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Category Archives: Boys-Social & Emotional Life

Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain

Dr. Victoria Dunckley will be our guest on the next BOY TALK.  Save your seat for BOY TALK here.

Dr. Dunckley is the author of “Reset Your Child’s Brain, A Four-Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades, and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen-Time.”

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She shares this article from Psychology Today:

“Taken together, [studies show] internet addiction is associated with structural and functional changes in brain regions involving emotional processing, executive attention, decision making, and cognitivecontrol.”  –research authors summarizing neuro-imaging findings in internet and gaming addiction (Lin & Zhou et al, 2012)

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 7.13.39 AMBut what about kids who aren’t “addicted” per se? Addiction aside, a much broader concern that begs awareness is the risk that screen time is creating subtle damage even in children with “regular” exposure, considering that the average child clocks in more than seven hours a day (Rideout 2010). As a practitioner, I observe that many of the children I see suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyperaroused nervous system, regardless of diagnosis—what I call electronic screen syndrome. These children are impulsive, moody, and can’t pay attention—much like the description in the quote above describing damage seen in scans.

Although many parents have a nagging sense that they should do more to limit screen-time, they often question whether there’s enough evidence to justify yanking coveted devices, rationalize that it’s “part of our kids’ culture,” or worry that others—such as a spouse—will undermine their efforts. Digest the information below, even though it might feel uncomfortable, and arm yourself with the truth about the potential damage screen time is capable of imparting—particularly in a young, still-developing brain.

Brain scan research findings in screen addiction: 

Gray matter atrophy: Multiple studies have shown atrophy (shrinkage or loss of tissue volume) in gray matter areas (where “processing” occurs) in internet/gaming addiction (Zhou 2011Yuan 2011Weng 2013,and Weng 2012). Areas affected included the important frontal lobe, which governs executive functions, such as planning, planning, prioritizing, organizing, and impulse control (“getting stuff done”). Volume loss was also seen in the striatum, which is involved in reward pathways and the suppression of socially unacceptable impulses. A finding of particular concern was damage to an area known is the insula, which is involved in our capacity to develop empathy and compassion for others and our ability to integrate physical signals with emotion. Aside from the obvious link to violent behavior, these skills dictate the depth and quality of personal relationships.

Compromised white matter integrity: Research has also demonstrated loss of integrity to the brain’s white matter (Lin 2012Yuan 2011Hong 2013 and Weng 2013). “Spotty” white matter translates into loss of communication within the brain, including connections to and from various lobes of the same hemisphere, links between the right and left hemispheres, and paths between higher (cognitive) and lower (emotional and survival) brain centers. White matter also connects networks from the brain to the body and vice versa. Interrupted connections may slow down signals, “short-circuit” them, or cause them to be erratic (“misfire”).

Reduced cortical thickness: Hong and colleagues found reduced cortical (the outermost part of the brain) thickness in internet-addicted teen boys (Hong 2013), and Yuan et al found reduced cortical thickness in the frontal lobe of online gaming addicts (late adolescent males and females) correlated with impairment of a cognitive task (Yuan 2013).

Impaired cognitive functioning: Imaging studies have found less efficient information processing and reduced impulse inhibition (Dong & Devito 2013), increased sensitivity to rewards and insensitivity to loss (Dong & Devito 2013), and abnormal spontaneous brain activity associated with poor task performance (Yuan 2011).

Cravings and impaired dopamine function: Research on video games have shown dopamine (implicated in reward processing and addiction) is released during gaming (Koepp 1998 and Kuhn 2011) and that craving or urges for gaming produces brain changes that are similar to drug cravings (Ko 2009Han 2011). Other findings in internet addiction include reduced numbers of dopamine receptors and transporters (Kim 2011and Hou 2012).

In short, excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties. Frontal lobe development, in turn, largely determines success in every area of life—from sense of well-being to academic or career success to relationship skills. Use this research to strengthen your own parental position on screen management, and to convince others to do the same.

For more help on managing screen-time, visit

For more information on how the physiological effects of electronics translate into symptoms and dysfunction–as well as how to reverse such changes–see my new book, Reset Your Child’s Brain. 


See Original Article for References

Teens and Stress

Is your house filled with TEEN STRESS?

The kind of STRESS that spills over into everything and everyone — leaving chaos, frustration, and dirty clothes in it’s wake?

Spring can be a stressful time of year for many teens — finishing up end-of-year projects, waiting for college admittance letters, and what about a DATE FOR THE PROM?

Stress comes in all shapes and sizes – some of it is actually good for us.

It gets us up and motivated to DO STUFF.

Some kids handle stress easily but others can be overcome with anxiety…

Indeed, Howard Hiton, a family therapist, recently commented that he’s seen an uptick in the number of teens and young men in their early 20’s coming in for help with issues around anxiety.

Signs of stress in teens:
anxiety, panic attacks, procrastination, neglecting responsibilities, overwhelm, negative thoughts, and changes in sleep.

Being a teen is stressful!

Being the PARENT of a teen is stressful, too!

You can alleviate some of your stress by understanding what is going on for your teen developmentally. I particularly like “Brainstorm, the power and purpose of the teenage brain” by Dr. Dan Siegel. Understanding leads to interest and curiosity, rather than just anxiety and stress.
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Be Here Now
There is a lot in the popular press now about MINDFULNESS and the increased health benefits we can all experience when we learn to be in the present and thereby reducing our stress levels.

Teens have access to yoga, meditation, and on-line resources such as – which has been called a “gym membership for the mind.”

Keeping stress in check is imperative for your teen – and you – and it can begin with parents monitoring what may be causing stress and trying to minimize it WITH THEM as much as possible.

Eating right, sleeping well, and getting exercise are also great stress relievers for all of us!

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The Peace of Muscle Memory

The PEACE and COMFORT that comes from doing something so familiar, so embedded in us, is a feeling like no other.

It’s why we love the holidays so much. It’s why we insist that the same ornament goes on the tree in the same place every year, year after year.

As I return as “Chief Teacher” for Year NINE of an annual Potlatch gathering of 4th grade Oregon Waldorf students – 3 days in the woods culminating their Native American studies of the year – 178 kids! – I marvel at the familiarity of loading the same equipment in the car – the peace that I feel in my core. I remember smells, sights, glimpses of faces, music and conversation. It rolls around me like a warm blanket of comfort.
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It also reminds me of the “muscle memory” of music I witnessed with my mom. She had a stroke in 2013 with speech aphasia – she could say plenty but the words were scrambled and didn’t make sense. She was often frustrated because she knew she wasn’t making sense and her understanding of what was being said was fully intact.

Enter “Amazing Grace.”

After she left the hospital and entered a rehabilitation center, I was eager (desperate) to get her outside and so we escaped as soon as, and as often as, possible. There was a big parking lot nearby and I’d push her in her wheelchair and we’d “talk” and take in the breezes…and I’d sing “Amazing Grace.” And though tentative at first, she soon found some “words” and some “tune” that was close enough. Hallelujah! Her muscle memory had survived…she could sing!

And so we sang.

The founder of Waldorf Education, Rudolf Steiner, talked about how what we bring to our little children – in word and deed – will affect our children over their lifetime – right down to the health of their internal organs. In 1919 that idea seemed a little far-fetched. Now, as with so many things Steiner, science is starting to verify. We do indeed have a muscle memory for early traumas…and early words and deeds.

How are you currently nourishing the old man or old woman your child will become?

Imagine – my grandma taught my mom so many nursery rhymes, silly childhood songs, and folk songs – that lived in her and even survived through her awful brain meltdown…so deep in her soul they were.
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CLICK HERE for our song!
(It’ll take a few seconds to download.)

