Talk less, listen more. When it comes to teaching or parenting boys, this mantra is really important. It’s in those moments when I am the receiver, rather than the giver, of information that I learn the most and can connect best with boys. I feel pretty lucky to be the parent of an eight year-old boy and an eleven year-old daughter and to spend my days in the company of dozens of boys as they pass through my office in Chamberlayne Hall. The fact that I have comfortable furniture, a candy jar, and a disco ball (compliments of one of the boys) helps them stay longer than they may have intended when they walked through the door. In parenting and in working with boys, I experience first-hand many things about them that decades of research has shown. Two of these concepts, fairness and flaws, were recently brought to my attention by my son, Charlie, a third grader here at St. Christopher’s.
A few weeks ago I was reading to my son, Charlie, at bedtime. Working with Upper School boys, I am privy to a unique perspective on this ritual– I realize my days of snuggling and reading are numbered. (Note to parents of younger boys: Cherish every moment of your reading/snuggle time). Charlie and I were reading a story in which a girl is visited by one of Santa’s elves. As happens with any good book, the story inspired my son to make connections beyond the plot lines of the text. “So, Mom,” he said, “Santa has a naughty list and a nice list, right?” I responded that yes, to my knowledge, that was true. He continued, “So, if you are mostly nice, but every once in a while you’re naughty, you’re still on the nice list, right?” I was very interested to hear where he was headed with this. “But everything naughty isn’t equal,” he said, “I mean, there’s naughty and then there’s really bad. So I don’t think Santa can decide just because of the number of naughty or nice things I do. He must think about what I do, and not just count up naughty things and nice things…don’t you think, Mom?” Clearly my son was looking for reassurance that Christmas morning would be all that he hoped for despite whatever naughty things he had recently chosen to do. He needed to know that there was fairness in Santa’s calculation of the naughty-to-nice ratio. I did my best to reassure him that Santa isn’t looking for perfection, but we all need to do our best to be kind to others and think about the choices we make.
Our bedtime dialogue reminded me of several things. First, the boy cares about fairness. In his mind, it simply wouldn’t be fair for Santa to deprive a child of gifts for being a little naughty, and it’s not fair to see all naughty acts as equal. Second, he realizes that he’s flawed, like all of us. It’s not reasonable to expect that he’s going to be “nice” all the time. In fact, he probably is hard pressed to think of anyone who’s good or nice all the time. Those folks might be rather boring, certainly to those of us who have the privilege of teaching boys.
As teachers of boys, we know that a “best practice” is to demonstrate fairness and consistency in expectations, words, and actions. Boys want and need things to be fair, and they’ll fight us on it when things are not that way in their eyes. As Head of the Upper School, Tony Szymendera, often says, “Boys may not like the rules. But they’ll understand and respect us when we do what we said we were going to do when they break one.” They might not be happy about it, but they see that it’s fair. Action leads to consequence. We also know that it’s essential to acknowledge and value failure as a potential learning opportunity. Essentially, what do we do when we fail? How do we deal with our flaws? We all fail at some point; we all are flawed, although we may work hard to try to hide it. One of the beautiful things about boys is they are pretty open about their flaws. That doesn’t necessarily mean they want to “fix” them (“Yes, I’m completely disorganized, but no, I’m not interested in cleaning out my binders…”) And yet they recognize that flaws are there in them and in all of us. Flaws can help them develop into the man they want to be. They mess up; they have to pick themselves up and try again. It’s the best any of us can do, really.
So as we continue on our journey of educating and parenting boys, let’s remember to keep our ears open (and our mouths closed) a bit more. And let’s just hope each of our naughty-to- nice ratios meets Santa’s specs.