Research has long told us, I think will always tell us, the two biggest mistakes we make in discipline as parents are too much talk and too much emotion. You can find us at familylifetoday.com or on the Family Life app. This is Family Life Today. So we're eating one summer night.
Our boys were 10, 8, and 5. And I wanted to get done with dinner so I could go mow the grass because I love mowing the grass. Did you hear that, ladies? My wife loves to mow the grass. Guys would get all over me and be like, you let your wife mow. She loves it.
I love doing it. But while our kids were eating, all the neighborhood boys would hang out at our house. So I go out to mow and I'm kind of watching this group of five boys underneath the treehouse that you had built. And there's all this spare wood underneath.
It's a very safe environment for boys. I'm watching them as I'm mowing. I'm pushing this mower. And I can see that they're taking this wood and they're going one, two, three.
And then they would try to break this piece of wood across their foreheads. Like a two by four. Two by six, I think.
Yes. They're cheering for each other. I'm like, what is happening right now? They're laughing. They're all into this.
And these boys range from maybe 12 to 8. And so I keep watching. And all of a sudden, this kid, Mike, he's 12 years old and he takes this piece of wood and he tries to break it over his forehead. And all of a sudden I see this blood just trickling down his face. So I turn off the mower and I said, guys, what are you doing?
He goes, Mrs. Wilson, this is amazing. Are you seeing what Mike just did? I said, guys, he's bleeding.
He's like, no, but he was the best at it. And I said, Mike, you need to go home. And I want you to make sure, I could tell that it wasn't that bad, but it was bleeding. I said, make sure you tell your mom what you have been doing. And so they're like, yeah, do it.
Do it, Mike. Go tell your mom. And I just kept mowing thinking, this is the craziest thing. If you would have told me as a young mom that this is what these boys would be doing.
I was like, are you crazy? What kind of a child would try to do this? And it would be some boys. Welcome to the world of raising boys.
And David Thomas is sitting over here. He's a counselor and he's, I mean, your specialty is sort of boys, isn't it? It is.
And everything about the story is making sense to me. Is it really? Yes.
I remember the third trip to the ER with one of my boys, I asked the triage nurse, can you get frequent flyer points like you do in an airlines here? And David, we're talking about your book, Raising Emotionally Strong Boys, and you have twin boys, you have a daughter, but you really do specialize your therapy with boys. And why did you choose boys? I have been asked before why I even wanted to do this work and then specifically with boys. And if I were to think back over the trajectory of my own life, I think in a lot of ways, as I connect dots, I can see evidence of where I maybe always knew I was supposed to do this work. Like I was, I remember being a kid in elementary school and sitting on the playground and people would tell me things and I would think, I don't know that you're telling your other friends these things. And I became a camp counselor when I was in college and I seemed to always get tapped on the shoulder by my friends who had trouble getting the homesick kids to bed at night.
They just wouldn't stop crying. They'd be like, hey, can you come help for a minute? You're kind of a kid whisper in that way. And I would end up going on long hikes with groups of kids and walking beside the kid whose parents had just divorced. So it just, it did feel natural to me to be in those spaces.
I would end up on airplanes and people would kind of tell me their life story. And I think all that was God's preparing me in some ways to do the work that I do. God made you to do this.
I believe he did. I really do. It's so beautiful to hear that. Even at lunch, I'm like, man, you are such a empathetic, caring, tender soul. I want to pour my heart out, don't you?
Yeah. And especially boys need that. It's almost the opposite of what our culture says. You know, boys are strong, they're tough. They don't need, it's the opposite because we're strong and tough. And a lot of times that's a cover for pain and hurt in our life.
They need some way to help them grow emotionally strong to title your book. So today we thought we'd throw some questions at you. Like we've got a counselor in the office with us. And we may not be able to get to all your questions, but you do have a podcast with Sissy Goff, who's been in our show before, who's amazing. She's remarkable. Share a little bit what you and Sissy do.
Well, she is something extraordinary in this world. Grateful that Sissy and I have been friends and worked together for over 25 years now. And we started this podcast years ago. We're in our fifth season at this point where we wanted to take a lot of what we were learning, just sitting in our offices, being with kids and adolescents and families day in and day out and bring that learning to that platform. And so we've been doing this for several years. We're learning all along the way and love having those conversations. My favorite thing that we do is what I'm having the great privilege to do with the two of you right now, which is just to have conversations with other folks. So we started third season and having guests on where we would just ask them questions about what they're learning from this unique journey of parenting.
And so it's been a real gift. It's called Raising Boys and Girls. And we've got a season devoted to ages and stages of development and one that is connected to a book that we co-authored called Are My Kids on Track, which is four emotional, social and spiritual milestones that we want to see kids moving toward.