“Baa Baa Black Sheep” and “The Alphabet Song” and “Home on the Range” live at a cellular level – who knew?!

The treasure lay dormant for so many years – opened briefly as children and grandchildren arrived but going back to sleep until this “memory muscle” was needed again.

This enduring treasure spans like a rainbow from childhood to old age.

Makes me wonder how lasting Pokemon, Minecraft, and the Frozen Princess will be? Do they also live deeply embedded in our muscle memory? Do we even want them to?!

Next time you are tempted to hand your child your phone or turn on a video for them, ask yourself, “How will this nourish him when he is an old man?” “How will this music/app/dvd or game sustain him in the end?”

It’s not only music, it’s those silly finger games we used to play, too.

With my mom’s right hand affected by the stroke, one of the games we loved was the simple game two people play – I call it “stack ’em” – you put your hand palm down on the table, other person puts their’s down on top of it, you put yours palm down, they put theirs palm down on top and you have a stack of four hands. Now pull the bottom one out and put it on top. Not as easy as it sounds (and especially not for mom!) but it alleviated many moments of boring wait time – no batteries or equipment needed.

Try it.

If you really want to have an eternal imprint upon your children – upon their muscle memories – that they can call forth even after a traumatic brain event – it’s simple: sing “Twinkle Twinkle” with them.

Teen Drivers


Talking with Steve and Rebecca at KXL 101 about Teen Drivers:

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Spring is in the air and many 15 year olds are just itching to get behind the wheel! While they may act like they know what they’re doing (after all – many of them have been ‘driving cars’ in video games for years!)…it is time for reality to meet the road.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently posted a study saying that teens really do listen to what you say – which can offer you some encouragement…

BUT more importantly, realize that they’ve been watching you drive for YEARS and learning from your driving style and habits. So if you’ve got young kids its time to assess what you’re teaching them through osmosis every time you climb into your mini-van.

Talking about safety and rules from a young age is imperative before they are ready to get behind the wheel. Make sure your teen is clear on your rules and the consequences for breaking them.

Teaching your teen to drive may not be the most relaxing thing you’ve ever done. If you aren’t comfortable practicing with your teen find someone who is. Start slow – 10 mph in a parking lot is just fine. Most important lesson going in? Be sure they know that when you say, “Brake!” that they know just what to do!

Driver’s Ed courses are held at Portland Public Schools but registration is through Portland Community College and tuition is $295 plus $5 in fees. Cost reduction is offered for students on SNAP with an official letter from the school. to register

Do you expect too much from him?

“We’ve just moved across the country – he should be sad and missing his friends, right?”


“His best friend has moved on to other friends – shouldn’t he be worried about it?”


“He’s broken up with his girlfriend – he doesn’t seem to be sad about it at all.”

We worry when he doesn’t talk about his feelings or share what the events that SHOULD be a big deal in his life (at least we think so).

However, many boys (and men) don’t feel the need to share their deepest feelings all the time.

Sometimes, when big events have a big impact on YOU – you naturally think they should have a big impact on him, too – and they just don’t.

Look at it with a ‘gender lens’:

Females tend to process events, feelings, questions, decisions, and all the emotions and detail that go along with them verbally.

Females LOVE to talk about emotions and events – and then talk about them some more!

Females discover solutions as they talk, answer their own questions, along with getting a hit of oxytocin (that “feel good” hormone) in the process.

Males, on the other hand, often don’t want or need to process emotional events in detail.

In fact, the less they are required to talk about them, the better.

Males tend to process inwardly – they don’t need to talk about every detail.

Males tend to process while they are in motion – running or playing basketball, for example.

Of course, we want our boys to learn to be comfortable talking about their feelings.  Absolutely!

It could help, however, to recognize that developing an emotional vocabulary and an understanding of feelings and processing and sharing them is a life-long process.


He will talk – eventually – and it may not be when you think he should.


In the car.

Days later.

Watch for the opening and then make sure you’re available to listen!

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Boy Talk #8: Taming Screens

Guest Mom and Turn the Tide Parenting Coach Carolyn Colbert joined us for a recent BOY TALK interview. She reveals WHY she decided to take on the media/screen dragon and how she tamed it and brought sanity back to her family!

To save your seat for future BOY TALKs, go here.

Carolyn describes the beginning of her journey:


Have you ever read an article that seemed to jump off the page at you? As if the author has a sneak peek into your life and is speaking to you directly??

I was quickly scrolling through Facebook and stopped in my tracks when the title of a Psychology Today piece seemed to speak to me. Not with a whisper, or a tap, but a 2×4 over the head.Angry boy blowing steam

Written by psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley about the use of electronics:Screentime Is Making Kids Moody, Crazy, and Lazy; 6 Ways electronic screen time makes kids angry, depressed and unmotivated.

My interest turned to concern when I read “Children who are revved up and prone to rages, or (alternatively) apathetic have become disturbingly commonplace. Chronically irritable children are often in a state of abnormally high arousal, and may seem “wired and tired.” That is, they’re agitated but exhausted.”

Hmmmm…sounds familiar.

“Because chronically high arousal levels impact memory and the ability to relate, these kids are also likely to struggle academically and socially. At some point, a child with these symptoms may be given a mental-health diagnosis such as major depression, bipolar disorder, or ADHD, and offered corresponding treatments, including therapy and medication. But often these treatments don’t work very well, and the downward spiral continues.”

My son’s kindergarten teacher mentioned ‘sensory disorder’ during our year-end conference, and we had tried a couple of programs to manage his “restlessness” with limited success. We even had an appointment with a child psychologist to get a formal diagnosis before entering first grade.

I ordered Dunckley’s book Reset Your Child’s Brain and read it in two nights (skipping the sections on teens). After checking nearly every box in the “problem areas of dysfunction & distress table”, I decided to implement her four-week plan, with the promise to “end meltdowns, raise grades, and boost social skills by reversing the effects of electronic screen-time”. An electronic fast to “allow the nervous system to reset.”

This is going to be a wild ride. I’m bracing myself for the worst. The next blog entries will be a daily account of our lives during the fast.
Grab a glass of wine and a front row seat to chaos. ?

Read the rest of Carolyn’s journey at her blog:



KXL 101: Talking to your kids about terrorism

With Steve and Rebecca on KXL 101.

Of course, it is something we never imagined we’d have to do!

Yet, the same strategies can apply to all the scary things that happen in life.

Mr. Fred Rogers said it best – and this is a great place to start with any aged child:

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

1. Emphasize the GOOD. Help children recognize who the helpers and the heroes are.

2. REDUCE their exposure to the bad. Do not allow young children to see images of mass shootings or disasters. Young children under the age of 9 years, can not make the distinction between what is real and what isn’t in media images. They also do not recognize the repeat-loop of those media images.

They may hear about it at school but reducing exposure at home means reducing fear and anxiety.

With older children, sit together and watch a limited amount of news coverage and then be ready to answer questions. If your child is sensitive, then skip watching anything visual!

3. Save adult discussions about these events for when children are not with you.

4. Answer any questions that may come up – only with as little information as needed.

Again, emphasize the good – emphasize the helpers, as Mr. Rogers would say.

Boy Talk #4: How to Talk about “Those” Dreams

Janet here:  We’re continuing our monthly theme of taking the plunge into “the talk” – which will become many talks from the time your boy is young, hopefully… and we’re launching into what might be another ‘awkward’ conversation between you and your boy.
Amy Lang of Birds + Bees + Kids is our s-expert and she insists that we start ALL the conversations early and stay engaged in them as our boys mature.  Her son, who is mortified by her work, insists he has ‘no questions and will NEVER ask her about sex’ yet she’s still able to engage with him when they are not making eye contact, and (hint, hint) – when they are doing something active like walking or tossing a ball.

