by Cheryl Erwin, M.A., Co-Author of several Positive Discipline Books
All places seared in our minds because young people erupted in shocking violence. One detail of those events is so obvious that we haven't talked much about it, but it's something we can't afford to ignore. All of the young people who picked up guns were boys.
As a therapist who works with young men almost every day, I can tell you that anger, even rage, is disturbingly common. I'm not talking about boys who are mad because mom wouldn't buy them a toy. I'm talking about boys as young as five who punch, kick, or threaten violence, and who seem to feel a rage that is out of proportion with their suburban American lives. Why? I am the mother of a teenage son, so it's a question I need to answer. It's tempting to blame our popular culture. Profanity, sexual imagery, violence, and anger are woven throughout the music, movies, and video games that young people enjoy. Yet I don't believe blaming the culture will help us in the long run. The truth is that many young people watch movies and play video games who would never hurt those around them. The culture doesn't cause our problems, although it can aggravate them. What's happening to our boys goes far deeper than that.
Studies tell us that boys are now at significantly higher risk for depression, dropping out of school, substance abuse, violent behavior, even suicide, than are girls. All too often, boys just disappear: they lock themselves in their rooms with their music and video games, or they simply leave. Two excellent books, both of which should be required reading for parents of boys, have examined this issue recently. William Pollack, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, and James Garbarino, author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, believe much of the problem lies in what we teach our sons about being a man.
What we believe as a society about being a "real man" is harming our boys. I remember an afternoon when my son, then about 10, was playing Little League baseball. He was the catcher, and one determined opponent decided to slide headfirst through my kid as he blocked home plate. My boy was knocked over, and when I saw him (still holding the ball) lying in the dust with blood trickling down his chin, I stood up to go to him. A dad sitting next to me pulled me down and said, "He doesn't want you out there." I am appalled to say that I sat down. When I walked over later to see my son on the bench where he was holding an ice bag on his lip, he looked at me with a trembling chin, but all he said was, "I'm fine, Mom." I wonder now whether he learned to be strong-or that it wasn't manly to feel pain Pollack and Garbarino believe that we teach our boys to shut off their emotions. We also encourage them to disconnect from their mothers. It isn't manly to want a hug from mom when you're 16-is it? Add in our frantic lifestyle, fractured families, and use of punishment to change behavior, and you have a recipe for violence. We need to help our young men acknowledge all their feelings. We need to spend time-lots of it-just hanging out with them. We need to show them that being a man is also about gentleness and wisdom, not just about toughness. And we need to watch for the warning signals of rage, and get them help if they need it. Their lives may depend on it.
I also have one boy (8) and two girls (3 and 2). From your description, our sons act very similar. I have no doubt that had we had him diagnosed he would be labeled ADHD. My husband is very against mind-altering medications, so we never went that route. We also homeschool, and that is certainly part of the reason. However, two years in and I am very proud of the progress we have made. I want him to be a very active, engaging, and passionate person. We have focused on emotional intelligence for the past couple of years and it's made a HUGE difference. Everyday he gets better at understanding and working through his emotions. The hitting is much less frequent, the temper flares are going away quicker or not happening at all, and we can often talk about things now. One thing I noticed is he had to mature. He'll be 9 in December, and the biggest improvement happened a couple of months ago. It was like a light switch.
It sounds like you've decided to also keep him off the meds? Based on what you've described it seems like the right decision.
I think I would do exactly the same if I were in your situation. My son is a fidgety kid and I heard about it constantly when he was in pre-k (PRE-K!). I've noticed that at times he's very empathetic but at other times he seems to miss social cues that even my 3 year old will pick up on. But he's very smart and loves school. Fortunately his kindergarten teacher has been very understanding and providing he's not disruptive she doesn't mind him moving around a bit. Still there have been a handful of times when he's so distracted that he can't get his work finished and ends up missing out on play time which does nothing more than make him more distracted (who can work when everyone else is playing). I don't like this approach at all particularly at this level. I am concerned what next year will bring. Whether his teacher will expect more of him than he can deliver or whether the additional structure and work of first grade will be too hard for him to manage. I have considered homeschooling and decided to wait and see. It's not my first choice but I won't hesitate to take him out of school if I feel his needs aren't being met.
