Sewickley Academy's Director of Support Services Shannon Mulholland, Ph.D. conducted a webinar titled, "Raising Boys," in which she offered seven tips to help boys become happy, healthy, and productive members of our society who have forged sound relationships and who have developed their skills and talents.
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Transcipt from 7 Tips for Raising Boys Webinar presented by Shannon Mulholland, PhD.
Good afternoon, everybody, and thank you so much, Brendan. I so appreciate everybody tuning in today in the middle of their busy lives on a weekday. Today's presentation will last about 20 to 25 minutes and then, as Brendan said, I'll leave some time for questions at the end. Raising Boys, wow, what a wonderful journey we are all on. You guys are likely tuning in today because you're in the midst of raising a son, maybe you're an educator who just wants to be more aware and improve your ability to reach and teach boys, or maybe you're just interested in what's out there in the literature these days and certainly raising this generation of boys is a popular topic. I've been in education and counseling for about 22 years. I received my master's degree in special education and then I went to work with students who are part of the juvenile justice system in Virginia.
Not surprisingly, most of my students were boys. As I spent each day with them, 8:00 AM to 3:00 PM, I was teaching them core academics, language arts, and math, but then I also spent equal time teaching them to be young men and people who could go out into the world and abide by the law and respect others and contribute positively to a family and to their community. I had no idea, at that time, that I'd eventually have three sons of my own who needed much the same guidance. Today, my boys are 16, 18, and 19 - and are (or once were) students at Sewickley Academy. Now, in my work at Sewickley Academy as the director of support services, I spend much of my time with kids and teachers and families, strategizing around how to help our children navigate their way to adulthood. I'm also the chair of the social science department, and I teach Introduction to Psychology in the Senior School.
There's a lot of literature out there on boys. Much of that literature is focused on challenge, the challenge of raising boys or that boys are at risk or the underachievement of boys. Well, that's not what today is focusing on. Today we are celebrating our boys and we're recognizing our role as parents and recognizing what we can control that's going to influence the outcome for our boys. We likely have similar goals in mind. We want happy and healthy, productive members of our society who have forged sound relationships and developed skills and talents. Certainly, I'd like my son to be strong. I'd like my son to be resilient. I'd like my son to be a good person. In order to foster that development, we are in charge of nurturing our boys and we're helping them grow.
With that in mind, I have seven targets that I want to remind you of today. These are targets that, hopefully, will allow you to pause and just reflect on your child or your parenting for a minute today. Not every target is going to be meaningful to you so just because our children are male does not mean that they are all the same. My own three boys are vastly different. They were raised in the same home, they have the same parents, but they are just vastly different beings. We have to recognize the personality and temperament, genetics, experience, and culture, certainly all factor in to influence your boys and your experience. However, there is still sound evidence that, in general, boys have certain tendencies and they have certain needs that we can't ignore and a little attention to that might help contribute to their healthy growth.
Parenting is a job and a joy that never ends. There are moments of intensity that seem so stressful and challenging and we question the decisions that we make as parents, and we wonder if we're doing it right or if we're messing it up. We build and we chisel and we hope that, in the end, we will have helped grow a wonderful young man. We have our proud moments as parents when our children do something that makes us especially happy to be their parent or when we recognize that our work is really paying off. That's when we see the fruits of our labors. We travel together on this road. Let's get started with our topics.
The first target is unconditional positive regard. This is a term in psychology from the humanist perspective and, as parents, we have a special, undoubtable opportunity to help our boys grow into secure young men.
You have high self-efficacy and a sense of their place in the world. Our boys need to know that we love them. Plain and simple. They need to know that our love is not conditional on some other value that comes before they do. For example, if a child comes home from school and reports that he got a D on a math test, and we say, "Well, that's not acceptable in this house. We don't get D's in this family," he may feel as though your love for him is based on his math grade, his math performance, and he's just lost those points with you. If your reaction instead is, "I'm not happy about your performance on your test. I suspect that you're not either, but I still love you, and we should look at your mistakes and talk about ways to improve."
The idea here is that we can show our anger and frustration and even our disappointment to our children after one of their behaviors, but they need to know that we love them despite that behavior. Showing unconditional positive regard and telling them that you love them goes a very long way in developing a healthy young man.
The second target is let him explore. Boys are really naturally curious. They yearn for a variety of stimulation. They're constantly looking for something novel in the environment so we need to help them explore. Let them develop their gross motor skills through active play outside. Think old school with me for a minute. What is available to you outside? Climbing trees. If you go to a playground, the monkey bars, the swing set, the slide. Hiking in the woods, skipping rocks at the creek, playing with sticks, fishing, riding bikes. These are all good activities available when you're outside.
Far too often what we are doing is protecting our children from anything that might be seen as dangerous or a risk to them. We hear these stories about kids who fell from the monkey bars and broke an arm or fell off the swing and did the same, or poking someone else with a stick. I'm not saying that good sense and caution are not part of parenting and definitely in order here, but we need to be aware of when you may be overly protective and keeping your son from exploring because you're concerned about his getting dirty or his falling or that he might get hurt. Let them play outside. Let them play outside when you're not looking. Exploration outside with friends can be such valuable time to build relationships with boys. I'll get to it later, but boys actually prefer to bond while they are doing something.
Allow your sons to go outside, play with other children, solve problems independent of you, and find fun in the environment and get to know each other. The structured play activities that are planned and run by adults like sports camps and teams and music lessons, these are really positive but they actually don't replace the growth that happens when kids are on their own to make decisions and when they have to navigate independently. If we don't encourage boys to find ways to explore outside, they'll likely find those interests inside. Today's technology provides an array of visual and auditory and even kinesthetic stimulation. The games and the apps, they can keep them busy for hours with lights and sounds and action. The Wii game allows them to actually move and simulate dance or sports.
There's a real caution here for boys. They have tendency to become fixated on these kinds of games and the babysitter effect that they provide for parents sometimes causes us to let them just play for too long. Even when our children are taking short car rides, sometimes we're providing them with a handheld device to watch a movie, play a game, or draw. Instead, consider returning to I Spy. Finding all of the letters of the alphabet in different license plates or just looking out the window as a means of comfort. Our boys become too dependent on the entertainment that we provide and sometimes behavior problems emerge because they don't know how to entertain themselves or they haven't been able to get outside and run around. Pay attention to what access your child has to technology in your house and limit his time on games. Get outside whenever you can every day.
The third target is guide him toward a self-concept and self-efficacy. Feeling a sense of who you are and a sense of competence is an essential part of growing up to be a well-adjusted young man. Boys have a very strong need to perform and compete, and they're eager to find where they fit and which interests are most appealing to them. It's important that, as parents, we are aware of their self-concept and that we match the experience that they're having at home. For example, if a developing boy identifies as an artist and he lives in a very sports-minded home that's focused on development in that area, he might feel out of sync and that he doesn't fit in with the family values.
This is called a sense of incongruence, and it might leave him feeling alone or misunderstood or possibly ashamed of having the self-concept that he has developed. Prepare to be open to a variety of interests that your child might develop even if they are dissimilar from yours. Providing opportunity to try all kinds of skills leaves this door open. Let your boys explore playing an instrument, playing sports, acting, art, dance, robotics, design, whatever - the sky is the limit. The idea is to be the master of something. Boys want to feel competent. Self-efficacy is different than self-concept. It's not the way that you perceive yourself, but instead where you feel skilled, where you feel competent. I might develop a high self-efficacy as a person with good humor or in a particular sport or even as someone who navigates friendships well.Encourage your son to find what he likes and develop that skill so he's working on becoming the master.
The fourth target is hold him accountable. While we want to promote boys exploring independently and solving problems on their own, we want to give them a framework and some boundaries to be aware of as they develop. So many times we fall back on the old phrase, "Boys will be boys." I caution you to use this phrase judiciously. It can sound like an excuse for behavior that is sometimes just not acceptable. Our boys must learn appropriate rules that are expected socially in our culture and the standards that you value in your home. For example, settling down indoors, greeting someone when you see them, making adjustments, interacting with others.
These are all expected behaviors in our world. Just as we teach children to use their inside voice, we encourage them to use their inside behavior as well. I've emphasized getting outside and playing, but sometimes the transition back inside is not evident. Establish some routines so that when your child walks in the door he's responsible for hanging his coat, putting his shoes where they go. It's so easy for us to do it for them. I've done it so many times myself. It takes less time, it will be done right. Right? That's how we feel. If we have to wait for him to hang his coat and put his shoes away, that might take another five minutes and it might not be just so. Actually, we're doing them a disservice if we don't hold them accountable in this way.
