Raising boys for fun and profit

There are things parents can do to help their sons make the leap from stumbling boyhood to manhood.
Kevin Ryan | Aug 31 2009 | comment  



teen boy

Okay, I was kidding about the fun. And, I was lying about the profit. There are, however, a few things parents can do to help their sons make the leap from stumbling boyhood to manhood.

In a recent article I commented on the numerous reports of boys’ poor academic and employment performance compared with girls, and the growing concern that so many young males are trapped in what appears to be a permanent adolescent world of porn, sports and video games. Somehow, the societal landscape has shifted and the young men who tamed the West and built the nation’s robust economy are now sitting numbly in classrooms and office cubicles. The male needs to achieve, to become independent is not slaked by Fantasy Football and watching American Idol. And while it may be too late for your beer-and-bong addicted brother-in-law, there is much that can be done to save our boys.

First, however, I need to confess my modified adherence to the "Bad Seed" theory. The Bad Seed is a 1950s novel, later a movie, about a child who stops at nothing, even murder, to get her way. While the child of loving and sober parents, she appears as evil incarnate. I bring this up because while I have never encountered an evil child, I’ve known a few smart and loving parents who have borderline monster kids who seem to possess a teflon ability to reject the good influences surrounding them. In their quest for freedom or whatever, they seem to have defined their parents as the enemies they must conquer. While a few of these teenaged fiends have grown up to be self-centred ogres, a surprising number of them in their 20s and 30s make a caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis that is quite astounding. In the meantime, though, their parents have been dragged through various circles of Dante’s Inferno. All of which is to say, there are no universal, guaranteed rules in child raising. Suggestions, yes. Ironclad rules, no.

New baby, new priority

First, then (and it may be an obvious point) raising a child has to be the numero uno priority -- especially in the case of a boy in today’s world. Whether the "package from Heaven" was carefully planned -- or was or an upsetting surprise -- isn’t the issue. When Junior arrives, he (like all his siblings) needs to go to the top of the list. His upbringing must leapfrog over parental career, romance, friendships and, certainly, over sport, recreation and leisure. It is not that these lesser priorities are abandoned, but that they are recast or rearranged in the face of new responsibilities.

In bygone eras, when most moms and pops were farmers or small shop owners, the total training and education of their sons was in their hands and this child-raising priority had real teeth to it. And the incentives were high. Their sons were part of their survival system and they were, de facto, the insurance policy of their old age. The stakes were high for making Junior a loyal and upright guy. In the modern world, parents have outsourced much of the education and training to schools, and camps and professional youth workers. Few children are going to pursue the vocations of their parents. Few parents can help with algebra or compete with their 13-year-olds in computer literacy.

The one area to which the schools and youth workers give a wide berth is moral training. One of the mixed blessings of a democratic and diverse society is that, in principle, "imposing ethical values", let alone a moral compass, is a social no-no. However, in the absence of a strong moral training from home, these "secondary parents" will take over.

Knowing his basic temperament

Second priority is getting to know what you are working with. The resolution to raise a good and strong son is a necessary first step, but knowing what you want to "make" and with what material you are working is essential. At the early stages of life, as you cast a loving eye on your son mewing in his crib, or stumbling around the living room carpet, he is providing few clues to his unique nature. It begins when he has learned to turn on the television set, bop his sister with the toy she won’t share with him and refuse to stop teasing the dog no matter how many times you scold him. At these points, one’s "new responsibilities" take on flesh and blood reality.

Trying to get a fix on a child can be like trying to shoot mosquitoes with a BB gun. The latest psychological fashion may help, but there is one enduring system that can provide sure fire insight into the nature of an individual child.

From the time of the Greeks to modern times, people have gained insight from the four temperaments: choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic. While the system is old and the language somewhat mouldy, the human wisdom contained in this system is stunning and enduring. A very short, but useful description of these personality types has been written by Conrad Hick.
The virtue of this schema is that it provides a cognitive map to illuminate individual’s behaviour and dispositions. Being able to put a boy’s actions and mood into a somewhat predictable pattern can be a priceless gift.