I was just reading something like this. I think an old Newsweek I picked up at the doctors office in an article about corporal punishment in schools. It just the same thing that often time girls will engage in the same negative behavior as boys but are less likely to be taken to task for it. Interesting...
It seems that girls don't react in this kind of violent way, but if what pop culture portrays, their way is just as bad. This whole mean girl thing just boggles my mind. Girls are probably taking much more emotional abuse from their peers than boys are but it seems more 'hidden'. Of course that could just be my perception.
Hmmm...I'm not sure I would like your nursery school. The 1 strike rule seems a bit harsh to me. As you said, "depending on how bad it was", but don't you have to expect a certain amount of inappropriate physical behavior at that age because of lack of impulse control? I'm not suggesting that it be allowed but that the staff should be helping the kids in their care find better ways to deal with their emotions. Some of the examples you gave definitely seem over the top and sound like they are beyond the average pre-school's ability to handle. I guess it depends on what you mean by how bad it is. Is a kid that bites or hits out of frustration subject to that 1 strike rule?
As far as guns, I think people make too much out of no guns policies. Although in a school setting I understand that approach is necessary, at home I personally think education is a much better approach then prohibiting all "gun" play. Much like abstinence education doesn't prevent teen sex, prohibiting gun play for kids doesn't prevent real violent gun acts.
I have two boys. Sometimes I wonder if, as a culture, we have left boys behind to a degree. I think both boys and girls are worse for stereotypes but at least girls have broken out of many of the old labels and expectations (only to find new ones) while we haven't changed our expectations of boys to match.
This article caught my eye because my 6 yo has been having trouble with anger. Typically he's very verbal, rational and logical and usually will self sooth with his blanket. But lately he becomes very angry and lashes out physically at anyone nearby. I can't reach him emotionally and it takes him a long time to recover to a somewhat rational state. Fortunately this doesn't happen too often, but often enough that it's a problem. We had one particularly bad episode with him kicking at me every time I tried to get close to him and when I finally removed myself he started in on his brother. I'm fairly certain that this is happening mostly after a long school day which I can totally understand. I also have a hunch that it's a phase related to an emotional growth spurt. But still, it has been a bit of a wake-up call to me that I need to be more encouraging of him to speak up and verbalize when he's upset rather then retreating into his room. We've been working on it and fortunately I feel like he's made some progress. I've seen him start to lash out physically but be able to stop himself before actually hurting someone. When I see that I make sure to let him know how much I appreciate him thinking about what he is doing enough to be able to stop it.
I try my best to not lose my temper but of course it happens. Neither my husband nor I handle our anger in the best way at times. So for us it's something I want us to be careful not to pass on to our boys. It's a bit of a juggling act I think, to help kids express their emotions in an intelligent productive way but I hope that as they get older it will prevent the kind of rage described above.
Boys need to get their aggression/testosterone out and sitting in a little desk all day suppresses it and compounds it. A much better alternative is to engage our sons in lots of physical play and give them lots of opportunity to be physical (running, playing, jumping, going nuts in general) without them feeling they have to resort to violent behavior. In addition to this, it is our responsibility to teach our sons that their feelings are valid and nothing to be ashamed of. This is where a father or adult male role model comes in handy. If a boy has a man to look up to who is willing to show his feelings and pass that skill onto the boy, the boy will be all the better for it. Let's not deny that our boys have different needs than our girls. Testosterone and estrogen are two different things and they effect the body in two different ways. Our boys shouldn't be expected to not be physically aggressive, we as parents need to teach them how to use that physical aggression for positive things rather than for violence. Of course these are generalizations and there are exceptions to the rule. But I have found this to be true as a teacher and as a parent.
Thank you, thank you. This is so true. The standard classroom environment is torture on the physiology of boys - who are meant to move. Behaving as a typical boy is labeled "problematic", "disruptive" or "uncooperative" (or even "hyperactive") often because boy-kids just have a harder time focusing for long periods on book work while being forced to sit still behind a desk. My son's birthday falls 4 days after the cutoff, so he'll be nearly 6 when he starts Kindergarten and I'm really grateful that he'll have an extra year to mature socially before being thrust into this environment.
