Raising Emotionally Healthy Boys: David Thomas
What's it take to raise emotionally strong boys? Veteran counselor David Thomas knows males typically aren't equipped with skills to name and navigate their experience—and the fallout is grave. Thomas lays out strategies to equip boys for a powerful present and future.
Developmental theorists would say most girls finish adolescence somewhere around 19 to 20. They would say, for boys, it’s 22 to 25. -- David Thomas
About the Guest
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What’s it take to raise emotionally strong boys? Counselor David Thomas lays out vital strategies to equip boys for a powerful present and future.
Raising Emotionally Healthy Boys: David Thomas
David: Developmental theorists would say most girls finish adolescence somewhere around 19 to 20. They would say, for boys, it’s 22 to 25.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife—
Dave: I’m sitting here with a mom of boys! You are, I think, the greatest mother of boys. Of course, I might be a little biased.
Ann: I think you’re very biased!
Dave: But you were fantastic as a mom of boys!
Ann: It’s easy to say that looking back, you know? Because when I was in the midst of it, I felt like I was failing miserably.
Dave: I’m just telling you, I’m just your husband, and I’m not biased at all. [Laughter] I mean, even this weekend, watching you with our grandsons, you walk in and light up a boy’s life! You understand boys like I’ve never seen.
Ann: Aww, thanks.
Dave: So, I’ve got one question for you, because we’re going to talk about raising boys today; emotionally healthy boys. What would you say is the most important advice you could give a mom? [Laughter] or a dad?
Ann: I mean, the first thought—and this is crazy—that comes to my mind is embrace the physical chaos. That’s the first thing. It feels like chaos with little boys, because they just don’t sit very often, and they’re physical, and they’re loud. So, as a mom, if you’re trying to get a house that’s quiet and in order, you’re going to be super frustrated! [Laughter] Because it’s pretty chaotic with little boys, in a good way, and it can be really draining physically.
Dave: We’ve got the expert in the studio. You’re not a boy mom; you’re a boy dad and a father of a daughter as well: David Thomas. It’s your first time ever on FamilyLife Today, I think?
David: I am so grateful to be here with the two of you. It makes sense to me why you would have said what you just said, and that’s been my experience so far with you.
David: [You’re] a really intentional mother of boys. It’s been fun to hear you tell stories.
Ann: You’re so nice! That means a lot.
Dave: You know, I can tell already you’re a counselor. You can just tell by the way you—
Ann: He’s empathetic!
Dave: You have been encouraging to us. Tell our listeners what you do sort of every single day of your life, and for how many years?
David: 25 years now.
Dave: 25 years.
David: Yes! I have been the Director of Family Counseling at an amazing place in Nashville, TN called Daystar Counseling Ministries [Website: daystarcounseling.com] . The whole focus for us is the pediatric population, so we work just with kids, adolescents, and families.
Out of that work, I have written some books and had some incredible opportunities just to travel around the country and talk about different aspects of parenting. I’m super-grateful those opportunities led me to be with the two of you today sharing conversation.
Ann: That’s so sweet.
David: So, thank you for having me.
Dave: The book we’re going to talk about today [is] Raising Emotionally Strong Boys: Tools Your Son Can Build On for Life.
Ann: And let’s just let our listeners know that David had twin boys.
David: We went to our ultrasound for our second pregnancy—we got pregnant a year later, and we were incredibly grateful, and went for the ultrasound as you do. We walked in the door and said to the technician, “Okay, we’re really old school. We don’t want to know what we’re having.” Y’all, I can still remember where I was standing in that room as the technician looked up, and she said, “I see two heads.” I remember thinking, “Why are you smiling if the baby has two heads?” [Laughter]
Nothing about that looked or sounded right to me! [Laughter] I was genuinely that shocked! I said to the technician at that point, “Okay, actually, change of plans, we do need to know, since we’re so far behind. I’m going to lie down next to my wife, and then you tell us what we’re having.” [Laughter]
Ann: Did you?