While many conversations may naturally happen between dad and son, Mom, YOU, are a key player in helping son develop a healthy, safe attitude towards sex and relationships.  As your son develops his own values around sex and relationships, he will always be taking your point of view into account – as long as he knows what your point of view is!

I’ll let Amy take it from here:

Although he may already have been having frequent erections, when a boy enters puberty he may experience “nocturnal emissions” or “wet dreams” as a normal part of becoming a man. Not every boy experiences this but most do.  The sooner you fill him in, the more likely he won’t think he wet the bed if it happens.

Let him know by age 10 or so.

I find this a perfect time to teach your son to do his own laundry.  It will help him protect his privacy about this particular event. And, well, no ulterior motives here! 🙂

What to say:
Amy told us on BOY TALK that its helpful to give your son a heads-up that you’re going to talk about something that has to do with his developing body and sex. Give him a chance to get used to the idea and then follow-up – it may be a day or so later – but make sure to circle back to it.”

Try something similar to this dialogue:
“Sometimes, after puberty starts, your body is changing into a man’s body, and so you can have something called a “wet dream” or “nocturnal emission.” This is when you have an erection and ejaculate when you are dreaming.

These dreams are completely normal yet it doesn’t happen to everyone. Sometimes boys think they wet their bed. It is your body practicing for when it’s time to have sex.

This is why it’s important for you to learn how to do your own laundry so you can wash your sheets if you are feeling a little shy or private about having a wet dream.”

Janet here again:
Reassurance is key.

Remind him that his body is preparing to be an adult.

Explaining the technical aspects is important: “You are starting to produce semen and it builds up in your body. One way that semen gets released is during a “wet dream.” It’s perfectly normal! And, isn’t your body so cool that it knows just exactly how to work?!”

A gentle reminder about hygiene now doesn’t hurt either.

Click here for your Boys Alive! Free Report: “6 Keys to Parenting Success”

Download the entire BOY TALK interview with Amy and Janet here.

Save your seat for future BOY TALKS here.

You can find Amy here: Birds+Bees+Kids

Boy Talk #4: Your 10-year-old is developing normally!

…and his body is developing normally, too!
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Guest post by Amy Lang

Think back for a moment.

Remember when you were a young adolescent and had crushes, urges, surges and strong feelings of desire?
What did you think when this was going on?

Did you even know what was going on?

Understanding how their bodies work can go a long way to helping tweens and teens navigate their relationships.

Even those relationships that are mostly in their heads.

You probably recall how fun and titillating your crush relationships were. They were also confusing. And let’s not even get started on those early romances – yikes! So many emotions, thoughts, and physical feelings are experienced that it can be really overwhelming to navigate.

What’s a parent to do, given all of this?

One place to start is to explain to your kids, sooner, rather than later, that they will someday, most likely, experience a feeling in their body that is called “desire” or “sexual desire.” And can start as young as ten – for some boys, they will get an erection – (he may call it a “boner.”)

Girls get them too, they are just teeny-tiny.

It feels like a strong wave or urge and it can feel good!
And overwhelming and maybe even confusing.

Let your kids know that this is normal and it’s happening because the hormones in their body are doing the work of getting them ready for adulthood and sex.

The next step is to provide them with some ideas of things they can do, other than actually have sex, to help them manage these feelings.

You can suggest things like exercise, writing in a journal, or masturbating. If they are in a relationship, make sure they understand that it’s harder to say no when they are hot and heavy in the moment. They’ll need to think about how they can slow things down or get out of the moment if they aren’t ready for sex just yet.

Talking about sexual desire is just one place to start. This can be a stepping off point to discussing pressure, respect, responsibility and dating rules.

You can purchase Janet and Amy’s BOY TALK conversation here. And save your seat for future BOY TALKS here.

Find Amy at Birds + Bees + Kids here.

Click here for your Boys Alive! Free Report: “6 Keys to Parenting Success”

Boy Talk #4: Are You Ready for “The Talk?”

Yep, “The Sex Talk.” That one.
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For many parents, the “talk” can be intimidating, uncomfortable, and downright scary…so, we avoid it and hope for the best! (I know I did some of that when raising my girls.) I also knew that I didn’t want their friends to be the ‘bringers of knowledge’ like I had when growing up. So, embarrassing or not, I knew I had to get comfortable with “THE TALK.”

But the thing is – THE TALK isn’t just ONE talk.

It starts young, it continues, and … well, it just gets more interesting as time goes on. I am so excited to introduce you to Amy Lang. She’s got this! And she’s got your back! She will help you get comfortable.

>>NOTE: You may, initially, be uncomfortable with some of the things we are going to talk about this month (in Thursday blogs and on BOY TALK) – I encourage you to hang in there, stretch, and be open to a new way of talking about the ‘birds and the bees.'<<
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Amy Lang is on a mission to help kids grow up to be whole, healthy and happy adults.
Amy says, “If you rely on strangers and peers to teach your kids about sexuality they lose out on learning from the person they most want and need to hear from – YOU!

Worse yet, they don’t the information you want them to have about your values and other related topics like love and healthy relationships.

When you know HOW to have the sex talk with your kids – you’ll likely lead into talking about many other parts of their lives, too. The birds and the bees can be touchy to talk about – but with a little information, some careful thought and planning – it really is possible to have comfortable, effective talks with your kids!

These talks – they happen many times and they start when your kids are little – are KEY to raising safe, healthy, happy, and well-adjusted kids.

She helps parents of preschoolers to high-schoolers.
She hosts talks on all ages and topics and will help you really dig into exactly what your kids should know at each age, develop scripts, explore your values and practice having these all-important conversations.

Amy guarantees you will be fully prepared to start and continue the sex talks with your kids! She offers:
• A workshop specifically tailored to the ages of your kids
• Detailed explanation of what kids should know by when
• Tons of time to get just what you need
• Develop your own scripts for talking to your kids
• Practice, so you know what to expect
• Clarification of your core sexual values so you can easily share them with your kids
• Confidence, confidence, confidence!

Workshops are two hours long and can be specifically tailored to suit the age of your kids or a specific topic, including sexual abuse prevention, puberty, or the “sexy little girl syndrome.” Just ask Amy!

More to Learn:
Kids are exposed to more sexual information at earlier and earlier ages than ever before and this is impacting their behavior, development and safety.

It is imperative that parents, educators, care providers, and social service agents understand what is appropriate and what isn’t – and when to worry:
• Children engaging in body exploration play like “playing doctor.”
• Girls who booty dance, twerk or otherwise move their bodies in an adult-like way.
• Boys who use crass, explicit language or gestures.
• Children wearing “sexy” or otherwise inappropriate clothing.
• Children who use sexually explicit language or discuss sexual topics that are beyond their years.
• Children who are “gender bending” and show interest in becoming or behaving like their opposite gender.
• Parents who think these behaviors are “cute”, over- or under-react.

Amy trains educators and other care providers in these areas:
The growing problem of over-sexualized childhood is becoming unavoidable and it affects every child, parent, and anyone who works with children. You and your staff can learn the skills and information you need to keep the kids in your care healthy and safe:
• A practical, behavioral checklist that makes it easy to assess a child’s behavior plus other tips for keeping kids safe.
• Why informed children are empowered children and how this information can reduce the incidence of child sexual abuse.
• How anyone can have an appropriate and non-shaming conversation with a child about “playing doctor,” private parts and the birds and the bees.
• Scripts for talking to children and their worried parents.
• Why this information will keep you and your staff safer from unjust accusations.

