It isn’t earth-shattering news that the boys of today are in crisis.
Statistics show that boys are three times more likely than girls to be prescribed ADHD medication. They’re being outpaced by their female peers in high school, undergraduate and graduate degrees, and the gap continues to widen.
Not only are they underperforming, but also the view toward boys has shifted. At some fertility clinics, when given a choice of gender, parents in the United States choose a girl 75 percent of the time, according to Hannah Rosin in her 2010 Atlantic article “The End of Men.” If given the option, parents would rather not raise boys at all.
I am a huge fan of women. But as the mother of four boys, I find these trends unsettling. The success of girls, and their propagation for that matter, shouldn’t come at the expense of our boys.
I’m not sure how we got to this point, but the tools for raising boys have been lost in the muddle. The parents I observe are completely flummoxed by their energetic, unruly youngsters. They’ve outsourced so much of parenting to programs and electronics, with no understanding of the implications.
You can’t really condense something as complex as parenting into eight easy steps, but there are building blocks that allow for success in raising boys. Here they are:
1. Work them.
If I had a magic wand, I would give every boy on earth a milk cow. Boys need to work, and they need to be given responsibility. However, if you don’t have a milk cow (we don’t), there are other ways to work boys. Household chores can be doled out on a daily basis. Boys can empty dishwashers and trash cans, mow the lawn, shovel the driveway and paint the back deck. Don’t outsource jobs that can be done by your kids. The upfront time of teaching your sons will pay off in the end.
Playing a musical instrument is a type of daily “work” that teaches discipline and focus. So is owning a pet. But physical work, when possible, allows boys to flex their muscles and harness their energy. My mom used to create projects, like building a bunk bed and a recording studio, just to keep my brothers busy.
As soon as possible, find ways for your boys to earn money. I bemoan the loss of the neighborhood paper route, but kids can still earn money through mowing lawns, baby-sitting or other ideas they might come up with.
2. Feed them.
Boys need to eat, and they need to eat often. They need protein and complex carbohydrates and fresh produce. What they don’t need is all the junk and filler we throw their way.
When I visit my sons’ school, I am constantly surprised by what parents deem as good nourishment for their kids. Last week, I saw a kid at snack time eating a bag of eight Oreo cookies. How is a kid supposed to concentrate with 37 grams of sugar coursing through his body? I hear parents complain about their son’s ADHD while he guzzles Mountain Dew in the corner. Sugar may not cause hyperactivity, but it certainly doesn’t help the situation.
Our boys are what they eat. They need brain food, and even the pickiest of eaters (I know because I have some) can be taught to like a wide variety of foods, including salad, legumes, tofu and vegetables.
Feeding boys is a lot of work. Much of my day and budget goes toward sating the appetites of my four sons. But I’ve seen the impact of good food on their behavior and overall health. As parents, we spend so much time and money on enrichment activities. We should do the same with our food.
3. Run them outside.
In Richard Louv’s book “Last Child in the Woods,” he writes that the average kid plays outside for seven minutes per day. Seven minutes! That’s not play. That’s walking to the mailbox and back.
Boys need to move their bodies in big ways, and they need to do it for hours every day. They need to climb trees, ride a bike, bounce a ball, in-line skate, jump on a trampoline, throw a Frisbee and nail a hammer into a board. They do not need to sit in front of a TV or stare at a screen for seven hours (which is the average time, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, that kids spend on entertainment media per day).
In our family, we reserve any media time for the weekend, and even then, we rarely watch movies. I’m not opposed to media, but every moment sitting is a moment my boys aren’t moving their bodies, and I can see the difference. If I let them sit for two hours, the fallout is like trying to parent jumping beans.
Getting outside also allows kids the added benefit of tactile experience, which is huge for brain development. I’m talking about boys getting muddy and wet, scratched and sweaty. Outdoor experience and connection to nature have huge implications for the emotional well-being of kids.
In addition, specific physical challenges can be a great motivator for boys. Training them to take a long trail ride, run a race, climb a mountain or swim a mile in a pool not only strengthens them physically but also sets them up for accomplishment.
4. Discipline them.
Our society has really gone astray when it comes to discipline. Kids run the household, with parents pandering to their every whim and misdeed. I am on a school board of a local charter school and see firsthand the concessions that parents try to make for their kids. (Such as: “My son should be allowed to play with Legos during math because math is too challenging for him.”) These parents are doing their kids a huge disservice.
The word "discipline" comes from the word disciple. When done correctly, discipline is about productive instruction. We can all agree that corporeal punishment and verbal abuse are counterproductive forms of discipline. However, strict instruction and redirection are completely acceptable. It is appropriate to have consequences for actions. We should expect our kids to work hard in school, complete their assignments (by themselves), behave in front of guests, talk nicely, use clean language and not bite the neighbor kid.
The best piece of parenting advice I ever got with regards to discipline was this: Be comfortable with your child’s discomfort.
They will, at times, be sad, hurt, frustrated and angry. They will push back against hard work. They will cry when you ask them to play “Twinkle” again on the violin. They will not like apologizing to the neighbor kid or doing penance for a naughty word shouted at the dinner table. But if we swoop in every time they stumble and turn ourselves into 24-hour superheroes, they will never be able to strengthen their emotional muscles to handle life on their own.
Which is what we want. We are raising boys to be men.
In my next column, I will address the next four tools for raising boys: communication, humor, teaching and love.
Tiffany Gee Lewis runs the newly launched site Raise the Boys (raisetheboys.com), dedicated to raising creative, kind, courageous and competent boys. Follow on Instagram and Twitter at raisetheboys. Email: email@example.com