David: Yes! I laid down on the bed next to her in the middle of this ultrasound. [Laughter] And she said, “Two boys.” We are still recovering from that news, 20 years later. [Laughter] So, [I’m the] father of a daughter and twin sons. I don’t know if the two of you would say this has been true in your life, but I’m sure, for me, that those three human beings have been the greatest teachers of my life.
David: I’ve had some incredible teachers and mentors in my life that I’m thankful for, but I have learned more from being a student of those three people than I have in any other relationship.
Ann: I think though, David, what you said is true: I used to think, “Oh, I can’t wait! God has chosen me to be their parent, because I’m going to instill this knowledge and this wealth of spiritual maturity to my children.” And then, I got along the road, and it was like, “Oh! This isn’t about my children—about changing them—as much as it is this whole process changing me!”
Ann: It’s making me see my flaws; it’s making me see my weaknesses; it’s making me depend on God.
Ann: And so, having boys, and having had a girl first, were they different?
David: Oh, my goodness, were they different! [Laughter] And not even just having a girl, but a first-born girl. And that is not to say that every first-born girl meets the criteria of a first-born, but it is to say a lot do, which is to mean that my daughter, like a lot of first-born girls, is conscientious; she’s a rule-follower. I could run down a long list of things that are true about her that stay true; that were not as true—
In fact, you know ,maybe my best example of this would be, when she was a Senior in high school, she was in the middle of applying for scholarships to college, applying to colleges, and applying for scholarships, she would come home and say things repeatedly to my wife and I like, “Hey, I just want to let you both know that I applied for this scholarship today. I’ll hear back in two weeks.” We didn’t even know that scholarship existed, you know? [Laughter] We certainly didn’t know the deadlines.
She applied to more colleges than I knew. And my sons are amazing, and they brought very incredible strengths to that process, but it looked different. Their strengths are different. And they were maybe even greater because of her “first-bornness.” I’ll make up that word! [Laughter] That has made the entire journey look different.
So, it was such a learning curve, not only to jump from girls to boys, but obviously, one to three.
Ann: Oh, yes!
David: You know, my daughter was not two when my sons were born.
Ann: Were you a therapist at that time?
David: I was.
Ann: And so, you had tools going in—
David: In my head, I had those tools. [Laughter] Every therapist who’s transparent and honest will say to you, “All of what you know”—and my wife’s a teacher, and she’d say the same—“All of what works with other kids” (in terms of our vocations)—
David: —“does not always work with your own.” You get humbled in a remarkable way to learn that this book knowledge, this thing I’m communicating to parents, doesn’t always work the way I’d like it to work in my own home. So, it’s part of where they’ve been these great teachers. Humbling me, and I think, even allowing me, hopefully, over the course of my work, to be present with parents in a different way, because I understand the reality that the three of us know: you can do so many of the right things, and you can read all the right books and listen to the right podcasts—
David: —and things [can] just be really hard and not go as planned. Knowing that God is creating opportunities, as you beautifully said, for our growth [and] for our transformation as much as for our kids.
Dave: Talk about, you know, as a therapist and as a dad, the differences between a daughter and a son. And I know they’re unique to every—there are generalities that don’t cross over; you know that better than anybody—but there are differences!
David: There are.
Dave: And you wrote about raising emotionally strong boys. So, I want to get there in a second: why emotionally strong, because a lot of people would think, “Just raise strong boys.”
Dave: But talk a little bit about differences.
David: Well, I think one is the very thing you’re pointing to, which is just so wise to highlight on the front side, is their energy is different.
David: We know that early on, girls have advanced abilities to regulate themselves differently than boys. It’s why they have more physicality to who they are as people in this world, and even to their emotional experience. That’s something I talk about in the book: that research would show us that toddler-aged boys are more prone, in a classroom, biting, hitting, kicking, screaming, throwing. It’s that need for release that exists in him that is different in a lot of girls. It’s why a lot of adolescent boys are prone to punching holes in drywall. I don’t hear that story about girls as often.
