Sunday, August 8, 2010

From Boys to Men: Talks to Have with Young Brothers

Date: Monday, August 02, 2010, 5:41 am
By: Rani G. Whitfield, M.D., Special to

Monday mornings are rough for me. No matter how relaxing the weekend was, I’m up very early, and after hospital rounds, I head to the parish prison to provide health care to inmates. East Baton Rouge Parish Prison houses 1,500 men and women. Unfortunately, approximately 90 percent of the male population looks like me - African American men ranging from ages 16 to 80-plus.

Seeds become plants when nurtured; boys become men in the same way. But in today’s world, the chips seem to be stacked against young African-American boys, and the transition to manhood can be turbulent. High dropout rates, teen pregnancy, towering incarceration rates, low wages with scant economic opportunities, single parent households and high rates of HIV, among other health issues, seem to be plaguing young brothers. This is the plight of many African-American men, and it is a situation that is all too familiar to those who work in this country’s education, public health and criminal justice systems.

Shockingly, African-American children are nearly nine times more likely to have at least one parent incarcerated at some point in their life than their Caucasian counterparts. Today, poorly educated black men are becoming ever more detached from the mainstream of society. This is a problem we can no longer ignore. But where does the education of our youth begin: In the home, schools, churches or prisons?

Today, 63 percent of African-American households are headed by a single parent, with an overwhelming majority of them being single mothers. One out of every four of these women who are employed hold managerial or professional jobs, and almost half of these women have attended college. Despite the strong family values and support these hard working and successful mothers give, many feel that without a strong male figure in the lives of these young men, success can still be somewhat evasive.

Whether sensitive conversations should happen between fathers and sons or single mothers and sons rather than an older role model depends on the child’s situation. Family values, the environment, closeness between mother and/or father and son, etc, all play a role.
Generally, most of the psychological literature supports the notion that mature men are best equipped to help boys become men, so fathers should prepare themselves to discuss sensitive issues such as sex, interacting with ladies generally, avoiding drugs and alcohol and so forth. In cases where the father is not available, mothers would do well to have positive men, such as brothers, uncles, grandfathers, or godfathers provide consistent guidance to their sons.

Consistency is important in the delivery of developmental guidance. Also, good fathers from stable families, who are friends, are viable stand-ins for guiding young brothers, so there are many creative ways to address young brothers’ healthy development through positive male guidance with or without fathers in the home.

Since it’s “back-to-school" time, fathers or men who are providing guidance to young brothers are advised to be knowledgeable about boys’ stages of development so that the guidance provided is effective. In that vein, regardless of age, honesty, reciprocity, and respect should be instilled in young brothers from infancy to high school graduation and beyond.

- Honesty: Telling the truth goes toward establishing trustworthiness or dependability.

- Reciprocity: Working to help the family and other people and in return receiving earned rewards and benefits.

- Respect: Behaving courteously with peers, as well as acting obediently when interacting with adults generally and other important people, such as teachers, religious and civic officials.

These core values should be taught based upon the child’s ability to understand or in psychological terms – the child’s stage of development. For example, a two-year-old is only concerned with the consequences of his actions and has not developed intellectually to the point of reason, so instilling honesty may come through “time-outs,” whereby the child is isolated or is not allowed to participate with others as a consequence of lying.

The point is establishing these core values early because they have far-reaching implications for children in terms of health, well-being, and effective social functioning. If they are reinforced at each stage of development, from primary grades to high school graduation and beyond, children generally - and young brothers specifically - are more likely to succeed against the challenges of growing up in a world where, among other things, HIV-AIDS, drugs, sexual pressures, violence and fast foods predominate.

The beginning of the school year is just around the corner, and it is time to have these sensitive conversations - conversations with a purpose that can steer these young boys and men in the right direction. The start of the school year can be overwhelming and also fun, but it all begins at home. Although some discussions will be sensitive in nature, it is best to come from the parent/guardian rather than the bully at the school yard or an older peer with misinformation. These discussions will change depending on the age of the student, but some will never change, like the importance of proper hygiene, nutrition and rest; limiting the amount of time spent watching television and talking/texting on the phone; reading more and spending less idle computer surfing without parental supervision.

The transition from elementary school to middle school is a pivotal time for young men. New friends, teachers, a different bus route and a new environment can be very intimidating. These eager-to-learn sixth graders are no longer the “big kids on the block” and are taking a back seat to the slightly more mature seventh and eighth graders. Not only will they be introduced to a tougher curriculum, but they will also face challenges with their developing bodies.

Puberty for young men starts between the ages of nine to 14, as compared to young women, who start slightly earlier at ages eight to 13. Questions about sex and the body are sometimes uncomfortable between a growing boy and his mother; therefore, single mothers should seek input from their male pediatrician/family doctor. If the health care provider is not male, they should find a male role model, such as an uncle, dad or grandfather that they trust to deliver healthy messages about the body and sexuality.

Single mothers also play a vital role in teaching young men respect for other women. It is always important to remind them that as a woman, certain things such as profanity, rude behavior and name-calling is inacceptable, as they would not appreciate these gestures said or done to them. The same respect mothers demand is required for the young ladies their sons share the classroom with. These messages are reinforced by the male role model who not only talks the talk, but walks the walk.

Middle school is also a great time to lay down household rules. Chores and homework must be completed in a timely fashion or privileges should be suspended. This creates structure and gives each young man a sense of responsibility.

Limiting time watching television and supervised Internet browsing is also very important during these developmental years. In January of 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study about the amount of time young people spend with entertainment media. It was estimated that eight to 18 year olds devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day (More than 53 hours a week). Because they have the ability to “media multitask” (watch TV, browse on the Internet, talk on cell phones and listen to MP3 players), they can actually pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those seven hours and 38 minutes. African-American and Hispanic children spent far more time with media than Caucasian children. Setting boundaries on usage, getting involved in online projects and knowing what Internet sites these young men visit are of the utmost importance. Creating healthy habits early will carry over into high school.

An emphasis on good nutrition is also essential at this time as these young men are still growing. Studies show that breakfast is truly the most important meal of the day for these youngsters, providing them with nutrients to help them get started. Students who eat a healthy breakfast, especially those low in processed sugar (i.e., high fructose corn syrup) perform better in school, pay more attention and score higher on tests. I often recommend a multivitamin to students to supplement what they may be missing from their meals and school lunch programs. In general, avoiding soda machines, eating fresh fruits and vegetables and getting regular exercise is a must for these growing bodies.

Testosterone levels are running high, and the young ladies are calling. Questions about driving privileges, dating, curfews and spending money are commonplace during this evolution.
The transition to high school is a critical juncture for these young men and can be a trying time for single parents as they try to juggle the adolescent’s social life with their own day-to-day responsibilities. If you factor in sports and after school activities, it is very easy to see how a single parent can become stressed out. This stage of life for both the student and the parent requires patience, understanding and the realization that every single request by the maturing young man cannot be met.

Statistically, ninth graders run the greatest risk of failing and not being promoted to the 10th grade. Increased autonomy, decreased parental involvement and increased peer influence at this stage all play a part. This is also the age where exposure to risk taking and illegal activities becomes more prevalent, and the potential for drug use is of major concern. Students with weak academic preparation and low self esteem are in jeopardy of succumbing to these negative behaviors and not advancing to the higher grades. Once this happens, the likelihood of them graduating from high school significantly decreases.

If single moms are without male role models and are unable to steer their sons in the right direction, mentoring programs (such as Big Buddy or 100 Black Men of America), local fraternal organizations and sports programs (boxing, basketball, football or track clubs) are great resources. Researching these programs and the individuals who run them is important, but they can be very effective if you find the right combination.

One of the most pressing issues in the African-American community is the leading causes of death among young African-American men. For all men ages 15-29 in the United States, regardless of race or ethnicity, the top three leading causes of death are unintentional injury, suicide and homicide. For African-American men of this same age group, homicide is the leading cause of death. It's three times the rate for Hispanic men, the population with the next highest homicide death rate in the country.
It is so important for young African-American men to have not only self respect, but also respect for others. Homicide and suicide are permanent answers to temporary problems. Even with all the technology in the world, once a life is gone, it can never be brought back. Young men must understand the consequences of their actions, and hearing these messages from parents or individuals who have turned their lives from crime can be life changing. Some mothers in my practice have requested tours of the prison for their sons who have gotten off track in hopes that it may deter them from future mishaps.

It is our duty and responsibility as parents/guardians to provide our children with the best possible opportunity to succeed. Seeking out mentors in the community will provide them with guidance and structure and give them the tools to be successful. Urban Prep Academies in Chicago and Capitol Prep in Connecticut have found that with longer school days, uniforms, discipline, integrity, structure and role models, students can excel academically.

Mohandas Gandhi once said, “A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.” We expect and should teach our young men at all stages to behave and work well, be respectful and polite, listen and act sensibly, and to have pride in themselves. Surrounding them with positive role models can influence their thinking and help shape their futures. The high rates of incarceration, death, unemployment and low graduation rates impact our communities and our economy. Solutions and assistance from the government are important and needed, but we must assist single mothers as mentors, step-fathers, big brothers, and community leaders to ensure the success of these blossoming and flowering young men.

It takes a village to raise a child. I’m willing! Are you?


Dr. Rani Whitfield is a Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based family medical practitioner. Popularly known as "Tha Hip Hop Doc" for his youth-friendly, healthy messages, Dr. Whitfield is a graduate of Sothern University and the Meharry Medical College.

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