This one is personal, and I took as much time as needed to slowly digest the lessons in the book. Because my little boy is growing up fast, closer to his tweens now and along with it comes the growing dilemmas of all young teenage boys. So I need to understand more about his inner struggles and feelings and how to best help him and cater to his needs.
This book is a great source of information to learn just that. Written by an applied psychologist Dr. Michael C. Reichert who has studied and worked with children for more than 3 decades. To make his points across, apart from his own expertise in the field, Dr. Reichert also use a tremendous list of books, publications, huge amount of data, and most importantly real life cases of “troubled boys” and the responding approaches to properly solve the problems.
Here are the bottom lines: 1. be the boy’s safety net. Not necessarily to always rushing to rescue him, but to notify him that he is not alone and we will stand with him and provide a shield if necessary. 2. Offer relationship with a strong sense of self, that our relationship with him is their primary fortification, to prevent overcompromise. 3. Encourage emotional expression. 4. Exercise authority. 5. But also promote autonomy.
Now, here are few key messages from the book that I think worth a little elaboration:
Firstly, the vital importance of good communication. Such as listening without judgement or without adding any opinion, to make the boy felt heard and understood. As Dr. Reichert remarks, “[t]here are several rules to get the most out of special time: not giving advice, not dividing attention among other tasks, not talking to others or interrupting the time that’s been promised, and not modifying the activity the boy has chosen, no matter how hard it might be to see its point.” Or simply put, “boys want what everyone wants: to talk with someone who will listen, understand, and care.”
This includes the importance for us to acknowledge their feelings (and not being dismissive), and our reliability in their eyes: “Alone with their own feelings and reactions, children feel frightened and insecure. Research on secure attachments teaches that children who are able to depend on their caregivers are stronger, happier, and more confident.”
Secondly, on shame. The book addresses the brave “face” that boys are putting while having emotional turmoils inside, to hide shame. As Dr. Reichert remarks, “[k]eeping secrets is a normative part of boyhood. But bottling up feelings never works very well, often leaking into behaviour.” Dr. Reichert then added, “feelings of shame can cause a boy to isolate himself in order to still anxious self-criticism.” Again, just like the next two points, establishing a good rapport with the boy and a good communication are the absolute keys.
Thirdly, just like the rest of us, boys are the product of their environment. The many stories told in this book illustrate the behaviour change on them after a traumatic thing happened, whether domestic violence, bad neighbourhood, bullying, or many others, with them unable to properly processed what happened and instead resort to rebelliousness or sinking to a secluded depression. The key problem lies in the way they decide to keep the story and the emotions to themselves. As Dr. Reichert commented, “once the habit of keeping things to himself was established, it took deeper root.”
Fourthly, the pattern of male isolation. As Dr. Reichert remarks, “[t]he pattern of male isolation develops early. Normal feelings of wanting to be close with his mother, for example, become suspect when a boy receives messages that he should be tough, independent, and self-sufficient.” This is a crucial point in a boy’s transition from a young kid to a teenager (those difficult years), where according to psychologist William Pollack, “[t]his painful separation process by which many very young boys are shamed into withdrawing from their mothers more than they naturally want to, and then are only partially nurtured by their fathers, is a devastating disruption in a boy’s emotional life.”
Indeed being a boy is not easy, with all the pressure from society to “man up” or “rough it out” and trying their best not to be seen as a “mama’s boy.” And the book is not easy to read either, as it dived deep into the most chaotic and messy problems that boys have, but that’s exactly what the book is written for, to address all of the issues.
The book then proceeded to cover a lot of topics that expand from these 4 key messages, including popularity contest, romantic relationship, the awkward conversation about sexual desires, body and health, playing sports, drugs and alcohol, self harm, integrity, bullying, how to respond to violence, and so much more, including that delicate situation when our boy is starting to crave for more independence from us.
It’s heartbreaking to read all the struggles that the boys are having in the book, whether those who were successful on turning things around or those who don’t and became a cautionary tale. And to my surprise, I can identify some of those struggles in my own experience. Even today as an adult. I didn’t know this was a problem or that isn’t supposed to be the way we feel, and there’s actually a healthier way to express/solve them.
As Dr. Reichert remarks, “[i]t has surprised me how often, as boys grow into men with deeper voices and bigger muscles, parents forget that they still need care and protection. The myth that a man bears responsibility on his own seeps into relationships with boys as they grow.”
Like I said, this one is personal.