Family Relationships

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Friday, January 30, 2009

Nurturing Our Sons and Grandsons

As grandmothers of a total of 8 grandsons, we are happy to bring Stephen James and David Thomas back for another day of questions and answers about their book, Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. And to learn more about bonding with your grandchildren when they live far away, click on the title above to take you to our article, Create Meaningful Bonds with Your Grandchildren Across the Miles, which you will find on our website,

NR: Both of you are fathers of girls and boys. How is parenting a boy different from parenting a girl?

SJ & DT: Parenting boys in the first three stages is just so physical. Parenting boys in these years requires a great deal of physical energy—and a good back. Whereas parenting our daughters is so much more relational and emotional. Both are exhilarating and exhausting, but in different ways.

When I (David) engage my daughter, it’s in sitting in a neighborhood coffee shop talking about her day at school. My boys can sit at the coffee shop long enough to finish a chocolate chip cookie, spill their milk and then we’re kicking a soccer ball across the street at the park.

We talk a lot in the book about boys in motion and how to engage these active, physical beings. Girls need that too, no doubt, but not in the same way boys need it.

We had our families together the other day over at my (Stephen’s) house. At one point all the kids went out in the front yard to play: five boys and two girls in all. There were a number of balls lying around the yard. The boys started playing soccer with one ball and the girls started playing soccer with another. After a few minutes the boys were trying to kick the ball at each other and the girls were off to the side talking to each other. To me that is a great picture of the differences.

NR: What kinds of things can a father do to bond with his son and raise him to be emotionally mature?

SJ & DT: One of the first things we’d challenge a dad to do is to pay attention to his own story. That was a central purpose in our book How to Hit a Curve Ball, Grill the Perfect Steak and Become a Real Man: Learning the Lessons our Fathers Never Taught Us. Unless we understand how our stories inform who we are as men, husbands, and fathers, we stand to make a number of significant mistakes with our own sons. So before a man starts making a list of things to “do” with his son, we’d encourage him to start with himself. That step doesn’t involve his son at all, but is one of the most powerful ways to love and care for him.

That step gives way to the second step. In order for a father to raise an emotionally mature young man, he must be an emotionally healthy man himself. A boy desperately needs a dad who has an interior life. Our culture is flooded with emotionally stunted, emotionally damaged males. There’s no shortage there. Men have a responsibility to lead their son’s in living from their hearts. Women can’t really teach boys how to do this. Mom’s can invite it and encourage it, but the action of it must be modeled by a man.

Thirdly, we’d challenge dads to study his son in search of his boy’s definition of enjoyment. That’s different for every boy. We both have a set of twin boys. Two males with identical genetic ingredients and yet the outcome couldn’t be any more different. These guys, born within minutes of one another, have different passions, different strengths, and different longings. And they experience enjoyment in some similar ways as well as some different ways. We are both on a long journey of discovering what that is. Just as soon as we get a handle on it, it can change just as his development does. So it’s a long journey of studying these boys and pursuing their passions and their hearts.

NR: What mistakes have parents and educators made in their approach to rearing and training boys?

SJ& DT: For me (Stephen) the consistent mistake my wife and I make is that we over explain and over verbalize with our sons. This is a problem that is very common. In parenting boys, adults tend to talk to them and at them a great deal. We talk and talk and talk and end up sounding a lot like Charlie Brown’s teacher. “Whah, whah, whah.” In Wild Things we offer a number of different strategies for engaging and educating boys that better match their unique design. Boys learn through experience and physical repetition. They need consistent firm boundaries and loads of encouragement.

As far as school goes we speak a lot in the book that the compulsory model we use for schooling in the United States is generally well-suited to a girl’s learning style. It’s heavy on verbal and written expression, two particular areas of strength for most girls. It involves a good deal of sitting still for extended periods of time with mostly auditory instruction. These methods don’t match a boy’s way of learning or draw on his learning strengths.

NR: How did you come to the conclusions you discuss in Wild Things?

SJ & DT: The book is a combination of science and research, clinical experience (our own as therapists and that of others), and our own journey of parenting five boys between the two of us.

As therapists, we have sat with thousands of men and boys over the years. Our hope was to bring their voices into the content of Wild Things. We have learned so much from the males we’ve had the great honor of working with and hoped to bring their stories into this text. In addition to those, we are still learning so much from living with five of our wild things.

NR: Readers, you’ve gained some valuable advice. If you would like to learn more from these parenting experts about raising boys, you can order a copy of Wild Things through Thank you, Steven and David, for joining us here for the past two days.

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