It's not to say it can’t happen, but it is to say that energy, that physicality, that intensity is something that we have to work to create—in the book I call it—“healthy outward movement.” Otherwise, it will come out, but it may not be healthy; or boys will turn inward on themselves, and neither of those is a helpful, healthy direction. So, to your great question, I think it starts with understanding their energy, and then kind of placing that in the context of their emotionality.
The other thing that I would say is, you know, pediatricians would report that at 16-18-month well visits, most girls are saying around 100 words; most boys are saying around 30. So, if her general vocabulary is larger, it makes sense that her emotional vocabulary would be larger as well. So, we’re going to have to labor longer with boys to help them develop a more full, expansive, emotional vocabulary.
So, I love that you asked that question right out of the gate, because it simply means we always want to be thinking about these unique, God-given strengths that exist, that make their hardwiring different, or we could simply miss a lot of opportunities. We could simply place expectations on our sons that aren’t helpful for them.
Can I throw out one last one?
David: Developmental theorists would say most girls finish adolescence somewhere around 19 to 20. They would say, for boys, it’s 22 to 25! That’s significant! [Laughter]
Ann: It’s significant!
Dave: Do you know why Ann’s laughing right now? Because she married me at 22! I know that laugh. It was like, “I married an adolescent.”
Dave: And it was sort of like I was not mature yet.
Ann: I’m laughing though, because we had one of our sons say, “I don’t think I was emotionally mature until I was 25.” For him to say that now, as a thirty-some-year-old! He’s like, “I don’t think I even knew who I was!” It felt like he said, “My wife knew exactly who she was and how to respond emotionally.”
David: I love his transparency! I think a lot of adult males can say that. Your reality was my reality. I was 24 when we got engaged and 25 when we got married. I remember my wife came to a class I taught on boy development at one point. I shared that reality that I just shared. On the drive home, I said, “Sweetheart, you married an adolescent.” She said, “I know.” [Laughter] It's no surprise to her!”
Dave: They knew long before we did!
David: Long before we did! Absolutely. So, I think, if we are embracing that kind of wisdom, and knowing that to be true, that God designed us to finish out adolescence in different times, then it allows us to accurately place the finish line at 25 for boys. Now, he might get there a little bit earlier, but somewhere in that 22-25 space, as opposed to, you know, I think we launch boys out into the world sometimes around 17, 18, 19, saying, “Go be a grownup.” And he could have a good eight years of adolescence left.
So, it’s where, you know—in some previous work I’ve written on boys, I talk about how intentional I want to encourage parents to be with the summers of a boy’s college years. I think there’s so much learning that happens in the classroom between 18 and 22, but I think the summers of those years [that] I want boys working. I want them doing internships and practicums and missions experiences, where there is so much growth and learning happening to honor their development and all of the growth that still needs to be taking place in that time that I think is as pivotal as whatever kind of learning that’s happening in the classroom as well.
Ann: And you want them doing those kinds of things in the summer versus what?
David: Nothing, which is where I think a lot of boys, sadly, in this day and age more than ever, are going to land. I have a section in the new book about how often I sit with boys who say, “I just want to chill summer.”
David: And if I drill down on that, I know what that always means. “I don’t want a bedtime; I don’t want a wake time; I don’t want any expectations; I don’t want any chores; I don’t want a summer job; I don’t want a schedule. I want unlimited screen time.” There’s a lot of ways that I think boys would define a “chill summer.”
David: Because they aren’t self-actualized enough to structure that time well for themselves, they need us to help them structure it. Again, honoring development; my sons need that differently than my daughter needed that. They’re 20. Where she was at 20 looked very different, because I understand development, than where they are right now.
All of the ways that I think that might help us think; for example, you know, I sit with a lot of families who would say to me, “David, I think my son might benefit from a gap year. I think it could be helpful for him to do some work for a year before he goes to college and have a better understanding of the value of money, a better understanding of the value of education, and so many things.”
And that’s not a right decision for every boy, but I’m not surprised when it’s a right decision for more boys than girls. I don’t sit with as many parents of girls who would see evidence. That’s not to say girls don’t benefit from that; there are some who do. But again, we are really looking at all of what’s true about growth and development and these differences we’re discussing, I think it would mean we would make some different decisions on behalf of the amazing sons that we love, to honor their development.