When they go off to school they are asked to follow rules, and it will be a lot harder for them if they have never had to do that at home. Additionally, when boys come back into the house from the outdoors, they continue to see all of the space as their playground. You might find a matchbox car under your feet in the kitchen or a Lego that's swept up in the vacuum cleaner in the den. Try to designate space for boys to play in your home. A bedroom, a den, attic, the basement, whatever works in your house. Also designate space in your house that's free of toys. Hold your son accountable for managing some of the space in his playroom. Clean up each night, ask him to return toys to the trunk or a drawer or a cubby.
Socially, expect your child to say hello and greet people when he first sees them. I know some children have a really hard time doing this at first, but with practice and continued expectation, he's going to find his comfort. This is not to say that you should reprimand him in front of others for not greeting them. Talk to him about greeting before he enters the room and revisit it later if he hasn't done it. If he's not able to greet at the time when he should, you might say, "The next time, Joshua, I'd like to hear you say hello to Mrs. Jones. It's good manners and friendly." They just need to keep hearing what good manners look like, what friendly looks and sounds like. Be clear and consistent about what you expect and model the behavior yourself. They need to watch you do it and then they know that they are expected to follow the model. This requires that you mean what you say as well.
We fall into the trap of counting. "By the time I get to five, you better be down here to go to the store with me." Then we say, "Okay, one, two, three, four, five, five and a half..." You know how it goes. Suddenly our boys are understanding that we don't really mean what we say. In thinking about getting ready to use their best manners, to be held accountable, to interact appropriately, this idea of previewing, again, is very helpful. Talk about what kind of behavior will be expected and what praise or reward your son might receive for doing a great job. "Before we go into the store I'd like to talk with you about what I expect. Please don't ask me for more snacks. Please don't stand in the cart." I just used those as examples.
If those were the two things that maybe your child is struggling with, talk to him in the car before you go into the store about what you expect. This kind of previewing really doesn't end after the elementary school years are over. It's actually important to preview before your child goes on his first date, to his first party, or even for a job interview. Why not take the opportunity to role play a bit with him like this? "Okay, let's talk about the party. What do you expect will happen? Who will be there? Will there be adults in the home? What will you do if you feel uncomfortable with what is going on at the party? Let's talk about your behavior at the party. Here's what I expect." Boys may not feel especially comfortable talking with you about this topic, but your voice in their head in a tough situation could be really, really helpful.
Target five is recognize love in the form of action. Boys love and feel very deeply about relationships, but sometimes it's not so clear to those who interact with them. We don't expect boys to speak sensitively and emote. Culturally this just sort of seems to break the boy code, yet when they don't tell us how they feel we're disappointed and we expect more. They tend to show their love through action. Little boys bump into each other in line at school as a way of saying hello or expressing that they like another child. They do their best bonding when they're working on a project together and their hands and feet are moving. It's fascinating to hear boys talking to each other while they work or play. You'll sometimes hear a lot more from them then and it seems, somehow, more meaningful.
They show their love through work, at home and at school. My son, Ben, will suddenly jump up and take out the trash if he thinks I'm upset with him about something. Boys will study more for a test in an effort to do better rather than speak to the teacher about needing help. They show their love by protecting. During their adolescent years, my other sons, Jake and Thomas, would fight endlessly with each other but each time a peer commented in a negative way about his brother, the other would race in to protect and defend him. I always thought they didn't get along and then I realized how much love they did have for each other through these protective actions. Give your child time to think and collect what he might want to say.
A mom shared with me a story one time about her son who she suspected was really feeling down. As an eighth grader he'd actually run for class president for three years in a row and he lost every time. After the third loss his mom sat down with him and said, "Wow. This must be a tough day for you. How do you feel? Are you mad? Sad? Hurt?" Well, she was met with a very long silence and a fairly expressionless child and she waited. She waited six minutes before her son responded at all and he finally said to her, "I'm disappointed." That was pretty much the end of the conversation. He just really wanted to be sad and disappointed, but he didn't really want to talk about it and couldn't really put the words to it at the time. I appreciated her ability to wait that out and not force his expressing his feelings verbally.
With that in mind, we do want to encourage an emotional vocabulary. Our boys' actions, at times, come through the form of tears. Again, also seemingly against boy code, it's true that our sons sometimes need and want to cry. Their crying is not an expression of weakness, but rather their natural tendency to act when their emotions are high. It's here when it's important to step in and help them develop an emotional vocabulary. With young boys, we start with their physical feelings in reaction to an emotion. "Does your belly hurt? Is your head hot? Is your face red?" Usually those reactions are the result of feeling something emotional. Then we can move to, "Are you mad? Are you frustrated? Oh, okay. So you're frustrated." Frustrated seems to go along with a red face. Sometimes making that connection for them helps tie the physical with the emotional.
