Looking for answers on how to raise boys?
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Boys are born to be wild. Their strong spirit, endless imagination, and hunger for adventure are only matched by their deep desire to be affirmed, esteemed, and loved. In their new book Wild Things, therapists Stephen James and David Thomas help parents and educators understand what exactly makes boys tick.
1. In your last book, How to Hit a Curveball, Grill the Perfect Steak, and Become a Real Man, you addressed a lot of fatherhood issues about rearing boys. How is your new book, Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys, different?
How to Hit a Curveball felt like a perfect introduction to this book. That book challenges men to take a good look at themselves, their experience of being boys themselves and how they were (or weren’t) fathered. We strongly believe that men can’t father well outside of paying attention to their own stories. Whether we like it or not, we are all creatures of habit. We gravitate back toward what we know – good or bad. That book was an invitation to look a little closer at both.
Wild Things is an invitation to take a closer look at your son. This book is a comprehensive look at boy development from birth to young adulthood. In addition to laying out the biology of a boy, we also look at the mind of a boy and the heart of a boy. We break down what a boy needs from his mom and from his dad in every stage of his development. We also hit on all the hot topics surrounding boys, everything from the impact of media to substance abuse, the role of sports, and sex and dating.
2. The subject of Wild Things was inspired by Maurice Sendak’s classic tale Where the Wild Things Are. Why did you find this theme so appropriate?
If you read closely Sendak’s story, he brilliantly speaks to a boy’s hunger for risk and adventure, how boys crave power and purpose, and how they make sense of the world around them. Sendak’s portrait of boys felt so accurate to the two of us and a unique way of exploring and dissecting a boy’s inner world.
In Wild Things, we borrow from the passion and ethos of Sendak’s book and use that to provide insight and direction for parents, teachers, and mentors in what it means to love a boy well. We also try and give a lot of real life examples from our own lives and from the families we work with in our counseling practices.
3. You address five key stages that a boy goes through on his journey to becoming a man. What stage is the most difficult for most boys to navigate?
Each of the stages holds unique challenges. We worked hard to break down each stage in a way that is easy to digest. We think that that parents and educators will walk away with a clearer understanding of a boy’s unique design in each stage and some practical ideas in how to care for him within that stage of his development.
In many ways Wild Things is the kind of thing that you don’t just read once. It is more like an entertaining reference guide that parents and teachers can go back to time and time again for encouragement, insight, and direction.
But if we had to identify one stage as the most challenging, though, we’d have to say the Wanderer stage (13-17). This window of a young man’s development is plagued by physical and emotional change. A colleague of mine, who is pediatrician, said boys in this stage are 98% hormone, which translates to their being so emotional. A part of their developmental agenda is moving toward independence and pulling away. He’s often times the most distant and hard to read in this stage, which greatly complicates the process of letting him go and trusting him with more independence. And it is during this stage that is has the ability to make decisions that will effect the rest of his life. The risks are real and boys in this stage lack the ability to choose wisely with their future in sight.
4. Both of you are fathers of girls and boys. How is parenting a boy different from parenting a girl?
Parenting boys in the first three stages is just so physical. Parenting boys in these years requires a great deal of physical energy-and a good back. Whereas parenting our daughters is so much more relational and emotional. Both are exhilarating and exhausting, but in different ways.
When I (David) engage my daughter, it’s in sitting in a neighborhood coffee shop talking about her day at school. My boys can sit at the coffee shop long enough to finish a chocolate chip cookie, spill their milk and then we’re kicking a soccer ball across the street at the park.
We talk a lot in the book about boys in motion and how to engage these active, physical beings. Girls need that too, no doubt, but not in the same way boys need it.
We had our families together the other day over at my (Stephen’s) house. At one point all the kids went out in the front yard to play: five boys and two girls in all. There were a number of balls lying around the yard. The boys started playing soccer with one ball and the girls started playing soccer with another. After a few minutes the boys were trying to kick the ball at each other and the girls were off to the side talking to each other. To me that is a great picture of the differences.
5. What mistakes have parents and educators made in their approach to rearing and training boys?
For me (Stephen) the consistent mistake my wife and I make is that we over explain and over verbalize with our sons. This is a problem that is very common. In parenting boys, adults tend to talk to them and at them a great deal. We talk and talk and talk and end up sounding a lot like Charlie Brown’s teacher. “Whah, whah, whah.” In Wild Things we offer a number of different strategies for engaging and educating boys that better match their unique design. Boys learn through experience and physical repetition. They need consistent firm boundaries and loads of encouragement.
As far as school goes we speak a lot in the book that the compulsory model we use for schooling in the United States is generally well-suited to a girl’s learning style. It’s heavy on verbal and written expression, two particular areas of strength for most girls. It involves a good deal of sitting still for extended periods of time with mostly auditory instruction. These methods don’t match a boy’s way of learning or draw on his learning strengths.
6. How did you come to the conclusions you discuss in Wild Things?
The book is a combination of science and research, clinical experience (our own as therapists and that of others), and our own journey of parenting five boys between the two of us.
As therapists, we have sat with thousands of men and boys over the years. Our hope was to bring their voices into the content of Wild Things. We have learned so much from the males we’ve had the great honor of working with and hoped to bring their stories into this text. In addition to those, we are still learning so much from living with five of our wild things.
