5 Ways to Help Boys Make Good Choices
Here’s what all parents of sons should keep in mind.
Jennifer L.W. Fink, Contributor | May 15, 2017, at 6:00 a.m.
Penn State student Timothy Piazza died in February after partaking in pledge bid acceptance night activities with the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. His soon-to-be frat brothers plied him with excessive alcohol, drunk themselves into oblivion, stepped over his unconscious body, delayed before calling medical help and then attempted to destroy evidence that might link their actions to his death, according to a report issued by the Pennsylvania Office of the District Attorney.
Clearly, this is not the kind of behavior we want from our boys. These are not the dreams we have for our sons.
Unfortunately, there are other examples of unthinkable behavior by young males having grave consequences for peers. There was the high profile case of the Stanford University swimmer, Brock Turner, who was convicted of sexually assaulting a woman who was passed out by a dumpster. Before that, there was the Steubenville rape case, in which multiple teenage males sexually assaulted a female classmate who was passed out.
These cases, of course, are not typical. They make headlines precisely because they represent aberrant behavior; most males do not behave this way. But if you’re the parent of a boy, you need to know that boys’ biology and social conditioning put them squarely at risk of doing some seriously stupid things, particularly during their teenage years.
Let me explain.
Neuroscience has now shown that the circuitry of the human brain does not fully mature until humans reach their 20s. Importantly, the last parts of the brain to mature are links between the prefrontal cortex, which assists in judgement and problem-solving, and the limbic system, which handles emotion and self-regulation. In other words, teenage brains are not wired for optimal decision-making or response to crisis.
Add the fact that male brains are flooded with testosterone during adolescence, and testosterone increases boys’ propensity for action and risk-taking. Studies show that a certain molecule that’s important in developing a fear response to dangerous situations is less active in adolescent male brains than in female brains and adult males. Research has also shown that teen boys are prone to overestimate the possibility of reward and underestimate the odds of something bad happening, especially when they’re around other boys.
None of this excuses the actions of the boys in that frat house. But it does help explain what we’re up against. As parents of boys, we can’t assume that our boys will make the right decisions. We have to expect that sometimes doing the right thing will be very hard for them, especially in certain circumstances.
So what can we do to build our boys’ capacity to make good choices? Here are five ideas:
Build empathy. Empathy is the capacity to feel what others’ feel, to put oneself in the shoes of another – and it’s in shockingly short supply. According to a study by the University of Michigan, students who entered college after the year 2000 have empathy levels that are 40 percent lower than previous generations of college students.
You can build empathy in your sons by modeling empathy for them. Help others. Express understanding and give others the benefit of doubt. Talk about and name feelings; boys are under so much pressure societally to suppress their emotions. Make sure your boys know that your No. 1 goal for them to is become decent human beings.
[See: 10 Ways to Raise a Giving Child.]
Value your son, not his accomplishments. When you go on and on to others about your son’s grades, athletic accolades or starring roles, your child gets the message that his accomplishments are what you value about him. Of course it’s OK to be proud of your son and to share your pride in what he’s accomplished. The challenge is to balance that with acknowledgement of his value as a human being, separate from anything he’s done.
Your son needs to know that he’s loved unconditionally. So hug him. Say “I love you.” Show an interest in his interests, and make time to have fun with him.
Ditch all-or-nothing thinking. This type of mentality is pervasive in our culture. People are good or bad. Drugs are bad. Alcohol is bad before age 21, when it’s apparently fine. Sex is bad; hence, the emphasis in so many sex ed and health classes on scary sexually transmitted diseases and little to no conversation about why someone might want to have sex and when it might be a good choice.
These kinds of messages aren’t helpful to our boys, who know they don’t represent the whole truth and tune out when they suspect they’re getting a skewed message designed to direct their behavior. A better option is to discuss these issues openly with your boys, sharing nuance.
