NEW YORK: After a long car trip we consider it natural for a puppy to “grumblebark,” run in circles, maybe even nip a bit. We don’t get mad at him for needing to shake off that energy. We ask, “Who’s a good boy?” in a tone that the dog understands perfectly. It means, “I’m delighted with you simply because you exist.”
Contrast that with the way we treat children after they have been similarly cooped up in a day of classes, activities and homework. We bark instructions at them: Finish your math problems – and make sure you show your work! Put away that iPad! Get ready for bed!
Rather than delighting in their company, we corral and command them.
This is particularly challenging for young boys.
IT’S THE BOYS
I’ve been in practice as a clinical psychologist for 35 years. Until very recently parents primarily came to see me about problems with girls.
No longer. Of late I hear such similar anguished descriptions from parents that I feel as if I’m a casting agent listening to actors read lines. It’s the boys. Ages seven to 11. More fearful, demanding and rude than three-year-olds.
“Stay with me while I take a bath in case murderers come.”
“Mom, if you won’t lie down in bed with me you have to stay in my room until I fall asleep. Sit in the chair.”
“Ms. Tyler didn’t explain the math homework right. I need your help with ALL the problems.”
I know what you’re thinking: Spineless, overprotective parents create entitled, bratty, babyish boys. But these boys’ teachers think they’re terrific.
Why the shift in the balance of my day from girl-world problems to regression in boys so severe that their parents are afraid for them and of them? And why are they so heartbreaking, pathetic and annoying only at home?
TOUGH DAY AT SCHOOL
We know some of the reasons. The school curriculum has amped up while human development continues at its regular old pace. This means that girls, who develop verbal, reading and social skills earlier than boys, are at an advantage.
During the school day, the boys soldier through. They use “inside voices,” hold back tears that they’ve learned they would be shamed for, keep their bottoms in the chair and their hands to themselves. After school they are ferried to highly structured adult-led extras: Enrichment, remediation and sports practices.
Finally at home after the long day, there’s homework to do.
At this point many boys have used up their cache of self-control. Some go on strike. It’s what union organisers call “malicious compliance”: Show up but don’t work. Unless a parent acts as concierge and personal assistant from start to finish.
Next up? “You go to sleep right this minute, young man!”
And now the power struggle intensifies. The “lie down with me.” The “monsters.” The tears.
HOW WE INTERACT WITH OUR KIDS
Their extreme anxiety is their energy, imagination and passion turned inward, against themselves and their family’s peaceful home.
It’s not easy to change the schools or force a return to the days before child protective services showed up if you allowed your child to play on the street. But we can control at least one element of this: How we interact with our kids.
My question to the parents in my office is this: What percentage of your communication with your son consists of nagging, reminding, chastising or yelling? “Uh … 90 per cent, 100 per cent?” Which I know isn’t true, just as confidently as I know these boys aren’t mentally ill and these families aren’t rife with hidden dysfunction.
Before I even consider psychotherapy or medication I suggest that parents learn how to talk to young boys – and how to listen.
BE ENCHANTED WITH HIS ENCHANTMENT
“Mom, Mom! Did you know there are 440 kinds of sharks? The biggest is the great white. It’s 20 FEET LONG! But sharks only kill 10 people a year! Dogs kill 25,000 people a year! And the types of sharks are mako, hammerhead, blue, cookie cutter. Goblin! Leopard, nurse, dogfish ... “
The tallest building in the world, the smallest video camera used by the CIA, the most baskets ever shot in a single game. Boys want to prove themselves, to be masters of a universe. Collecting information is a way of getting their arms all the way around a topic. If that information involves superlatives – the biggest, strongest, fastest – even better.
A good tactic is to act a bit ignorant, seeking their expert knowledge no matter how meager. Being enthusiastic and captivated is a deposit in the bank of good will you establish with your son. This esoteric, passionately communicated information is their gift to you; by asking for details and appreciating the answers, you show your gratitude.
HELP HIM CHANGE THE CHANNEL
If he’s reciting the same roster of dinosaurs you’ve already heard 50 times, consider that he’s run out of material. Little boys need more information not only to sate their curiosity but also to keep you captivated.
The surest way to refresh the monologue is to feed him some new facts and experiences via books, videos or outings: A trip to the library, harbour, train station or farmers market; or a big-ticket excursion to the museum, aquarium or zoo.
Let him talk in the dark, in the car, while moving, while waiting for the bus or sitting on the subway. In general he’s more comfortable chatting side by side than face to face. Holding an object in his hands eases tension, too. Your role is to be attentive and receptive to the commentary.
Once boys can write, some prefer to communicate a big thought, confession or heartfelt sentiment on a piece of paper and slip it under your door rather than to say it in person. If you leave little notes every so often on his desk, night table or pillow, you’ve opened up an avenue of communication he hadn’t realised was available and he’ll be more likely to do the same.
To get your message through, avoid constructive criticism containing abstract words such as inappropriate, focus, disruptive and success. Especially when you use them with a stern tone, they sound to your son like the wah-wah-wah of the adults in Peanuts cartoons.
Instead speak loudly, calmly, simply. Repeat. Hinting may be lost on your son. Long, earnest downloads about anything — from areas in need of improvement to detailed plans he’s excited about — are unlikely to stick. So think of your conversations as shooting hoops. You say a little something, then another little something, and sometimes it goes through and you get a basket.
Ian McEwan, in his novel The Children Act, describes how the eight-year-old’s release of “a silvery stream of anecdote, reflection, fantasy” created in the adult listener a “wave of love for the child that constricted her throat and pricked her eyes.”
Shower your son with the easy affection, appreciation and tolerance you show your dog.
He can lead you on an incredible journey if he trusts you, if you make the time, and if you are willing to follow.
By Wendy Mogel © 2018 The New York Times