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How to Raise a Boy

Last year, attorney, TV host and author Lisa Bloom slammed today's beauty-obsessed culture in New York Times bestseller Think: Straight Talk for Women in a Dumbed Down World, while offering solutions to help girls cultivate and revel in their own intelligence. In her new book, Swagger: Ten Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture, Bloom deconstructs American boy culture to find some institutional forces at work against young men—and lends practical solutions to change the tide, one boy at a time.

When does a strong boy stop and an aggressive boy begin?

Aha! That is the critical question. I call the book Swagger because "swagger," especially when combined with "like Mick Jagger" is the most popular song lyric—across all genres—in the last decade. Swagger is bravado, faking it, arrogance. In the book, I advocate a return to an important lost value: humility. Turns out, kids who are humble do better in school, have healthier emotional development, stay on task longer, overcome frustrations better and enjoy greater success as adults. That's a fat payoff for one attitude adjustment. As (evangelical Christian minister and author) Pastor Rick Warren says, "Humility isn't thinking less of yourself; it's thinking of yourself less." Ironically, the humbler boys wind up stronger, more successful, more empathetic.

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In the book you describe a pretty bleak situation for boys with lower school achievement. How did we get here?

The root of the problem is expectations that are both too high and too low for boys. Many young guys are kinetic: They need to squirm and move and climb and jump, and yet we expect boys as young as 3 to sit still, be quiet and listen. And as recess is cut around the country, we expect them to do this for hours at a time. When they wiggle, they get branded as "bad," and as time goes by, they grow to hate and dread school—a recipe for disaster.

At the same time, many boys today consider reading to be "girly" and mentally check out from books—and we allow it, because "boys will be boys" or "girls mature faster." Where do they get this crazy idea? From us. At home, Mom is twice as likely to read for pleasure as Dad. At school, their (usually) female teachers read to them, and their (mostly) male coaches throw balls with them. That's why some of my core recommendations have to do with getting adult men to role-model reading for pleasure in front of boys. It's so critical to their success in school.

What can a parent do about the rushing tide of violent imagery for boys? Even if you don't have it at home, they'll see movies and play games outside of the home.

Exactly. I call it "thug culture"—music and film and TV that celebrates violence. Parents must be aware of all data pinging its way into our sons' developing minds. Listen to their music. Google the lyrics. Watch the films. You have the right, and the responsibility, to have the usernames and passwords for every website they visit. If they balk, they've lost their Facebook privileges. Period.

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What are ways you can make this kind of violence repellant to boys?

Speak up frequently and loudly for your values! Because the good news is that you are still your kids' No. 1 role model. For example, while consuming content from TV, websites or computer games together, help your son think critically about what he is watching, "What are they trying to sell you?"

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What role does hard wiring play in how a boy behaves?

Certainly genetics is always a factor. But we incarcerate four times as many of our boys and young men today as when I was a kid. Are they four times more criminal? No, of course not. I believe we have simply decided as a culture to be far more punitive towards behavior like simple drug possession, with devastating consequences for our sons. In Texas, for example, kids who misbehave at school—the kind of stuff that used to send kids to the principal's office—are issued tickets of up to $500, and if they're not paid by age 18, they go to jail.

Many states have what's now called the "school-to-prison pipeline," sending kids into the criminal justice system for fighting at school, bad language or truancy. Criminal convictions can follow a man all his life, keeping him out of jobs, housing, licenses and benefits, which I write about in Swagger because even many judges and criminal defense attorneys are unaware of the "civic death" that follows a conviction today.

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