Amy is a wealth of knowledge and brings it in a way that is playful and comfortable. Find her at and be sure to save your seat for my interview with Amy on BOY TALK – October 21, 2015. Save your seat here.

Click here for your Boys Alive! Free Report: “6 Keys to Parenting Success”

Boy Talk #3: Teach Your Boys To Comfort Others In A Crisis

By Kim Hamer, Mom of Sons and Author of 100 Acts of Love: A Girlfriend’s Guide to Loving Your Friend through Cancer or Loss

“So, did he talk to you about their divorce?” I asked.
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I was talking to my 6’, 250lb. heading-to-college-to-play-football 18-year-old son. He had just returned from spending time with a friend — I will call him Matt. My son, L., has known Matt since the fourth grade, and Matt was part of the vast network of friends that helped L. navigate the first two years after my husband died.

Matt’s parents were getting divorced and I had hoped that L. would “connect” with Matt to help him through his tough time. What I meant by connect was, “talk about Matt’s feelings about the divorce.”

They didn’t talk.

Instead they “just hung out, played video games and went to the Promenade.”

There was a time I would have thought this wasn’t enough.

Our kids were 12, 9 and 7 when my husband died. How they processed (and still process) their father’s death exemplifies, in many ways, the differences between boys and girls.

My daughter, now 15, will cry and cry about how much she misses her father, why it hurts, how it hurts and how it will hurt in the future.

My boys will come to me quietly in the middle of the night and burst into tears. They will not talk while they cry. They will not cry for long. And then they leave. The next day, it’s as if nothing happened. I have learned not to ask how they’re feeling because I just get a shrug or an annoyed, “I’m fine!”

In the six years since my husband died, I’ve had to put to rest my stereotype of how boys should process emotions. What I have learned is the way they process is just different. My boys found others who got that, and didn’t put pressure on them to talk but were ready to listen when they needed to. Turns out, their instincts are pretty good!

How can you help your boys’ instincts grow without going through your own personal tragedy?

Before I get into the how, consider:

1. You will need to let go of the notion that boys need to process by talking. Asking an older boy to express how he’s feeling can be frustrating. Instead, let him come to you.
2. Trust your boys. If you ask a boy what he would like someone to do for him, given the situation, he may not answer but he will probably come up with a really good idea and then take action himself! Give him an opportunity to try it out.
3. Teach him a few do’s and don’ts. You can do a Google search or buy my book. I wrote super helpful, 208-page essential guide on what to say (not to say) and to do.

Teach your son to:
1. Acknowledge What’s Going On
Cancer, death, hospitalization, whatever. Saying something is very important! The boy who is dealing with a life challenge does not want to be the kid who people are afraid to talk to. He will want others to acknowledge what’s happening but NOT dwell on it. Have your son say “I’m sorry to hear about your mom/dad etc.” Short and simple goes far in helping the boy feel acknowledged but not ignored. It also spares your son years of guilt for being afraid of saying the wrong thing. It confirms and demonstrates his important role in comforting a friend. That matters.
2. Invite Friend to Do Stuff
Boys love to do stuff. So have your son invite the boy to do stuff. Combine the tip above with this one and your son can say “Hey, sorry to hear about your mom. Wanna come over to watch a movie?” Done. No fuss.
3. Keep Offering Support
A crisis causes great confusion. Make sure your son keeps offering to do stuff with the child. If your son is young, you’ll have to help him by calling. Keep calling. The offer, even if turned down, makes a person feel cared about. And do make it easy on the the parent to say yes— offer to pick up her son and drop him off.
4. Offer Food
Your son can say, “I’m thinking about you” without ever saying those words, simply by offering him a treat! Have your son find out what the child likes and then give it to him.

Just as important, make sure that your son doesn’t say:
• “If you need anything let me know.” While it’s an adult phrase, I have heard it said by a 9-year old. The problem is, it’s the LEAST helpful phrase ever! (Click here to find out why.) So depending on your son’s age, tell him NOT to say it.
•“I know how you feel, my dog died.” Unless the boy’s dog has died, this statement only alienates your son from the child who needs support. Death of a parent or grandparent is NOT like the death of a pet. It’s important that he knows that.
• “At least…” is dismissive and hurtful. If one of your children was diagnosed with cancer, someone saying “At least it’s the good kind of cancer,” is completely dismissive of the fear, the anxiety and the stress the family and child are going through. Make sure you son doesn’t say that either!

As a parent, here are a few things you should and shouldn’t do as well:
• Don’t “Talk” To The Boy About What’s Going On.
My older boys in general did not like to “talk” face-to-face. And don’t tell your son to “talk” to his friend in crisis either. It’s uncomfortable for both of them.
• Do acknowledge what’s going on.
Just like for your son, it’s important that you acknowledge what’s happening. “I am so sorry your mom has cancer. Please know that you are welcome to come over any time you’d like.” That’s it. Don’t ask him how his mom is doing. Go to another adult for that information.
• Do Stuff with Them.
Nothing says “I care about you” better than a play, a sporting event or just hanging out. Allowing the boy to be just a boy is a great gift!
• Do Let the Tears Come.
Sometimes a boy will suddenly cry. If that happens, keep your mouth shut and don’t say “It’ll be ok.” Let him cry for as long as he needs to. If you want to be the adult who is safe, hold your tongue and hold a space for him to release his sadness. This may make you cry. That’s ok. He’ll know that he’s not alone.

This past winter one of L.’s classmates committed suicide. It was/is a horrific experience. But L. stepped in. He made sure his teammates went to the funeral. He told them what to say to his classmate’s parents. He made sure that his classmate’s 13-year old brother received a lot of attention from the graduating seniors. And then L. took his little brother out. They didn’t “talk.” They had ice cream and threw a football around and with it a conversation occurred. (So I am told.)

But I do know that it was exactly what they both needed.

Screen Shot 2015-09-25 at 6.49.30 AM
Kim Hamer is author of 100 Acts of Love: A Girlfriend’s Guide to Loving Your Friend through Cancer or Loss, a modern, essential how-to guide, offering practical tips on what to say (and NOT to say) to friends in crisis. The book is available here. She lives in Los Angeles with her three relatively well-behaved children.

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Boy Talk #3: How Do I Cope with Grief?

A Person Asks Online For Advice On How To Deal With Grief.
This Reply Is Incredible. Posted by Eric Alper.

Someone on Reddit wrote the following heartfelt plea online:

“My friend just died. I don’t know what to do.”

A lot of people responded.

One old guy’s incredible comment stood out from the rest that might just change the way we approach life and death:
man with hands covering face
“Alright, here goes. I’m old. What that means is that I’ve survived (so far) and a lot of people I’ve known and loved did not. I’ve lost friends, best friends, acquaintances, co-workers, grandparents, mom, relatives, teachers, mentors, students, neighbors, and a host of other folks. I have no children, and I can’t imagine the pain it must be to lose a child.

But here’s my two cents:

I wish I could say you get used to people dying. I never did. I don’t want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don’t want it to ‘not matter.’ I don’t want it to be something that just passes.

My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. If the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can’t see.
As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.

In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between the waves, there is life.

Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.

Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them. And other waves will come. And you’ll survive them too. If you’re lucky, you’ll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.”

© Copyright That Eric Alper

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Boy Talk #3: Tapping Into Grief with Self-Empathy

by Guest Author Carole Downing
Author of Singing Beyond Sorrow – A Year of Grief, Gratitude, and Grace
candle with hands
It can hang around us like a thick cloak or all encompassing fog. When a wave of grief comes through, it can stunt our days without respect for how much we have to do or need to show up for in our lives. And yet somehow we need to find the resources to parent our children or teach in a classroom in a way that is engaged and connected at a time when we may feel the most disconnected.