I have 2 boys. I always considered playing outside in the sandbox, letting them ride their trikes around to be equal to physical exercise. This post made me realize I was not letting them play rough enough. Today I played football with my boys (they are 2 and 3) and we had a blast PLUS they were so much better behaved and both went to bed so nicely. Thank you for this post, Beckster. What you said was pure logic, but somehow I was overlooking it.
I wrote/worked on a course for juvenile probation officers on dealing with troubled girls. According to the source materials (a couple meta-analyses), unhappy/troubled boys tend to turn their negative feelings outward into aggressive behaviors, vandalism, etc. while girls tend to turn feelings inward, towards cutting, inappropriate sexual conduct, eating disorders, etc.
I will say that I think it's important for all kids to let them know that the full range of human emotions are permitted - boys can be sad, angry, loving, insecure, uncertain, frightened, happy, jealous, etc. All too often I think we are afraid of anger in children, and so we try to teach them to shut off these emotions, instead of providing appropriate outlets. A few outlets friends of mine and I have used:
* let your kid run off his anger by doing laps around the house when he feels like hitting his sister
* "show me how you feel" through art (this works great for a friend with a special needs child who can't communicate verbally)
* punching bags, pillows, etc.
* one friend has a "yelling closet" (with bottled water and a punching bag hung up) and a "quiet closet" (full of pillows and books). When her kids need a break they can pick either one of these to get away from their family for a half hour or so
If we let kids feel, accept their feelings (not the same as taking on their feelings) and just listen without judging or offering advice, a lot of times that's enough. My own son is only 3 but many people have commented (at first saying I'm raising him to be a wuss or to not respect authority) about my parenting approach of saying things like, "Oh, you're sad right now. You wanted to stay at the pool longer" or "You're mad at mommy. That's allowed." Over time, they end up noticing how well it works, that my son's 'tempers" are less than 3 minutes long, and that we have a great relationship. A few of them have even dropped their own punish/reward systems in favor of the one I use.
I have had an ongoing issue with my temper my entire life. It was just my mother and I growing up, but she was very loving and spent alot of time with me. Never the less,I was very familiar with the concept of rage at an early age. I don't remember being a disruptive child or a bully, but I do remember other children bullying me and i was not willing to comply with that. I would have episodes of true rage where I was unable to hear anything, I had the closest thing to true tunnel vision I have ever experienced, and my adrenaline would make me as exceptionally strong to the point where it took three or more grown men to hold me down. During all this my only desire was to bring as much harm as I possibly could inflict on whoever was the source of my anger. It caused alot of problems for me growing up as you can probably imagine. The breaking point for me was when people told me that I had assaulted on the female teachers while I was in one of these states, which is was very unlike me. But the scariest part was that I couldn't even dispute it because I simply didn't remember. My memory of the incident was blacked out. I was still in elementary school during this incident but even then I recognized that if I didn't learn to deal with this I was going to hurt or kill someone and certainly ruin my life. I spent alot of effort in trying to learn to manage my anger issues by myself, and the older I got the less it happened. Did I mature? Certainly, but it took alot of will and effort as well. And even today I still deal with it.
I have two sons now, a four year old and and eight month old. Being able to help them deal with their own anger issues is one of my top priorities as a father. My oldest is very much like me when I was his age. I haven't seen him exhibit any bouts of unusual anger, but I don't know if I did when I has that young either. I worry about it all the time, especially after I lose my patience with him. I'm always wondering what kind of effect my example is going to have on him.
Either way I feel that it would have been a major advantage to me if I had access to someone who understood what I was feeling and going through when I was growing up. My schools just didn't know how to handle me. I was a very bright kid and was put into advanced and gifted programs at an early age. Many of my teachers (but certainly not all) seemed to be very fond of me. But I was a time bomb when I mixed with other kids my age. All I can do is prepare myself (reading books like those mentioned are helpful) and do my best. I won't know how effective I will be until my boys are many years older.