Book Review: The Way Of The Boys

The Next Family

By: Ann Brown


Boys are odd. There, I said it. I mean, I love them; I’ve had hundreds of them in my classroom over the years, I even married a grown up one and gave birth to two of them, whom I adore.  But I really do not get them.  I have a sister. We had a very female-y household. We never once thought about breaking our toys over each other’s heads or running into the street, or organizing a neighborhood contest to see whose pee could reach the furthest. My mom kept the cookies on the top shelf in the kitchen, knowing that my sister and I would never consider climbing up there to get them. That could be dangerous. Granted, my sister and I were pretty much on the wimpy, nervous, hand-wringing side, as kids go, but still. Our moxie emerged later, in the teenage years, when – coincidentally – my father had the first of his many heart attacks.

As a parenting instructor and consultant for almost thirty years, I came of age as a teacher when the nature vs nurture debate weighed heavily (if not wholly) on the nurture theory. I recall, now with more than a modicum of cringing, spouting off my blah blah blah to parents about merely sitting their little boys down and explaining to them why a behavior was unacceptable, and voila! the behavior will cease if the little boy is a good little boy. Explain and talk; talk and explain. It’s very simple to raise an obedient child, I told them.

Every once in a while, I wonder if I should try to find all the parents from those classes, and refund their money. I kinda stunk at my job.

I wish The Way of Boys had been written back then. I could have understood that sitting a little boy down, putting my face close to his, and talking, talking, talking about an issue is not going to get us anywhere. And when the little boy squirmed to get away or (as once happened in my class) continued to slug his friend while I was talking to him as though I wasn’t there, I could have realized that it was my strategy that was off-target, not the reaction of the kid.

It can be hard to remember this. Especially for moms.  As women, we pretty much trust that if we have a problem with a friend, we can call her up, ask her to meet us at, say, Starbucks, and talk it out. In fact, we will probably stay at Starbucks for hours, whatever it takes, until we have talked out the problem. We will leave satisfied, maybe having cried a little bit, inviting all of the room to join in on a chorus of “Kymbaya”, and buying a round of soy lattes for the house. Talking, especially talking for long periods of time about feelings, works.

And we bring that talent to raising our kids. But kids, especially boy kids, are not able to sit for hours, dissecting the minutiae of every interaction they’ve had for the last week, analyzing, reframing and concluding. They pretty much cannot sit and do that for three minutes. Which pisses us off even more because we read that behavior as, “he just doesn’t care” or “he likes to be naughty”. And then we make them sit for three more minutes, just to make our point.

It’s not particularly effective.

Just perusing the titles of the thirteen chapters of the book – Your Problem is Spelled B-O-Y; Little Girls Aren’t Like This;  He Doesn’t Have Any  Friends;  He’s A Bully;  He Won’t Sit Still;  He Runs The Household;  He Has To Win;  He Wants To Be The Bad Guy;  He’s Suddenly Fragile;  He Hates School;  The Teacher Thinks He Needs Testing;  He Has Already Been Labeled; and What Will He Be Like As A Grown Man? – can be reassuring to a parent.  Reading through the chapters and learning that behavior outside the dominant paradigm of preschool is not necessarily aberrant, will certainly help you sleep better at night.

Dr. Rao’s strategies speak to the child’s higher self. It’s ancient, and yet quite revolutionary: find out what your child is trying to tell you, instead of focusing on what you think you need to tell your child.

The theme of power runs throughout the book (as it does throughout our parenting journey, yes?) I found a new, perhaps inside-out way to look at it while reading the chapter, He Runs The Household. Dr. Rao writes:

As a parent, you have to earn your power. When you get overwhelmed, it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself. You begin to tell yourself, “He’s doing this on purpose. He’s trying to make me angry.”

Yes, he is trying to make you angry. He wants to see what happens next. You can take the upper hand here by refusing to take his….behavior…personally.

Choosing to see our child’s tantrum as an experiment in cause and effect allows us to let go of the need to find the solution. An experiment, by definition, does not set out with a known solution (at least, that’s what I presume. As an ethnomusicology major in college, I only took one science class and even then, well, I may as well just spit it out here – I paid a friend to take the final for me. So the fact is, I have no idea what the definition of an experiment is. I probably have no business using any sort of science terms in my writing but, frankly, if I avoided writing stuff about which I have no knowledge I’d pretty much be looking at a lot of blank paper.)

I loved all the anecdotes in that chapter. Well, mostly, I loved them because they weren’t happening to me but I also loved them because so many parents can identify with them. For example:

Boys are driven by their internal engine, their brain, to investigate, grab and take apart the world around them. They are so driven that they may shrug off disapproval from their parents. Sometimes they seem impervious to shame and often ignore nonverbal social cues in their quest to get at things. As a result, most tactics for maintaining order and discipline in the home just don’t work…… Megan didn’t know this…(she once) sat (three-year old) Ryan on a chair to impose a time-out and then physically restrained him for three minutes…..Ryan considered this to be a kind of wrestling match. While Megan got angrier….Ryan wiggled and laughed.

Can’t you just see Megan in your mind? With a bottle of Jack Daniels in her hand and three Advil under her tongue, counting the minutes until Daddy gets home so she can lock herself in the bathroom  until Ryan is asleep. Or in college.

The concept of young boys not reading social cues in the same way young girls do should be reassuring to parents, especially parents who have active young boys and who are friends with parents who have docile, obedient young girls.  This leads me to a tangential moment where I must offer my suggestion that after you have children, never befriend anyone with children who:

1) do not misbehave

2) go right to bed with a cheerful, Walton’s Mountain “goodnight, John-Boy” and sleep through the night

3) happily eat anything put on their plates

4) are better in any way than your children

It just makes life easier for you. Trust me. I spent most of the years my boys were little, either alone or making new friends through prison pen pal programs. Who needs the pressure of having friends with perfect children?

Okay, then, back to the book.

Understanding that young boys do not read the social cues as easily or early as young girls is good to know. Even better to know are the suggestions Dr. Rao and Ms. Seaton offer for the times when just understanding it isn’t enough. For instance, give up on time-out’s. Keep explanations extremely brief and accompany them with an action (taking away a toy your child is using to hit his brother, for example). Walk away if you can instead of engaging.

I was pleased and relieved to find a sense of hope and optimism in every page of The Way of Boys. Too many parenting books leave us with a clenched stomach and a daunting “to do” list to fix our kids, or ourselves. This book relies on the passage of time, along with reasonable strategies and clear vision, to get our boys through the most challenging stages. In “Some Final Thoughts”, we read:

I wish the parents who come to my office could meet Brett, Kenny, Ben and Ronny. These four would show them that things turn out well for most young boys…..I have come to appreciate what good parenting can accomplish in a child’s life, especially with boys who are struggling with one or more developmental lags…..I give (parents) the three basic tenets of parenting great boys: clear rules and boundaries; consequences before lectures; rewards for each milestone. But these work and work well because boys learn primarily by experience, and because boys remember experiences before words. Young boys can’t just be told what to do; they need to beat their path through boyhood and adolescence.

These words instill confidence in me, both as a parent and a parenting instructor. And the more confident I feel about myself, the more confident I feel about my child. And that’s good for the whole family. Our kids need to know that we believe in them, that we believe that they are going to grow up to be okay.

This book helps me believe that it just might really turn out okay.

The Way Of The Boys: Raising Healthy Boys In A Challenging And Complex World by: Dr. Anthony Rao can be found on Amazon

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