A Guest Post by Michael C. Reichert, PhD
In the early years of my first son’s life, we lived in a row house neighborhood in Philadelphia. Right down the street was a small playground, where gangs of boys gathered for games of stickball and basketball.
My son was an eager athlete and loved playing sports. But as he and the other boys grew older, and despite the bonds of friendship built laughing and riding big toys up and down the sidewalk, several grew meaner.
They began to target others in their group.
Ultimately they turned on my son, pushing him from their games.
My son trudged home, tail between his legs, time after time.
From the start my wife and I were invested in building our son’s self-confidence. We spent regular play sessions with him in the faith that he would grow strong from our attention, backing and dedication.
From the very beginning of his life, we held to the belief that he was in the best position to determine who he was and what he needed. Our role was to follow his lead, respond to his signals, and help him dispel whatever upsets arose as he navigated his life.
When he was off, becoming contrary, timid, or withdrawn, we intervened more actively. Setting limits usually led to an outpouring of anger, disappointment, or fear that always ended with an appreciative cuddle and bright-eyed return to himself.
We raised our son at a time of dramatic growth in understanding boys’ development. Popular belief had held that women “do” feelings while men “do” action, but those stereotypes were debunked as women showed how ably they both feel and act.
The ethicist, Martha Nussbaum, offered the goal of “what people are actually able to do and to be” as the appropriate measure of proper nurture. In her view, a just society creates conditions – resources and relationships – which allow children to translate their innate capabilities into actual abilities.
So, how do we offer boys a real opportunity to be their full selves?
A growing consensus among researchers pointed in a particular direction.
Psychologist Niobe Way wrote: “What makes us human is our relational and emotional skills.” Her view was echoed by interpersonal neuroscientists who explained that a child’s mind grows in direct response to how he is treated. Daniel Siegel and co-author Mary Hartzell explained, “Experience is biology. How we treat our children changes who they are and how they will develop.”
We realized that boys’ and girls’ emotional lives are not so different by nature, and that we could expect our son to experience and express a full range of thoughts, desires and feelings.
According to Stephanie Shields, a psychologist at Penn State University, it is gender conditioning that makes the difference: “The boy learns to match ‘boy’ emotion to his own behavioral repertoire, the girl matches ‘girl’ emotion to hers, and both reject the emotional style associated with the other sex as unacceptable for themselves.”
We hoped to offer our son a boyhood that wouldn’t require him to sacrifice his emotional and relational capacities and we understood that opportunities to enjoy friendships and other close connections were critical to that goal.
Balancing Acts: Offering Reassurance and Building Resilience
Faced with this playground challenge, my first response was to play with him when he returned home defeated by new peer group dynamics. My aim was to try and bolster his confidence so he could give the playground another go.
I was saying, in effect, “The problem is not you – you are as dear and delightful as ever.”
But one Saturday morning, when he headed back up the block I met him at our front steps and told him he could not come into the house.
“You have to figure this out,” I said.
“I’ll stay with you as long as you need, but I cannot let you just give up.”
He tried to push past me, humiliation becoming frantic and explosive. He melted down, screaming and crying, over and over trying to slide by while I blocked his way.
I kept saying, “You can do it. You don’t have to give up.”
A neighbor poked her head out, concerned about what must have sounded like child abuse.
Confronting My Fears, or His?
Was I helping? Or was I merely passing along the prejudice that a boy should never shy from a fight? Was I teaching my son the terrible lesson that he must solve problems no matter how afraid or undone he feels?
In responding to what I perceived to be a critical threat to his future on our street, I was also responding to something deep within me. How much was I motivated by my own fear that my son might be driven from the playground, from boyhood’s pleasures, and exiled to a smaller life?
In this instance, after considerable self-reflection, I realized that I was attempting to achieve a tricky balance between telling my son I was sorry his friends were mean to him and holding out the belief in his power to make his life work, whatever the obstacles.
“You do not Have to Accept Defeat”
I wanted to teach him that he could choose his own perspective, no matter how hopeless or stuck he felt. Whenever he felt lost or dejected, he could restore his vitality by working through his hurt and hopelessness.
I wanted him to know that he did not have to accept defeat.
Parents of boys often feel urgent. Their son is behaving a certain way – lackadaisical in school, self-centered at home, undone by his peer group, unkind toward his sister or brother, insufficiently aggressive on the sports field, anxious or angry or shy – and parents cannot take it anymore.
We intervene with a hand heavy with worry or irritation. We try to give advice and become even more frustrated or alarmed when our sons cannot hear us.
Fortunately, my son and I survived that moment on our front steps, though there would be many others like it to come.
After he worked his way through the upset that had overcome him, he agreed to try the playground once more while I stayed available should he need to retreat again. Ultimately he found a way to hang in with the boys, though I don’t think it was smooth or easy.
Later that night he and I talked about what the situation meant: what was going on with the boys, with my son in response, and with me, in my worry for him.
It was important to him that I acknowledged it had sometimes been challenging for me with my friends also.
My son is a grown man now. He is a wonderful, patient teacher of boys and a warm father to a son. I am not sure what he took from my intended message, but do know that like every boy he has had many, many gut-check moments and has certainly had to exercise grit and courage.
Our relationship has survived many challenges and I believe he understands that even when I am clumsy I am still willing to help him with life’s difficult puzzles.
Michael Reichert, PhD, is the author of the new book How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men.