Michael was in trouble, and he knew it. For the umpteenth time, he’d greeted me with a raised middle finger and then ran off to the computer lab for his first period class. I wasn’t surprised when I got a call from the assistant principal 20 minutes later asking me to come to his office. Michael had apparently attempted to access pornography from a school computer…again.
Another infraction, another suspension. Michael reacted indifferently to the suspension, undoubtedly considering it a mini-vacation. My request to have Michael stay in school, even using my office for an “in-school suspension” was denied, understandably citing the school conduct code as a reason.
The next day, which happened to be a school spirit day encouraging students and staff to wear their favorite sports memorabilia, Michael once again greeted me with a nonverbal f-you, and then yanked the hat off my head and sprinted down the hall. I didn’t give chase right away, I was too frustrated and irritated—this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. After a brief moment, I followed him but did not immediately find him.
I asked two passing students if they had seen Michael (everyone knew him, and not because he was popular), and one said they had seen him run into the boys’ bathroom down the hall. Great. After announcing myself and receiving no reply, I entered; he wasn’t there. But my hat sat perched on top of a stall. After checking to make sure nothing disgusting had been placed in my hat (he was 12 after all), I left the bathroom.
Not two minutes later, I received a call over the intercom for me to come to the gym. Knowing immediately that it was going to be about Michael, I thought “I don’t have time for this…this kid is driving me crazy.” But I walked to the gym and saw him standing in a corner with an administrator standing close-by, walkie-talkie in hand.
The administrator said, “He’s supposed to be in first period, and after the last two weeks it’s clear to see things are not working. Can you deal with this? I have parents waiting for me.”
I nodded, and Michael and I made eye contact as the administrator walked away.
And then, despite my roiling thoughts and feelings, I took the Broncos hat off my head, handed it to Michael, and said, ‘Here, you earned it.”
He looked at me somewhat blankly and then took the hat. After a brief pause, he said, “Wanna shoot hoops with me?”
Instantly, the long list of things I had to get done that day flooded my thoughts, but I heard myself say, “Sure, I can for a bit.”
We silently played basketball together for 10 minutes. Then sweaty and slightly out of breath, we sat on the bleachers, and then Michael started talking: “How come after I say things to you and do things to you, you never get mad at me? I mean, my teachers and the principal get pissed at me…I can tell. But none of them have ever given me a hat before.”
I spent seven years in graduate school. I’m a highly trained school psychologist. I should know what to say, but I was dumbfounded. I’d tried for weeks to reach this kid, and he’d consistently refused to give me even a civil “hi”.
Forgetting my to-do list, we talked for at least 30 minutes. I’d known that he’d had a rough life, but I had no idea about the depth of fear and anger he felt on a daily basis. Incarcerated mother, alcoholic father, often without food, no one to set limits for him or hug him comfortingly, Michael was a lost and desperately hurting kid.
Unfortunately, he is not the only one.
In the wake of yet another attack in a school by an adolescent male, it is understandingly easy to react with wringing of hands and a desperate plea for change. The cacophonous call for a reformation of firearm laws, the renewed resolutions to bolster mental health systems of support, the heartfelt sympathies toward the ever-increasing list of survivors and victims’ families, are all valid responses and attempts to deal with a problem no one is quite sure how to define or solve. But therein lies the beauty.
If we, as a society, were unaffected by these events, if people silently ignored the deaths of children within schools, if nothing was ever attempted to make change, then and only then would it be time to “freak out”. Thankfully, that is not the case. The airwaves are full of well-intentioned thoughts and ideas.
My fear, however, is that we spend so much time admiring the problem that all the brainstorming never amounts to action. My hope in writing this is to give you, the reader, some simple ways that you can meaningfully respond.
First, a word about boys. I’m not ignoring girls (I think my wife and daughter could attest to that), and I have no intention of even suggesting we reduce efforts to change the many inequalities women confront on a daily basis. In fact, the state of boyhood and manhood in our country is a significant factor contributing to the problems women face.
It is undeniable, however, that girls are not responsible for the vast majority of school shootings. If we are to examine causes and suggest solutions, it would be irresponsible to ignore that these repeated male-perpetrated acts of violence may be societal cries for help.
