The Wonderful World of Boys
Greetings to all the men and women out there who are blessed to be called parents. There is no greater privilege in living than bringing
a tiny new human being into the world and then trying to raise him or her properly during the next eighteen
years. Doing that job right requires all the intelligence, wisdom, and determination you will be able to muster
from day to day. And for parents whose family includes one or more boys, the greatest challenge may be just
keeping them alive through childhood and adolescence.
We have a delightful four-year-old youngster in our
family named Jeffrey who is “all boy.” One day last week, his parents and grandparents
were talking in the family room when they realized that the child hadn’t been seen in the past few minutes.
They quickly searched from room to room, but he was nowhere to be found. Four adults scurried throughout the
neighborhood calling, “Jeffrey? Jeffrey!” No answer. The kid had simply disappeared. Panic gripped the family
as terrible possibilities loomed before them. Had he been kidnapped? Did he wander away? Was he in mortal
danger? Everyone muttered a prayer while running from place to place. After about fifteen minutes of sheer
terror, someone suggested they call 911. As they reentered the house, the boy jumped out and said, “Hey!” to
his grandfather. Little Jeffrey, bless his heart, had been hiding under the bed while chaos swirled around him.
It was his idea of a joke. He honestly thought everyone else would think it was funny too. He was shocked to
learn that four big people were very angry at him.
Jeffrey is not a bad or rebellious kid. He is just
a boy. And in case you haven’t noticed, boys are different from girls. That fact was never in question for
previous generations. They knew intuitively that each sex was a breed apart and that boys were typically the
more unpredictable of the two. Haven’t you heard your parents and grandparents say with a smile, “Girls are
made out of sugar and spice and everything nice, but boys are made of snakes and snails and puppy-dog tails”?
It was said tongue-in-cheek, but people of all ages thought it was based on fact. “Boys will be boys,” they
said knowingly. They were right.
Boys are usually (but not always) tougher to raise than their
sisters are. Girls can be difficult to handle too, but there is something especially challenging about boys.
Although individual temperaments vary, boys are designed to be more assertive, audacious, and excitable than
girls are. Psychologist John Rosemond calls them “little aggressive machines.”1 One father referred
to his son as “all afterburner and no rudder.” These are some of the reasons why Maurice Chevalier never sang,
“Thank Heaven for Little Boys.” They just don’t inspire great sentimentality.
In an article entitled, “What Are Boys Made Of?”
reporter Paula Gray Hunker quoted a mother named Meg MacKenzie who said raising her two sons is like living
with a tornado. “From the moment that they come home from school, they’ll be running around the house, climbing
trees outside and making a commotion inside that sounds as if a herd of elephants has moved in upstairs. I’ll
try to calm them down, but my husband will say, ‘This is what boys do. Get used to it.’“
Hunker continued, “Mrs. MacKenzie, the
lone female in a household of males, says this tendency [of boys] to leap—and then listen—drives her crazy. ‘I
can’t just tell my boys, “Clean up.” If I do, they’ll put one or two toys away and assume that the task is
done. I’ve learned that I have to be very, very specific.’ She has found that boys do not respond to subtle
hints but need requests clearly outlined. ‘I’ll put a basket of clean laundry on the stairs, and the boys will
pass it by twenty times and not once will it occur to them to stop and carry it upstairs,’ she
Does that sound familiar? If you host a birthday party for five-year-olds, the boys will
probably behave very differently from the girls. One or more of them is likely to throw cake, put his hands in
the punch bowl, or mess up the games for the girls. Why are they like this? Some would say their mischievous
nature has been learned from the culture. Really? Then why are boys more aggressive in
every society around the globe? And why did the Greek philosopher Plato write more than 2,300 years ago, “Of
all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable”?3
One of my favorite
little books is entitled Up to No Good: The Rascally Things Boys Do, edited by Kitty Harmon. It is a
compilation of stories told “by perfectly decent grown men” recalling their childhood years. Here are several
examples that made me smile:
Mark, Ohio, b.
Dave, Washington, b. 1952
Mike, California, b.