We all feel grief at some point in our lives and it’s a normal and natural reaction to a significant loss. However, our culture tends not to talk about grief and so whether we are grieving the loss of a loved one, a relationship, a job or the other myriad of things that create the feeling of loss, we can feel quite alone.

As a former hospice nurse and someone who has experienced the death of a spouse, the one encouragement I share for anyone experiencing grief is to acknowledge feelings and create a place of empathy. It seems logical to try and avoid grief, but often the first step to healing is to move toward all that we are feeling instead of pushing our emotions away. When we acknowledge the grief that is present, there is room for us to attend to and comfort the places that are hurting. And in attending to our own feelings, we create the possibility for the children in our lives to see a model for moving through grief.

It can feel challenging to reach out for support when we are feeling lost in grief, but a powerful first step can be finding a place of self-empathy where we can move ourselves beyond the feelings and into comforting actions.

Some tips for accessing self-empathy and caring in moments of grief and loss:

1. Tune in to what you are saying in your mind about your current state. Are you being hard on yourself? Is there any judgment around what you are feeling? Is there room for you to be grieving?

2. Accept that what you are feeling is okay. Experiencing grief in times of loss and change is a normal human response and it’s natural to be having a broad range of feelings. Underneath the intensity of grief may be feelings of anger, fear, sadness, loneliness or confusion. See if you can give yourself a moment to name what you are feeling. You may feel like you need to be showing up for your children or students but it’s okay in this very moment to feel your own emotions before moving to help others.

3. See if you can hear the voice of someone who cares about you. What would they say to you in this moment? How would they comfort you in this time of grief?

4. Know that in the midst of loss you are doing the very best you can in this moment. Be gentle with yourself and know that there is no “right” way to experience grief.

5. Ask yourself, what is most important in this moment? What is essential to get done or attend to right now? See if you can direct your energy to whatever needs your time and attention the most rather than trying to do everything you would expect to do in times of greater balance.

6. Lastly, see if there is something that you can do to bolster your self-care as you go through the days ahead. Would it be helpful to walk outside or be in nature? Can you find the depth of a long slow breath? Is there some music that helps you find your flow? Is there a friend you could reach out to for support? Trust that whatever has brought you joy in the past, even if it takes energy to do during this time, has the potential to eventually open a window to feelings of lightness and renewal.

Grief is a natural part of life that we all will experience at some point and through many different experiences and times. It can be helpful to remember that the losses of our lives are a part of the larger ebb and flow that also includes joy and new beginnings. In challenging times we can remember that the waves of grief do not last forever. A wave will move through, sometimes as if an entire ocean is emptying itself over our tender hearts, but the wave does not last forever and there are steadier seas ahead.

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Rules are Meant to Be Broken

In play, there are rules.
boys playing soccer
In families, there are rules.

But how did they get made?

What if it’s time to break some of them?

Now that it’s summer, take time to do just that!

Now that it’s summer, maybe you have memories of running freely and creating your own rules around kickball, hide and seek – vigorously arguing, evolving and changing the rules, getting mad, making up, continuing to play, and making up more rules on the fly.

If you didn’t have that kind of childhood, you can enjoy one vicariously here.

Lessons Learned

What valuable lessons you were learning! Negotiation, anger management, giving in, and getting creative.

As we grow up, we get rule-bound.

As our families grow, we stay rule-bound.

We don’t even know when the rule started or why but we insist on keeping it – just because.

Summer is a great time to assess your family rules – what’s working and what isn’t.

Your kids have more capabilities and have assumed more responsibilities than the last time you may have done a “rule makeover.”

Rules are meant to work and if they don’t – break them and make some new ones!

Thinking about Rules:

How many rules do you have in your family? Three non-negotiables is a good place to start.

Too many rules means they’ll be difficult and confusing to enforce (which stresses you out).

Your kids will find every loophole in your rules and they’ll negotiate and nag their way through every one of them (which stresses you out).

What are your rules based on?

Everyone deserves to feel safe and be safe. Many of our rules are build up around telling children what not to do: “Don’t touch,” “Don’t run,” “Don’t spill.”

Children need to have real data – information they can use to react and behave well the next time. Tell them what you DO want them to do: “Keep your hands close to your body.” “Walk beside me in the parking lot.” “Keep your milk in the glass.”

Morals and Values
Some rules may be based on morals and what you value as a family:

  • We go to church on Sunday.
  • We volunteer.
  • We recycle.

Check in to see if morality-based rules still apply to your family.

Other rules may be based on what you believe:

  • We believe that all people are equal and treat them that way.
  • We believe hard work is the key ingredient to success.
  • We believe it is important to take one day to play each week.

Rules based on your beliefs and your morals and values can get a little sticky as you merge families together. Are you implementing rules just because you were “raised that way”? Do they make sense for your family now?

Arbitrary Rules
These are the rules that creep up on you!

Are they rules you want to keep?

  • Do it, because I said so.
  • Clean your plate at every meal.
  • Clean up your room.

Food for thought from a mom who has raised her kids

Clean up your room!”
pile of laundry
As a young mom, I decided that I didn’t want to fight the “clean up your room” battle with my kids. Yep, I was scarred as a kid on this one. So I chose a different rule than my parents had.

My oldest loved clothes, her dresser was like Pandora’s box – so many outfits, so little time! She’d try two or three things on and the rejected clothes went on the floor.

My rule for their room: have a clear path from door to bed if you want me tuck you in. (Mostly they did.)

Fast forward to now – my daughter is 30. I chuckle when I visit her and see that she still tries on multiple outfits, the rejects still go on the floor. Her room is still a “mess” (according to me).

Looking back, though, I’m so glad I didn’t make a rule that couldn’t be broken – our relationship would have suffered over too many arguments about the state of her room.

Let Them Argue about Rules

Kids need the chance to navigate and negotiate rules. It’s a great opportunity for them to take a stand, state what they believe in, and negotiate for the common good. It’s a never-ending process. If you mostly stay out of it, they’ll figure it out over time.

Rules are meant to be broken, reconfigured, tested, broken, and reconfigured again.

How to Create Rules

This advice comes to you from Boys Alive! Bring Out Their Best! by yours truly.

  1. State the problem clearly from a neutral observer’s point of view.
  2. Ask him to help find solutions. Boys are creative and innovative and he is likely to come up with something you’d never have thought of!
  3. Implement the new rule for a given time, then revisit to see if it is effective.

For example, you observe: “Your clothes are on the floor instead of in the hamper. What can be done about that?” You give him the opening to find a solution. You set a timeframe for implementation and follow-up. “So, you’ll pick them up every morning this week and we’ll check in on Saturday to see how it worked.”

Boys need and want rules.

He wants to know:

  • Who is in charge?
  • What are the rules?
  • Will the rules be fairly enforced?

Rules give him a structure he can count on. Rules do not require you to include incentives, bribery, or rewards. Watch your step here!

Rules require you to: Make them. Break them. And start all over again.

Have fun doing it!

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When You Don’t Like Your Child

First of all, you’re human.

You’re probably a tired human that hasn’t been taking care of yourself.

You’ve probably been focusing more on your child’s behavior than on your child’s being.

Perfectly normal, natural, and hugely common.

Now, that said, go easy on yourself.  Here’s some reassurance and some tips –

Talking with Steve and Rebecca today on KXL 101…

Is it normal? Is it okay? We love them unconditionally but we don’t always like our kids.

You may have a whiny kid, an aggressive kid, or a teenage giving you the ‘stink eye.’

“When you change how you look at this behavior, the behavior begins to change.”

