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E. Q. for Boys: The Swim Test

Beach Brothers

Beach Brothers ©Joshua Koepp

“Thank God for your son,” the brown-haired mother said as she walked to stand next to me on the beach.

“Oh? What did he do?” I asked, trying to act oblivious. The truth was, I knew what I had told him to do. I was curious to hear from someone else what he had actually done.

It was the last day of our week at YMCA Camp du Nord, a family camp north of Ely, Minnesota near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In a matter of minutes, one of the highlights for the kids was about to start: the counselor hunt. On the last day, all of the counselors hide around camp and the children and youth who were their “age group” during the week run around and find them. The whole adventure converges on the beach where campers and counselors attempt to wrestle each other into the water and dump each other.

You can imagine the chaos. It is very fun but also very rough and very wet. With all the pandemonium, some safety measures are prudent. All the young campers are required to take a swim test and receive a wrist-band which designates how far out into the water they can be during the melee. A wise safety measure to be sure, but one that is ready-made to trigger a crisis of status and identity for many young boys in the 7-9 year old range.

According to my son’s logic, nobody really gives a rip if you can’t swim by yourself when you’re six. Some kids can swim when they are seven, but you only feel a little embarrassed if you can’t. Once you’re eight, many of your friends have learned to swim, so it’s kind of a big deal. You’ll be thinking about the swim test and anxious about saving face if you fail. You may even come up with excuses ahead of time:

  • The waves were big.
  • It was windy.
  • I was tired.
  • Someone pushed me.
  • I don’t like swimming in lakes.
  • I’m more used to the pool where I work out with “my competitive swim team.
  • It wasn’t a fair test, etc.

If you’re nine and you can’t swim you’re likely to pick a fight with the troll under Angel Bridge in hopes that he will take a big bite out of your foot, thus making it impossible to go into the lake because of the open wound. Since most boys have done it, it’s easy to recognize a faked or manufactured injury or malady (AKA the losers limp). However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and most of the time the other guys don’t call your bluff.

To make matters even more risky for young and fragile male egos, after the swim test you are tagged with a colored wrist band that identifies you as a non-swimmer, restricted access swimmer who has to stay in the shallow “kiddie” area, or a unrestricted water-competent resident of Atlantis who has spent some time in Aquaman’s private guard.

Most adults have forgotten what it felt like to be a kid and about half of adults have never been boys. To them, it is confusing why a little guy would suddenly lash out, avoid eye contact, be rude to loved ones, retreat into their own little world, and have a complete meltdown if someone tries to pry. They don’t understand the existential crisis that will be caused when he is strapped with a wrist-band below the rank of his peers.

That’s what happened to the brown-haired mother’s little guy. For whatever reason, he didn’t pass the test. He was crushed. He was crying. There was nothing mom could do. He ran down the beach to get away, too embarrassed to even stick around.

I had seen this before. Several times, actually, only a month earlier. That was when my eight-year-old son publicly failed the swim test at Cub Scouts camp, over and over again, in front of his friend (who passed on the first try) and about 50 other scouts and dads who were swimming in the pool. Truthfully, I’m not the kind of parent who tries to rescue my kids from these situations. Failing repeatedly teaches you to keep trying and that it’s not the end of the world if you screw up and embarrass yourself. You’ll survive. Most of the time nobody cares, and if they do, that’s their problem, not yours.

Today, however, my son’s experience had been different. This time he had passed on the first try and gotten a white wrist-band. When we saw the other boy take off, I quickly said to him, “Hey, you know how that feels. Go talk to him. Tell him you failed a swim test too.” Then I left to find my younger son.

I returned a while later to the brown haired lady thanking me. “He was just an angel. He came and told Rider that he had bombed a swim test once too. Then he talked him in to trying again and even went and got the counselor to give them a retest. They took the test together and they both passed. He saved the day.”