Dave: Yes; well, let’s talk “emotionally strong.”
David: I would love to.
Dave: Because, even in your title, as I picked up your book, I thought, “What does that look like? How does that work?” I remember (and I’ve shared this here before)—you know I have three sons. Steve, whom we started a church together with, had three daughters.
Ann: I can’t believe you’re sharing this!
Dave: Well, this was fascinating. [Laughter]
Ann: Fascinating or bad?
Dave: We’ll see! Steve knows this story. They were visiting, and we were jumping into our minivan. I remember two of their daughters, ten or eleven years old, probably—9, 10, 11—started talking about who wants to sit in the captain’s seats behind me. They were arguing about, “No, I want the seat. I want the seat!” And I got frustrated. I’m embarrassed to say this! I turned around, David, and I said, “Just punch her in the arm, and take the seat!” [Laughter] Because I had never in my life heard two boys communicate! They just pushed each other out of the way and grabbed a seat, and that’s how life went!
Ann: This is why God gave us sons and not daughters! [Laughter]
Dave: Well, there are two questions there: one is, there’s a sense that they were more emotionally healthy than boys were at that time. But I’m setting you up for a later question: here’s a dad who’s not emotionally healthy; how is an immature, emotionally unhealthy dad going to raise emotionally healthy boys or daughters?
We’ll save that one, but talk about this: what do you mean by “emotionally strong?” Help us, as parents, understand what you were trying to do. What does that look like?
David: I think it’s a boy’s ability—a male’s ability—to name and navigate his experience.
David: So, to understand what I’m feeling and what to do with it. As simple as that sounds, the three of us know we’re living in a world where, I would argue, the higher percentage of males don’t know how to name and navigate their experience.
Dave: I one hundred percent agree!
Dave: When you said that, I was thinking [that for] most men, even now at 40, 50, or 60 years old, I think, it’s really difficult. I’m not saying I know if women can or not, but I know, as a guy, that’s not easy.
David: It’s not; and I think it’s a part of why adult men in this world lead some of the scariest statistics that are out there. We as males lead the stats for infidelity, internet pornography, substance abuse, and suicide. If you think about just those four, the common denominator being – it is a male’s attempt to try to numb out or avoid whatever it is that he’s feeling. “I can’t name it, I can’t navigate it, so I want to figure out how to shut it down in some way.”
The stats are higher for girls, adolescent females, and adult women to struggle with anxiety and depression, and yet more males die by suicide. It’s connected to that reality that we don’t know how to recognize the struggle, and we don’t know how to ask well for help.
I came across this fascinating data as I was doing the research for this book, even on the number of women—adult women—who go every year for their well visit with their doctor versus men. It’s like we just don’t attend to our health: our physical health, our emotional health, and often our spiritual health. We don’t know how to ask for help when we’re struggling in any of those categories, whereas you, as women, often do. And even the way you do relationships. I have a whole section in the book on the strength of connection.
David: The way you build relationships; the ways you are transparent, often in relationships. And again, hear me say, there are women who don’t know how to do that well, and there are men who do. But, generally speaking, I come across more men who don’t. You know, in 25 years of doing this work, I commonly sit with families, unfortunately, who are in the middle of one of those categories I named: husbands who’ve been unfaithful in their marriage, husbands who are in the throes of addiction. And I have, for over two decades, sat in the residual of what that looks like in marriages and in kids. I want to, on my watch, just say that I knew to do everything I could possibly think to do to be a preventionist in this work.
You know, I spend a lot of my days as an interventionist, helping families on the other side of these struggles, and it’s like, “Okay, how much more could I be talking about what we could be doing with boys on the front side of development, and be doing with adolescent boys in the middle of development, and be doing with adult men even farther down the road in development, to be developing in these ways to change those statistics?”
A mom I met a couple of weeks ago—I wrote a workbook for elementary-aged boys to go with this book, Raising Emotionally Strong Boys.
