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Book Review: The Way of Boys: Raising Healthy Boys in a Challenging and Complex World by Anthony Rao, Michelle Seaton

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I have two boys. I am not worried about their development — physically, socially, intellectually and emotionally. They are two normal boys making our daily lives a roller coaster of emotions. They laugh, they cry, they throw tantrums and charm us with kisses afterwards. They make me angry. They get angry with me. That’s perfectly normal and my sons are perfectly normal in imperfect ways.

The way I look at my boys — perfectly normal in imperfect ways — doesn’t stop me from appreciating Anthony Rao’s The Way of Boys: Raising Healthy Boys in a Challenging and Complex World. This book attempts to make us understand boys and tries to help in how to deal with them as they are growing up without resorting to diagnose them with disorders as a first recourse when we are confronted with behaviors we cannot solve.

My reading of this book came at a time when I started noticing one of my Firstborn’s friends. I had the strongest feeling that his presence in my son’s life is not healthy to my son’s development. Boys are very competitive, I know. But this particular boy is too competitive for his own good.

He should be the smartest and calls my son the dumbest. I silently observed from a distance when he wanted to attack my son several times because my son won in a game and he lost. He was crying uncontrollably and seething with anger. His mom was clearly embarrassed. And so, every chapter of the book became relevant to me, to my sons, to my sons’ friends and my sons’ future friends (don’t I have a tendency to be a monster mother-in-law?).

Looking at the table of contents, it was easy to be motivated to read on. These are the exciting chapter titles:

Your Problem Is Spelled B-O-Y
Little Girls Aren’t Like This
He Doesn’t Have Any Friends
He’s a Bully
He Won’t Sit Still
He Runs the Household
He Has to Win, or Else
He Wants to Be the Bad Guy

He’s Suddenly Fragile
He Hates School
The Teacher Needs Testing
He Has Already Been Labeled
What Will He Be Like as a Grown Man?

It has always bothered me whenever I hear people say, most often with certainty, that this boy or that boy has ADHD, an OC or is autistic. Before I read this book, I had been taken aback by the arrogance of the certainty of some people’s pronouncements about a certain boy and his behavior. The people who declare their judgment over a certain boy — and labeling them for life — do not have the qualifications to be experts on the subject. And yet, they have inflicted the damage on the boy’s personality by wrongly labeling him.

Rao cautions “making a diagnosis is a serious step and should be thought out carefully.” Noticeably, labels are being thrown around casually. It has become common for people to say of a hyperactive boy he has ADHD without regard to the impact of the words and their lack of qualifications to say so.

Rao’s discussion of boys’ natural tendency to be hyperactive gives parent readers of this book a reassurance that boys shouldn’t be boxed according to how we want them to behave. Let them be free, let them grow naturally. On the other hand, parents of boys on the end of the line should not be too stressed out with their boys’ shyness. Interestingly, even those who are seem to be target of bullying will, at some point, come out of their shell and get tired of being bullied.

Perhaps, one of the important things I learned from reading The Way of Boys is that we should not sanitize boys’ play. Adults have a tendency to make things equal by making boys win equally. I also appreciate the discussion on parents joining in on boy’s bad guy play. I always wondered how the menacing Captain Hook could be so scary but at the same time wanted by boys. My Firstborn used to love playing Captain Hook, although he recognizes that Captain Hook is the villain to Peter Pan. Personally, I am guilty of infusing moral lessons during playtime (take turns in winning, we shall be friends again). I realized, I had been killing the excitement there. Anthony Rao encourages the free spirit in the child:

“Remember that the ritual of fighting, the role playing of conflict, is what’s important for him. It’s pure fantasy and imagination at work. Let him go in whatever direction he wants, as long as it’s safe.”

I would never forget a lesson that Jack Welch shared in his autobiography Jack Straight from the Gut when his mom Grace Welch stormed into the locker room he was sharing with his hockey team and scolded him with “You Punk! If you don’t know how to lose, you’ll never know how to win.” I still hold on to the virtue of those words although it is enlightening to know that for boys from 3-6 years old, it’s the playing and the winning that matter. the rules do not. As parents, we just have to slowly let them in on the rules without taking away the joy of playing.

I have always exerted effort in explaining to my Firstborn that cheating is not good. Then, this book is telling me that cheating is developmental to kids. The author does not encourage cheating as a habit but allowing them to sometimes get their way to win is part of how boys really play. “Pushing the envelope is part of the way guys play with, and against, one another.” Seeing how kids play with each other and how some are cheating to win, I see the logic in here.

Now, I am subtly giving hints to my son to cheat so he could win. And I see pride in his face when he wins. This does not make him a bad boy. Eventually, he’ll realize that adults know when he cheats and when he doesn’t. He will surely pick up the cues and his intelligence will enable him understand how things are done. In the meantime, he is a boy and he should live the life of a boy.

Parenting is a tough job. It helps to be welcoming of good ideas from others and comforting to have good books to read that allow our children  to live their lives as they want it without our harsh judgment but with a lot of love and nurturing.

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