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." 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
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 says."
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
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:
In seventh grade, the biology teacher had us dissect fetal pigs. My friends and
I pocketed the snout of the pig and stuck it on the water fountain so that the
water shot straight up out of the pig's nostrils. No one really noticed it until
they were bent over just about to drink. The problem is that we wanted to stick
around and see the results, but then we started laughing so hard that we got
caught. We all got the paddle for that.
Mark, Ohio, b. 1960
A friend and I found a coffee can of gasoline in the garage and decided to pour
some down a manhole, light it, and see what would happen. We popped the manhole
open, poured some gas in, and replaced the cover so that it was ajar. We kept
throwing matches down but nothing happened, so we poured all the gas in.
Finally, there was a noise like a jet engine starting up, and then a big BOOM!
The manhole cover flew up and a flame shot up about fifteen feet in the air. The
ground was rumbling like an earthquake, and the manhole cover crashed about
twelve feet away in the neighbor's driveway. What happened was the gas ran down
the sewer lines for a block or so and vaporized with all the methane in there,
and blew up all our neighbors' toilets. I'm a plumber now; that's how I know
exactly what happened.
Dave, Washington, b. 1952
I am blind, and as a kid sometimes I played with other blind kids. And we always
found just as many, or more, ways to get into trouble as sighted boys. Like the
time I was over at a blind friend's house, and he took me into the garage to
show me his older brother's motorcycle. We decided to take it out for a spin.
Why not? We rode down the street feeling for the curb, and at each intersection
we'd stop, turn off the engine and listen, and then cross. We rode all the way
to the high school track, where we could really let loose. First we piled up
some dirt at the turns of the track so we'd feel the bump and know we were still
on the track. Then we took off, going faster and faster and having a blast. What
we didn't know was that people showed up to run on the track and were trying to
wave us off. We couldn't hear them over the roar of the motocycle engine and
nearly ran them over. They called the police, who showed up and tried to wave us
over too, but we kept going. Finally they got their sirens and bullhorns going
and we stopped. They were furious and wouldn't believe us when we explained that
we hadn't seen them. We proved we were blind by showing them our braille
watches, and they escorted us home.
Mike, California, b. 1953
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 them are.
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."
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." 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 Dobson household.
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.
Two more 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 boys.
What 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.
Excerpted from "Bringing Up Boys" by James C. Dobson. Copyright © 2001 by James C. Dobson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.