The Art of Nurturing Boys

I just finished a fantastic book about the psychology of boys and what’s necessary for their healthy growth and development… not so much physically, but mentally and emotionally.  It’s called Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James and David Thomas.  Whether you’re raising sons at home or leading boys in Scouts, this is a must read for everyone who has the responsibility of looking after boys at any age.

I first heard of Wild Things from a comment posted on Brad Harris’ blog about Scouting’s Secrets to Success.  The statement that caught my attention was “how many ‘needs’ described by the book for the different stages [in a boy’s development] were fulfilled by Scouting.”  This intrigued me enough to go buy the book and let me tell you, what a ton of great information I found in this resource.  It really took me to another level of understanding the importance of having a great Scouting program.

The book starts by breaking down “The Way of a Boy” from age 2 as an “Explorer” to age 22 as a “Warrior”.  I would like to highlight a few excerpts below that most closely relate to the age range we work with in Boy Scouts, between 13 and 17… the group these writers refer to as “The Wanderer”.

Here’s the first quote that I think is a good synopsis of what boys need in this age group:

“It is crucial that a Wanderer have adults who care deeply about him (other than his parents or primary caregivers) speak into his life.  As the voices of his peers get louder and louder, the voices of his parents are dampened.  He still needs adult input, yet he is more resistant to receiving it from his parents than ever before.  We need to make sure that his path crosses with those of respected adults who really understand and relate well with teens, and let them have a voice in his life, people such as youth leaders, coaches, scoutmasters, teachers, pastors, counselors, and other mentors.”

The influence of adult voices that aren’t those of his parents is further supported by this perspective shared by a mother about her own teenage son:

“I make Sam go [to church] because the youth-group leaders know things that I don’t.  They know what teenagers are looking for, and need – they need adults who have stayed alive and vital, adults they wouldn’t mind growing up to be.  And they need total acceptance of who they are, from adults they trust, and to be welcomed in whatever condition life has left them – needy, walled off.  They want guides, adults who know how to act like adults but with a kid’s heart.  They want people who will sit with them and talk about the big questions, even if they don’t have the answers; adults who won’t correct their feelings or pretend not to be afraid.  They are looking for adventure, experience, pilgrimages, and thrills.  And then they want a home they can return to, where things are stable and welcoming.”

Sounds a lot like the kind of scout leader Bill Burch talks about at 3:40 in this video clip!

We all know boys need outlets. Wild Things does a great job explaining the importance of balancing competitive sports with other types of activities – ones that I see fit perfectly with being involved in Scouting.  Take a look:

“The Wanderer needs outlets – places he can release the intense energy that comes with the psychological chaos going on inside him.  Physical activity is imperative for the Wanderer, but not necessarily competitive activities.  Organized sports can be an excellent outlet for boys who need release when testosterone is building in their systems, but the competitive nature of sports can actually make things worse, because testosterone levels are elevated during competition.  If competitive sports are the only outlet for the release of pent-up energy, he’s actually just pouring gasoline on the fire.  The Wanderer needs to have other physical outlets that don’t involve intense competition, activities such as woodworking, playing in a rock band, participating in debate club, sailing, kayaking, lifting weights, rock climbing, cycling, learning martial arts, or doing construction.”

No doubt, there’s value in team sports and competition.  However, I feel it should be for a time and in their designated season.  I struggle with youth sports that are a multi-season commitment.  No longer is baseball only played in the Spring, or soccer just in the Fall.  It seems like many sports have become (or are becoming) a year-round lifestyle for many kids and their families.  Spring ball… Summer ball… Fall ball… Winter ball… WHOA!!  What if the kid wants to try snowboarding?  Or audition for his school’s play??

“When we see a boy who is struggling emotionally or relationally, we might recommend to his parents that they give him some time away from intense competitive sports and plug him in instead to activities that develop his emotional and relational muscles (while keeping his gross motor muscles will intact).  Instead of a highly competitive environment, it might be helpful to look into activities such as camping, hiking, rock climbing, or cycling.”

This next quote supports the strong need for regular outings and more importantly, the value of having a Reflection afterwards:

“Boys learn by doing.  They learn best when allowed to experience and practice a task, skill or concept and then talk about what they learned.  In this way, boys are experiential learners.  They need to go through the motions for the experience to really lock in.  For boys, most of life’s lessons need to be experienced, not told.”

This next quote caused me to stop and ponder the realities of our culture – especially with all the digital distractions, diversions and detours that are at epidemic levels today:

“Boys tend to be weaker than girls emotionally and relationally, so we fill their time with media and sports, and then wonder why all they know how to do is either zone out or compete.”

If anyone misunderstands the fundamental purpose of the Scouting program, take a look at this statement by two writers whose profession is to explain the hearts, minds and ways of our gender:

“Boys need to be vaccinated with values, mentored in morality, and steered in their spiritually.”

At its deepest level, THIS is what Scouting is all about!

There’s also a whole chapter on rituals, ceremonies and rites of passage that struck a chord for me.  Here are a few highlights I thought were worth including in this post:

“As experiential, spatial, and tactile learners, boys need events and ceremonies to help mark significant moments and transitions in their lives.”

“If we don’t create rites of passage for our boys, they will find their own.  If we don’t mark their passage into the fellowship of men, they will create experiences that make them feel like the men they long to become.  A rite of passage for a boy can be anything from smoking pot to sleeping with a girl to racing drunk or breaking the law in some way.”

“Rituals give boys an inner GPS that will help guide them on their journey to manhood when they’re confused or grow deaf or insensitive to the voices around them.”

Lastly, these final statements from the book really topped it off for me as I stopped to think about my role as a Scout leader:

“If we are consistent, loving, and authentic, we will gain their trust and earn the right to whisper direction in their ears along the way.”

Whether you are a mother, father, grandparent, teacher, church worker, mentor, volunteer, uncle, friend, or neighbor, know that a boy needs you.”

I first fell in love with Scouting because of its connection to the outdoors.  It was sometime later that I saw how much more it is about using outdoor activities to help teach and fulfill a duty to God.  After learning more about the art of nurturing boys, I now have an even deeper appreciation for the program and what it needs to be for boys at the time in their lives they need it.

If you’ve made it all the way down here in reading my post, you won’t be disappointed in the full text of this book.  Go get the book and let me know what you think.

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One Response to The Art of Nurturing Boys

  1. Paul Barker says:

    John, good comments. I’m Induced make that, very excited to read the book!

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