There are, of course, more immediate and more direct ways to get a handle on what we’re working with. Like talking. However, this is often part of the trouble, particularly if Junior has become something of a family toothache. Our adult response is too often to preach or nag him back in line. There is a new cliché in education, which urges teachers to stop being "a sage on the stage" and become a "guide on the side".

Since many parents spend a substantial part of their lives as chauffeurs, sans cap and uniform, driving their children to school, to games, to practice, to lessons, to the dentist, these trips, parent and son sitting side by side, are excellent opportunities to talk. Instead of you listening to talk radio or watching him fiddling with the dials search for hip-hop or sitting in the isolation of his iPod, make these trips unthreatening conversations where you listen more than teach. You just might find out what Junior really wants or what he is afraid of.

The only problem with this quest to find out what is going on between your child’s ears is that the data is "time sensitive". Just about the time you have worked out your son’s character, he morphs into what appears to be an entirely different person. Redrawing one’s mental map of a child is an underappreciated but essential parent survival skill.

Forming habits and character

Third, work on his habits. The cliché holds true that we are creatures of habit. The gossip hears a juicy tidbit about a neighbour and burns to be the first one to share the spicy news. A person with the habit of honesty discovers that he made a mistake in his taxes that IRS missed and he immediately re-files. Habits are life’s mental labour-saving devices. The gossip doesn’t weigh the rightness or wrongness of spreading his inside information. He just blasts away, the honest tax payer doesn’t anguish over the HDTV he can no longer buy. He just fills out the forms, writes his check and moves on. All of us are bundles of good and bad habits which define how we act and who we are. From the time of the Greeks to now, we have called our individual bundles of habits our character.

Children come into the world with pre-set tendencies but no habits. They are like lumps of clay that need to be shaped. As a species, we humans need a long period of dependence before we are ready to go out into the world on our own. Besides being taught how to feed ourselves, how to converse with others and take care of the basics, we need to acquire the habits of a self sustaining individual who can contribute to those around him. We, and especially males, need to learn how to control our tempers, settle disputes without violence, and protect the weak.

Teaching good habits and breaking bad habits is the essence of good child raising.

A good deal of habit formation happens quite accidentally, by example. The Anglo-Irish parliamentarian, Edmund Burke wrote, "Example is the school of mankind and they will learn at no other." That’s a bit of an overstatement by the great man, but if you are quick tempered and explosive, don’t be surprised that Junior erupts when you won’t take him to the mall. If your desk or work area looks like it had been sacked by Visigoths, don’t expect his room to be the picture of order. Parents, however, are hardly the only examples in a child’s life. Television and schooling has crammed the modern child’s head with examples from which to mould his habits. So, besides monitoring their own example, a parent needs to filter as much as is humanly possible the other examples to which their child is exposed.

While some rare children acquire the good habits of character through imitation, most need to be subjected to that dreaded word "training". B.F. Skinner, the father of behaviourism, became a pariah to educators when he opined that no one should be allowed to teach school until he or she had successfully trained a rat. Not terribly diplomatic, but acknowledging the need of adults to oversee and help children acquire the needed habits. The more sophisticated philosopher, Aristotle, when asked, "How does a man become virtuous?" [that is, a person of good habits] replied that a man becomes kind by doing kind acts. He becomes brave by performing brave acts. Therefore, we need to lead Junior and reward positive steps on his road to good habits. Again, we need to be supportive "guides on the side" rather than nagging overseers.

No doubt about it, being a habit trainer is a long and arduous enterprise. The task isn’t finished until your child or adolescent or young man becomes his own "character trainer", that is, until he becomes the conscious moulder of his own habits. It means that a lot of golf games and relaxing hours before various scenes have to be given up. And it demands of the character trainer some important habits like patience, perseverance and, alas, humility.

But then there is pay-off day when Junior comes home from a sleepover and tells you that he and his buddies raided the liquor cabinet and got hammered, but he goes on to tell you how sorry he is and says, "Ya know, those guys are jerks. Maybe, I need some new friends." Or, the neighbour for whom Junior is doing lawn work tells you what a good job he’s been doing, how responsible he is and how much his own young children look up to him.

One more thing. I asked a friend, the father of two sturdy, virtuous sons and two married daughters who have brought two more fine men into his family, his advice on how to raise a boy. His answer: "Stay married. Divorce destroys kids."



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