When it comes to emotional intelligence, it’s very important for boys to learn to handle their own emotions. However, the next and equally important step is to learn how to respond to the emotions of OTHERS. Sometimes it’s appropriate to simply respect someone’s process and protect their dignity while they feel. Other times we can come alongside and be a brother in time of need. Getting outside ourselves and caring about our fellows is what psychological health is all about. I’m glad my son got a chance to see how facing his challenge gave him the tools to help someone else in the long run.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2015 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Dads, Sons, Discipline and Adrian Peterson

dad son talkI’m a little late to the Adrian Peterson discussion, and that’s probably good timing. The media frenzy has settled a little bit, and we’re left with the more productive work of reflecting on ourselves.

First, let me say that this is not a rant against Adrian Peterson. Primarily, this post is going to be about fathers and the unique role we have in disciplining (word chosen intentionally) our sons.

I think it’s impossible for men to understand childbirth. Not just because of the pain involved, but also because of the brain and body chemicals present during labor and throughout the entire time a mother is carrying her baby. To a lesser degree, I think there are aspects of the father-son bond and discipline relationship that are very unique. Some of it seems alien and incomprehensible if you haven’t experienced it first-hand.

Just in case you were getting worried, let me say up front that I do not defend or excuse whipping a four-year-old boy repeatedly until he bleeds or punching a child in a car seat. That’s not discipline.

Let’s talk about terminology. In child development circles, the term “discipline” isn’t popular anymore. It has largely been replaced with “guidance.” Guidance accurately describes what great teachers, coaches, youth workers and many others who care about children engage in on a daily basis. There are all sorts of trendy and effective ways to do this. A few of my favorites are Jane Nelson’s Positive Discipline and Jim and Charles Fay’s Love and Logic.

The word “discipline” has taken on a negative connotation. It generates thoughts of punishment like spanking, whipping, switching, isolation, withholding needs, causing pain, physical abuse and in extreme cases causing severe bodily harm, even death.

In truth, discipline isn’t any of these things. I believe that healthy discipline is one of the most positive, affirming, and life-giving things a son can experience from a dad. True discipline is the core of what the father-son relationship is all about. In fact, for boys, I will go as far as to say that it is what sons want MOST from their dads. Let me explain.

Discipline provides the skills and strength we need to succeed. Discipline shows you a vision of your best and encourages you to get there. Discipline breaks an impossible goal into manageable steps. When we’re living and behaving in ways that hurt others and ourselves, discipline gets in our face and says, “Enough!” When we are slacking at life, discipline kicks us in the butt. When we disrespect others and ourselves, discipline holds a mirror in our face and says, “YOU are better than THAT.”

The father-son relationship is a rare container for discipline. When a dad does it right, the power it holds for a boy is incredible, thrilling and transformational. It can refine and support you like nothing else can. It gives you the courage to do anything.

On the flip side, the pain it carries when a dad drops the ball on this sacred role is devastating. Hurtful words from a father or father figure are searing. Neglect is withering. Abusive, torturous actions can send boys to a very dark place. I’ve been with boys who were there, and cried for ones who couldn’t see their way out.

Any time we, as fathers, choose abuse, fear and rage, we risk sending our kids down that road. It’s an awful exchange. It’s like losing our home to the bank when we have a winning lottery ticket in our back pocket.

When we use violence to train our kids it’s like trying to slice cheese with a chainsaw. It doesn’t do a very good job and makes a horrible mess of things.

None of us had perfect fathers. Some of us had rotten ones. The good news is that no matter where we start from, there are plenty of people and resources out there that can help us get better. There’s always room to grow. Contact me if you want a few ideas.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2014 in Contemplative Parenting

 

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How To Be A Perfectionist Dad

I’m a perfectionist. It’s part of my personality. My standards are impossibly high. I can’t help it. It’s difficult for me if I don’t manage it, but for my kids’ it’s a living hell.

There are many people who have high standards, attention to detail, and a persistent dedication to quality…but that’s not perfectionism. My Jung Typology is INFP. I’m an idealist. If I’m not careful, I will NEVER judge anything as ideal. I just keep wanting things and people to be better. Nothing is good enough

No matter how careful I try to be, sometimes my son falls victim to my out-of-whack standards. Little boys always want their daddies to be proud of them, and he knows that I am. However, he also knows when I’m not satisfied. I’m not talking about when he has done something mean to his brother or made a mistake. I’m talking about when he has done something GOOD and my inner perfectionist thinks it’s not good enough.

It happened at karate the other day. My seven-year-old had a long day, and he was tired. He went to karate anyway, and he was a little slow and dull throughout. After the lesson, he came out the door, looked at me and said, “Sorry.” He thought I was disappointed in him. I realized I had been wearing an unimpressed stare throughout the lesson. I think I had even thrown in a few head shakes. It was a poignant moment.

So what’s a perfectionist parent to do? We all love to watch our kids do their best, right? After all, it’s a competitive world out there. If they don’t get top grades, make the “A” team and keep up with the pack, they’ll never make it, right?

Wrong. There are some very good reasons why our hyper-achievement culture isn’t healthy and may actually produce the opposite of what we really want. For more on this, take a look at the above trailer for Race to Nowhere.

Here are some thoughts for us perfectionists to remember if we want to keep ourselves from projecting the wrong message to our kids:

  • “Good enough” is a responsible option.
  • Our children’s performance should not define our success or identity.
  • Making mistakes is ESSENTIAL for healthy learning and development.
  • It’s O.K. to just participate (and not win).
  • Realize the hypocrisy of the phrase, “I just want you to do your best.”
  • Let them define their best rather than you.
  • Show them they belong and are loved when they lose and under-perform.

Practical strategies for perfectionists:

  • Since nothing will ever satisfy our need for perfection, we need to clearly define realistic goals in partnership with our kids so that they can know when they have succeeded. For instance, my son can choose one skill to improve on at karate and feel good about rather than feeling like he needs to be Bruce Lee then entire lesson.
  • Focus on the process by asking them to think about something that worked and something that didn’t.
  • End the day by sharing the three best things from the day (you too) without any evaluation (just acceptance).
  • Instead of only celebrating successes, surprise your kids by going out to celebrate THEM sometime when their effort was less than par.
 
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Posted by on June 25, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Father’s Day: For dads of boys when…

Joshua KoeppFor Fathers Day, here’s my advice to dads about the three situations that regularly bring out the worst behavior from dads of boys at child-care programs. Providers ask me about these at nearly every boys workshop I present.

For dads of boys when… (from a dad of two boys)

  1. your son wears “fancy” or “girly” dress-up clothes at daycare.
  2. …you want to tell him to stop crying and take it like a man.
  3. …you’re temped to tell him it’s okay to “hit back” to stand up for himself.

your son wears “fancy” or “girly” dress-up clothes at daycare. Don’t worry. It’s normal. It can’t “make him” gay any more than dressing up for Halloween makes him a ghost. Dress-up play is one way boys grow their brains and make sense of their world. It helps them experience and understand what other people think and feel. In fact, boys are more likely to be confused if they DON’T get to play dress-up.

Resist the urge to disapprove or tell him “boys don’t dress like that.” In his little mind all that would do is make him feel like Dad is upset and there’s something wrong with him for playing and having fun. It can also send the message that women are inferior and anyone who does certain jobs or roles doesn’t deserve as much respect. Ironically, when we teach children not to fully respect others, they end up thinking they don’t deserve respect themselves.

…you’re temped to tell him it’s okay to “hit back” to stand up for himself. Give him more credit. Soldiers and martial arts experts know it takes more strength and skill to solve conflicts without force. “The strong survive” only works for wild animals. Human evolution actually favors the males who learn to make friends, get along and solve problems. Even bullies respect the kid who knows how to make friends. Living by the sword only ends well in movies. In real life, there are better ways to feel capable, safe, strong, and win a fight.

If your son gets physically assaulted by another child, he doesn’t need you to give him boxing lessons. Rather, he needs you to let him know there’s no shame and you still respect him. Teach him that you both have skills to handle what comes without regressing cave-man status. True strength and authentic manhood can start young, and Dad is the one who gets to model it. Giving-in to violence is a cop-out that makes more problems than it solves.

I know first hand how emotionally charged and difficult these situations can be when you’re in the middle of them. Send me an e-mail if you’re seeing red and want a set of fresh eyes.

…you want to tell him to stop crying and take it like a man. Be careful. Crying is the body’s normal, automatic expression of emotional processing and release. (It can also be a way children try to manipulate and control adults, but that’s a different story.) In the first case, telling him to “man-up” and stop the crying makes emotions even more confusing and sends the message that men and boys should be ashamed of something that’s normal. Living in an emotional straight jacket causes all sorts of problems, but to understand and manage our emotional landscape has huge benefits.

My son and I have discovered a counter-intuitive formula that is healthy and actually seems to help tears end sooner. I call it C.A.P. Connect. Acknowledge. Protect.

Connect: For boys, this is most often done non-verbally through physical proximity. To just stand or sit near him is often enough. Sometimes an arm around the shoulder or hug for the little guys helps. Don’t get too close if he’s not ready.

Acknowledge: A short phrase. Usually something like: “You seem sad, angry, upset (fill in the blank).” “That was pretty tough.” “Do you feel? I can understand if you do.” The key is to recognize that he has emotion and give it a name if possible.

Protect: Let him know he is safe with you (from ridicule, judgement, shame) and protect him from embarrassment. When necessary or possible, find some privacy for him.

In many cases, this whole process only takes us a manner of seconds, but you don’t want to rush it. The counter-intuitive part is that it usually helps him stop crying in a few seconds. That’s not the goal, but it usually works that way. Which makes sense, when you think about it, because it helps to process the emotion. Once the emotion is processed, crying is unnecessary.

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Boys: Testosterone and Emotional Repression

9947161_sIn Wave Riders we talk about boys, testosterone, and the effect it can have on their emotions and actions. It shouldn’t be minimized, and Noah Brand, an Editor-at-Large at Good Men Project, explains his take on it below. Follow this link to read the full post Five Important Things Women Don’t Know About Men

 

Short version: testosterone is a hell of a drug. Those who’ve taken it as adults as part of a gender transition tend to report intense cravings for physical catharsis, flashes of inexplicable rage, and similar effects. And that’s taking it on purpose, knowing that it’s a drug, with an adult level of brain development and emotional maturity. Now imagine that happening to you without warning when you’re thirteen and have no idea what’s going on.
 
Almost every adult man walking around spent at least part of his adolescence dealing with sourceless, purposeless anger and a desire for violent catharsis. It’s like having a little devil on your shoulder constantly making the same unhelpful suggestion.
 

“I don’t know how I’m going to deal with this test Friday, I can’t cope.”

“Have you considered… VIOLENCE?”

“Shut up, shoulder devil, nobody asked you. Hmmm, what do I want for lunch…”

“Have you considered… VIOLENCE?”

“Shoulder devil that is NOT EVEN A FOOD.”

And so on. We spend years learning that our immediate emotional responses to things are absolutely not to be trusted. The first response to an emotional impulse must be to ignore it and repress it, just for safety. The men who didn’t learn that reflex? They’re the ones with criminal records for assault.
 
Once we mature out of adolescence, the hormones calm down and we’re fine, but by that point the cultural conditioning has been drilled in beyond repair, a million repetitions of “man up” and “crying is for girls” and on and on and on. What was a safety precaution in high school becomes a socially mandated norm.
 

 

The message to stuff emotions starts long before the teen years in early childhood with dire consequences long term. In Wave Riders we talk about how we can help boys understand and appreciate the full spectrum of their own masculinity and unique style.

 
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Posted by on May 7, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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Feedback on Wave Riders: Nurturing Boys for Emotional Health

Joshua KoeppThe 5 week online offering of Wave Riders: Nurturing Boys for Emotional Health just concluded and I thought I’d share one of the final reflections I received.  If you’re interested, the course will be offered again in November. Here’s the Eager to Learn Link.

Reflecting on this course it is wonderful the amount of information that was covered in such a sort time period. I feel I have gained a greater understanding of what makes boys, boys. I am more comfortable talking to boys about their emotions and helping them process their emotions. Lastly I have a more concrete understanding of emotion intelligence.

During this course I learned about the difference in brain development between girls and boys. This has been very useful and was very meaningful to me. Having the knowledge that boys brains develop differently helps to have an understanding on why they behave the way they do sometimes.

The verbiage I learned from this class has been very beneficial to the boys and has helped give them the words to describe their emotions. The boys in my care seem to understand their own emotions more and are improving on being able to label their emotions. I also feel more comfortable with my overall knowledge on emotional intelligence, what tools to use in supporting boys’ emotional health and regulating emotions. I can see that my comfort with discussing emotions is passing on to the boys in my care. They are becoming more comfortable with handling their own discussions.

Reflecting on the class and the learner goals I set for myself, I believe we covered all of them with this class! I can now identify how boys are “programmed” and what causes them to behave the way they do. I learned tools/tips to use when managing boys and their behavior. I know how to support boys to process their emotions and to support them with their emotional health.

I really enjoyed this class. It was helpful to have a variety of people in class to network with. Hearing other providers and teachers experiences is nice to know I’m not alone. I felt the structure of the class was smooth and the content/material was very useful. I am thankful I participated in this class.

 
 

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Turning Testosterone Around in Childcare

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I talked recently in one of my workshops about some of the ways testosterone affects boys on a physical and emotional level. In this post I will give a short-list of some of those, and over the next several days offer suggestions for ways childcare providers can turn the power of “T” to their advantage. If you don’t work in childcare, adapt the ideas or get in touch with me about your individual situation.

In boys testosterone is associated with:

  • A tendency toward risks
  • Aggressiveness
  • A tendency to compete/boast–fight/argue
  • Linear problem solving (there’s only ONE way rather then choosing from multiple solutions)
  • Immediate release (no delayed response)

Those things can all cause problems, but testosterone can also inspires boys to:

  • Rescue
  • Protect and serve
  • Defend
  • Be Loyal
  • Assert
  • Stand Up For Others
  • Plan
  • Get Stuff Done
  • Take Action/initiative
  • Fight for a Cause
  • Make a Difference
  • Go on a Mission.
  • It can relate to executive function, the ability to break something down, figure out the steps, and make it happen.

All of these are good things if we can steer them in the right direction. Here’s one practical idea.

Idea #1: Give him a mission. You can do this in simple ways or complex ways. Just telling a boy that you have a special mission for him can be a great way to get some help with a little job. It also gives him a sense of purpose and accomplishment. He will be proud that he has helped you. But you can make it much more fun than that.

I talked to a provider who had a problem with a wet area on her playground. The boys were ALWAYS magically drawn to the water and mud and she was sending them home with muddy clothes daily during the springtime. It’s great to let boys play in the mud sometimes, but it’s okay to know when to say when.

I recommended that she have a talk with the boys and tell them she needed their help. Tell them that she had a special mission for them. It was their mission to keep all the kids safe from “quicksand mud hole.” She asked them for some ideas and if they could help her teach the other children how to stay clear of the water.

They really got into it. They made yellow triangle caution signs, put up cones and ropes, talked to all the kids about the “danger,” and in general became the mud hole lifeguards.  Naturally, they had to set an example for the others as well. In the end, the number of plastic grocery bags being sent home full of muddy, wet clothes was greatly reduced, and the little guys got to have a meaningful role they could be proud of.

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2014 in Present Moment Parenting

 

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