Our current season right now is called Raising Emotionally Strong and Worry-Free Kids. It's based on her new book and mine. And so really, really grateful for that platform and the opportunity to get to have some rich conversations with folks.
It's so good. I know that Sissy Goff's book has helped my granddaughter and so rich. And then our son, who has four kids, said, have you guys have David Thomas on?
You're like, we want to because we've all benefited so much from what you've written, David. So let's get into the questions. Here's one.
I'd start with what Ann said earlier. If you're a young mom or you have young kids, maybe an older mom or dad, and you really are trying to understand this boy thing about that physicality, like taking a piece of wood and banging it in your forehead, that makes no sense. It's like and especially if you've maybe grown up with sisters or only raised daughters, you may think there's something wrong with the kid.
And there could be, but often it's just a boy. I have had young moms come up to me and say, there's something wrong with my child. And I said, really? Like, I'll totally pray for you.
What's happening? And she'll say, I'm an only child and I have these two sons that are, you know, barely 12 months apart. And all they do is hit, they punch, they run, they're loud, they're dirty and there's something wrong with them. And I remember saying, you know, it never hurts to get help and to get into second opinion, but it kind of sounds like they're just boys. Is that what you would say?
I love that you're saying that. I don't think we can say enough of that to moms. And I sit daily, weekly with moms who didn't grow up with brothers, so either only had sisters or were only children who would say, this creature feels like a foreign entity to me.
Like, I just don't understand so much about what's going on. And it's, it's why the very first book I wrote on boys was a book called Wild Things, The Art of Nurturing Boys. And I just break down five stages of development and I talk about what's going on in each stage and what he needs from the adults in his life. And I would say the greatest compliment I have ever received from writing that book is how many parents have come up to me at events or in the airport, different places and just said, I had no idea he was this normal until I read that book. And I'm so thankful for that feedback because I think particularly for moms, and especially again, if you didn't grow up without any brothers, it feels anything but normal. And I think what instinctively will happen in those moments is that we can over parent or over discipline or set unrealistic expectations out of, again, what we know and what's familiar. I mean, we're creatures of habit.
We always will be falling back when we're not even aware it's happening on what we know and what's familiar. And if boys aren't familiar, if you didn't have brothers, then it makes sense to the story you started with that you would be thinking something's wrong. It fascinates me all the stories I hear from parents of things.
I would never have operated that way in the world, but that made sense to him in that moment. And so I would say that could be a good starting point. You don't have to get my book, but just get some content that allows you to understand more about development to keep from that tendency of over parenting, over disciplining or setting unrealistic expectations. What are some tips that you would give parents with this physicality, especially in the winter when you're living up north and it's snow and cold? You live in Nashville, you don't know about the winter.
They can't be outside, and so you feel like you're going crazy. You would. And we sometimes would literally take them out and say, we're running 100 yards a week, and I'd run with them just to get all that out. And you mentioned in your book about the space, which I'd never heard that term before. So that's another way? Yes, absolutely.
In fact, I would say both of the things you've just said, I want you to lean into. And figuring out how can I do that if the weather is not agreeable. And, you know, we don't have the extremes that you are describing in Nashville, but we have a lot of rain in the spring to where it's just challenging. And I remember going to the mall that's closest to our house, and I would just run them around the top of the mall, and I'd create a scavenger hunt out of the stores so that there would be this release. I say in Wild Things, in some ways we've got to treat it identically to how we would imagine training a puppy that you come home and has been kenneled for a long period of time. Like, you know if you let that dog out and you don't go straight outside, he's going to pee on the floor and tear something apart, or both.
And I think boys are a lot that way. Like, we've got to create enough outlets for release. It's why my wife and I laugh when our boys were little and we had to fly on a plane to see her parents out of state. Our running joke was, we don't board the plane unless everyone is sweaty. Like, we were running laps in the airport, like we would find some space where they could climb, run, move in a way, or else it was going to be a torturous two hours on that plane. And so I think there is wisdom and to the concept of the space, I talk about it as an opportunity for a boy to release the physicality of his emotion.
So he doesn't just have energy in terms of his personhood, he has a lot of energy and intensity in terms of his emotional experience. And so I recommend creating a space, this could be the corner of a rec room or a mud room or your garage, and fill that with tactile and movement-based objects. So for example, when my sons were toddlers, we had a bozo bop it. I don't know if anybody remembers that.
