Over the last 40 years as a teacher, counsellor, parent, aunty and friend I have heard some fascinating stories of things that boys have done.
Last week a close friend shared a story of her 5-year-old son on his second day at big school. She was called up by the school to come and collect him as he’d hurt himself. On arriving at school she discovered that her sweet son had chosen to do a back flip off the top of the slide and he’d landed heavily on his back and winded himself badly. When she asked him why he would do that – he said his mate had dared him to do it! What was he thinking?
Another story was about a 14-year-old boy who struggled with ADHD who decided to graffiti the deputy principal’s car. He wrote his own name on the car! What was he thinking?
There was also a 17-year-old lad who thought it was a great idea to skate down a very steep road in the middle of the night while he was drunk. After breaking both wrists and removing enormous amounts of skin – he confessed it was a dumb thing to do and he wouldn’t do it again. Sadly he forgot that and he tried the same stunt a couple of months later and re-broke another wrist. What was he thinking – twice?
The winter Olympics are on at the moment and it was classic teen boy behaviour for 17-year-old Red Gerard who almost missed his event because he overslept after a Netflix binge, then couldn’t find his jacket and yet rushed to his event and still bagged an Olympic gold medal. What was he thinking?
Why boys make poor choices
Boys are still biologically wired to be ‘mammoth hunters’ or protectors of the more vulnerable members of their tribe. This means the amygdala is larger in boys and men because they need to respond to threat really quickly or they could be killed (metaphorically).
The surges in testosterone are also a huge part of the high energy levels of many boys because they may need to hunt the metaphorical mammoth for days before they can do battle with it and remove the threat. Physical strength is ensured with more muscle being present in boys – and why they often need to eat so much when having a growth spurt. Apparently girls just grow mainly fat!
To help understand why boys often make poor choices – which often end in injury – firstly let’s be clear they are not doing this deliberately! Their intention is quite simply to ‘do’ and to have fun and enjoy life by doing ‘stuff’ and testing themselves to see if they have ‘done good!’
So let’s see why “what was he thinking?” might be the wrong question to ask after your son has done something that seems really dumb to us parents.
- No Myelin – The capacity to make sound, well thought-out decisions that take into account risk has a lot to do with the maturation of the brain. The fatty white substance called myelin takes until our 20s to fully develop – and this is what helps humans become mature responsible adults. This process of myelination varies with individuals and there is research that suggests girls develop myelin earlier than boys. So struggling with planning for the future, motivating oneself, managing impulses and learning from mistakes can take boys until the late 20’s or even later – much later. So having no or little myelin impacts decision-making and our capcity to learn from mistakes.
- Boys’ behaviour is their language – when a little boy runs up to his best friend who is leaving kindy after having a great day together he sometimes punches him in the head or knocks him flat on his back! ‘Aggression nurturance’, a term coined by Michael-Gurian, is a non-verbal way of boys showing affection and the intention is to express his affection not to hurt! Wrestling and rough and tumble play are both ways that many boys connect physically with those they love. So reframe this behaviour next time you see it and teach him some less painful farewell strategies.
- Testing themselves – boys have an invisible self-worth barometer inside them and they are always assessing themselves via what they achieve externally. This partly explains why they are so competitive and why they keep striving to do better than last time. Hitting targets is a way they do this so have lots of cushions in your lounge so they don’t throw toy trucks. This need to prove his worth to himself is what drives much of his risky behaviour. This also is why when many boys fail they often feel they have let themselves down and can get irrationally angry at themselves.
- Emotions can be confusing – boys don’t tend to spend as much time as girls thinking about their feelings however they do feel them just as intensely as girls. Feeling like a failure or excluded triggers big ugly feelings that can often drown a boy and often he responds by becoming angry and often he expresses that through aggression. The increasing numbers of little boys being suspended and expelled in our transition to big school journey with the current climate of ‘schoolification’ may be a result of having expectations of boys that are developmentally inappropriate. We need to look at what is really under the anger – as it is a symptom rather than the problem.
- Movement matters – movement helps boys create positive neurotransmitters especially dopamine and so often boys need more movement than girls and again our schools often fail to appreciate this need. Often a boy will be bouncing on your couch while watching his favourite TV program! After prolonged times being physically confined, such as when sitting or using a hand held screen, boys often have a strong biological need to be as active as possible to discharge excess energy in their nervous systems. So the need to move, fidget, kick and shove can be a biological need to make boys feel better – not to be annoying or naughty. Prioritise movement in your son’s life ‘to burn the gunk out of his motor’!
