Review: Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons

From a one-star review on Amazon:

The content was obvious and the tone was judgmental. The complete lack of nuance is painful. Apparently receiving an MD over 25 years ago makes this Dr. Laura-style author an expert in child psychology? Let’s leave the psychology topics to those professionally trained in that discipline.

I’ve always enjoyed Meg Meeker’s books and her latest is no exception. She’s very practical and conversational, but she brings together a refreshing mix of social conservatism with practical medical know-how. Every chapter is focused towards concrete advice for parents to become more effective in crafting the virtue (and therefore well-being) of our sons. As the quote above shows, she presents a perspective that is out of sync with aspects of modern culture, and in particular with modern medicine’s trend of hyper-specialization and the unwritten rule to leave moral judgments out of medical advice. We all know this trend has risks: a specialist is going to miss the whole person concept that is critical to understand as we tackle a problem as complex as parenting. By forcing those who give us medical and parenting advice to be materialists is to force life’s great questions out of the discussion. A materialist view misses the most important dynamics in developing character and sons who become men of virtue.

Meg Meeker explains that boys need the freedom to explore and test their limits, even if this means some scrapes, bruises and difficult moments. She tries to strike the balance between helicopter and laissez-faire parenting. She slices through these two extremes with a simple call to engage: to double the time we spend with our boys all the while loving them enough to force them to grow in difficult and engaging situations.

It is out of the tension of caring too little and not caring enough that she weaves her plan for an ideal father. In many ways, I find her book more interesting for what it says not to do than what it says to do. She reminds us of the danger in letting our boys be cast adrift into a toxic mix of video games, ersatz online relationships, and a hyper-sexualized culture that emphasizes in individual’s emotion over an external, and fixed, framework of morality.

She makes it clear that there’s no substitute for personal time and attention. She paints the ideal parent as always engaged and aware of what their children are doing in a manner that doesn’t dictate the details of their life but does pour compassion and love into their schedule while allowing them to grow and develop in natural situations. In reading her book, she makes it clear that to avoid the harmful influences of society, we as fathers have to be committed and focused to protecting them in fostering the right environment which allows them to develop in healthy ways.

In 12 chapters she starts with a review of the problem and then goes over seven areas of focus. Here, in brief they are:

  • Know how to encourage your son. One fault is babying and spoiling him. But another is being so harsh that you lose communication with your son and destroy his sense of self worth. We’ll look at how to strike the right balance.
  • Understand what your boys need. Guess what? It’s not another computer game; it’s you. We’ll look at how to get the most of your time with your son.
  • Recognize that boys were made for the outdoors. Boys love being outside. A healthy boy needs that sense of adventure— and the reality check that the outdoors gives him.
  • Remember that boys need rules. Boys instinctively have a boy code. If you don’t set rules, however, they feel lost.
  • Acknowledge that virtue is not just for girls. Boys should, indeed, be boys—but boys who drink, take drugs, and have sex outside of marriage aren’t “normal” teenagers, they have been abnormally socialized by our unfortunately toxic culture. Today, my practice as a pediatrician has to deal with an epidemic of serious, even life-threatening, problems—physical and psychological—that were of comparatively minor concern only forty years ago. A healthy boy strives after virtues like integrity and self-control. In fact, it is virtues like these that make a boy’s transition to manhood possible.
  • Learn how to teach your son about the big questions in life. Many parents shy away from this, either because they are uncomfortable with these questions themselves, or want to dismiss them as unimportant or even pernicious, or because they don’t want to “impose” their views on their children. But whatever one’s personal view, your son wants to know— and needs to know—why he’s here, what his purpose in life is, why he is important. Boys who don’t have a well-grounded understanding on these big questions are the most vulnerable to being led astray into self-destructive behaviors.
  • Remember, always, that the most important person in your son’s life is you.