Help him label his own feelings and read the feelings that others express. Practice in this way. After you leave the doctor's appointment you might say, "Wow. Did you see that nurse's face? What do you think she was trying to tell us?" Or, "I heard what your coach said to you today. What was he expressing?" I didn't use the word feelings with the boy in these examples because, in some cases, during adolescence boys will shut down just when they hear that word. They're so uncomfortable talking about feelings that the mere mention of the word triggers inadequacy somehow for them. You might think about asking what someone is expressing or try to tell us what their face says or what does their loud voice say to you.
The final target is let him be a man in your house. After middle school, our young men are really developing. Physically they're growing quickly. Their bodes are changing and as they recognize this change, they want to assert themselves more and more as men and you might find that your one sweet little boy is pushing back on every issue. Some parents feel at this point like their child is being defiant or disrespectful. Well, what he is trying to do is show you that he has opinions, too and that he wants you to listen to what he has to say. Now, encourage your son to offer his opinions and present them with a measured tone and respectful language but let him find his way through voicing his opinions. Again, this can be a difficult time for parents as they feel their son shift his focus from parent-centered to peer-centered.
He makes friends. Classmates become very important and our sons often spend more time out than at home. This is all part of letting him go and grow into a man. Remember the days of unleashing him outside in the neighborhood to explore and navigate problems on his own? Well, those days are back except now he's driving a car. He still wants to explore and solve problems on his own and that's really good for him. You writing an email to his teacher or talking with his coach about playing time doesn't help him find his own voice. He may even feel embarrassed that he hasn't done the talking for himself. A quick review as we come to the end here.
When we're thinking, reflecting today about our own children and our parenting, we want to think about unconditional positive regard, letting our boys explore, guiding them to find their own self-concept and where they feel skilled, setting some boundaries and holding them accountable, recognizing their show of love in the form of action, developing an emotional vocabulary, and letting him grow to be a man in your house. Feel free to type in some questions and I'll do what I can to answer them as best I can.
Brendan: Hi, Shannon. We actually do have one question right now.
Brendan: What is the maximum time per day you recommended for using video games/iPods, etc?
Shannon: The maximum time?
Shannon: Wow. That's hard to say. Developmentally, I think there's some differences there. Certainly, for very young children I really think they should only spend about 15 minutes on the computer, on a game. As kids gets older they're going to spend more time playing more intense games where they are actually competing with other people. I like to see kids spend an hour and then stop, maximum. I know, when I talk to children who are playing lots of video games, they will tell me their spending up to four and six hours playing games and on the computer. That's definitely way too much time on the screen. As kids get older, the time gets greater. This doesn't include when they're doing something like word processing, writing papers for school. It's really about the games and the stimulus and the entertainment on the computers.
Brendan: Okay. Right now that's the only question we have so I know you have some great resources to share.
Shannon: Great. Okay. These are some good reads that I found. I have these in my library at school. If anybody lives locally and they want to come by and borrow them that's fine with me. Some great authors out there. Meeker, the "Strong Mothers, Strong Sons". She's doing some nice work. She's a pediatrician and has written some great stuff on boys. I also wanted to show you guys this resource at the bottom here, it says StoryPeople and the website is www.storypeople.com. This might be a little bit silly but for each of my sons, when they were young, I found a StoryPeople story that I thought really represented them well and they are pieces of art. It's a print with an abstract art on it and these are some of the phrases or stories, again, that apply to my children.
This first one, "'There has never been a day when I have not been proud of you,' I said to my son, 'though some days I'm louder about other stuff so it's easy to miss that.'" I think that might be one that we can all relate to a time or two. This next one is more about a child who's really inventive and the last one is really about a child who really likes to explore. Check out StoryPeople. I think you'll find it interesting.
Brendan: Well, Shannon, thank you very much. Everybody on the webinar, remember that I will send you a recording of this so that you don't have to, if you were scribbling down the titles. You'll have them in the video. Hopefully, I'll get that out to you tomorrow. Then don't forget, Shannon is actually presenting next week at the same time, 12:30 Eastern. It will be entitled Empowering Girls. So, Shannon, thank you very much.
Shannon: Thank you so much, everybody. Have a great day.