It was inflatable with sand in the bottom and you could pop it and it would bounce right back up. And when they would start to have big emotions, I would say, I can tell you're having big feelings, let's go to the space. And they could punch that bozo bop it. Now, I know there is a mom listening right now that is saying in her head or maybe out loud and hearing me say that, no, I don't want to train him to be a puncher or a hitter. And what I want you to hear me say, please hear me say, is that need for release is instinctive. It's part of how God hardwired him. So you aren't training him to be a hitter, you are creating healthy outward movement. With kids 12 and under, they are in terms of their cognitive development in what we call concrete thinking.
So the world is very black and white. So what this would look like in the space would be, I could put an oversized pillow and I could say, you can punch a pillow, but you cannot punch your sister. You can scream at a pillow, but you cannot scream at mom. You can throw a pillow down, the pillow's not hurt, but you shove a person down and they are.
Do you see the concrete opportunity I'm creating in that? Otherwise, the mistake I think we make with boys is saying things like this, stop being so angry, quit shoving, stop hitting. We're saying what not to do, but we're not saying what to do. So that would be the equivalent of me getting on the airplane to that example I shared without giving my boys a release and saying, quit squirming, sit down constantly. It's like, I didn't give him a release. Of course it's hard to sit still.
I didn't give you a healthier option of how to move that anger, how to move that frustration, how to move that disappointment in a healthier direction. And is there at some point where then you're trying to get them to tell you what they're feeling? Yes.
When does that happen? So all of it happens in the same experience. I have a section in the new book that I call the ABCs of emotional development, and it's naming, breathing, which we can come back to, and coping. So coping would be a lot of those strategies that we put in the space. But I talk about with boys, we often have to reverse that equation. So we got to do coping first, get the energy out, then some breathing to finish settling my brain and body, and then naming the feelings. Okay, that makes way more sense.
It does. And I think we shove a feelings chart, which I'm a real advocate of feelings chart. I talk about it all through the book. But we do that when a boy's amped up with all that intensity and physicality, and then he yells, I don't know what I'm feeling. I'm just angry.
I've done that exact same. And that's what they do. They're so amped up. Like, are you mad? Like, tell me what you're feeling. And they just think they're yelling at me like, I don't even care.
Yes. Which is why using that story I told a little bit earlier with my boys when they were little, until you're having big feelings. But notice I didn't get them to try and name them.
Let's go to the space. The whole focus was just on releasing the intensity, which is really regulation. I talk a lot about that. In fact, if there were one theme in this new book, that would be one of the primary themes is helping kids regulate their emotions, which is all the way back to as we've been talking together over these rich conversations, naming and navigating regulation is the navigating part. It's figuring out the what to do with the emotions. And we got to start there often with boys, the release of the intensity or the physicality, and then we can get to the naming.
So even there, when I talk about naming and navigating, often we're going to do the navigating first and the naming second. Because what's happening, if I were to just real briefly talk about what's going on in the brain, is that when any of us becomes emotionally charged, what happens is that blood flow moves from the front of our brain to the back, from our frontal lobes, which help us manage our emotions and think rationally, to the back of our brain, to the amygdala, that fight, flight, or freeze part. And we try to talk to kids when they're in fight, flight, or freeze. We even try to discipline kids often when they're in fight, flight, or freeze. And discipline is designed for teaching.
It's not designed for punishment. And so if we want kids to make connections, to figure out, okay, I don't need to do this again because I'm going to get in trouble if I repeat this behavior. If their thinking brain is not even online, if they can't think rationally or manage their emotions, it's wasted breath. And then the other hurdle that comes into existence is often when our kids get amped up, we match that intensity and we get amped up. So then we've got two people who don't have their thinking brain online, who can't think rationally or manage their emotions, trying to have a thoughtful conversation together.
That's a train wreck right there waiting to happen. It's why research has long told us, I think will always tell us, the two biggest mistakes we make in discipline as parents are too much talk and too much emotion. The two biggest mistakes we make in discipline as parents, too much talk and too much emotion.
So think about it, we're going in to discipline in a dysregulated state and expecting a dysregulated person to make good connections about what they shouldn't do later. So the primary objective back to what I talked about needs to be coping first, breathing second, naming last. And the breathing part in the book, I call it combat breathing with boys.
Sissy calls it square breathing in her office with girls, but I have to dress it up to get boys a little more bought in. And that is actually something I learned. I've done a lot of work with Navy Seals and Army Rangers. And as a required skill, they've told me they have to demonstrate.
So think about it. These are folks who've got to be able to think rationally and manage their emotions. They are in life or death situations. So if they don't have skills and strategies in place that allow them to calm their brains and bodies, they can't save lives.
