Thursday, 23 January 2014

Bringing the Best Out In Boys

How do we bring the best out in our boys in this challenging world in which we live?

Over the many years I have been involved in boys’ education I have read widely on this subject and through day to day experience observed many truisms. The classic one of course is ‘it is easier to build a child than repair an adult’.

To build happy and well balanced men we have to understand what it is to be a boy!

Not so long ago, some would cry ‘sexist’ if you suggested there are differences between boys and girls but over the last decade there has been a wave of neuroscience research demonstrating that the differences between boys and girls are more profound than anyone guessed.

Well known Australian psychologist, Dr Michael Carr Gregg believes that girls’ brains are not developed fully until around age 23 whereas boys’  brains, on a good day, with a tail wind,  reach full development around age 30.  Yet, often we are all in too much of a hurry to put intensity into children’s lives to ensure they are successful and in doing so risk derailing them before they can even enjoy a childhood. A lot of men will tell you they did not start believing in their ability until their mid to late twenties. Time and time again I see Wellesley old boys who at the time found the core skills of school very difficult, go on to complete challenging tertiary education and take on very responsible jobs.

Author, Dr Leonard Sax is just one of many researchers who is convinced that we must change school learning environments so the differences between boys and girls don’t become limitations.

“The brain develops differently. In girls, the language areas of the brain develop before the areas used for spatial relationships. In boys, it is the other way around. A curriculum which ignores those differences will produce boys who can’t write and girls who think they are ‘dumb’ at maths.

The brain is wired differently! In girls, emotion is processed in the same area of the brain that processes language. So, it’s easy for most girls to talk about their emotions. In boys, the brain regions involved in talking are separate from the regions involved in feeling. The hardest question for many boys to answer is: “Tell me how you feel.”

The typical teenage girl has a sense of hearing considerably more acute than a teenage boy. That’s why daughters so often complain that their fathers are shouting at them. Dad doesn’t think he’s shouting, but dad doesn’t hear his voice the way his daughter does.

Girls and boys respond to stress differently—not just in our species, but in every mammal scientists have studied. Stress enhances learning in males. The same stress impairs learning in females.”   Dr Leonard Sax

Girls work better in rooms heated to 23 degrees whereas boys respond better in 18degrees.

Clearly if these and other differences are not understood then we all run the risk of at best limiting the learning environment for both girls and boys and at worst destroying the individual’s self esteem to a point where they become ‘at risk’  and ‘dysfunctional’.

Sax argues that the best way to raise your son to be a man who is caring and nuturing, is to first of all, let him enjoy his childhood. There is definitely no one way to be a boy but what is clear is they all need the same affection and attention as girls. Sax and other argue that we need to celebrate the laughter and fun of mudslides, the rough and tumble, the natural world of bugs, lizards, eels and possums.  Mature and confident men usually have had secure childhoods with loads of love and laughter.

I certainly agree with psychologist, Dr Michael Grose ‘s views on how you raise well- adjusted boys.

First and foremost you must like them and give the time to get to know them. Showing interest and being part of their chosen activities goes a long way.  Boys are like dogs, very loyal if they sense they are trusted and liked. Loyalty is a major driver in the male psyche. It is said that girls are able to directly connect with subjects but boys connect with a subject via a teacher. Truly successful teachers of boys know them well and show they care about the individual boy. They connect with their spirit.

This loyalty of boys extends to their peer group which can be a strength or a weakness depending on the functionality of the friendship group.

Boys like to know who is in charge. They want boundaries as they make them feel safe and secure. They want to know someone is going to enforce those boundaries and as Celia Lashlie says, boys will cross the line but they want to be brought back.  This ‘bringing back’ ideally should not be a verbal or physical combative experience but a calm logical follow on from established expectations of behaviour.  Most boys do not respond well to public reprimands and it is clear that focusing on the positive is more likely to produce the desired outcomes.

Boys generally relate to consistency and simple and straight forward logic. Lecturing is a waste of time. Someone once said, you may as well write out your 10 best lectures and number them 1-10.When things go wrong, ask them to go to their bedroom and refer to the relevant number lecture, for what good it will do. The notion of discipline is the same as it always was but what has changed is how you deliver the message. Often children need love and support when they least deserve it!

I have met very few boys who when treated with respect, fairness and kindness don’t respond well. If you are consistent and they know you and are on their side they will usually see the rationale behind your stance and go the extra mile. (even if they do initially throw their toys out the cot)

We have to demonstrate and teach boys how to act reflectively as opposed to reactively. This is closely connected with the old myth of boys must be the ‘tough nut’, no crying, no sissy stuff! This gender straightjacket prohibits warmth and empathy. This eventually can become a relationship ‘time bomb’ that can de rail men later in life. This emotional intelligence teaching and modeling is vital in these early years.

It takes masterful teachers and parents to build a risk taking learning culture at home and in schools. One of our challenges is to make our boys feel comfortable to make mistakes.

One clear message from all the psychologists studying boys, is get it right early and set your boys up for success because it isn’t going to get easier. Anyone with teenagers will relate to that.

Dr Michael Carr Gregg and Dr Michael Grose (both Australian) are particularly outspoken. Their advice for parents is to ‘harden up’, set boundaries and follow through.

If we ‘cave in’ and become inconsistent and unreliable, we will be setting up the child for failure.

I truly believe we (Wellesley parents and school) have a successful partnership going on. There is a genuine desire to work together. I believe our boys are lucky on that the adults in their life are generally on the same wavelength.

After saying that we are all on a learning curve of one degree or another and it is important to have this ongoing dialogue with our aim to grow good men out of these wonderful boys.

Our holistic philosophy valuing the academics, arts, the sports and fostering personal best achievement provides a pathway of success and acknowledgement for all.

(acknowledgement: I have leaned  heavily on Dr Michael Carr Gregg, Dr Michael Grose and Dr Leonard Sax and my own experience and articles for the above view)