As these stories illustrate, one of the scariest aspects of raising boys is
their tendency to risk life and limb for no good reason. It begins very early. If a toddler can climb on it, he
will jump off it. He careens out of control toward tables, tubs, pools, steps, trees, and streets. He will eat
anything but food and loves to play in the toilet. He makes “guns” out of cucumbers or toothbrushes and likes
digging around in drawers, pill bottles, and Mom’s purse. And just hope he doesn’t get his grubby little hands
on a tube of lipstick. A boy harasses grumpy dogs and picks up kitties by their ears. His mom has to watch him
every minute to keep him from killing himself. He loves to throw rocks, play with fire, and shatter glass. He
also gets great pleasure out of irritating his brothers and sisters, his mother, his teachers, and other
children. As he gets older, he is drawn to everything dangerous—skateboards, rock climbing, hang gliding,
motorcycles, and mountain bikes. At about sixteen, he and his buddies begin driving around town like kamikaze
pilots on sake. It’s a wonder any of them survive. Not every boy is like this, of course, but the majority of
Canadian psychologist Barbara Morrongiello studied the different ways boys and girls think
about risky behavior. Females, she said, tend to think hard about whether or not they could get hurt, and they
are less likely to plunge ahead if there is any potential for injury. Boys, however, will take a chance if they
think the danger is worth the risk. Impressing their friends (and eventually girls) is usually considered worth
the risk. Morrongiello shared a story about a mother whose son climbed on the garage roof to retrieve a ball.
When she asked him if he realized he could fall, he said, “Well, I might not.”5
A related study by
Licette Peterson confirmed that girls are more fearful than boys are. For example, they brake sooner when
riding their bikes. They react more negatively to pain and try not to make the same mistake twice. Boys, on the
other hand, are slower to learn from calamities. They tend to think that their injuries were caused by “bad
luck.”6 Maybe their luck will be better next time. Besides, scars are cool.
Our son, Ryan, encountered one dangerous
situation after another as a boy. By the time he was six, he was personally acquainted with many of the local
emergency room attendants and doctors. And why not? He had been their patient
repeatedly. One day when he was about four, he was running through the backyard with his eyes closed and fell
into a decorative metal “plant.” One of the steel rods stuck him in the right eyebrow and exposed the bone
underneath. He came staggering through the back door bathed in blood, a memory that still gives Shirley
nightmares. Off they went to the trauma center—again. It could have been much worse, of course. If the
trajectory of Ryan’s fall had been different by as much as a half inch, the rod would have hit him in the eye
and gone straight to his brain. We have thanked God many times for the near misses.
I was also one of those kids who lived
on the edge of disaster. When I was about ten, I was very impressed by the way Tarzan could swing through the
trees from vine to vine. No one ever told me, “Don’t try this at home.” I climbed high into a pear tree one day
and tied a rope to a small limb. Then I positioned myself for a journey to the next tree. Unfortunately, I made
a small but highly significant miscalculation. The rope was longer than the distance from the limb to the
ground. I kept thinking all the way down that something didn’t seem right. I was still gripping the rope when I
landed flat on my back twelve feet below and knocked all the air out of the state of Oklahoma. I couldn’t
breathe for what seemed like an hour (it must have been about ten seconds) and was sure I was dying. Two teeth
were broken and a loud gonging sound echoed in my head. But later that afternoon, I was up and running again.
No big deal.
The next year, I was given a chemistry set for Christmas. It contained no explosives or
toxic materials, but in my hands, anything could be hazardous. I mixed some bright blue chemicals in a test
tube and corked it tightly. Then I began heating the substance with a Bunsen burner. Very soon, the entire
thing exploded. My parents had just finished painting the ceiling of my room a stark white. It was soon
decorated with the most beautiful blue stuff, which remained splattered there for years. Such was life in the
It must be a genetic thing. I’m told my father was also a terror in his time. When he was a
small boy, a friend dared him to crawl through a block-long drainpipe. He could only see a pinpoint of light at
the other end, but he began inching his way into the darkness. Inevitably, I suppose, he became stuck somewhere
in the middle. Claustrophobia swept over him as he struggled vainly to move. There he was, utterly alone and
stranded in the pitch black pipe. Even if adults had known about his predicament, they couldn’t have reached
him. Rescue workers would have had to dig up the entire pipe to locate and get him out. The boy who was to
become my dad finally made it to the other end of the drain and survived, thankfully, to live another day.
