Boys Tough Enough to Be Kind

Mark Hess

Last spring, I found myself with 18 newly identified gifted 2nd graders in my math and engineering group—mostly boys.  I know most teachers would love just 18 kids in their class, but with boy energy and scissors, hot glue and craft saws, and pokey dowel sticks and little hands just learning how to work with all of these items, it was too much for me to handle.

I split off a group of 5 boys into a different time slot—just “us guys.”  It was a diverse group—an athlete, an artist, quiet boys, boys full of psychomotor intensities, loud boys, and a couple boys somewhere on or near the spectrum.  We shared three things in common, however:  a love for “making stuff,” giftedness, and a respect and friendly admiration for one of our group’s members—Jalen.   Jalen had been diagnosed that spring with leukemia.

It just so happened that one of our group’s meetings came just after a representative from Children’s Hospital had come to Jalen’s class to explain about leukemia. 

As the boys came to my room for their GATE pull-out that day, one of them wanted to explain to me about leukemia.  Others joined in, and soon they were all teaching me.  Little experts.  I listened and asked the boys clarifying questions.  I was somewhat taken aback by their open-ness, and I worked hard to keep the conversation going.  They were talking about important life issues, and I didn’t want them to stop. While I was careful not to ask the boys to share their feelings, they continued to add details in their explanations about cancer.

Eventually, I told the boys how I felt about cancer and then I asked them to tell me how other students in their class were feeling.  Initially they talked about how others were feeling, but they soon started talking about how they, themselves, were feeling about cancer, too.  Circumstances had backed us into the most important social-emotional lesson we would experience all year.  Our most important social-emotional lessons, after all, come from life itself.  

Circumstances had also aligned perfectly with how to talk to boys about feelings.  In explaining about leukemia, the boys were not talking directly about feelings.  Just like the best way to talk about emotional issues to boys is to allow them “to be doing other stuff” during the conversation or to be looking in another direction. Teaching me about leukemia was a good way for the boys in my class to share thoughts and feelings without directly confronting them.  They were doing other stuff and looking in another direction.  It’s wonderful the way they opened up—first talking about how others were feeling and then eventually feeling safe enough to talk about themselves.  These boys had the choice of whether or not to share, and I have to think that me sharing my feelings contributed to the positive direction of the conversation.

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.  It’s important to realize that not being able to verbally express empathy doesn’t mean a gifted boy’s capacity to feel empathy is diminished . . . muted, perhaps, but still ever-present along with all of the other emotional intensities.  In a society that chooses to define male toughness through acts of strength and bravery and bravado, gifted boys—with intensities that make them especially sensitive to the emotional complexities of life—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.  As parents and teachers who love and care for gifted boys, we have an opportunity to share that message.

Gifted boys have the intellectual capacity to understand that one way of being tough might mean being tough enough to show empathy. They often carry the emotional intensity to feel empathy beyond other boys, and if they are not afraid to experience these feelings, then our gifted boys possess a tremendous potential to make a positive impact as leaders.  No, they won’t explain to other 9 and 10 year-old boys about empathy.  They won’t pull a peer aside and have a heart-to-heart chat.  Boy leadership is much simpler than that.  It’s as simple as being tough enough to be kind and inclusive and accepting of others.  It’s as simple as being tough enough to let generosity show.  It’s as simple as letting others be witness to your positive behavior on the playground, at lunch time, and inside the classroom.  We only need a few boys with high boy status to start that trend—maybe an older boy, a boy who is already a leader through athletic talent, a boy who knows how to make others laugh, or maybe a male teacher.  Of the 33 boys currently in my program, I already see these leaders stepping forward.  It’s a trend I am particularly proud of.

As teachers and parents, however, we must remember that we can’t easily talk directly to boys about emotions and feelings.  Let’s remember that unless we can frame social-emotional lessons in boy language, we will not reach a receptive audience.  We’re going to have to sneak up on them by using humor and storytelling, creativity and video, and with hands-on activities and metaphors.  We will need to allow boys to share advice and solve problems—something they love to do—concerning other boys, real or imagined.  Boys will talk about others.  It’s safe that way.  It takes the ownership out of the social-emotional conversation.

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 4th 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 becomes 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 boys.  Keith is waving this boy over, too, and trying to hurry him along.  “Hey, we need another player.  Come on.  Why don’t you play with us?”

This is what leadership looks like at age 10 and 11.

Mark Hess is a gifted resource teacher in Colorado Springs. He is the president of the Pikes Peak Association for Gifted Students and board member for the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented. Hess uses Social Emotional Lessons to Engage Boys, including Doodles Creativity and Storytelling and Origami Balloons and Breadcrumbs.

The views expressed herein represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily the National Association for Gifted Children.