Raising Boys

by Cheryl L. Erwin, MA, MFT

Jonesboro...Paducah...Littleton...All places seared in our minds because young people erupted in shocking violence. One detail of those events is so obvious that we haven't talked much about it, but it's something we can't afford to ignore. All of the young people who picked up guns were boys.
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As a therapist who works with young men almost every day, I can tell you that anger, even rage, is disturbingly common. I'm not talking about boys who are mad because mom wouldn't buy them a toy. I'm talking about boys as young as five who punch, kick, or threaten violence, and who seem to feel a rage that is out of proportion with their suburban American lives.

Why? I am the mother of a teenage son, so it's a question I need to answer. It's tempting to blame our popular culture. Profanity, sexual imagery, violence, and anger are woven throughout the music, movies, and video games that young people enjoy. Yet I don't believe blaming the culture will help us in the long run.

The truth is that many young people watch movies and play video games who would never hurt those around them. The culture doesn't cause our problems, although it can aggravate them. What's happening to our boys goes far deeper than that.

Studies tell us that boys are now at significantly higher risk for depression, dropping out of school, substance abuse, violent behavior, even suicide, than are girls. All too often, boys just disappear: they lock themselves in their rooms with their music and video games, or they simply leave.

Two excellent books, both of which should be required reading for parents of boys, have examined this issue recently. William Pollack, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, and James Garbarino, author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, believe much of the problem lies in what we teach our sons about being a man.

What we believe as a society about being a "real man" is harming our boys. I remember an afternoon when my son, then about 10, was playing Little League baseball. He was the catcher, and one determined opponent decided to slide headfirst through my kid as he blocked home plate. My boy was knocked over, and when I saw him (still holding the ball) lying in the dust with blood trickling down his chin, I stood up to go to him.

A dad sitting next to me pulled me down and said, "He doesn't want you out there." I am appalled to say that I sat down. When I walked over later to see my son on the bench where he was holding an ice bag on his lip, he looked at me with a trembling chin, but all he said was, "I'm fine, Mom." I wonder now whether he learned to be strong or that it wasn't manly to feel pain Pollack and Garbarino believe that we teach our boys to shut off their emotions.

We also encourage them to disconnect from their mothers. It isn't manly to want a hug from mom when you're 16, is it? Add in our frantic lifestyle, fractured families, and use of punishment to change behavior, and you have a recipe for violence. We need to help our young men acknowledge all their feelings. We need to spend time -- lots of it -- just hanging out with them.

We need to show them that being a man is also about gentleness and wisdom, not just about toughness. And we need to watch for the warning signals of rage, and get them help if they need it. Their lives may depend on it.

Cheryl Erwin, MA, MFTCheryl Erwin, MA, MFT, has been working with (and learning from) families for more than ten years, most recently as a licensed marriage and family therapist, speaker, and parenting consultant in private practice in Reno, Nevada. She is the coauthor of seven books in the Positive Discipline series, and How to Turn Boys Into Men Without a Man Around the House: A Single Mother's Guide," with Richard Bromfield of Harvard Medical School. She also writes articles on parenting and family relationships for a number of regional publications, and has written for such national publications as Parents Magazine. She presents a weekly parenting broadcast on KUNR -FM in the Reno/Sparks area. Cheryl is married and has an adultd son, who has been, by far, her best teacher.

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