A mom recently shared with me a teacher’s email about her 10 year old son. It went something like this…
Jason was discussing Molotov Cocktails at school. This is not the first time he’s been discussing violent things, so I sent him and the other boys to meet with the Principal during recess.
Maybe Molotov Cocktails isn’t a great topic to be (overheard) discussing at school these days. Constant, frenetic media drives up our worries about safety. Everyone is on edge. Schools are cracking down on any language that teachers or administrators perceive as “violent.” They worry boys are becoming more aggressive. In some cases, tamping down some talk (e.g., bullying, being mean, etc.) has real merit, but in this case I believe it doesn’t. Here’s why:
Boys aren’t talking about weapons or war more often than they used to. Truth is, they are being kept indoors and inactive more these days, and teachers are overhearing normal boy-talk and are disapproving of it. If boys had more time outside to release normal pent up aggression, share their fantasies and curiosities about violence in healthy, playful ways, we would not be getting these type of emails that the school is concerned about violent talk. More male teachers would help tremendously. Like me, male teachers were boys once, and we know such talk is common – a part of exploring the legitimate desires we have to understand power and aggression.
Here’s what I recommend teachers and administrators do.
Rather than punish boys for thinking thoughts and expressing themselves, use what they talk about as a learning opportunity. I’d ask these questions: What is a Molotov Cocktail? Do you know what it is or what it does? Where did you first hear or learn about it? (My guess, they heard it on the Discovery or History Channel or on the news. Google it and Wikipedia has a very comprehensive history of it). I would also ask: Why do people invent weapons in the first place? Is there ever a good reason – or reasons – to use weapons? How do people feel talking about these type things?
None of these thought-provoking, potentially education-yielding questions got asked here. Rather, the goal was to label boy talk/play as wrong and squash it.
In my clinical work, I seize these opportunities. It helps children understand themselves and the world better. It may be an off-color remark, a swear, something said to shock me or their parents, a mean thing they heard about or want to say, an obsession with guns, fighting, and aggression that they see in video game play or read in fantasy novels. It’s common for boys to engage in very aggressive play with dinosaurs and small army men in my office. After 9-11, more kids crashed Lego planes into towers. What I’ve learned over the years is that when kids – especially boys – say or play something that feels uncomfortable to me, it often carries deeper meaning. It’s my job to pull that out and give them a safe, non-judgmental place to explore it. That calms them. That channels their frustrations and anxieties into a healthy outlet.
There’s a balance to strike here. We don’t want kids to be able to say or do anything they want without reasonable monitoring and guidance. But simply shutting down all talk and play about things that make us feel uncomfortable isn’t going to decrease violence. In fact, talking and playing about violent things, within healthy limits, leads to people being less likely to engage in violence.
Parents in my office are really concerned. This time of year, grades are dropping. Where’s the internal drive, many parents ask. It takes him hours – with so much push – to get through his homework. He doesn’t care. All we do is fight.
Internal motivation is key to long term success, and yet, you can’t stand above your child forever and nag them into taking charge of their work. In fact, internal motivation will come on it’s own – the question is when. It’s tied to maturity. It’s a developmental process. Good news is that, maybe, it might be accelerated.
Stop pushing and micromanaging. As many parents have discovered, it backfires. Parent reminders and long lectures on taking responsibility actually make kids dig their heals. There’s also a secret weapon many parents don’t use.
Match them up with a self-motivated peer.
Slightly older boys (or girls) your son looks up to are key… this will spark his competitive nature in a good way. We see this particularly in boys who love sports. The trick is getting a similar competitive drive in academics. Small homework groups with other boys (who are self-motivated) can also help. Find a math genius (a high schooler that the math department in your public school identifies as gifted) and have them peer tutor your son an hour here and there a week. That can vastly improve the situation. All too often we think of hiring professional tutors in expensive study-centers to organize and motivate boys. They can be valuable – but also think of hiring the older high school or college-aged guy just a few doors down. They are positive study role models.