Acknowledge good choices. My sons do about 893 things wrong a day. They leave the milk out on the table, don’t start (or finish) their homework, fail to tell me where they’re going or neglect to feed the dog. I’m sure your boys make their share of mistakes as well.
But while it’s natural to point these out, we need to make sure to acknowledge the good things they do as well. Praise your son when he helps someone else. (Insider tip: Mention his good deed to someone else when you know he’s listening. He’ll be thrilled!) Thank him for helping you with the groceries or yard work.
Accept and encourage efforts to go against the grain. This one is tough, but essential. If we want sons who are willing to stand up to their peers, we need to encourage – not squash – our boys’ efforts to go against the grain. This isn’t easy, because they practice their skills by going against us, their parents.
You may tell your son to do something, and he may say he knows a better way or question why he has to do it in the first place. Boys often do the same thing at school. But questioning authority and asserting independence are essential skills, so tread carefully. Acknowledge your son’s queries. Express pride and appreciation in his efforts to question the status quo. Support him when you see him making hard choices, especially if those choices set him apart from his peers.
We can’t guarantee that our boys will always make good choices, but we can build boys’ skills – and collectively increase boys’ capacity for good.
12 Questions You Should Ask Your Kids at Dinner
It’s time to eat. Where are the kids?
Parents: Do you routinely sit down to family meals? Research suggests doing so may be beneficial, helping bolster kids’ social skills while improving their eating habits. An American Academy of Pediatrics report in the journal Pediatrics last year noted that regular family meals may help ensure adolescents eat more fruits and veggies, and are associated with a decreased risk of developing eating disorders, particularly for girls. But the benefits may be reduced if you give into distracted dining, constantly checking your mobile device. You must engage – and be thoughtful about what you discuss. To make the most of your time together, parenting experts suggest asking the following questions.
What is something interesting (or fun or difficult) you did today?
While questions you ask will vary depending on your child’s age, this can be a great place to start. “Sharing what your child’s day was like and what is important to them grows your relationship,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. “Then it’s also important to tell them what you valued in your day.” For school-age kids, you might also ask, “What was the most interesting thing you learned today?” This will be helpful for understanding what excites your child, where she may need extra opportunities or help, and in fostering love of learning, Saltz says.
What’s on your mind today?
Make it clear your children can talk about anything and that you’ll listen. This is not conversational entrapment – getting a kid to spill the beans, only to come down on the child. Experts say it’s important kids feel understood, and can openly share whatever may be on their minds. The topics needn’t be serious or heavy, either. Swap stories to bond, suggests Dr. Shimi Kang, a medical director for child and youth mental health for Vancouver Coastal Health’s community programs in British Columbia. If your child relays difficulties he’s having with certain classes, tell him about subjects you struggled with. And share age-appropriate stories from your childhood.
Who did you sit with at lunch today?
Experts emphasize parents ask questions that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” “The reason you need to ask specific questions is because otherwise you will get one-word answers that won’t really let you know how your child is doing,” says Susan Bartell, a child psychologist with a practice in Port Washington, New York. “Kids and teens don’t really want to make the effort to share the details of school, especially when some of the details may be upsetting, embarrassing or unpleasant.” She adds: “Don’t grill your child, but if you hit on something that seems concerning (‘I sat alone at lunch’) it’s important to follow up.”
Can I tell you about something crazy that happened to me today?
OK, maybe it wasn’t that crazy, and you might dismiss this question as merely a request to share your story – but that’s the point. “Kids are developmentally quite self-centered. Learning to care about others starts at home, but only if they are shown how to care about the lives of others,” Bartell says. “It is up to you to show them that it is important that they care about your world. This not only teaches them to think beyond themselves, it also helps them feel good that you want them as an audience. In the same way, you can ask their opinions, especially as they get a bit older.”
What are all the things you’re grateful for today?
