Some things I’ve learned about teenage boys

As the headmaster of a boys’ high school, I’m frequently asked by parents for advice on raising their sons. By far, the most common questions have to do with communication: Why won’t he talk to me? Why does it feel like he’s always pushing me away? The short answer is that you happen to be the parent of a typical teenage boy who’s exploring ways to exercise independence from Mom and Dad. 

With 25 years of experience as a teacher and school administrator at boys’ schools, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to test-drive different methods and approaches for dealing with teenage boys. Here are a handful of tried-and-true tactics that have served me well – ones that might prove useful if you’re the parent of a boy, and especially so if you recently celebrated his twelfth or thirteenth birthday. 

Manage confrontations privately. One piece of reliable advice I always offer rookie teachers is, when dealing with a boy who’s acting out, don’t try to manage the situation in front of his peers. For parents, don’t “call out” your son in front of siblings or friends. 

Boys love to pose. Challenging a boy in front of others encourages him to make a bad situation worse as he tries to save face in front of an audience. Talking to a boy one-on-one is the best approach. Having a private discussion about a concern demonstrates respect, which in my experience is almost always reciprocated. 

Guide him towards the truth. When you confront a boy who’s made a mistake or misbehaved, in an attempt to get things over with quickly and diminish the consequences for his actions, his first reaction may be to offer an account of his story that’s not altogether honest and true. 

As teachers and parents, it’s our job to help young men develop truth-telling habits that reflect the characteristics of integrity and honor that we want them to have. One way to do this is to provide a chance for them to rehearse their story and refine its truth-value with someone they know well. At school, it might be a trusted teacher or coach; at home, maybe an older brother or sister. 

This type of advance “prepping” before talking to Mom or Dad is productive for everyone, especially the boy since it allows him to practice what it feels like to give a true account of a mistake and it naturally positions him to take responsibility for his actions rather than compound his transgression through dishonesty. 

Remind him that you care. So often, boys are characterized as emotionally numb – unable or unwilling to express their feelings. An exterior calm, characterized by a quiet if not brooding nature, often conceals a depth of thought and emotion that’s strikingly complex. 

In the heat of frustration, sometimes we’re inclined to address the problem rather than the boy. A productive discussion about a difficult subject should always start by reminding a young man that we’re talking to him because we care. 

In a school setting, we let him know that there’s a whole group of teachers and coaches and advisors who are working hard to help him find a successful trajectory. At home, just let him know that Mom and Dad love him very much. Providing a caring context is the best way to reach – and teach – a boy. 

Let him make mistakes. This is probably the piece of advice most often given, and the one that’s the toughest to put into practice. Especially so for my generation of parents. We seem naturally wired to insulate our kids from experience where they’re likely to be confronted with hardships and challenges. But those situations are usually the ones that teach us the most about life. 

It’s easy to tranquilize that feeling of anxiety attached to the fear of failure by not trying anything new or different. We need to teach our kids that when you try and fail, you always learn something about yourself – about your strengths and your limitations. With time, they won’t be threatened by failure and won’t let it be an excuse that limits their achievements. 

If you’re the parent of a teen or pre-teen son, I have some good news: they make mistakes with some frequency, and so you’ll have plenty of chances to practice this particular recommendation. For those of us who’ve devoted our careers to working in the field of boys’ education, it’s why we love our jobs: we are well-acquainted with the rhythm of mistakes and refinements and all the rewards that are attached to these cycles of growth. 

Chris Brueningsen is headmaster of The Kiski School, a boys’ boarding school located in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania (