Michael Gurian The Wonder of Boys, a Review
A few years into teaching preschool children I was forced to realise that boys are very different from girls and that I will never understand boys the same way I understand girls. At the beginning, it was hard for me to handle their sudden bursts of energy and their occasional aggressive behaviour. That is when I came across Michael Gurian’s The Wonder of Boys. It is a book about the fundamental biological differences between boys and girls, and a practical guide for parents and educators to understand boys’ behaviours. I would like to point out here that it speaks about the majority of boys, not forgetting to draw attention to the fact that not all boys are the same. So while these tips and tricks may prove to be useful, it is very important to observe your OWN child and to get to know THEIR specific needs.
The Wonder of Boys starts by describing the way a baby boy’s brain develops in his mother’s womb. There are interesting differences between the development of a boy’s brain and the development of a girl’s brain, one of them being that while in a girl’s case both hemispheres develop approximately simultaneously, the right hemisphere of a boy’s brain develops faster than the left one, and this is why boys (and men) are usually better at orienting themselves in space. And this is also why girls are better at verbal communication and social cues, since these things necessitate the use of both hemispheres at the same time. Of course, both girls and boys can learn to improve the specific skills the others are seemingly better at.
In this review, I will highlight some of the thoughts that I found most insightful.
If we look at human evolution throughout history, we can see that the males of our species have always had a much bigger need for testosterone than females. The reason behind this is very simple: testosterone is needed for reproduction. One of its other primary effects, however, is that it makes men a little more aggressive. Our society is very quick to judge aggression as something inherently wrong, when the truth is, it is a biological necessity for boys and it cannot and should not be extinguished. First of all, we need to differentiate between aggression and violence. Aggression is an impulse that can be guided, whereas violence is a choice made with malice. Boys, therefore, need to have an outlet for their aggression. Rather than hold them back and not allow them to express their aggressive impulses, as parents and educators it is our duty to help them find healthy ways that allow them to experience these powerful impulses. Sports are a great way of allowing our boys to let out steam, for example. Or a punching bag. Or pillows. Your creativity is the limit. The only thing to keep in mind is to teach boys to only express these feelings towards inanimate objects, never towards living creatures.
Empathy and a Boy’s Mission
Most people, including men, think that boys are not capable of real empathy. Hollywood movies and TV shows do not try to correct this assumption either. To understand why boys might have a more difficult time expressing empathy, we need to go back a few thousand years in the history of mankind. In order for men to catch prey, they needed to be very quick to assess any dangerous situation that might arise during hunting. There was a goal that needed to be fulfilled and everything else became secondary. If another hunter got hurt, a man had seconds (or maybe even less) to assess the severity of his fellow’s injuries and decide whether or not his safety was more important than the hunt itself. In many cases, he might have decided against helping the other hunter. That does not mean that our hunter did not feel empathy towards his friend. It simply means that the goal they set out to achieve was more important than anything else. He had a mission.
Our world might have changed a lot, but the human brain is essentially the same as it was thousands of years ago. Boys (and men) are still goal-oriented. They still need to have a mission. But if empathy is the means through which they can achieve their goal, it is empathy they will use. It is also interesting to note that they behave very differently towards girls, assessing (correctly) that the way to a girl’s heart is through empathy and the sharing of feelings (which is still very hard for some of them).
This is not to say that the only time they express empathy is when they need to achieve their goal or finish their mission. But these are the times that it becomes more evident. Boys (and men) have very turbulent inner lives, meaning that they experience feelings on a very deep level. The trouble arises when they have to externalise these feelings.
Some feelings, such as anger, are expressed in sudden bursts of action. This can seem dangerous for an outsider but it is a healthy way in which a boy expresses a negative experience. Boys often don’t express their feelings at all because they need time to process them. This could mean hours, days or in some cases, even years. Sometimes, they might not even realise that they are going through a traumatic experience until it is over. And until they get to this point, they won’t be able to talk about it. Parents and educators need to allow them the time and the space to process their feelings.
