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At first I was a little dubious about The Way of Boys, Raising Healthy Boys in a Challenging and Complex World. Dr. Anthony Rao instantly hit my hot buttons coming right out of the gate with the title for the first chapter, “Your Problem Is Spelled B-O-Y.” Where could he go from here? The chapter in question, seems to be largely addressed to mothers and this trend in parenting books is fairly off-putting for me on a personal level. Since I raise a household of boys, I have been reading parenting books since I first discovered I was invaded by a mancub (in pregnancy). There are literally hundreds of books written for mothers about how to raise boys. I have read a lot of them and own several that I think are worth keeping or sharing with friends. While I will acknowledge that my first thoughts about parenting boys were fraught with fear, after 16 years I have become accustomed to some of “the way of boys.”
And it is true that raising boys is different than raising girls. As frustrating as it is to say that, from my women’s studies background, the damn truth of the matter is that our children are not raised in a vacuum. Much as I would like to raise feminist sons, the hard reality is that I am privileged in being able to guide my children toward a feminist-sensitivity, but how they are impacted by the village we live in also will play into their philosophies about equality. This is not a new argument or even an original idea, but it is one that I kept coming back to thinking about while reading this book. Dr. Rao amply recognizes the ‘it takes a village’ factor of raising children. In fact Rao relies heavily on the village construct to parlay his ideology of parenting boys. First and foremost his anecdotes of clients and their families largely involve sons being brought to his office by their worried mothers. Very little mention is made of the fathers (or lacking patriarchal role model) in the lives of the boys in Dr. Rao’s care. In fact Rao spends much of the first half of the book outlining the differences between boys and girls on a biological level and then moves towards the social level in school environs that are also mostly managed by women as early care providers and elementary school teachers.
In lieu of missing fathers, Dr. Rao focuses on the home-school connection. I can totally appreciate that Rao draws a close relationship between how children fair in school and how children’s behaviors are managed in the home. There is a lot of useful information about consistency in routines and expectations for both home and school life to help a boy manage. In fact the book seems to be written largely as an argument against the overdiagnosing of children with ailments such as ADHD/ADD or other serious psychological or behavior disorders. As a former teacher and a parent to a special needs child, I appreciate the warnings against treatments for children who may not need them. And what Dr. Rao does really well towards the end of the book is to provide good information on what kind of testing is appropriate for boys who are struggling in school or at home, when medicine might be helpful and under what circumstances boys might not need pharmaceutical aids to help them. Dr. Rao seems largely to be a proponent of behavioral strategies for helping boys assimilate into an academic environment that requires them to sit still for several hours of the day, focusing on a lot of cerebral material when their littles bodies want nothing more than to be on the move. I am in full agreement with him about avoiding medication when a behavior strategy will do.
Yet in it’s essence, this becomes a book written by a benevolent male doctor for all of us moms who need help mothering. Dr. Rao doesn’t explicitly state that women do not know how to raise boys, but through the characterization of the women in his anecdotes, it sure did end up feeling like women are to blame for boys’ struggles in school and socialization. The hard part is, I don’t know if I can make such a strong argument against his position. Does that make his suppositions correct? I hope not. But I do know the feeling of watching my boys engaged with each other or their friends and wondering what on earth they are doing?! I have learned the hard way that my boys will not play with dolls the way that I see my friends’ daughters do so. I know several parents who let their boys become largely independent at middle school when they began to look and act more man-like despite lacking maturity to engage like responsible men. I have endured the struggles of trying to figure out the difference between “normal” boy experiences and the Austism-Spectrum Disorder that my older son struggles with both at school and at home. Does that mean that I am not a good mom?
I guess what I find most disconcerting about this book is that I wanted to read it and my girlfriends who raise boys want to learn the material, but not one of our husbands seem all that interested. So in the end I will likely keep and share this book, but I will remember to forewarn my loveys of the bias. Take the good from it and don’t take to heart the message that women don’t understand.