Now the bad news… There is a saboteur working against you and your son. It’s called screens. Schools are co-conspirators. They like the convenience of assignments on computers. It gives the illusion that technology facilitates learning. Maybe it does sometimes, but many boys are getting pulled into distractions. iPads are really becoming the latest problem. Is there a way to completely block everything online, other than what he really needs for study? If so, do it.
For most boys, it’s a sobering fact that they won’t increase their internal motivation for schoolwork if they are doing a lot of their work on a screen. They cheat. They simply move a few fingers and call up hundreds of more exciting, fun, entertaining things to watch. The current situation isn’t going to improve until we adults control the stimuli. Most boys won’t control the stimuli on their own. The novelty factor is too high.
And if your son carries a diagnosis of ADHD, it’s even harder for him to turn off the screens… ADHD people don’t have a deficit of attention, new research shows. They can focus like everyone else, but they seek things with high novelty. If YouTube, games, social media are a click away from math and science, expect homework to be dragged out for hours.
Truth be told, we adults aren’t immune to the distractions of screens. It’s getting harder and harder for us to be self-motivated. Perhaps, we should lead by example. Shut off the iPhone at home, no screens during dinner, don’t check for work emails… Show your kids how you are controlling stimuli.
A parent recently asked about her two year old son. Like many boys, his language is delayed. Family and friends have commented that it might be a sign of autism. That got her worried. Should she take him to get evaluated by a specialist? Is that overreacting?
I find the best course of action is not to get worried unnecessarily or jump to worst case scenarios. That never helps a parent figure out what’s the next best step. Development is complicated and messy, especially in boys, with many false starts and alarms. Keep a clear head. Seek information from the right people. Don’t rush. Stay calm.
If you’re concerned, the best course of action is to start with your pediatrician. He or she already knows your child and his history. Set up an appointment specifically to talk about these issues. Don’t try to fit it into a rushed 15 minute wellness visit. If your pediatrician is also concerned about language development – or any other developmental areas – then the next step would be finding someone (or some program) that can do a good, balanced evaluation. It should inquire about a range of developmental areas: language, fine motor, gross motor, various mental operations, basic social skills. It should be someone (or a team) that takes into consideration the whole child and his environment, including what’s going on at home. They should spend time 1:1 with him doing tasks, waiting for him to feel comfortable, and engaging him to show what he can and cannot do.
Keep in mind that the process of evaluating children is not an exact science. It is a clinical process. I get concerned about simple “screening” that some professionals use. Those are simple checklists or quick meetings that, while convenient and cost-effective, often only give the appearance of a solid clinical evaluation. They aren’t. A proper evaluation should be a clinical face-to-face process. It shouldn’t be wrapped up in one brief meeting.
As for the advice family members and friends give, don’t let other people’s worries distract you from your task at hand. Stay focused on seeking knowledgeable people who can be objective and who see many kids in their professional work. Such people are developmental pediatricians, pediatric neurologists, psychologists, and learning specialists such as speech and occupational therapists.
One parent asked how to answer the “NO” response from her 7 year old son, and the power struggle that often ensues after, such as saying NO to doing his reading and losing favorite toys because of the behavior.
To start, let’s see this from a completely new angle. For parents, “NO” looks like non-compliance. From a boy’s perspective, it’s a power-grab. It’s a way to lure you in, keep your attention (even though it’s negative attention). You can view it as a healthy desire to be strong and in control that’s gone a bit too far. And realize that he’s conditioned you into these power brawls.
Now, the fix. Tell him he has a choice to do his reading (or whatever he needs to do at that moment), and it’s entirely his choice to follow the rules. If he follows, he gets praise… special time later on… maybe a treat that night after dinner. If not, you will ignore him 100% and walk off. Don’t look at him or allow him to engage you no matter what he does or say. He will try everything to pull you back in (maybe even try ignoring you). His goal is to make you angry. Don’t take the bait – remain calm and ignore. After he’s settled down, you can ask the request (calmly) again, and add something like “I hope you can make a better choice this time… I hope you can earn back your privileges… you’re smart and i think you’ll find a way.” Don’t get caught up on getting 100% compliance right away, but rather work toward increasing compliance slowly via this method.