This is How Boys are Tough

By Mark Hess.


Lucas, a 3rd grade student, has missed a day of school because of a stomach ache. He returns on Thursday and Friday but manages to stay inside for recess. His stomach hurts all weekend, and he doesn’t want to go back to school on Monday. On Monday morning, his mom discovers the cause of the stomach ache. Another boy in his grade has been taunting Lucas at recess, and he does not want to go back to school ever again. “I don’t understand why someone would treat someone else like that,” he tells his mother.


3rd grader Nolan runs the last few strides into the classroom. He perches atop a desk, impatient for instructions and eager to get started on a project. “What are we going to do today?” He interrupts. He hushes his classmates with that loud boy voice my teaching colleagues know all too well at this age. “Come on, guys! Listen up! Listen up so we can get started! It’s not fair that the other class has gotten to start on their projects already!”


Jamison competes in gymnastics. He has been repeatedly warned not to perform a flip from atop the bench on the playground, yet he can’t seem to resist. This parkour move from the bench is not a good model for other 4th graders who do not share Jamison’s strength or training. Later at recess, rough play on everyone’s part has led to a stern lecture before the line of students is allowed to return to class. A half hour later, Jamison has asked permission to leave his classroom so he can speak to the playground monitor. He wants the opportunity to apologize for his and the entire 4th grade’s behavior.


Though these three boys are navigating life quite differently in some ways, they share two strong characteristics: they are gifted learners, and they have tremendous leadership potential.


Gifted boys, like all gifted children, are wrapped in intensities. Emotional intensity in the gifted is, as Lesley Kay Sword so poetically describes it, “vivid, absorbing, penetrating, encompassing, complex, commanding—a way of being quaveringly alive.” Gifted boys and girls alike are able to make connections others cannot, are able to see another’s perspective at a young age, can understand struggles other people experience, and are masters at pinpointing injustices. Because of these intensities--most beautifully--gifted children carry a vast capacity for empathy.


As gifted boys, Lucas, Jamison, and Nolan’s ability for insight and empathy are quite likely unmatched by their male classmates. With the proper guidance, gifted boys are poised to become leaders.


We all know the gifted boy who is overflowing with vocabulary and verbal details about any number of topics—depending on what show he has recently seen on The Discovery Channel or what video he watched on YouTube. I am willing to bet, however, that the overflowing vocabulary and piles of details don’t have much to do with feelings and emotions. Gifted boys—like all boys--may struggle with the expression of empathy and the words to express feelings. Those tendencies don’t mean a gifted boy’s capacity to feel empathy is diminished . . muted, perhaps, but still ever-present. In a society which chooses to define male toughness through acts of strength and bravery and bravado, gifted boys—especially sensitive to the world around them—must be given permission to feel their full range of feelings. They must be shown there are a variety of ways to be tough and that emotional courage is a valid form of courage.


Gifted boys must understand that the sensitivity and intensity through which they experience life is shared by other boys just like them. Yes, you belong. Yes, others are like you. When these understandings are in place, even our 8-12 year-old gifted boys can develop strong leadership skills—if not by overt expressions of leadership, then by becoming positive role models for their friends, in their classrooms, and as a part of their school communities. Read through the lens of gifted education, Kindlon and Thompson’s Raising Cain: Protecting the Social-Emotional Lives of Boys, we come away with even more poignant insights. If gifted boys understand that “courage and empathy are the sources of real strength in life” (p. 249), then our gifted boys possess a tremendous potential to make a positive impact.


For some reason, the kitchen frequently became our meeting place after ball games and sports practices. The best conversations I had with my gifted son were standing side by side in the kitchen, both of us leaning against the counter and gazing ahead at – well – nothing, really. We talked about teammates and games and coaches—what we liked and didn’t like, what looked like success and what looked like disappointment. There were often emotions expressed in those conversations, and many of the conversations went well beyond sports . . . but it was a rare instance when we talked about feelings. Feelings were understood, implied, inferred. My son trusted me, and we both understood the boy language would take care of itself. I did not orchestrate these conversations as a teacher or as a dad and mentor. Somehow, they just felt right for both of us.


As teachers and parents, we must remember that we can’t easily talk directly to boys about emotions and feelings. We must remember that unless we can frame social-emotional lessons in boy language, we will not reach a receptive audience. I teach 30 elementary school boys in my gifted program each week. At ages 8-12, puberty and the culture of cruelty for these boys are just around the corner, and the stakes are about to be raised. The culture of cruelty all boys endure will be a time when being different from other boys in words or actions is treading a perilous ledge. This is particularly perilous for gifted boys who may already feel like something must be wrong with them. As Thompson and Barker state in It’s a Boy, “A boy’s ability to survive the culture of cruelty has everything to do with his emotional resources” (p. 89).


As the adults who love and nurture gifted boys, what do we do? We do not need to stand aside and accept any version of a cruel world. Of my 30 elementary school-aged gifted boys, at least 12 carry both the qualities and status to be leaders inside their classrooms and beyond, and all 30 of them carry the sensitivity to be aware of the culture around them. With this awareness, these boys (truly, all boys) need to know quite specifically: You are OK. You will be safe being exactly who you are.


Through social-emotional instruction in gifted groups, we want boys to understand that their feelings of empathy are shared by other boys. Here again, we have Thompson and Barker stating their findings so eloquently, “The greatest gift to a boy’s identity is a boy like himself, who confirms that he is all right” (p. 204). Let’s take advantage of the intense loyalty boys at this age feel for one another and let this synergy carry boys forward outside of the gifted groups. Armed with understanding and bolstered by acceptance of those like them, let’s urge these boys to model for classmates exactly what treating others with kindness and compassion means.


A windy day in February, a few boys are still going to try to play basketball at lunch recess. Keith is in the middle of it. He is the biggest boy in 5th grade. He also spends time in my pull-out group for high math ability. On this day, Keith is not playing basketball because of a broken thumb, but he is acting as coach. He is gathering boys around the baseline. So far there are only four, and now Keith is a recruiter. “Hey, do you want to play?” He has invited a boy to play who is far on the edge of behavior problems—who has a full-time aid who shadows him all day. Soon, another boy has wandered up from the lower playground where he has had a conflict with some other kids. Keith is waving him over and trying to hurry him along. “Hey, we need another player. Why don’t you play with us?”


This is what leadership looks like at age 11 and 12.


Cole, a 4th grader, is using hot glue to place a dowel onto a portcullis prototype he is building. It is a delicate process, and his building skills don’t quite match his engineering vision. As he places the dowel, the entire construction collapses, and Cole immediately begins to cry. “I’m not crying!” he exclaims—literally, to no one. Engrossed in their own projects, no other student has noticed what has taken place with Cole. He gasps down the tears and sits down not knowing what to do next, but he has pleased the invisible judge and jury. His project fell apart, but he still feels like he won because he has been tough enough (almost) not to cry.