Boys will be boys.
It’s a biological and neurological reality, according to Spokane therapist and best-selling author Michael Gurian, whose work is based on the latest scientific research on brain development.
So what can parents, teachers and the community do to help boys focus their energy, meet their gender-specific needs and guide them as they grow up and become men?
Perhaps a lot more than we’re doing now.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to drop out of school. They’re also more likely than girls to have discipline problems, be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, placed in special education and involved in violent crime.
In his new book, “The Purpose of Boys: Helping Our Sons Find Meaning, Significance and Direction in their Lives” (Jossey-Bass, 272 pages, $26.95), Gurian offers parents and others a tool kit – a means to reflect on the role, or “purpose,” of boys and what adults can do to help shape a successful future for their sons.
“As an advocate for children, I see a world in which boys are asking us every day, and mainly through their actions, ‘What is the purpose of boys?’ ” Gurian writes.
“And for the most part, our culture is answering, ‘We don’t know.’ This is not an ideal situation, neither for male development nor human development, and so this book is about finding a better answer.”
Gurian, a family therapist, corporate consultant, lecturer and author of 25 books, is considered one of the pioneers of the “boy movement” – though he’s the father of two daughters, ages 19 and 15.
Since he published “The Wonder of Boys” in 1996, Gurian has become a household name among parents, educators and others who work with children and young adults.
“The Purpose of Boys” is the final installment of his “boys trilogy,” which began with “The Wonder of Boys” and followed up with “The Minds of Boys” in 2005.
In his latest book, Gurian answers some of the questions that plague the parents of boys: How do I teach boys as much empathy as I do toughness? What is the role of video games, the Internet and other technologies in a modern boy’s search for meaning and purpose?
What practical things can schools do to make the classroom more helpful for boys? How can we raise sons to be good husbands and fathers?
Unlike previous generations, boys no longer have clarity about their role in society, Gurian said in an interview. This is due to a number of reasons, he said – from the deterioration of families to school systems that “are not set up for male energy.”
At the same time, communities also lack understanding about the natural needs of boys.
“There is a national blindness to the fate of boys,” Gurian said.
Councils that focus on girls and women exist, he pointed out, but there’s nothing similar out there for boys.
“Those of us who have daughters want a council to study boys,” he said. “We can’t fully take care of girls unless we understand the needs of boys. … If we don’t raise males toward a purpose in life, they can drift and do dangerous things.”
In most family systems, the purpose of boys is taught early on, during their first few years of life, Gurian said. Much of the teaching at this time is done by mothers.
In a chapter that focuses on how little boys develop their sense of purpose, Gurian points out that they have fewer verbal-emotive centers in their brains compared to girls, which makes them more likely to be physically active – to “do something rather than talk about it.”
Little boys also have a need to “save the world,” he writes. Even among toddlers, boys tend to identify themselves with heroes, which is another way to express their desire to find purpose.
“It’s natural for males to be aggressive,” he said in the interview. “Our job is to direct that aggression toward purpose.”
At the same time, boys also can be nurturing, but most people don’t define “nurture” in a “male way.”
For instance, when a kid falls down at the playground, a girl might ask, “Are you OK?” This is generally considered a sign of empathy, Gurian said.
But boys also can show empathy when they ignore the injury and assume the child will be fine, or by telling the kid, “Get up, let’s play.”
“Allowing the kid to pick himself up gives him independence,” Gurian noted. “Allowing him to get back into the play system increases self-esteem because it shows the child that they need him in the game. …
“It’s a different way to nurture. We need to expand our understanding of empathy and nurture.”
Puberty is a second birth, Gurian said. At this time, when male biology kicks in, it’s up to the dad or another male in the boy’s life to help them find purpose.
It doesn’t mean that mothers are no longer crucial, he stressed, but males are more important than ever.
“It is extremely difficult for an adolescent boy to become a seeker after purpose and a heroic self if he lacks a father or father figures,” Gurian wrote.
During adolescence, boys need at least three mentors – and at least two of them should be male, he said.
His new book is a practical guide with plenty of tips and examples. In each chapter, he discusses the development of boys from birth through early adulthood. He also includes inspiring quotes about purpose from authors, philosophers and famous people in history, as well as “questions of purpose” designed to help parents gain understanding while prompting dialogue between adults and boys.
The questions range from “What are your favorite books, comic books and games?” for younger boys and “Would you come to me for help?” for adolescents to questions about friendship, sex and values.
Gurian – founder of the Colorado-based Gurian Institute, which has trained more than 40,000 teachers – also writes about the role of sports, work and schools.
His interest in the boys movement was a result of his own boyhood.
“I was in this transitional generation so I was 30 before I had any real clue as to what I was supposed to do as a male,” said Gurian, who’s 51. “I knew I was supposed to make things better for women, but there was no dialogue about what else I was supposed to do.”
As a therapist and lecturer, he met with a lot of parents and other adults who were perplexed with boys and didn’t know where to find information about raising sons.
The misunderstandings and lack of focus on the needs of boys spurred him to write “The Wonder of Boys” and the subsequent books.
“I believe every boy wants to find his purpose in life,” Gurian wrote. “We cannot walk the road for him every step of the way, but we must at least bring him to it and help point him in the right direction.”
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