October 5, 2015

Boys and School, Not Always a Marriage Made in Heaven

He’s got a lot of energy… He’s always moving… He’s quite a handful…. Wow, is this guy going to the Olympics, he’s quite competitive…. Does he ever sit down?

These comments are code for: Your son is difficult to manage in the classroom. Or program… Or play-date. When teachers or coaches or other parents say these things to you, they mean your son is doing the “boy thing.”

Before I had kids, I enjoyed the certainty that gender was a social construct. I wanted my kids to grow up free of gender expectations. But my daughter insisted on wearing pink frilly dresses (with the occasional daring excursion into mauve) and my son made guns out of toast fingers at age four because I wouldn’t buy him toy guns. “Bang bang bang” said he, his toast “guns” dripping with jam.

All stereotypes and generalizations leave out lots of people, but by and large: Little girls tend to be pretty good at sitting still, being quiet and listening to the teacher, absorbing lessons that come in the form of words and pictures. Little boys, on the other hand, tend toward a different learning style – more kinetic, noisier, better at learning through activity and less able to absorb information that comes to them from someone at the front of the room expecting them to sit down and be quiet – which they struggle with.

Boys have boy energy. Boy energy and school mix like oil and water. Schools tend to make this the boy’s problem, but I think it’s school’s problem that school doesn’t speak well to so many boys’ needs or learning style. Little boys need to move. Except when glued to a screen which is no solution to anything.

Wishful thinking causes some parents to believe that athletic extra-curriculars are the solution. Playing on a team offers opportunity for physical activity and competition. But it’s not enough. Why? Because the team sports require children to stay in line, do what they’re told, do it the way the coach says – and win or lose. None of which give the free-form physical outlet that boys need.

Which brings us to road hockey, softball in the park, kicking around an old soccer ball or shooting hoops in the driveway. And here’s the super-powered secret ingredient – You!

The reason so few kids today get to do unstructured play is because we fear for their safety on the street. Which is funny given that kids are – statistically speaking – safer on the streets than they were a generation ago. Less harm is done to children by strangers than when I was a kid.

So get out there with them! Not only to keep them safe, but primarily because for kids under 10, the parent in the game is the gentle helper, the unobtrusive guide who helps when the going gets tough. You give them the greatest gift by playing with them. You are neither coach nor authority figure. You are just another person in the game, there to offer the occasional empathic comment if tempers get heated.

When one kid accuses another of cheating, or not taking turns, observe gently: “Gee that’s hard, you sound mad… I wonder what you can do about that.” Then you’re unobtrusively helping them talk to each other to work out their problems. No big deal.

Being just another person in the game is an important act of parenting. It models that you (and your kids!!) can play without devices. Especially if you’re not good at the game, it teaches play just for fun. I suck at everything involving balls, and I logged a lot of road hockey hours – which accomplished a number of key parenting objectives: My son got to see his mother do something badly. That was great for little-boy competitive ego. All the kids in the games got to run and jump and whack balls with great abandon and very few rules. With parental approval.

Here lies the core value of parents supporting unstructured play: By our presence we validate that which they most enjoy, and in so doing, we celebrate their boyness.

Sitting still is not what most boys do best....
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