On Raising Kind Children

If, indeed, we are seeing a rise of Mean Boys who will join the Mean Girls we’ve already heard so much about, what is causing this and how can we change it?

When my son was 3, his preschool teacher called me aside to tell me a story.

My son went to a tiny school with a great outdoor space where kids could explore and where the off-kilter play structures always seemed slightly dangerous—a reality which made them all the more fun.

My son’s friend, a girl who was less physically adept than he, had attempted the resident “Climbing Tree,” promptly panicked and gotten stuck high in the branches.

Her classmates gathered around the base of the tree, laughed at the crying girl, and teased her as she tried to make her way down from her perch.

My son, however, was having none of that.

Instead, his teacher told me, he had gone to the base of the tree and yelled at the other children. “That’s not nice!” he told them.

Then, he climbed the tree and helped his friend down.

Since he was young, my husband and I have marveled at our son’s kindness. From making small gifts for people he likes, to his complete lack of judgment of others (something I confess he did not get from me), he shows his caring on a daily basis.

Now, a new study out of the University of Georgia tells us that in addition to Mean Girls, we have to worry about Mean Boys.

Middle school boys, the study says, are capable of physical and relational aggression inherently damaging to their peers. In fact, according to the study, middle school is the worst period for male aggression and a time when “the highest levels of physical and relational aggression are present in students from sixth through eighth grade.”

I see something different in my son. During the years the study targets, my son’s impulses toward care-taking have continued and grown.

He is always first to take me to task when he thinks I have said something “judgey,” and to do those tiny thoughtful gestures that mean so much. He works on our town’s Community Emergency Response Team, a volunteer corps dedicated toward helping others in times of crisis. And he’s quick to grab a shovel to help his favorite neighbors get out of their driveway after a snowstorm.

My son’s trajectory through the early teen years has been different than most. Almost two years ago, when he graduated from 6th grade, my husband and I were fortunate to have work flexibility and opted our son out of a traditional middle school experience.

Instead, our son became a member of North Star, a self-directed learning center for teens.

Structured more like college, students at North Star choose from courses offered each week. Members design their own curriculum, free from constraints of standardized testing and “have-tos.”

Instead of being told what he has to learn and when, my son chooses what to learn and why. He takes courses in Wildlife Biology, First Aid and Survival Skills, Geology, Plant Science, Traditional Food Wisdom and more. He composes music and teaches himself computer programming. He builds stuff and works one-on-one with a mentor who has taught him to put in lighting, wire his wood shop for outlets, and build a work table I covet.

The North Star community, which consists of teenagers who are grouped together by interest and not age, is based upon honoring the individuality of each member and respecting that there is no one way that is right for everyone. Some students study music. Some take math or study history. Some are barely there during the week because they are taking college courses starting at 15 or 16, or doing internships, or volunteering for non-profits they feel passionate about. And some are recovering from the bullying and social pressures they faced in traditional schools.

In this collection of individuals, there are no “Mean Boys.” It’s a group where each person is admired for what they bring to the larger whole, no matter what that is. For my son, whose most recent career plans are becoming an EMT/DJ who might also want to be a doctor, that means connecting with kids who are focused on theater or creative writing, or language, or physics.

As my son likes to say, “If you’re at North Star, you’re one of us. That’s just how it is.”

This past summer, my son attended a summer camp he had loved for many years. The first afternoon at pick-up, he was upset.

“Those boys,” he said of a particular group, “won’t talk to anybody else. They didn’t include other kids and didn’t really listen to anyone. They weren’t even respectful of the counselors.”

Not a part of this cohort of friends who all knew each other from school, my son was the outsider. And while his forced independence didn’t upset him, the lack of inclusivity was confusing for him. (In contrast, on his first day at North Star, another member had asked him out to lunch, and spent the afternoon showing him the ropes.)

I told him it would get better and sent him back the next day.

But the second day was much the same.

“They all want to be the best at everything, instead of working together to all get it right, so we weren’t really able to DO anything. And they make fun of other kids when someone makes a mistake,” he complained.

I don’t blame the kids who didn’t feel the need to include my son. They had their group and they were sticking with it. It was safe, familiar, comfortable, and easy. And it would have meant something else to include the quiet capable boy they didn’t know very well.

What I wonder is if this impulse toward cliquishness and exclusion is, instead, a means of self-protection. I wonder if part of it is training that comes from the lack of personal autonomy inherent in the vast majority of educational institutions.

When we toured the middle school in our town, a place my son immediately labeled “a jail I am NOT going to” (the building is, admittedly, dismal), the tour guide’s emphasis was on rules and tests and grades and mostly, what my son and other students would NOT be allowed to do. No outside time during the day. No walking in the halls without a pass. No leaving the building for any reason.

Our guide described the many forms of discipline doled out for infractions. He told us about grades and emphasized what it meant to FAIL. He told us about Detention—aka more time being asked to sit still. (Need I mention the loss of physical outlets during the school day, something I think is virtually guaranteed to increase issues of physical and relational aggression?)

“Kids look so bored here,” my son whispered, “They’re all sitting.”

Instead of talking about opportunities, the tour we got was about limitations.

In an environment that regiments and structures children’s lives completely, how do kids who are becoming who they will be get a chance to test and try things out? Perhaps aggression is a survival tactic, a means of self-expression and power in an environment where you are told what to do and when and whether or not you can use the bathroom—a lack of control over the most fundamental of human needs.

This is not to diminish the hard and valuable work of the countless incredible educators and mentors out there. It’s no easy task to manage the needs and desires of hundreds of young teenagers. And it’s not to say that this system doesn’t work for some, perhaps many, kids who feel supported, happy, and fulfilled.

With the acknowledgment of Mean Boys as a phenomenon, I ask if something about the structures of the system itself is manifesting in the kinds of bullying and aggressive behaviors we lament in young people, girls or boys. If, indeed, we are seeing a rise of Mean Boys who will join the Mean Girls we’ve already heard so much about, what is causing this and how can we change it?

The Mean Boys study says that these patterns begin to ebb as kids get further in their school experience, almost completely gone by high school. I wonder if this correlates to when kids are getting more control over their own lives, their interests, their futures.

The programs my son attends lead to a feeling of togetherness and inclusivity and community, but also a sense of personal accomplishment. How can we translate that to other environments and educational settings? How do we create space for kids to relax in their own skin, knowing themselves so that they do not have to create their identity based on opposition to others, defining themselves by what they are not?

It’s a continuing process that requires advocacy by all those who parent, mentor, and value our teens and I hope a larger conversation will begin.

For now, however, I’m mostly just glad that my son and his quirky, creative, passionate peers are choosing kindness.

Sydne Didier is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. She is also a private swim instructor and coaches swimmers of all ability levels. When not writing, she enjoys swimming long distances in open water and running as far as her dog will go.

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