Friday, February 10, 2012

Raising Cain

For whatever reason, I was up at about 3:00 a.m. on January 13, 2006, and since I had left the TV on PBS, an interesting program was airing at that hour: Raising Cain, about the ways boys develop into men and about the challenges and rewards of raising boys to manhood.

I think all parents, educators, and church leaders should watch this program. We have misunderstood, neglected, and ignored boys and men for too long.

The emotional "divide" between men and women does not arise from women's having emotions and men's having none. That's a myth and is erroneous. {And I just heard all the male readers yell, "Duh!!"} Men feel just as strongly as women do; but men communicate, express, and channel their emotions differently than women do. Societal pressures direct men to stifle their emotions, cover them up with bravado, or transfer them to anger. Because we have long sent the message that men are not allowed to express—let alone feel—the emotions traditionally labeled as "feminine," we taught have our young men and boys that lashing out is OK.

An interesting aspect of boys' development that is tackled by the documentary is how boys' imaginative play differs from girls'. And that difference can be startling and frustrating to parents and teachers. Michael Thompson, Ph.D., host of the documentary and co-author of the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys, speaks to the concern that adults often have about what they observe in boys—a fascination with violence. He says that it's a valid concern "because no one wants their son to grow up to be violent. But interpreting play as an early indicator of violence is a misunderstanding both of the nature of boy activity and the real journey to violence that some boys undergo." So we can relax, at least a little, when our boys are playing war games, cops & robbers, and superheroes.

The PBS Parents Guide for this program included this interesting explanation:
Fantasy play is not aggressive. A common boy fantasy about killing bad guys and saving the world is just as normal as a common girl fantasy about tucking in animals and putting them to bed. "Most boys will pick up a pretzel and pretend to shoot with it," comments teacher Jane Katch. "If a boy is playing a game about superheroes, you might see it as violent. But the way he sees it, he's making the world safe from the bad guys. This is normal and doesn't indicate that anything is wrong unless he repeatedly hurts or tries to dominate the friends he plays with. And sometimes an act that feels aggressive to one child was actually intended to be a playful action by the child who did it. When this happens in my class, we talk about it, so one child can understand that another child's experience may be different than his own. This is the way empathy develops."

Not too long before I watched the show (almost five years ago), I myself had experienced this kind of situation. At church, after concluding an activity with the 4th-through-6th-grade kids in my class, which included art materials, some of the boys continued making things with the paper and tape. One boy wanted me to help him refine his object—help him make the tube thinner and add a cone at the end. I didn't put it together that he wanted to make it a spear, until the final product took shape. I feel a little twinge in my stomach. Was I being an irresponsible Bible study teacher? Was I promoting or condoning violent behavior? Was I contributing to some coming misbehavior? What would my fellow teacher think?

The other boy had made a machete, and actually, I was impressed by the way he kept working on the details of his object, to make it look more and more authentic. He lopped off a few corners to give it more of that "machete" look.

My fellow teacher and I took the kids out in the hall, to continue waiting for parents to pick them up. The two boys commenced a play fight. I felt as if I should be offended or scandalized or something. Was my co-teacher expecting me to tell them to stop? I didn't tell the boys to stop. I monitored them, for the words they were using, for their attitudes, and for anything that might be disrespectful to the fact that we were in God's house. They were just pretending, having fun. I couldn't tell if they were enjoying being the evil guy or being the hero. I don't even remember what movie or TV show or comic strip they were mimicking.

You know, I missed an opportunity to praise those boys. Yes! Praise them! Think about it—how many kids today will take ordinary materials and make something out of them? How many kids exercise their imaginations to much of an extent? True, they didn't come up with their own characters and storyline—they borrowed from what they knew. But the point is that they were expressing themselves both physically and artistically. And there was emotional expression there too, if I had only talked with them about what they liked about pretending to be these fantasy fighters.

I also missed an opportunity to point them back to the Scriptures. Who in the Bible used a spear? David. What is the Bible called in Ephesians? A sword. See? We don't have to be squeamish about the things of fighting and war.

In his book Wild at Heart, John Eldredge points out that the big Question {Eldredge capitalizes the word—can you feel the resonance and the looming significance of a question that your entire being was made to ask?} of the male being is "Do I have what it takes?" And Eldredge explains that men are looking for a challenge to face, an enemy to conquer, and an adventure to pursue. (And there is also the damsel to rescue. *grin*) It's all related to the physical, to competition, to action and achievement.

And good thing too... Because if only women existed in the world (and we could reproduce asexually...or something), we'd have this big drum circle and sing-along, but not too much would get done. Unless you count faboo shoes and terrific jams and jellies and such. OK, just kidding. (I know, I know: gender stereotyping, Elena.)

I believe that boys and men are hard-wired to be this way—to battle, to compete, to seek to win, to vanquish—to varying degrees, of course, and with different manifestations of this. And that we teachers do our male students a disservice when we assume that every action a boy makes is meant to hurt another. We need to seek to understand the kids we teach, whether they be boys or girls.

And as teachers, we can help both boys and girls channel their thoughts and energies into constructive, helpful directions. This takes time. Not just time inculcating whatever content it is we have to impart... but also time getting to know the child, understanding what makes him tick, allowing her to ask questions, and asking the child follow-up/clarifying questions. And listening. A lot of listening.

As I am back into the swing of another semester of Bible Drill, I am challenging myself as a teacher to be more fully "present in the present" when I am teaching... especially these preteens who are in such a key transitional time of their lives.

I'll let you know how the adventure goes!


Joy Eggerichs said...

Great thoughts and I loved the story about the sunday school boys. It is an interesting set of questions you have to ask yourself.

I'd love to see that program you mentioned. Is it something you can rent?

Elena said...

Joy, I searched Netflix, and it's available there. You might be able to find it at a library --- or get it through interlibrary loan --- for FREE! :D

Anonymous said...

This is excellent!