or expect. It may be possible that we didn't clearly express our expectations, which may be very different from theirs.

According to Kemp, boys also need to develop a proper vision for manhood and masculinity. In order to achieve that vision, they need to be exposed to male mentors who are balanced in their approach to life, learning and unconditional love. Having a community of men who are behind them makes a great impact and prepares them to mentor others.

"Boys need a crew and a cause," says Kemp. "They need to know someone is counting on them and they can count on others. Boys need to know what is important to them is also important to parents ... especially their fathers."

If you're a father, get on your son's level and don't discount what is important to him. Give him choices within the choices you approve. Parents can model responsibility and healthy relationships with technology and everything else.

Count the number of hours boys are in front of screens. Excessive amounts of screen time for children, especially boys, can be detrimental to healthy brain development.

Make sure they are getting at least two hours of physical exercise every day. Don't pull your son from a team or group if his grades drop. Work with the coach or group leader and use their power and influence.

Be intentional about teaching and modeling the qualities of healthy relationships, and don't assume they know what unhealthy looks like.

Drive time is a great time for conversation about what a lot of teens consider awkward topics. That way, nobody is looking at facial expressions. You can make it a media-free moment, too.

Take advantage of current situations to talk about accountability and responsibility, including healthy ways to handle anger or disappointment and treating people with respect who are disrespectful to you.

Point them toward healthy role models beyond Mom and Dad — coaches, trusted friends and relatives — so they have more than their parents speaking into their lives and encouraging them on their journey into adulthood.

Spend one-on-one time with your child. Let them set the agenda for your time together. Fathers, try reading to and with your children.

Volunteer together as a family. Go on a mission trip, help out at a local nonprofit or do something that involves giving to others. There is a real chemical reaction in the brain when we help others in need that makes us feel good and makes us want to do more acts of kindness.

All of these things combined can help boys thrive in school and in life. Boys with a strong support system have a foundation to build upon as they enter manhood and make wise decisions about their future.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at julieb@firstthings.org.

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