Nancy Buck, a developmental psychologist based in Denver, recommends using mealtime as an opportunity to talk about ideas, values or principles you believe are important to teach and instill in your kids. “This is not the time to lecture, but instead is the time to get curious and share,” she says. Along with discussing values your family holds dear, experts say teaching children how to express gratitude is important for their development and overall well-being. Research also links feeling grateful – and being able to express gratitude – with improved relationships and happiness.
Do you feel full?
For very young kids, Jill Castle – a registered dietitian and childhood nutrition expert based in New Canaan, Connecticut – suggests alternatively asking: “What does your tummy tell you? Is your tummy still hungry or happy?” Not every piece of dinner table conversation needs to be high-minded. Kids and adults can benefit from paying attention to internal cues, like the feeling of hunger, and mindful eating. “Talking about hunger, fullness and satisfaction helps children become aware of their appetite,” Castle says. This is preferable to relying on external cues – like an adult telling a child he or she must eat a certain number of bites – that can lead to overeating.
What made you laugh recently?
Understanding how your child is feeling about life requires learning more about the way they experience their days – not simply what happened. “When did you experience joy today?” is another question you could ask, Buck suggests. Just as with language development or math, children must learn how to understand and manage their emotions, such as through interactions with parents, teachers and other adults as well as peers. To gauge whether they’ve had a great day or a lousy one, you might also ask, “How would you rate your day on a scale of 1 to 10?” Then take the opportunity to further understand what’s behind their feelings.
Do you have any questions about what’s going on in the news?
In this hyper-connected, politically charged modern era, kids and adolescents – like adults – are often bombarded with more information than they can handle. This can cause anxiety, and may ultimately lead to concerns or questions they might not feel at liberty to raise. “Kids hear stuff and don’t always understand what it’s about or how it makes sense in their world,” Saltz says. “Asking your child what’s on their radar and discussing their take is useful to correct misperceptions, quell fears [and] be aware of their world.”
What do you want to do tomorrow?
Take time to involve your child in making plans for the family, like determining how to get the most out of winter. By doing so, you can use dinner as a chance to talk about what he or she is looking forward to doing, in addition to reflecting on what’s happened in your child’s life. It could involve discussing family vacation plans or just sticking to how you’d like to spend the next 24 hours. Another approach to capture your child’s changing interests: “What activities do you enjoy most these days?”
How are your friends or classmates doing?
Is your child experiencing mostly smooth sailing of late or rougher waters – like being picked on by peers? “Talking about the social environment and understanding and helping with potential social pitfalls is important. This is where you may hear about bullying issues, fights, negotiating friendships and friend groups,” Saltz says. “Providing feedback and even role playing about sticky situations can help your child navigate their waters.” Another question to ask to gauge their social connections: “Who do you talk with most often at school?”
What did you talk about in English or history (or some other class)?
Being specific to a particular class may help you get a better sense of what your child discussed versus asking generally about his or her school day. You might also ask, “What did you talk about over lunch?” Expect more resistance to this question from adolescents who choose to be discrete, and more openness from younger kids. “Use open-ended questions that require your child to provide multi-sentence answers,” says Russell Hyken, a family therapist based in St. Louis. “The topic is not as important as building trust and connections. That said, I think it is important to know about your child’s day. This provides insight into their mood, school and social life.”
What was your best success of the day?
Talking about high points – as well as, “what was the low point of your day?” – is another good way to gain insight into your child’s life. Feel free to talk about what happened to you as well. By interjecting a slice of your life, this puts you and your child on equal ground, Hyken notes – and may lead your child to share a story. Another question, especially if it seems pertinent to their mood: “Are you stressedabout anything? “ “It is always about building connection so when there is an issue, your child will trust you to help them work through their concerns,” he says.
Jennifer L.W. Fink, RN, BSN is the founder of BuildingBoys.net and a writer specializing in health, education and parenting. She’s also the mother of four boys. Jennifer’s articles about boys have appeared in The Washington Post, Parents magazine, Parade magazine and FOX News. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.