In the second chapter, she addresses how to deal with peer pressure with a particular emphasis on how toxic are culture is for boys and their identities. She goes on from this to discuss boy’s natural tendencies and how helpful rough and dangerous activities can be. This is exactly the natural state of boys development. She points out that neighborhood games practiced by boys with different ages force them to learn important life lessons which they can’t learn anywhere else.

In the fourth chapter, she explores the role between electronics, virtual worlds and the influence they have on the development of young boys. I’d recommend to all parents of young children read Parmy Olson’s book “We are Anonymous” to better understand how amazingly toxic (and captivating) the underbelly of the internet is for children. (Something we all know, but she brings it forward in vivid detail.)

In an interesting turn, she then explores the societal animosity towards teenage boys. I just finished Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In in which she makes an excellent case for societal biases against women leaders in business. By contrast, Meeker makes an excellent point that society presents a self reinforcing feedback loop that cast teenage boys as moody, depressed and angry. She makes some excellent points that have particular poignancy coming from a medical professional who is used to dealing with teenage boys: it is okay to be depressed and moody and not the cause of alarm or overreaction from parents. The solution is more old-fashioned that our modern and hyper specialized world wants: more time and attention — in the context of a strategic perspective.

However, the focus of our increased time and attention is the subject of the next chapter. Chapter 6 talks about practical ways to build self-confidence and mental health in our boys. She talks about the critical importance of the fathers blessing, something that always proved far too elusive for me. She describes the feeling of true accomplishment as a powerful emotional resource builder. (I think it’s helpful to contrast true accomplishment with the common empty fawning praise and declarations of how special my children are that they find in school.)

Particular convicting is her clarion call to live my life in an exemplary way that sets the right standards for my son. I want to model the virtues that he should have and she challenges us to picture our son at the age of 25 and to foster those virtues we desire in him — much in the same way Dan Allender’s Bold Love tells us to carefully and tirelessly pursue love with the cunning of a fox.

She moves on in the next chapter to discuss why so many men are merely aged adolescents: They never got through the transition from being a boy to becoming a man. She diagnoses this, in her clinical way, as the result of the absence of a father’s guidance.

She matches this with the next chapter that talks about the importance of faith and of the knowledge of an external God to whom boys feel accountability. She describes how a faith in God helps children to have a well of hope to draw from as life gets tough and develop an understanding of love that is more than a pleasurable act between bodies, to understand the importance of truth and accountability as well as the critical importance of repentance forgiveness and grace to young child. Here as in the rest of the book she makes it clear that this doesn’t mean simply dropping off your son at church and hoping he finds God — she calls fathers to again being the best that they can be for themselves but also for their sons — and model the ideal behavior.

My biggest criticism of her books is the way she remains generic towards faith. While a Judeo-Christian concept of God has been foundational to a historical US worldview, I think she should be more honest in explaining the particular faith she holds and its critical nature to our sons of eternal destiny. A general “faith” without conviction is not what we want our sons to have. Is she really advocating to teach our sons about Islam? She remains neutral on how God is defined — without question — to reach a broader audience. But her own faith of Christianity claims exclusivity, and I found it disappointing that she avoided this.

Her book culminates in the 11th Chapter where she calls us to ideate the core virtues we want our sons to have that will ensure they make the transition from boy to man. She emphasizes virtues we all want in our children such as integrity, courage, humility, meekness, and kindness. She doesn’t just introduce these as words but fully fleshes them out into concepts and practical steps to build them in our sons.

She ends the book with 10 tips to remember and a call to double whatever time we currently are investing in our sons. Here are the 10 tips:

1) Know that you change his world 2) Raise him from the inside out (worry about his inner life and the outer life will follow) 3) Help his masculinity to explode 4) Help him find purpose and passion (other than being a video game master) 5) Teach him to serve (this is where Church can come in handy) 6) Insist on self-respect 7) Persevere 8) Be his hero 9) Watch, then watch again (pay close attention to what is going on in his life) 10) Give him the best of yourself (not just the leftovers)

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