- Experience is a fabulous teacher – there is plenty of research that explores that many children learn by doing rather than listening to someone tell them what to do to learn. Boys tend to disengage from situations where grownups talk too much – this includes parents and teachers. One of the best teachers for our boys is natural consequences – where a boy learns as a consequence of a real experience. Repeated pain is a wonderful teacher! This is why boys like to know if they passed or failed – because it gives them a clear message about their efforts. When school reports use terms like ‘progressing’ it confuses boys. Being hurt by a wooden see saw up to three times was a great way for a boy to realise that he is accountable for his choices. Verbal warnings of possible dangers can simply not be heard in their hunger to have a go and test himself. Celebrate natural consequences!
- Belonging with the tribe – we all have a hunger to belong and with boys this is particularly strong especially when playing. One of the best ways to stay connected is by doing what others are doing – no matter how crazy or dangerous that may be. This is why a ‘dare’ is such a non-negotiable thing in boy land. To ignore a ‘dare’ risks being excluded from the tribe. If a boy is a part of a group of boys who feel loved and who have been supported with warm discipline there is a tendency for them to do less things that are hurtful and destructive. – and the reverse tends to happen too.
- Gaining status – for a boy to feel better about himself and to be seen better in the eyes of the tribe he often will do things to gain credibility and status. Again this is an inner urge that does not pass the few layers of myelin in his developing brain and can leave grown-ups scratching their heads! This is where some of the most risky behaviours come from – jumping from a taller branch, higher rock and throwing rocks at windows or streetlights.
- Seeking connection not attention – even though most boys don’t look sensitive and in need of love, affection and tenderness – they are. Steve Biddulph writes about this sensitivity around feeling unloved and abandoned, especially in little boys. Ensuring his love cup is full needs to be done in small ways and often – even better without words but more with actions. Kicking, hitting and fighting with siblings – more than is the usual stuff – maybe a sign your boy needs more connection. Sometimes negative connection seems better than no connection. For some good ideas check out my love bridges.
- Reducing stress and releasing cortisol – because of boys’ impulsivity and the need to test themselves physically they are often making poor choices that are seen as naughty or bad. Their sense of failing and letting themselves down also adds a layer to why boys struggle with cortisol overload – and the need to discharge it with a meltdown in the car after school, irrational physical aggression or by running away. Sometimes boys’ hunger to have fun – which is a way to release cortisol and make dopamine and other positive endorphins – means they act really silly. This can occur through farting, burping, mentioning silly words about the same and bums – a big favourite – as well as removing clothes. Some boys make positive neurochemicals by playing air guitar with their penis of making other funny shapes aka penis puppetry. Others can let the bath run over so they can have a great skidding track on the bathroom floor or use a whole bottle of bath gel in one go. These actions need to be seen as ways of releasing the unique stresses of being a boy and not a sign of a deliberate intention to make parents really angry. Yes still really annoying!
So what things can you do to help your lad gradually make better decisions when he mucks up?
- Try to see the world through a boy’s eyes and practise responding not just reacting.
- Remember boys are sensitive and not tough so practise warm discipline not shouting, hitting or shaming.
- Allow him time to cool down and process what he did that has caused you angst – 24 hours is a good time lapse.
- Gently ask what was his intention when he made that choice, “What were you trying to do?”
- Help him work out other ways to get what he was seeking that doesn’t break the 3 Rules:
- Forgive him for making a poor choice – often and quickly.
- Reassure him you still love him – non-verbally as well as verbally by showing rather than saying.
A final story I heard was about a four-year-old lad who drew a huge lipstick picture on the hallway wall for his mummy. Needless to say mummy lost it, despite (she told me) having heard me talk about my steps to toddler genius. She yelled at him and sent him to his room and spent ages removing the mess. Two nights later while her son was having a bath he said:
“Mummy remember the lipstick picture I did for you? Well I tried so hard to draw you a beautiful picture cos I love you soooo much.”
Needless to say his mum felt pretty crappy in that moment! She realised she had missed his true intention.
Maggie shares more about understanding boys in her book, Some Things About Boys. This book is a compilation of reflections on living and working with boys from from Maggie’s writings over the years and covers early years, through school and adolescence.