Can books help you parent your teenage sons?
My review of BUILDING BOYS, out now, including a Q & A with the author, Jennifer L. W. Fink
Although most of you, like me, are in the trenches of raising teenage boys, we are lucky that interest in raising sons well is growing and resources are becoming available to help us along the way. In fact, part of why I started this newsletter was to share information and add to the discussion about the unique challenges of parenting teenage boys. I have had the great pleasure to read a book that was released earlier this week, Building Boys: Raising Great Guys in a World That Misunderstands Males by Jennifer L. W. Fink. Jennifer is the co-host of the On Boys podcast (on which I was a guest last November) and has been raising boys and writing about boys for many years. Her book, a culmination of years of research and personal experience, is the type of book that parents should get when their boys are younger and then re-read at several points along their son’s development. It provides a blueprint for navigating life as the parent of a boy and embracing the difficulties while helping him become great. After reading the book (which I HIGHLY recommend), I asked the author five questions based on my perspective as a psychologist and parent of teenage boys and have included the questions and answers below:
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Q: I love the advice you give in your book about finding other parents to connect with as I think that is something so important, but neglected, in parenting our boys as they enter teenage years. What advice would you have in structuring those relationships with other parents so they are less built on venting and complaining (a natural tendency I think a lot of us have) and more on growth and support for us as parents?
A: First: curate your circle carefully. Listen to how the parents around you talk about their boys, about parenting. Steer clear of parents who are primarily critical, who are always talking about what their boys are doing wrong & rarely (if ever) sharing what they’re doing right. Gravitate toward parents who see and acknowledge their kids’ gifts, especially if the kids are struggling in other areas of their life. Look for the ones who celebrate and facilitate their boys’ interests (especially the off-beat ones!)
You can also open the conversation, especially with parents you’ve known for a while, even if you don’t know them super-well. (Parents you spend time with on the bleachers or sidelines, for instance). When kids come up in conversation, and venting happens – which is 100% normal and can be healthy – feel free to join in and normalize. (Tween boys are disorganized! Teens are messy & often appear to only think about themselves!) Then, pivot: Share some info or a comment about something being normal/typical behavior, and then say something like, “I’m working on focusing on the positives,” or “I’m trying to let some things go and really focus on building our relationship.” See what happens next. Those who get it – those are your people. Those who look at your like you’ve lost your mind – nope, not your people.
If you’re close with a group of fellow parents, you may want to directly put it out there: “Hey, I’m really working on being a better parent/understanding my kid more. I was hoping we could help and support one another in that.”
Beyond that: boundaries. Just because others are complaining doesn’t mean you have to. If you consistently exit those conversations and consistently engage in more positive relationships, your circle of support will naturally shift.
Q: How can we help parents be more open to exploring our teenage sons’ interests with them, rather than either forcing him to explore alone, minimizing his interests, or taking control and micromanaging? I think it can be difficult for some parents to walk the line between helping him but not taking over and dominating the interest.
A: I think it’s especially hard for parents who share the same interest/already have expertise and skill in an area. It’s really hard to sit back and let your kid stumble when you know there’s a better/easier/quicker more efficient way to do whatever.
In those instances, I recommend a dose of humility & a whole lot of patience & deep breathing. Humility, because you’ll need to remind yourself (over and over) that there’s more than one way to do almost everything. Your way may work for you; it might not for your kid. Your kid may discover a new, innovative technique or method. He may also screw up a million times along the way, but those “failures” are teaching him and allowing HIM to discover, explore, and learn. We parents want so badly to share our earned wisdom and knowledge, but the harsh truth is that our kids rarely want it. They – like us, when we were young – want to find their own way.
The opposite scenario – teen son is interested in something you have NO interest or knowledge in – is also challenging. Especially if whatever they’re interested in has some negative connotations for you. (Say he’s super into video games, and you firmly believe that gaming is a negative influence; or he wants to ride dirt dikes and you’re really concerned about injury.) First, deal with your “stuff;” if whatever he’s interested in is upsetting to you in some way, get to bottom of why. Get more factual info about the activity, but also really interrogate your own feelings, thoughts and reactions. (For me, journaling is a good way to do this). Second, let your teen teach you. Ask him what he likes about it. Watch videos/go to events together, etc. You may not ever like the things he likes, so take your focus off the interest and look at HIM. There’s something magical about seeing your son light up, about seeing him in his element. I don’t love dirt biking and would never independently choose to spend a weekend at a dirt bike track. But when my kids are there? When it means seeing them grow and learn, smile, interact with others who really see them and support them? YES!