As a school psychologist with many years working in various settings and with different populations, I have repeatedly been struck by the sheer number of boys referred to me for evaluation and for ongoing mental health support (e.g. individual and/or group counseling). Within the field of education, it is well-known that boys outnumber girls in special education by a wide margin. Compared to girls, boys are more likely to be identified with a Specific Learning Disability (usually in reading), are more likely to have social and behavioral challenges, and are more likely to have a mental health diagnosis over the course of their lives.
Males complete suicide at a rate three times that of women. Despite being just as smart as girls, boys do not do as well in school in nearly all academic areas. The result of all this is a growing number of boys and men of all ages who do not feel understood, do not feel that they matter, and have a bleak view of the future.
Of course, there are exceptions. So if you know a boy who is doing well right now, give him an extra scoop of ice cream and an extra-long hug tonight, because it’s tough to be a school-age boy.
Beyond dishing out ice cream, here are some simple things you, as a parent or educator, can do to meaningfully champion the process of change for boys.
#1 Model for him
Boys need to see in us what we expect from them. Boys need men in their lives who can say, “Watch me. Do what I do.” Boys need men and women in their lives who can be examples of how to constructively express and cope with big feelings. We need boys to see adults expressing kindness, forgiveness, and compassion in practical, pragmatic ways.
#2 Nurture him
A strange and nearly-automatic tendency to expect boys to “suck it up” permeates American culture. Boys tend to express their emotions differently than girls. Whereas girls are quicker to express their thoughts and feelings verbally, boys display their internal feelings to us through their behavior. Usually, these behaviors are annoying, disruptive, loud, messy, and disconcerting. And let me assure you, however frustrated and angry you may be when the boy/young man in your life seems to explode over something small, or he withdraws from you and hides in his room, he feels equally, if not more, lost and alone than you do.
Boys’ behavior has the unfortunate tendency to elicit the opposite reaction from us than what they need. So, when he lashes out, see it as an indication that he’s stuck. Rather than placing more expectations on him, rather than forcing him to talk it out, rather than reacting to his behaviors with punishment, draw close.
Without words, just be near. In so doing, you psychologically hold him while creating safety that allows him to talk when he’s ready. I’m not suggesting you get rid of consequences and structure; he needs those too. But the consequences will be more effective when he feels understood and heard by you, first.
#3 Adventure with him
Boys are going to seek adventure and excitement regardless of where they live—it’s almost as if it’s pre-programmed into the male psyche. In past times, boys and men had the thrill of the hunt and physically stimulating jobs to do at home. Now, boys are constantly told to passively take in information all day long and hear endless prompts to “sit still, be quiet, and stop poking Jimmy”.
Without other outlets, boys satiate their desire for excitement and stimulation by playing sports, video games, and even doing risky things (yes, Bobby does know that jumping off the roof is a bad idea, but it’s gonna be AWESOME!). Creating opportunities to do adventurous things with him, not only provides a constructive outlet for his energies, but builds relational connections upon which you can rely during moments when he’s not sure which end is up.
#4 Validate him and collaborate with him
Perhaps above all else, boys need to feel validated by their parents, teachers, and friends. They need to feel understood and that their thoughts, opinions, feelings, and experiences are worth taking seriously. This takes a good deal of empathy, compassion, and willingness to collaborate rather than dictate. And this is especially important when boys’ behavior is challenging.
In his book “Lost at School”, Dr. Ross Greene explains that behavior is a signal, a signal that a child who wants to do well is struggling to meet demands being placed on him. Rather than reacting to behaviors with zero-tolerance procedures like suspensions, detentions, and punishments, boys need adults to draw close and say, “Hey, I’ve noticed you struggling. I care about you; what’s up?” Showing him sincere compassion and working with him to address concerns and solve problems validates him as a person and helps him see that he is not alone, defective, or unwanted.
Boys need us, the adults in their lives, to change the way we see them. They need us to open the webs of relationship and connect with them in meaningful ways. If we don’t, I am convinced that terrible events will continue to occur, regardless of changes in legislation, funding allotments, and institutions.
Michael didn’t need new laws, he needed someone to see him. Michael was crying out for help in the only way he knew how. I can only imagine what it would be like if all the Michaels out there felt heard and understood.
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