Ask Dr. Michael G. Thompson: Educating Our Sons

How can we help our wonderful, maddening, lovable, frustrating, genius, unmotivated, spectacular sons grow into healthy and happy young men? In our ongoing efforts to seek parenting advice and info from people who have made finding answers to these kinds of questions their life’s work, GCP connected with Dr. Michael G. Thompson, the renowned clinical psychologist and boy guru who has authored or co-authored several now-classic books about raising boys, including “It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to Eighteen”, the New York Times bestseller, “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys”, and “Speaking of Boys: Answers to the Most-Asked Questions about Raising Sons”. For additional information, see an earlier GCP post on Dr. Thompson, “Dr. Michael G. Thompson: Helping Parents Raise Their Sons”, (April 27, 2011)

Dr. Thompson is a consultant for independent schools and public school districts across the United States. In this capacity he has observed thousands of boys in schools, and as he writes about African American boys in his books he shows a thoughtful sensitivity to the particular issues they can face in school. We were thrilled when Dr. Thompson agreed to answer questions we compiled from a group of African American parents. This is the first in a series of posts in which we will share these questions and answers. These first questions are focused on educating our sons.

How can we help our sons become excited about learning? How can we help them to engage more with books, reading, writing and school in general rather than just video games? Even when they show signs of intellectual curiosity in the early school years, it tends to wane as middle school approaches.

You have asked the central question in education; how can we, as parents and educators, transform a child’s natural curiosity and desire to develop skills into focused academic learning. Traditional education makes the assumption that learning is hard and that children need to master basic skills—many of them boring—in order to begin to enjoy learning; since the time of John Dewey, progressive educators have hoped to tap into children’s natural curiosity and energy so that learning is enjoyable from the start and grows into a discipline pursuit. I think you need to start with this fundamental truth: Children like to learn but they very often dislike being taught. The best schools are the ones with both a progressive approach and high expectations. When you apply this principle to parents as teachers, you have to mix activities and enrichment throughout childhood with high expectations for performance. In middle school, you may need to put boys into a situation where other people like coaches and camp counselors are providing the demands (focus, discipline, etc.) as well as the rewards that boys crave (respect, public attention, status among their peers).

What are the advantages of single sex education for boys? Are there
any particular advantages for African American boys?

All boys, but especially African American boys, are under pressure to appear cool and strong and masculine in order to win the respect of their peers. One of the ways that boys can appear cool is by not conforming to adult values, i.e. by not liking school. In a single-sex environment boys find it harder to disrespect school or outsource being a good student to girls. They compete only with other boys for the top spots in the class: athletic, academic and in leadership. Also, once they get to adolescence and are on a biological basis profoundly distracted by girls, a single-sex school keeps them focused by removing the distractions. Do all-boys schools guarantee academic success for all boys? No. No school does.

How can we make sure that teachers and school administrators who may harbor unconscious biases with respect to African American males do not misinterpret normal/developmentally appropriate behavior on the part of our sons?

Racism is not as bad as it once was; we’ve made considerable progress, but it occasionally crops up in the way teachers understand and respond to the behavior of African American boys. Accusing teachers of racism or racial insensitivity always makes them defensive; that’s a tough road to go down. I think every African American parent should have an administrator at the school whom they really trust, so they can go, in private, and ask whether the teacher is seeing the situation clearly or fairly.

We are concerned about the impact of racial identity development on boys’ social maturation. Boys of color can struggle with an additional burden of trying to meet cultural expectations which others place upon them or which they place on themselves (e.g., jock, hip hop expert, street wise urban male) which may be departures from their actual personalities. This can be especially problematic when they are greatly underrepresented in their school community. How can we help them deal with this burden, which can
impact them socially and academically?

Talk about it and talk some more. All you can do is acknowledge the burden, listen to a boy describe it, empathize with his feelings and admire the courage it often takes to be a minority student.

* * * *
Stay tuned for more Q & A with Dr. Thompson.

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