Stop focusing on the behavior that is driving you crazy – easier said than done, I know.  You can do this by beginning to focus on the positive.  What is the one teeny, tiny little thing he does that IS positive?

Start to grow this – even if it is only in your mind.

TELL SOMEONE – call grandma, a girlfriend, whomever — and tell them the one positive from your day. This will amplify that behavior and begin to push the negative “I don’t like you” behavior into the background.

GET HELP – no one is expected to parent alone, sometimes you’ve got to “call in the troops” and give yourself a break.  Then get yourself some help. Parenting coaches are adept at guiding you through these waves.

SELF-CARE – always, in every parenting advice column, you’ll find self-care.  You just have to.  No one will do it for you.  YOU have to take care of YOU.  When will you start?

IT WILL PASS – like clouds in the sky, many behaviors will pass as your child grows and changes.

If you are in a rut of not liking your child, it’s okay.  Recognize it.  Normalize it.  Then take proactive steps.  Reach out to me, I’m a parenting coach and I can help.  Find out more here:  I’m offering introductory sessions for a limited time.

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So Many Ways to Play

Play is a crucial element to learning about the world, exploring relationships with self and others, and building physical and mental agility. Most of all, play is fun – and adults don’t do it enough!family with goggles swimmingPlay is natural and your child comes fully equipped for it. They don’t need special gizmos or gadgets to play, in fact, the less the better. When we step back and allow our child’s play to unfold, we can observe their innate wisdom and tenacity.

When we teach a child to do a task rather than let them play out the task, we actually circumvent what they will learn through their own trial-and-error. Janet Lansbury of Elevating Child Care shared this mom’s video which shows so well what happens when we allow our child to find their own way.

boy climbing

How do you play at your house?

Children [and adults] need the freedom and time to play.
Play is not a luxury. It is a necessity.
-Kay Redfield Jamison
Imaginative Play
My friend recently welcomed a new baby, and her 4 year-old was excited to be a big sister. Sister has an active imagination and she easily moved between wanting a bottle and to be swaddled like the baby and wanting to hold the baby and comfort him. Mom took all in stride, knowing sister was processing this new reality through her play. Her boundaries were that the bottle and ‘boppy’ stayed in the bedroom.   Soon, sister will take up her full role and she won’t need to imagine she is the baby.

Imaginative Play can also save the day when challenges arise. Child won’t eat? What if you play mice and nibble at your food? What if you pretend to be squirrels who are tidying their nest when it is time to clean the bedroom?

Narrative Play
Another aspect of play that often goes along with imaginative play, is narration the action. I’m moving this truck to the sand pit and then it is going up over the mountain and crashing into the water…complete with sound effects.

This becomes a familiar form of writing for many boys, too, as studied by Dr. Thomas Newkirk and reported in Misreading Masculinity. Boys, especially, seem to write mostly about adventure upon adventure without much character or plot development.

Active Play
For your sanity, you’ve got to have plenty – both indoors and out. Creating acceptable ways for kids to get their energy out is easier than you might think. Adding a mini-trampoline in your living room is a great outlet.

One dad told me that he watched his daughter diligently working on homework, then get up and jump 5 or 6 times, sit back down and easily re-focus.

Silent during dinner, a friend’s son would get on the mini-trampoline right after eating and start talking about his day. His moving facilitated his talking.

Other indoor options:

  • Hanging a disc swing from a ceiling joist
  • Chin-up bar that expands to fit in any door opening
  • Chin-up bar – add a long cloth and you’ve got a hammock that can be a swing, too
  • Bean bag chairs – more than one so they can be used for stacking, climbing, and sliding.

Boys may stretch the bounds of active play – going beyond limits that are comfortable for you (oh-over-cautious-one). Check in with dad and other men and ask them what their comfort level is. If you’ve let him explore in an age appropriate way all along, you’ll be surprised how agile he is. If you let him climb a tree only as far as he is able on his own, then you know he has the coordination and ability to down without too much trouble. And sure, he may get hurt but I guarantee, he’ll wear the scratches or stitches with a warrior’s pride.

roughhousing dad and girl
All kids need to roughhouse. Some will prefer it more than others, usually boys. Turning, rolling, twisting and jumping build new neural pathways, hone balance, and strengthen body awareness. In The Art of Roughhousing, the authors share dozens of activities to enjoy together. “These delightful games are fun, free, and contain many surprising health benefits for parents. So put down those electronic games and get ready to rumble!” encourage the authors. One caveat: some moms tell me they don’t like to wrestle and roughhouse and I tell them they don’t have to, however, they do need to find someone to wrestle with their sons.

Real Play

Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning. -Fred Rogers

mom and girl baking
When my kids were little, we lived in Maine where winters were long and very cold. My sanity saver was the kitchen. We baked everyday – edible treats and made-up recipes. I made sure they had proper tools and they learned to use mixers and knives at an early age.

You never know how those “real play” experiences will influence them later in life. Katie grew up to own a very successful baking company, Kinderhook Snacks.
How will you play this summer?

I challenge you to set aside your to-do list, your busyness, and give yourself time to play. Play with your kids, play with your partner…when you are playing you are fully engaged in the present moment – and what better way to connect with each other?

The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression. -Brian Sutton-Smith

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My Family Hunts

Gun Play.

They will.
You’ve tried to make them stop (repeatedly).
They won’t.

What if you could add life-lessons into their fascination with shooting things?

A Boys Alive! friend in Montana eagerly responded to my query about families that hunt and how they deal with gun play.


Embracing a “true hunting” ethic — even if we never pick up a rifle and go to the woods, means we can honor the hard-wired impulses of many boys — while fostering deeper development of their natural urges to provide and protect.

True Hunting

John, father of 2, explains, “True hunting is a collection of actions prior to the act of harvesting.”

True hunting is: “when you walk with the stealth and strength of the mountain lion and hike with the stamina and determination of the wolf.

It is where you think like your prey, you know their habits and understand the country.”


True Hunting communicates family values:

· Safety – following rules, respecting adults, learning to operate and handle dangerous weapons with care
· Honor – honoring the animals, the land, the wisdom of elders
· Respect – of self, of others, of animals, of land
· Challenge – pushing self physically, emotionally, spiritually
· Teaching & Learning – listening and applying knowledge hands-on

Hunting is a legacy that John wants his sons to have. He wants them to “experience what the natural world has to teach.” He hopes his children will carry on what he has taught them and that they will teach the “same or better” to their children.
It is important to John and his wife, Laura, (who didn’t start hunting until a few years ago), to know that their sons understand their place in the food chain.

“Hunting and harvesting teaches the lesson that in order for you to eat and live something else has to die:

They learn the hard work involved in harvesting food.

They experience the weariness of long hours walking through the woods.

They know the exhaustion of carrying hundreds of pounds of meat over miles of rough country.

They endure the tediousness of butchering meat for hours on end.

They learn the skill needed to prepare a meal.

I cannot think of a better way to teach them to not be wasteful and to appreciate each mouthful of food they consume.”

He continues, “To be a good hunter, you have to be a good marksman. This means understanding your gun and its limitations. It also means understanding the importance of choosing when to take a shot and, more importantly, when not to take a shot.”

Meat comes from WHERE?!

Contrast this honest, strength-filled, life-enriching picture of hunting with the parental information given to a former student of mine (age 9):

“The animals we eat are the ones that get old and die or the ones that get sick and die.”

Imagine his surprise (and distrust of adults) when he eventually found out where most meat comes from!

Let Him ‘Hunt!’

Many parents that I work with have a strong aversion to guns and the violence they evoke. It is important to realize that children do not have this connection to guns – unless they have been exposed to explicit gun violence via real life, media, or video games.

What if you helped him incorporate some of the qualities of True Hunting into his play?

