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A guidebook for raising boys

Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James and David Thomas. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2009. 368 pages.

In Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys (13-978-1-4143-2227-8, $14.99), Stephen James and David Thomas make clever use of Maurice Sendak’s book for children, Where the Wild Things Are. The plot to Where the Wild Things Are is simple: Max misbehaves and is sent to his room by his mother, where he imaginatively enters a world where rules and constraint vanish. After enjoying his “wild rumpus,“ Max finally returns safely to his own home and his mother’s love.

In using this story as the thesis for their book on nurturing boys — Sendak’s portrayal of Max,” the authors of Wild Things tell us, “is a great picture of the way, the mind, and the heart of a boy” — James and Thomas guide their readers through the stages of male psychological development, of nurturing boys toward manhood, from the womb to the mid-20s. Their choice of the word nurturing as opposed to shaping or molding, they explain, is deliberate and important, for the idea of nurturing indicates the creation of an environment and guidelines for boys rather than treating them as a drill instructor breaking in a recruit.

The two therapists — Stephen James works as a private psychotherapist while David Thomas tends more toward group therapy — bring into this book years of experience helping young men and raising their own sons. The two men write informally, cite case after case from their personal observations, and offer a sense of wit and humor which alone may reassure many parents facing confusion or frustration in raising a son.

The authors have developed five major stages, or categories, that all males must pass through in order to become men. There is the Explorer, the boy of 2 to 4 years old; the Lover, the boy who from ages 5 to 8 becomes gentler and brings his emotions into play; the Individual, the adolescent who from 9 to 12 begins to assert his independence; the Wanderer, the teenager from 13 to 17 whose credo often mimics the old lines from the Marlon Brando biker movie: “What are you rebelling against?” “Whatta you got?”; and finally the Warrior, the college-age young man who begins to find out through direct encounters with reality — sometimes a little too much reality — how the world works and his place in it.

Other authors have written books about the stages of life, guides for men and women, young and old, but Wild Things seems more astute and workable than many of these. Parents who read descriptions of male behavior in the above stages, for example, will shake their head in knowing wonderment because their son often engaged in the exact sort of behavior cited in Wild Things. Not only do James and Thomas recreate scenarios of typical behavior in their book, they also give tips on how to address and correct inappropriate behavior.

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In their discussion of “The Wanderer,” for instance, James and Thomas make a list of things parents can do to help them connect with their teenage sons. This list runs from “Call your parents and apologize,” meaning call your own parents and apologize for your abuse of them at this stage, to “Feed him,” in which the authors suggest taking your teenage son out for an occasional great meal at a restaurant he enjoys.

At one point in the book, James and Thomas pick ideas from Richard Rohr’s essay “Boys to Men: Rediscovering Rites of Passage for Our Time.” In the essay, Rohr identifies five essential truths that “male initiation must communicate ... to the young man.” These essential truths are important enough to include as part of this review:

1) Life is hard. If, as Rohr says, you can convince yourself of this truth and repeat it until it becomes a part of you, you will suffer less in the long run. In his best-selling The Road Less Travelled, the author Scott Peck offered precisely the same advice — not just to the young, but to everyone.

2) You are going to die. The young should be taught that death will come to them, that they are not immune, and that they should live their lives in such a way that they may courageously face their deaths.

3) You are not that important. Contrary to the modern “I am Special” mantra, this idea acts as the basis for all service.

4) You are not in control. The authors state that God is in control. Non-believers may disagree, but all of us will admit that at times we do not control our lives.

5) Your life is not about you. This, Rohr says, is the essential experience. Young people must know that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves.

One great strength of Wild Things is its practical approach to teaching these lessons and connecting with our sons. In a section titled “Putting the Principles into Practice,” James and Thomas offer several pages of tips. A few of these are “Show physical affection,” “Catch him with his guard down,” “Practice curiosity” (about his life), and “Meet him on his own turf.” Each tip is accompanied by a paragraph of concrete ideas.

Although James and Thomas are Christians as well as psychologists, non-believers would be making a mistake if they let that circumstance dissuade them from reading and using this book. The advice offered here by these two men is invaluable, their message concerning our young men one of hope and optimism. Wild Things is a book all parents can use and value.

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