7. At what age should parents discuss sex, homosexuality, and pornography with their boys?
You may be surprised to hear this answer, but we’d recommend beginning a dialogue around sexuality at the age of two. We aren’t recommending education around homosexuality and pornography at two. That begins typically around age 8-10, possibly earlier or later depending on the boy. But we are strong advocates of a healthy ongoing dialogue with every boy around the design of his body, sexuality, and boundaries in relationships in stage one.
We lay out a good portion of this in the book to take some of the guess work out of it for parents, and we recommend some useful resources in further guiding you through this life long discussion. As boys grow older the conversation becomes more specific and more technical. Think of it like painting: it starts with broad brush strokes and then moves to finer detail. But as a rule, it starts way before most parents think it does.
8. What are the three most important factors in keeping a boy from experimenting with drugs?
We continue to see three common factors among young men that we’ve worked with who either abstain from using substances or experiment and then make a decision not to continue. The first would be a strong faith and core values. The second would be a strong family open to dialogue. The third would be strong relationships.
9. Who are the most important role models in a boy’s life?
There is no question that a boy’s parents play a foundational role in the man he becomes. In Wild Things we have a chapter that specifically address a mother’s relationship with her son as well as a chapter that addresses a father’s relationship with his son. But it doesn’t stop there for boys. There is great truth to the old African proverb that says “it takes a village.” We talk early in the book about how a boy begins to hunger for other voices and a part of our role is to put them in his way, so that he ends up with this community of individuals who believe in him and hold him up.
10. What kinds of things can a father do to bond with his son and raise him to be emotionally mature?
One of the first things we’d challenge a dad to do is to pay attention to his own story. That was a central purpose in our book How to Hit a Curve Ball, Grill the Perfect Steak and Become a Real Man: Learning the Lessons our Fathers Never Taught Us. Unless we understand how our stories inform who we are as men, husbands, and fathers, we stand to make a number of significant mistakes with our own sons. So before a man starts making a list of things to “do” with his son, we’d encourage him to start with himself. That step doesn’t involve his son at all, but is one of the most powerful ways to love and care for him.
That step gives way to the second step. In order for a father to raise an emotionally mature young man, he must be an emotionally healthy man himself. A boy desperately needs a dad who has an interior life. Our culture is flooded with emotionally stunted, emotionally damaged males. There’s no shortage there. Men have a responsibility to lead their son’s in living from their hearts. Women can’t really teach boys how to do this. Mom’s can invite it and encourage it, but the action of it must be modeled by a man.
Thirdly, we’d challenge dads to study his son in search of his boy’s definition of enjoyment. That’s different for every boy. We both have a set of twin boys. Two males with identical genetic ingredients and yet the outcome couldn’t be any more different. These guys, born within minutes of one another, have different passions, different strengths, and different longings. And they experience enjoyment in some similar ways as well as some different ways. We are both on a long journey of discovering what that is. Just as soon as we get a handle on it, it can change just as his development does. So it’s a long journey of studying these boys and pursuing their passions and their hearts.
11. People often talk about the father’s role in teaching a boy to be a man, but a mother’s relationship is important too. What are some mistakes a mother can make?
A mother’s role is so very important. That message is woven throughout Wild Things. There is so much to the answer to this question. You’ll need to read the book to get a comprehensive look at your role throughout his development. We talk a lot with mom’s about two unique callings within their role, both of which lend themselves to mistakes and potential harm to the mother-son relationship. To boil it down though to a couple of things we would say 1) The first is being safe and 2) the second is letting go. We break both of those down in great detail within the book. By being safe we mean a mothers ability to let her son be a boy. By letting go we mean a mother’s willingness to let her boy become a man. We speak a whole lot more to this throughout the book. It’s such a big question, and an important question for moms to consider.
12. If you could give once piece of advice to parents and educators reading this book, what would it be?
The study of a boy is such a worthwhile use of your time and resources. Boys are complex, imaginative, mysterious, brilliant, challenging, creative, strong, tender, courageous beings-and each is unique. Parenting and educating them is a wonderful, difficult, complex, enjoyable, physical, emotional, delightful, maddening journey. Our hope is that Wild Things is a useful guide along that journey.
If we have to give one piece of advice it would be for parents and educators to continue to invest in their own emotional and spiritual maturity. Growing yourself is the best gift you can give a boy you love.
You’ve gained some valuable advice, but there’s more! If you would like to learn more from these parenting experts about raising boys, you can order a copy of Wild Things through amazon.com. [CLICK LINK IN THE BEGINNING OF THIS BLOG POST.]
Based on clinical research, Stephen James and David Thomas have filled Wild Things with practical tips and suggestions for parents. They guide readers through the five stages of a boy’s development, providing an overview and explanation of each stage, followed by a plan to put new principles into action. Pick up a copy today!
Stephen James, M.A., and David Thomas, M.S.S.W., are speakers, authors, and therapists who work directly with boys and their families. They also travel around the country, speaking on parenting and marriage communication, and they have been dynamic guests on CBN’s Living the Life, Good Day Atlanta, WGN Midday News, Moody’s Midday Connection, and other radio programs coast to coast. Learn more at www.stephenanddavid.com.
DAVID THOMAS, M.S.S.W. is a therapist and director of counseling for men and boys at Daystar Counseling in Nashville, TN. he lives in Nashville with his wife, Connie, daughter, Lily, and twins Baker and Witt.
STEPHEN JAMES, M.A. is a private-practice therapist in Nashville, TN. He is husband to Heather and father to Emma Claire, Elijah, and twins Henry and Teddy.