After a certain age (usually around 8 years old) boys don’t cry as much. That is because crying makes them vulnerable and gives them a feeling of unease and uncertainty. Instead of crying, boys might resolve their inner conflicts by taking action: trying to fix the problem, or just getting over the issue as quickly as possible.
These being said, we do need to keep in mind that boys have a tendency to hold their feelings in. As educators and parents, we need to encourage them to express these as much as possible.
Teaching preschool children I always thought that competition was a bad thing. It only made children more aggressive, more furious with one another. In The Wonder of Boys, Gurian says that competing is an essential need for a boy. When and how it is introduced, however, are key aspects here. A healthy competition helps develop a strong self-esteem in boys. A boy who is always on the sideline feels lost and unwanted. These feelings damage his self image. Society needs to provide boys with ways in which they can compete in a friendly, healthy manner. Parents and educators need to teach them how to accept losing and how to not boast when winning.
It’s also important to note here that boys (and men) develop healthy relationships when they play together (and compete with one another). It is very important for them to feel like they belong to a community of boys, to feel that they have a tribe.
Back in the days children used to be raised by more than just two people. The nuclear family (mother and father, mother and mother, father and father) is often not enough to raise boys (or children, in general). In the olden days children were lucky enough to have their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, their cousins close by. All of these people were there to teach them about life, about morality, about the principles that governed their specific family. Boys could learn different ways to deal with life. Nowadays it is much harder to create this environment for boys. Grandparents and uncles live far away, so parents have to look for other ways to create this extended family. This is where neighbours and schools come in. According to Gurian it is very important for boys to have as many male adults they can look up to around them as possible. The community becomes their second family. Parents need to be able to allow others to teach their children about things they don’t know much about. They need to actively seek help and allow their children to have mentors they can learn from.
These are only a few ideas from Michael Gurian’s The Wonder of Boys that I thought were interesting. Each and every single one of these concepts is detailed in the book while also providing practical guidance in dealing with difficult behaviours. The book also talks about attachment and the very different relationships boys can have with their mothers and their fathers. It is worth mentioning here that after a certain age (around 8 years old) boys start pushing their mothers away. Or at least, this is what it feels like. That is because boys of that age start craving independence more and more. A mother needs to allow her son the space he needs while also reassuring him that she is there in the background whenever needed. This change in the relationship is much harder on the mother than on the son. The mother has to accept the fact that her child needs her less and less and that is ok. The love they feel for each other will not disappear.
Fathers, on the other hand, can have a much more important role after this age because this is the time they can teach them about respect and independence. When a boy makes a mistake, a mother has the tendency to say “You can do no wrong in my eyes, I will love you forever no matter what”. A father, in the same situation might say “I will love you forever no matter what, but if you keep making this mistake I will lose some of the respect I have for you”. A boy needs to hear both of these things because both of these help develop a healthy self-esteem in boys.
Michael Gurian’s The Wonder of Boys is a book that can help parents and educators understand boys in their care a lot better. Also, it can help some men understand their own behaviours as well. I think it’s especially relevant for women educators and mothers to read this book because some of our biological differences make it a bit more difficult to understand the motivations behind boys’ actions. That said, the most important thing to keep in mind is that every child is different. Only by closely observing our children can we truly begin to understand them.
Michael Gurian’s The Wonder of Boys is a very insightful book. I did not agree with every single thing he wrote about, but I found most of it extremely useful. When reading parenting books, we need to learn to be analytical and to only incorporate ideas into our parenting and teaching methods that we can identify with.
This book deserves a Four (and a half) Fox rating from me. 🦊🦊🦊🦊
What difficulties have you encountered while raising/ teaching boys?
Were there any tips in this book that you tried out and worked for you?
What did you find most helpful after practising some of the methods described in the book?
You can find this book on:
Thank you for reading! 💙
If you liked this review, read some of my other reviews as well!