Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Boys . . . How they grow up

There is a lot that goes into the makeup of boys: genetics, culture, physiology, emotions, spirituality, snakes, snails, puppy dog tails, etc. Boys are really complicated; much more complicated than we often give them credit for being.
Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, wrote, “Of all animals the boy is the most unmanageable, inasmuch as he has the fountain of reason in him not yet regulated.” That Plato was a smart guy. As a general rule, boys are more difficult to raise than girls. They are tougher to parent. They are tougher to teach. They are tougher to relate with. They are tougher to mentor and coach. The famous English journalist G. K. Chesterton said it this way,
“Boyhood is a most complex and incomprehensible thing. Even when one has been through it, one does not understand what it was. A man can never quite understand a boy, even when he has been the boy.”
While we may not be able to fully understand boys, and it is for sure is never our goal to tame them, we can do a better job at trying to meet them where they are and helping them on the dangerous journey of becoming a man.
Boys are quite their own creatures, and there’s so much about the way a boy responds to his environment, himself, and others that can be explained as developmental. Having an understanding of development is foundational in terms of caring well for a boy as well as diminishing a parent’s worry and concerns as the boy passes through the different stages. (Heck, it also can help you sound really smart at PTA meetings.)
The progression of boy from a baby to a twenty-something is far more gray than black and white, much more fluid than solid. To even say the categories overlap would be too concrete. It’s much more accurate to look at boy development as a spectrum (like a rainbow)—all of the colors bleeding into and through the rest.
It’s important to understand boy development in these terms because what’s present and needed at age two doesn’t disappear by age five or twelve; it rather becomes a part of a bigger whole. It’s not uncommon to find toddler-typical behavior present in adolescents (or forty-year-old men for that matter). Equally so, there are several identity forming stages within the span of boyhood that are similar.
What a boy needs at age three (“boundaries” for example) doesn’t go away as he gets older, it’s very much still there. It’s just that he might need more of something else at age five (“redirection” for instance) or around nine or ten (like “involvement”).
The older a boy gets the more he needs from his caregivers. This is really different than some other more “traditional” views of child development that say as the boy becomes a teenager and then a man he needs less from his parents. In actuality the older a boy gets the more complex and dynamic his needs are. His needs move from primarily physical (birth to age three) to increasingly becoming more relational, emotional, and spiritual.
That is not to say that there isn’t a progression from one stage to the next because there is. And it is our job as their caregivers to help the boys we love move from one stage to the next. It’s really important to understand that what a boy gets or doesn’t get at one stage will directly affect how well he will transition into the next. The reason so many men struggle relationally, emotionally, and spiritually is not a lack of intelligence or morality. It’s an effect of not reaching key developmental milestones; or being rushed through one to the other; or simply skipping entire stages all together. Popular writer and speaker John Eldredge brilliantly puts is this way,
“Each stage has its lessons to be learned, and each stage can be wounded, cut short, leaving the growing man an undeveloped soul. Then we wonder why he folds suddenly when he is forty-five, like a tree we find toppled in the yard after a night of strong winds. We go over to have a look and find that its roots hadn’t sunk down into the earth, or perhaps that it was torn on the inside, weakened by disease or drought. Such are the insides of an unfinished man.” From Way of the Wild Heart
Sadly this is not uncommon. Every man is unfinished in some form or fashion. To some degree or another we are all boys in men’s bodies—dressed up and disguised with costumes of masculinity like Harleys or pickup trucks or bank accounts or families or careers. For some men these deficits are more severe than others. At worst we become “self-made” which is really the worst kind of man you can be because it inhibits us from trusting others and God.
For as long as we have been working with parents of boys, we have been asked the question “is this normal?” hundreds if not thousands of times. Usually what is behind this question is a deeper, scarier question that a parent is asking, “Is my son normal?” Most often the answer is, “Yes,” and with some education much of a parent’s fears can be allayed. But, if you are a woman, it is likely that you will have to broaden your definition of normal. Things you never dreamed of become normal once you put a boy in your life.
With boys, you will find yourself saying things and hearing things that you never thought needed to be said or heard. Like the night my (Stephen) wife had to insist to our two-year-old twins “sixteen times of washing really is sufficient to get your penis clean.” Or the day one of my sons screamed from the bathroom, “Guys! Come see how big my poop is!” As a caregiver to boys you will be blown away by how thousands of times you will have to say things such as, “Please keep you feet to yourself.” or “Don’t lick the floor.” or “Please remember that farting is for private.”
In the our latest book, Wild Things, we will provide some categories for understanding the way of a boy on his developmental journey.
• The Explorer (ages 2–4)
• The Lover (ages 5–8)
• The Individual (ages 9–12)
• The Wanderer (ages 13–17)
• The Warrior (ages 18–22)
What we have outlined here is an amalgamation of many other developmental theories, views, and opinions. We’ve tried to lay things out and explain things in a way that will give you some clarity as well as offer you some ways to provide signposts for boys along their journey—and maybe help keep you a little saner to boot.
As you can see, with each category we have put some age parameters. Please read this next sentence out loud: These are loose parameters. Each boy will take the journey of boyhood at his own pace. Some will seem to race through. Others will take it in sputters and starts. And a few of us meander through like . . . well . . . a boy in a toy store—with no intention of ever leaving. It’s our job as parents, educators, coaches, mentors, youth workers, counselors, etc. to help him along the way by knowing where he is and giving him what he needs.

Order the book on Amazon.

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