Pro tip: Find ways to incorporate your interests and theirs. My guys loved fishing as young teens. They could spend HOURS fishing. I have less than zero interest in fishing. I love to read. So, I’d bring along a lawn chair and a book and read while they fished. Win-win!
Q: How can parents handle other adults (i.e. teachers, neighbors, strangers) who tend to see the worst in our teenage sons?
A: First: Share the positive. Teacher/stranger/grandparent may say something negative about your son. (And some of it may be deserved!) If there’s a kernel of truth to what they’re saying, acknowledge it (“I know,” or “uh-huh,” or “thanks for telling me”). Then, pivot and share something positive about your son. This is especially powerful if you do it in earshot of your son!
Second: Deal with your own reaction to people who are consistently negative about your son. Take some time to deconstruct your response.
Third: If this is a consistent pattern and a person who frequently interacts with your son (say, a teacher, coach, or relative), talk about it. You can say something like, “I’ve noticed that you tend to be negative when talking about X. You seem to make it a point to tell me what he’s doing wrong, but rarely seem to notice anything he does right. I’d appreciate it if you notice his gifts too.”
Four: If this is a person who frequently interacts with your son AND remains almost exclusively negative after a talk, consider minimizing exposure. Ask for your son to be transferred to a different class. Join a different team. Spend less time with said neighbor/grandma/uncle.
Q: With so many resources included in your book, what do you recommend for parents who want to become more involved as advocates for our sons and boys in general? Is it school, community organizations, politics? Impacting societal change seems overwhelming but if we want to do something, where should we start?
A: My answer depends somewhat on where the parents are and what their personal gifts, interests, and talents are.
If you’re in Washington state, I encourage you to support House Bill 1270, which seeks to establish a Washington State Commission on Boys & Men. So, if you’re in WA state, contact your legislators and encourage them to support & pass the bill. Parents in other states can also encourage their legislators to introduce and support a similar bill.
Beyond that, I think schools are a great place to start. Consider joining your PTO or running for the school board – and when involved, advocate for & draw attention to boys’ issues. Even if you don’t join the PTO or school board, you can band together with other parents and approach the administration and school board to ask for action on certain issues. Peaceful Playgrounds has a Right to Recess Campaign Toolkit you can use to advocate for, well, kids’ right to recess. Consider asking your school to explore and implement A Call to Men’s Live Respect Curriculum.
Lean into and use your gifts and talents. If you’re a talented writer, write op-eds and letters to the editor about boys’ issues. If you’re a coach, be the kind of coach who cares for each of his athletes and teaches them life lessons as well – and talk with other coaches.
Q: You and I are in a similar position that we both parent only boys. What do you think would be additional topics or areas of interest for parents who are raising both boys and girls?
Helping boys and girls understand each other – their typical developmental trajectories, the pressures and challenges they face in society – is so important. Yes, boys may want to connect via roughhousing and insults – which may not be something his sisters enjoy! Finding ways to balance the needs of each family member is always a challenge, but there’s also opportunity here: an opportunity to discuss how to compromise, to respect others’ needs while also respecting your own.
In practice, this will likely be a messy, frustrating, ongoing conversation. It’s so much easier to write about boys than it is to actually parent them. 😊 I recognize that truth and want other parents to know that they’re making progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
Great review and Q&A. On the general topic of can books help our teenaged boys I have an interesting story. My son Seamus was a trouble maker not doing well in school. But he did enjoy reading. I gave him the book Absolutely American about a class of West Point students. It changed his life. Now my family is mostly Quaker pacifists with no military history (actually the opposite, getting jailed for refusing to serve).
My son Seamus decided in 8th grade when he read that book it was what he wanted to do. He had an amazing high school career, academically and in terms of the service work he did in the community (he went to a Jesuit hs which I also wasn’t thrilled about but was awesome on character).
At West Point he distinguished himself graduating at the top of his class, earning a rotary scholarship to study in England. When he got back he became a Ranger passing arguably the toughest military school there is. He served in the 101st Airborne. I am currently visiting him in Colorado Springs where he is company commander of 150 soldiers getting ready to deploy to the Ukraine border.
He has two more years in the Army left and then plans to run for Congress.
This was a kid who got arrested for selling counterfeit t-shirts at Boston Celtics games, was constantly in detention, and getting horrible grades.
One book truly did change his life.