Guide him to connect with animals, spend time in nature looking for tracks, and listening for animal sounds. Research animals, explore their habits and habitat.

Encourage his sense of adventure and curiosity.

Teach him (or find someone to teach him) how to make arrows or carve a sword, cutting, sanding and polishing it with great care.

Set up targets for practice. As John says, “To be a good hunter you have to be a good marksman.” You must understand your equipment and how and when to use it safely.

Even if you don’t live in Montana, or have a family legacy of hunting, you can guide his ‘gun play’ to have deeper meaning while nurturing his hard-wired nature to provide and protect.

Have you read the other gunplay-focused posts?
Voices on Gunplay – Parents have asked about and shared their personal experiences with their sons who make everything into a gun.
Guidelines for Gunplay – They’re going to play, what boundaries will you keep?
Aggression. Violence. What’s the Difference? – Reassurance that just because he likes gunplay, he won’t be led to violent behavior.
Gunplay at School – How teacher’s handle gunplay at school may vary from how you handle it at home.

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Should You Let Them Quit?

Talking about Letting Kids Quit with Rebecca and Steve on KXL101 Morning News:
Kids have been out of school a couple of weeks now and perhaps you’re already hearing they don’t want to do the things they committed to this summer. They want to quit that weekly sport camp….or those piano lessons they promised to do.

Rebecca asks, “If your kid really hates the activity, should you make him or her stick to it?”

Knowing your child and the reasons why you (or they) chose the activity is the place to start. Is doing a physical activity a value in your family? Is pursuing intellectual interests a priority?

Michelle Obama’s list of parenting rules for her daughters include having them play two sports each, one they picked and one she chose for them, precisely because she wanted them to learn how to work harder at things they found difficult.

What about the risk of your child HATING the activity forever because he was forced to do it?
As adults, many of us can recall an activity that we hate because we were forced to do it as kids. Likewise, many adults can recall an activity their parent let them quit that they now regret. My daughter quit piano in 6th grade (her age of rebellion) and at age 30 still regrets that choice.

Childhood is a time of exploration and experimentation. Letting them try a variety of activities is great but you also want to hold them steady to something. Completing a series of lessons, a season of sport is important (my opinion) than allow for making a different decision next year.

How can we tell if it’s the activity or the people who are teaching it? Or if it is the other kids on the team that are really the problem?

Again, knowing your child is essential here. Looking beneath the complaints and desire to quit and see if there are some underlying issues. Then begin to help them develop the skills to navigate and negotiate with that teacher or coach.

Rebecca concludes: she told a friend that her son can’t quit because “We made a commitment.” Her friend astutely questioned, “Did YOU make the commitment or did HE?” touché’

How will you help your child navigate his desire to quit?

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Voices on Gun Play

Parent Voices on Gun Play

Have you wondered about your boy’s fascination with all-things-guns-and-gun-play? You aren’t alone!  Why, oh WHY, does he turn everything into a gun??

Enjoy this wisdom-gathering of parents – their words used below by permission.


A mom recently posted a question to the private Boys Alive! group on Facebook. (Ask to join and you’re in.)

“I can’t stand the gun play, shooting, bad guy realm my 4.5 yo loves to inhabit. Can anyone share a positive spin on it? Why, if at all, is this phase healthy or normal? He doesn’t have toy guns, but he can adapt any old thing to be a shooter of some sort. Sometimes I can roll with it, but other times it just sets me off. I sense that I need to adapt. Before that happens, I need to feel clear from a philosophical place.”

He is hard-wired to defend and fight.  And hunt.

“It shocked me when my teeny toddler picked up a stick and started making gun noises. Now he’s eight (still fascinated by fantasy violence) and I posed this dilemma to him. His response was “It’s our nature, mom.””

Does it make him bad?

“This kid who likes good guy/bad guy gun play is a lover. Sensitive and heart-centered.”

“For years we told him he could only shoot “love bullets”, but he eventually saw through that. When we finally broke down and got him a nerf gun he was in nerfvana. Now we just hold the line on not pointing weapons (imaginary or nerf) at people’s heads. Ever.

“It is true, boys like to do battle. And in fact, it helps them build empathy.”

Is it normal?

A mom of 5 sons and 4 daughters reassures, “Boys cannot escape their need to defend/fight any more than girls can escape their need to nurture and dress up. At my daycare, boys always play knights/ninjas/cowboys, rescuing the princess and fighting bad guys.”

“It is so much a part of their nature. My 20 mo has been picking up sticks and thrusting them at trees and bushes since he could stand up. He also does this “hi-ya!” war cry. He just deep down in his little soul loves to play fight and defend.”

“We don’t try to fight it. He began using things as swords before he was even talking. Before he saw TV. Before he saw big kids use violent play.”

He wants to know what the rules are.

“Put guidelines around it like ‘no shooting at heads’ and then let it be. If you try to stop it, it’ll make him want to do it more. This is how boys explore the world around them.”

“As long as they’re fighting/shooting bad guys, don’t sweat it.”

“I use a lot of “I” statements. ‘I don’t feel safe playing pirates if you point that at me.’ Or ‘I don’t like it when you say you want to chop my head off.’ He learns that his play and choices do affect others.”

“Start teaching him about great warriors of valor.”

If we squash the way he plays – we make him bad.

“At a recent gathering, my son’s friend was the most aggressive and over-the-top in his violent play compared to the rest of the boys. He is not allowed weapon play at home. So he finds other ways to get those feelings out and channel that energy and it’s not always KIND.”

“I gained some wisdom from the documentary based on the book Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon. I learned two important things that have influenced how I parent my boy:

1. There is no proven connection between fantasy violence and real violence.
2. When we try to limit or suppress their expression of this, they shut down and stop expressing themselves.
If we want them to grow up to be men who embrace their human emotions, we moms have to allow this one thing that we don’t quite get: aggression. Expressing it in play is the first step towards being able to control it. Obviously the world would be better off if more men knew how to manage their aggression.”

“I recently watched a war documentary ( Korengal ) and there was a part that stuck out to me. It was of a young solider loading ammunition in the biggest gun I have ever seen. He was telling the camera how his parents never allowed any violent play in their house. No toy guns, no shooting style video games, no bad guy play, etc. Then he started rapidly firing, with a smile on his face. That broke my heart for his mother and made me realize suppression is detrimental!”

Have YOU actually played Guns?!

“I don’t really like gun play but my son does. One time I was feeling resistant as I watched him having a great time in the yard. So, I decided to join in, play, and see what it was like. Turns out it was fun and very innocent like all other play. I hadn’t played guns before but came to a very comfortable place when I did.”

Rolling with what ‘triggers’ you.

“I get pretty upset when I see him use certain toys as a gun. I used to be in law enforcement and have so many mixed feelings about this stage of more active “fighting” play. I actually told him not to even say the word gun. I see now that’s probably not the correct way to approach this at all.”

“Instead of fighting it, I show an interest. I ask a lot of “what if” questions. ‘What if you saw a kid with a real gun? What would you do?’ ‘What if you thought you’d met a real bad guy?’ ‘What if you saw someone do something mean to someone else?’ Constant questions. He talks to us a lot.”

Families that Hunt.

“Grandpa hunts and has a gun cabinet. It’s hard [for me] but it is part of our family culture. Grandpa talks a lot about responsible gun use. My son knows why we established rules around gun/weapon play. He knows that a 12 yr old boy had a toy gun that was mistaken for a real gun and the boy was killed. We filter but he’s aware of the world around him and consequences.”


“My husband does not hunt, but everyone in his family does. He grew up in a rural farming community in which shooting was part of PE in high school. He is very peaceful, but believes strongly everyone should learn to shoot in order to understand and respect this powerful tool. Information and understanding is always better than mystery and myth.”