They can't do the work they need to do. So combat breathing, something that lowers my heart rate, settles my brain and body, moves that blood flow from the back to the front is a required skill. And I can get more boys and adolescent males bought in when they think, OK, if you're teaching me something Navy Seals and Army Rangers have to do, I'm in. So you've taken them to a place where they've gotten their emotions out. They're hitting something.
They can yell, whatever. Now you're taking them to this breathing exercise. Walk us through, like, what's that look like? So we teach it by having kids trace a square on their leg.
And the tracing of the square is actually a grounding technique. Yeah, Sissy. Sissy did this.
I thought this is so good. Isn't it amazing? And what it also does is it helps kids get the pace and rhythm of breathing because there's a tendency when we're amped up to breathe too fast, which won't slow my heart rate down, which won't move that blood flow from the back to the front. In fact, I had a little seven year old boy came into my office for his first appointment and he said, my mom listens to your podcast all the time. And she says, you talk a lot about breathing. I want you to know I've tried it and it doesn't help me. And I said, well, that is really interesting because everybody I teach it to says that it does help.
Why don't you show me how you're doing it? And he went. I said, OK, that's labor and delivery breathing.
You don't need that ever your whole life. I'm going to teach you a different kind called combat breathing, which is much slower. And that drawing of the square helps get that slower down. So we're going to breathe in on one leg, breathe out on the second, breathe in on the third, breathe out on the fourth. And we're going to pause for four seconds in each. And so that drawing of the square is a grounding technique that automatically is going to do some settling, that slow, deep breathing. You know, I think it's amazing. I love teaching this to kids.
At least 20 seconds of deep breathing will begin to reset the amygdala. Isn't it amazing God made our bodies in that way, that something as simple as breathing could start to slow down my heart rate. I wear the Apple watch and I'll have kids in my office. Watch it.
All right. I want you to look at my heart rate right now. Do you think it's going to go up or go down when you and I breathe together? And kids always know it's going to go down. At least 20 seconds will begin the reset if I double that to 40, twice the benefit.
If I triple it to 60 seconds, one minute of deep breathing will do a lot of work in terms of settling. So that coping, breathing, then I can do the naming part. What's that look like? So I think that's when we do introduce the feelings chart. And anybody listening, if you don't have one on hand, I would strongly recommend you do.
And I want you to do it for two reasons. And you can download one off our website. We've got them on our website, raisingboysandgirls.com.
You can get one there. But the purpose there is this, you know, any of you listening who have kindergartners or first graders, think about how your kid's classroom, I know anyone listening, whatever city, whatever state, somewhere in that space are the letters of the alphabet. Why do we have the letters of the alphabet up in those early learning spaces? Because we know as kids are learning letters, when they can see the letters, it strengthens the connection. Using a feelings chart is the same way. If I'm pointing to the expression, naming the feeling, even for kids who can't even read, it's going to strengthen that connection.
The second reason I'd recommend families have a feelings chart around is that I think it is a great prompt for us as adults, just to remember to fold in more emotional vocabulary into our daily lives. Like, I'm going to challenge any parent listening when you are sitting around the dinner table and we're asking each other those common questions, like, hey, how was your day? I don't want anyone listening going forward to say it was fine. Not allowed.
Not allowed. FINE is an acronym for feelings in need of expression. That's what FINE is.
Say that again. That's good. Feelings in need of expression.
That's what FINE is. And I want you to replace that with, you know what, I felt embarrassed today. I had to give a presentation to the board of directors and I didn't feel prepared. I felt sad today.
I think I said something that hurt a friend or a coworker's feelings and I want to circle back and check in on them. I want kids to get to hear that kind of reporting. And from parents. From parents.
From the grownups they trust the most in this world. And if I were to think back to the earlier question you asked, you know, just thinking about moms of young kids listening. To that point, I want to challenge, and this is true for moms and dads, I want you to think about narrating your experience. That's what I call it in the book, as often as possible.
Now, obviously in an age appropriate way. But part of going back to our earlier episode about how men were socialized, we were taught that you don't name experiences and therefore kids won't be affected by it. So a lot of adults grew up with alcoholics in their family and no one talked about this person who drank too much, raged, sometimes through things. And then we all pretended like it wasn't happening. We were all experiencing something when that happened, but no one gave it a name.
We know now we should have named those experiences. So when we narrate our experiences in age appropriate ways, it helps kids build emotional strength. So if, you know, we had a great tragedy in our city of Nashville recently with the Nashville shooting. And my kids are away at college and they all called home struggling with it in their own ways because they knew folks connected. The head of school was a dear friend of ours who I love. And I was, even with my 20 something year old narrating my experience of just saying, you know, we went to Catherine's service today.
You know, I just wept because I miss her so much. I can't believe this has happened. And here's what I'm doing to figure out how to take steps forward. And do you see how that's naming and navigating with kids? That's what narrating our experience could look like. I had a dad of an eight year old daughter who told me that his daughter came home one Wednesday night from church and she had learned this song at church about worry. And he was driving to work the next day and he got a text he saw at a stoplight. That was some big hurdles he was going to be walking into at work.
And this man owns his own company. And he said, I could feel my heart rate increasing in the car. And I looked in the rearview mirror at this little girl I love and thought about her teaching us the song about worry last night. And I said, sweetheart, will you teach me that song about worry one more time?
Because I think I'm going to need that today. And his very intuitive eight year old daughter said, what are you worried about, dad? He said, you remember during Covid how I shared with you that I can't get all the products I need for my company so I can get the things I want to make for my customers. I think it's happening again.
And I feel worried about that. And so she taught him the song again. She got out of the car and he said, I love you. And she walked back up to the window and she said, dad, I'm going to pray for you today about your work worries.
And I want you to sing that song back to yourself three times. Isn't that incredible? That makes me cry. It's the best.
I can't imagine if my dad had done that and showed that vulnerability and emotion. As a child, I'm drawn to that. And it's a modeling. The modeling piece is like, now I know how to deal with my emotions when they're really strong or hurting or when I'm worried. That's beautiful. Isn't that beautiful? And it's such a picture of naming and navigating. Like, this is what it looks like to feel worry as a grown up, which we all will.
That's normal. And what you taught me last night is going to help me navigate it. So teach me that song again so I can do that back today.
So it could be as simple as that. And I want any parent listening to hear me saying, my guess is that whole conversation between that dad and daughter lasted about three minutes. So I'm not assigning you extra work. I want you to use what's right in front of you. I want you to just have these conversations at the dinner table, but knowing that this is landing on the kids we love. And when they can sit front row to the grown ups they trust the most in this world, naming and navigating, it's the best tool for helping them build emotional strength.
We're going to start that. Here's my encouragement to the dad and mom. As I listen to you, David, it's like everything you said, and even as I read your book about how to raise emotionally strong boys, I thought, wow, this isn't for the boys as much as it is for me as a dad and for moms. But even listening to Ann talk about her dad, who I knew well and loved, he became my dad. He was my high school coach. He never knew how to process emotions. He grew up in that generation. Right.
You weren't even supposed to. It's like you're weak if you admit that. But here's the beauty. His daughter's doing it. Yes. His son-in-law is doing it.
Yes. And so often we think, I didn't get it, so I can't pass it on. Guess what?
You can change the legacy with knowledge and understanding and humbleness to say, God, please change me so that I can pass this on to my kids. That's hopeful. It's like, yeah, don't be the victim and say, well, I didn't get it, so I guess it's just going to be, I'm going to pass on what I didn't get. No, no, no, I can start right now and say what I didn't get, I'm going to find. I'm going to name it.
I'm going to navigate it. And I'm going to raise boys that are doing that someday themselves, and they are. It's so important for me to know that I'm personally in a season with my kids who are currently 12 and 9, and I'm one of the most important grownups in their life.
Yes, it's a season, and that season might shift soon, excuse me while I cry my eyes out, but I can take advantage of that season, and I'm going to. What an important reminder today. I'm Shelby Abbott, and you've been listening to David Ann Wilson with David Thomas on Family Life Today. David's written a book called Raising Emotionally Strong Boys, Tools Your Son Can Build On for Life.
You can pick up a copy at familylifetoday.com or give us a call at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800, F as in family, L as in life, and then the word today. You know, how have you seen loneliness rising around you, like right in your own personal community?
I have seen it. Well, we at Family Life make it easy to connect deeper with God, your community, and your own spouse through Family Life's convicting and hilarious vertical marriage from David Ann Wilson. Because yes, you might just be the person God wants to lead a small group this fall and battle that loneliness that's around you in your community. You're going to find transformative discussion questions for deeper spiritual intimacy, plus a video-based study with zero leader prep. So you can preview vertical marriage in today's show notes, and don't forget that today is the last day you can grab 25% off all of Family Life's small group studies.
It's a smaller price to pay for a closer marriage and community. Again, you can head over to familylifetoday.com to learn more or scroll down to today's show notes. Now tomorrow, David Ann Wilson are back again with David Thomas as he talks to us about addressing unhealthy family dynamics through open and honest communication. That's tomorrow. We hope you'll join us. On behalf of David Ann Wilson, I'm Shelby Abbott. We'll see you back next time for another edition of Family Life Today. Family Life Today is a donor-supported production of Family Life, a crew ministry helping you pursue the relationships that matter most.
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