In recent years studies have revealed that boys learn differently than girls and mature slower than girls. Parents are often confused and upset when their sweet boy becomes aggressive, disengaged with school and wary of adults. Last Wednesday, March 6, at least 60 parents showed up at the “Raising Incredible Sons,” presentation by Michael Vladeck at the Nederland Middle Senior High School.
Vladeck, soft-spoken and gentle, had some answers to the parents’ questions of why the boys are the way they are and what parents can do to help their sons flourish.
“Being a parent is a spiritual journey,” said Michael Vladeck, family and teen therapist. “It is so much harder to be mindful and present as a parent than if you were trying to be a monk. You are tested left and right on your path to staying grounded.”
Today, parenting seems like it is about doing, doing, doing with all our busy schedules in trying to keep a family going, but Vladeck encouraged parents on Wednesday night to shift their thinking about their primary purpose and see parenting as more about being, being, being – being present and modeling emotional transparency with our kids.
The Nederland Parent Engagement Network, The Peak to Peak Prevention Coalition, the Nederland Middle/Senior High School counseling department, and NES PTA worked together to bring this insightful family therapist to share with local families. The parents gathered at NMSHS to figure out how to connect more deeply with their sons. Vladeck offered at least five thoughts in that regard.
1. To guide boys into manhood, we need to reframe the healthy expression of emotions using masculine terms; reinforcing that it is courageous and brave to share vulnerable feelings or perhaps labeling the act of apologizing or forgiving as acting like an intimate warrior.
2. It is crucial to find strong male role models to be actively involved in our sons’ lives. The United States scores highest among nations for the number of children who are fatherless, and boys in particular have a lack of additional male mentors since far fewer men than women are in the teaching profession. Vladeck suggested finding and creating from two to six male mentors for each boy. “If they have that many incredible men in their lives, they will be just fine,” he said.
3. Our history of the role of males in traditional hunting societies, as well as information about normal male brain development, is influencing how our sons are currently behaving. It is perfectly natural for boys to be competitive, physically active, risk takers and slower to develop emotionally. It is our job not to shame boys for being this way. “The current model of education is designed for how girls learn best – sit still and learn by listening,” Vladeck reminded us.
There is nothing wrong with boys who can’t sit still in class or those who crave visual, spatial, hands-on learning methods. What boys do is not the problem. We parents, and the school system, often just don’t know how to deal with it.
4. Boys acting out are really just wanting to be seen, he said. They are craving someone to show them that they are loveable. Boys in our culture often feel unworthy due to the unobtainable images of men we give them.
5. As adults, we need to be emotionally transparent with the children in our lives. We must share and model talking about vulnerable feelings, our scars and fears. When we are in touch with how we are feeling inside, only then are we really able to help give boys a language to talk about their feelings about being hurt, fearful, anxious, sad, frustrated, or jealous. We adults need to do our own inner work so that we are being real and authentic with our children.
So how are boys uniquely different to raise? Vladeck cited research findings that indicate developmental changes which parents and teachers need to be aware of and respond to.
a. Boys tend to lag behind girls in left brain development. This makes males less verbal. It is harder for boys to articulate their internal states. This also means boys often get overwhelmed with listening for more than one minute. Knowing this, as parents of sons, we should work on talking less and instead asking them questions to ponder — questions that will stimulate their critical thinking skills.
b. Boys learn best spatially, so it is important to be physical with your son while you talk with him. It helps keep his brain tracking the conversation. Take a walk. Throw a ball. Use hand gestures to emphasize your point while conversing with your son.
c. Boys have less serotonin than girls. This is the chemical which inhibits aggression. Work with this knowledge and find constructive (not violent and destructive) ways to channel their higher levels of aggression. If appropriate, get your son into sports, or perhaps encourage them to ski aggressively, or provide some safe item to hit attack.
d. Like hunters who provided wild game for the group, boys need to feel skilled at something, and feel competent and recognized for their contributions. As a parent, we can help sons learn a specific skill and then watch their self-esteem rise.
e. Boys often want to be independent much earlier than girls do, especially if they feel safe in their lives. Rather than trying to overprotect sons in their quest to be independent, we are encouraged to prepare our sons with skills for dealing with issues on their own. Talk through with him some good ways to handle various situations instead of giving him the answer.
f. Right brain thinking is dominant in boys. This often means males are good at spatial skills. That is why boys, more than girls, get pulled into playing very visual video games. This is natural, but we need to limit the time they connect spatially with technology. Find other ways for boys to build and visualize, like playing with erector sets or artistic expression.
g. Boys need time and physical space away from others to process feelings and experiences. If your son is resisting talking with you about an issue, back off and give him some time and distance, but tell him you are going to check back in with him a bit later. This can make a world of difference in your interactions with your son.
We often talk about the very real oppression of women, but males in our society aren’t always fairing well either when we look at cultural gender norms and the impact it makes on their health. Boys are three times more likely to be labeled as ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] than girls.
Boys are much more likely to get D’s and F’s in school. Males have a higher rate of drug and alcohol use and abuse and a much higher success rate for suicide. When we think about it, Vladeck said, traditional gender roles and how we have structured education in our society aren’t serving our boys well. If we can shift our way of thinking about what it means to be a man, this will have a positive effect on our sons. Are we verbalizing to them that they are enough just the way they are — whether they are tall or short, ripped or skinny, athletic or artistic, confident or anxious?
No matter who our sons are, they desperately need to hear that we are there for them on their perfect journey as an incredible son. Being aware of boys and their special needs is one thing. Being aware of our old issues from childhood, our unhealed wounds, unlearned skills, etc.,is important too.
After hearing Vladeck talk about the role we each can play in understanding and guiding our sons, and after sharing with other parents in the room, parents were really feeling connected to each other in their similar struggles with their sons. One of the many dads said it best, when he commented “being here together with this focus feels like we are a community.”
Besides having a supportive adult community to help us through our parenting struggles, your family may be seeking more direct and therapeutic help. If so, please contact Michael Vladeck at 303-545-5378 or firstname.lastname@example.org. In closing, Michael thanked the sixty parents gathered for caring enough about themselves, their relationships, and their families to reach out for support.