Dad speaks

A mom writes what her husband, who is “kind, non-violent, and pretty dang cool,” says about gun play, “It is part of being a boy. It is normal and pretty much every boy will be like this. If you try to tell him it’s wrong, you will make him feel like he’s not normal for being interested in it.”

A dad writes, “From a dad’s, former boy’s, perspective, gun/warrior play is totally normal. I grew up doing it with friends with little or no media influence. My son does all the same stuff without guidance.”

A Dad shares, “My 5 yo boy is too young for guns/hunting but we’ve done some fishing. I’ve talked about hunting and where food comes from. We talk about the difference between real guns and play guns. Grabbing teachable moments so discussions are general and sporadic. Down the road, I picture that his education on guns/hunting will be like mine. I grew up in suburbia but occasionally, my dad took me hunting or shooting. He and other family members were very serious about safety and as kid, I got it. I have other guy friends who were taught the same thing.”

“My husband said he remembered playing gun games as a kid. His parents didn’t allow it, so he always felt guilty when he did it at friend’s house, like he was being a bad kid. I don’t want my boys to feel like they are bad kids for doing what comes naturally to them.”

More than 35 comments later,

the mom who thought she was alone in her conflicted feelings about her son and gun play found that she wasn’t alone after all, “This is definitely opening my mind. What I appreciate the most is that I posted something from a vulnerable place to a bunch of strangers and everyone was kind. It’s comforting to know that others have gone through this/ are currently in this phase. I intend to reexamine and shift how I am addressing my son’s play. Warriors, empathy, limits around how he engages in it, and mostly not wanting to suppress him.”

And isn’t THIS what it’s all about?
Trite but true: It does take a village.
And thank goodness that village includes hunters!

Have you read some of the other gunplay-focused posts?
My Family Hunts – A dad weighs in on the ethic of hunting and the values it teaches his sons.
Guidelines for Gunplay – They’re going to play, what boundaries will you keep?
Aggression. Violence. What’s the Difference? – Reassurance that just because he likes gunplay, he won’t be led to violent behavior.
Gunplay at School – How teacher’s handle gunplay at school may vary from how you handle it at home.

Join us on Facebook for lively conversation about all-things-boys.

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Aggression. Violence. What’s the Difference?

Boys are active.
Boys are aggressive.
Boys are action-oriented.

But does that make them violent?

Where is the line between aggression and violence?
How do we know what’s normal?
When do we worry?

Kids Need Imaginative Play – They Need A Hero

Imaginative play, whether with guns or not, helps children understand and process their world. Most boys are hard-wired to seek aggressive play. They love the action, adventure, and applying their endless energy to scenarios filled with good guys and bad guys.



Prominent “boy expert” Michael Gurian calls testosterone, “humanity’s life insurance.” Testosterone gave hunters the strength, agility, and drive to kill prey to feed the tribe. Testosterone compelled hunters to mate and ensure plenty of offspring to continue the tribe.

You may have noticed that boys play quite differently than girls. Testosterone is responsible. Testosterone fuels your boy’s desire to be active, take risks, run around, jump, hit, yell – and pick up sticks and turn them into weapons.

When we recognize that his ‘wild’ behavior is not intentional perhaps we can take a different view of the behavior and provide appropriate outlets for it. Boys, and those who love them, must learn and teach self-control over the tendency towards aggressive, impulsive behavior.

Help him channel it

Boys tend to run around, burn off energy, and self-narrate their action sequences. This isn’t just random activity. They are playing out scenarios of good guy/bad guy, including heaping doses of honor, valor, and courage.

Give him opportunities to hone his physical skills with plenty of room for creativity. This happens, especially, when weapons are not supplied “ready-made.” Has he put in time and effort to sand his stick-gun so that it is shiny and smooth? Has he given thought to how to create a trap that will actually catch something? Has he explored different ways to create an arrow and bow?

Now what?

Perhaps his play includes, “I’m going to kill you.” Now what do you do? As adults, it is okay to say, “I don’t like it when you talk about killing me.” As Gurian advises, “Be serene about this threat.”

Be assured there is NO proof that active aggressive play in youngsters begets violent youth and men. I wonder, though, if by stifling these aggressive urges in the early years there may be pent-up frustration expressed later on?

Managing Anger

Boys must learn to channel their aggressive feelings including managing their anger. If they aren’t allowed to express their aggressive feelings they will stifle it, shut down, and the result may be “side-ways” behavior – anger or withdrawal expressed elsewhere in their lives.

Give Him a Hero

Boys want and need heroes to emulate. Boys, more than girls, are drawn to superheroes. In Wired to Move, author Ruth Hanford Morhard explains, “Well-orchestrated superhero play stimulates boys’ imaginations and creativity, develops empathy, builds confidence, helps confront fears and anxieties, and builds an understanding of boys’ roles in society. With the right guidance, it can even help boys overcome natural tendencies such as impulsiveness, aggression, and lagging verbal skills. For boys from unstable environments, superhero play can help them feel more in control. And it expends some of that seemingly limitless ‘boy energy.’”

What’s Normal?

Michael Gurian in The Good Son, offers these tips for determining what’s normal for your young boy:
· Throwing tantrums, very physical – including hitting walls/floor or others, with fists
· Emotionally manipulates you with guilt, sadness, and everything else
· Picks on older or younger siblings
· Screams, yells, and cries
· Roughhouses the family pets
· Bounces around the room and also can be quiet and unaggressive
· Purposefully disobeys until we assert authority appropriately
· Forgets instructions and rules, over and over

These behaviors must be balanced by your loving authority – holding boundaries, repeating rules calmly, and giving appropriate consequences.

What’s Not?

What are the violent tendencies we should worry about?

After studying many incidences of boys who commit violent crimes, Michael Gurian in The Soul of the Child, surmises, “…all of them had experienced one or more of the crucial elements for antisocial and evil behavior: lack of attachment at crucial times (especially during infancy and puberty), some form of abuse or violence, broken caregiving systems, and/or developmental epochs of general neglect.”


“Every behavior is useful in some context.”
What contexts are you giving your son so that he is able to express all aspects of himself fully and completely?

Comments from Facebook:
“Are you asking? or telling? I am positive that my boys – playing good/bad guy and loving guns – are not violent and never will be, but aggressive, sure, sometimes they are… they’re BOYS. And they are loving, gentle, sweet boys who, generally speaking, remember to protect their baby brother’s head whey they’re wrestling with him or throwing each other around. and they LOVE guns.”

“Adventure. I feel that we live in a society that has turned away from the natural energy of boys. I see that this trend to deny “boy energy” started in schools, by trying to make boys behave “as good as girls” in the classroom. The result is the medication of boys, so that they can fit into the brick & mortar classroom.”

“I love that he approaches boys that way. I have seven. As I was reading this, one was having a “war” with his Cheerios. Two others are having a battle with head and tails on coins at the table. The three year old twins are racing back and forth, sliding on the tile, competing to see who could go the farthest. My house is full of competition, speed, wars, violence, and aggression. But one just poured the milk for his brother, one just comforted a twin that crashed, and one just praised his brother for winning the toss-up.”

“The difference is understanding the difference! Children can absolutely be taught to distinguish between “play” and “real.””

Have you read the other gunplay-focused posts?
Voices on Gunplay – Parents have asked about and shared their personal experiences with their sons who make everything into a gun.
Guidelines for Gunplay – They’re going to play, what boundaries will you keep?
Gunplay at School – How teacher’s handle gunplay at school may vary from how you handle it at home.

Join us on Facebook for lively conversation about all-things-boys.

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