illustrations: My father and all of his four brothers were high-risk kids. The two eldest were twins. When they
were only three years old, my grandmother was shelling beans for the night meal. As my grandfather left for
work, he said within hearing distance of the children, “Don’t let the kids put those beans up their noses.” Bad
advice! As soon as their mom’s back was turned, they stuffed their nasal passages with beans. It was impossible
for my grandmother to get them out, so she just left them there. A few days later, the beans began to sprout.
Little green shoots were actually growing out their nostrils. A family doctor worked diligently to dig out the
tiny plants one piece at a time.
And years later, the five boys stood looking at an impressive steeple on a church. One of
them dared the others to climb the outer side and see if they could touch the very highest point. All four of
them headed up the structure like monkeys. My father told me that it was nothing but the grace of God that
prevented them from tumbling from the heights. It was just a normal day in the life of five rambunctious little
makes young males act like that? What inner force compels them to teeter on the edge of disaster? What is it
about the masculine temperament that drives boys to tempt the laws of gravity and ignore the gentle voice of
common sense—the one that says, “Don’t do it, Son”? Boys are like this because of the way they are wired
neurologically and because of the influence of hormones that stimulate certain aggressive behavior. We will
explore those complex and powerful masculine characteristics in the next chapter. You can’t understand males of
any age, including yourself or the one to whom you might be married, without knowing something about the forces
that operate within.
We want to help parents raise “good” boys in this postmodern age. The culture is at war
with the family, especially its youngest and most vulnerable members. Harmful and enticing messages are shouted
at them from movies and television, from the rock-music industry, from the advocates of so-called safe-sex
ideology, from homosexual activists, and from the readily available obscenity on the Internet. The question
confronting parents is, “How can we steer our boys and girls past the many negative influences that
confront them on every side?” It is an issue with eternal implications.
Our purpose in this regard will be to assist
mothers and fathers as they “play defense” on behalf of their sons—that is, as they protect their boys from
immoral and dangerous enticements. But that is not enough. Parents also need to “play offense”—to capitalize on
the impressionable years of childhood by instilling in their sons the antecedents of character. Their
assignment during two brief decades will be to transform their boys from immature and flighty youngsters into
honest, caring men who will be respectful of women, loyal and faithful in marriage, keepers of commitments,
strong and decisive leaders, good workers, and secure in their masculinity. And of course, the ultimate goal
for people of faith is to give each child an understanding of Scripture and a lifelong passion for Jesus
Christ. This is, I believe, the most important responsibility for those of us who have been entrusted
with the care and nurturance of children.
Parents a century ago had a much better “fix” on
these long-term objectives and how to achieve them. Some of their ideas are still workable today, and I will
share them presently. I’ll also provide a review of the latest research on child development and parent-child
relationships. My prayer is that the findings and recommendations gleaned from that body of information,
combined with my own professional experience spanning more than thirty years, will offer encouragement and
practical advice to those who pass this way.
So buckle your seat belts. We have a lot of
interesting ground to cover. But first, here’s a little poem to get us started. It is taken from the lyrics to
a song I love, sent to me by my friend Robert Wolgemuth. When Robert was a youngster, his mother, Grace
Wolgemuth, sang “That Little Boy of Mine” to him and his siblings. I first heard it when Robert and his wife,
Bobbie, sang it to my mother in 1983. A copyright search has turned up no information regarding the ownership
of the lyrics and tune. To the best of their knowledge, Grace Wolgemuth’s children believe that she created the
song for them, and I am using it with their permission.
That Little Boy of
eyes that shine so bright,
Two lips that kiss goodnite,
Two arms that hold me tight,
That little boy of mine.
No one could ever know how much
your coming has meant.
Because I love you so, you’re something heaven has sent.
the world to me.
You climb upon my knee.
To me you’ll always be,
That little boy of