Dave: It’s sitting right here.
David: And it’s called Strong and Smart. The mom said to me, “David, I bought your workbook for my seven-year-old son, but I’m mostly using it with my 37 year-old husband.” [Laughter]
And I said, “That’s fair! You use it with whatever age male is in your household!” Because the thing that I say in the front of the book and that I want folks to hear me say so strongly right now is, it’s never too late. It's never too late!
It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks. It turns out we can learn new things. And I have another seven-year-old boy who’s doing the workbook with his grandfather. When he told me that story, y’all, I almost wept. The thought of a little seven-year-old boy doing this with his grandfather in his sixties, and that they’re learning these things together – it overwhelms me! It overwhelms me on so many levels: one, I think about what that grandfather’s last seasons of marriage might look like differently if he could name and navigate his experience, too.
David: The gift of this little boy getting to sit front-row to one of the men he trusts the most in this world, doing this work in front of him! I just think that’s what I hope can happen for so many dads is that they can allow the boys they love sitting front-row and watching what it looks like to learn new skills, and how that impacts relationships.
Ann: Oh, we have so much more to talk about!
Ann: We do! But David, I wish I had had this book with our young boys. Don’t you, Dave?
Dave: Oh, yes.
Ann: And Dave, I thought it was so humble of you to say, “I wasn’t an emotionally strong man!” That is so humble of you to say that.
Dave: Can we [redact] hat from the broadcast?
Dave: No, it’s definitely true. And the sad thing is, I didn’t know it. And I think most men—and women—if they’re there, don’t know it when they’re in it. What you just said: I’m in my sixties, and you know what? It’s not over! I can continue to grow emotionally strong.
Dave: Even with grown men now, who are my sons (and with my daughters-in-law). And I hope that’s an encouragement to any man and moms listening right now, wherever you are. What you just said, David, it’s that you’re still alive. You can still grow!
Ann: And God—
Dave: You may need to go back and say, “I’m sorry.”
Dave: To your sons, who are grown men now. I’ve had to do [it] and say, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”
Dave: “I didn’t do it with malicious intent, but I failed in many ways. I’m sorry. Can we go forward from here?” And hopefully, there’s forgiveness there, and you can move forward.
Shelby: I love what Dave was talking about there at the end. It is never too late to change and ask the Spirit of God to be that change-agent in your life.
You know, you might be thinking, “It’s impossible for me to change! I’ve been stuck in a rut for way too long. I’ve been doing the things I’ve been doing for way too long.” Don’t believe that lie! If you have God’s Spirit inside of you, you have the power that raised Christ from the dead! Trust me, you can change. Just have the posture of, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with David Thomas on FamilyLife Today. David has written a book called Raising Emotionally Strong Boys: Tools Your Son Can Build On for Life. This is a great book that sheds light on, really, common emotional struggles, including anger, anxiety, and depression, that can be so prevalent in boys. He goes after it; he tackles it; and as you’ve just heard, he has lots of great, God-centered solutions for us.
You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329; again, that number is 800-F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word, “TODAY.”
You know, one of the things that I struggle with as a dad is being able to teach my kids lessons, but also be able to have fun at the same time. You know when you try to sneak a little bit of spinach into their fruit smoothie so they don’t even actually know what you’re doing? Well, you can do that with this new resource called Ferret Flush. It’s a fun card game that you can play with your family that will teach them important life skills and emotionally healthy skills, but you’ll do it in a fun way. You can do that as a family.
So, that game, along with the FamilyLife Art of Parenting® course, which is a video course to help you learn how to instill character, discipline, great relationships, and healthy identity in your kids. Both of those resources are going to be our “thank you” to you when you partner with us financially here at FamilyLife. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com and make your donation, or again, you can give us a call at 800-358-6329; that’s 800-F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word, “TODAY.” Or feel free to drop your donation in the mail to us. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL 32832.
Now, coming up tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are back again with David Thomas. He’s going to talk to us about the oh-so-tricky topic of conversation related to gender dynamics. Raising boys and raising girls are very different things. He’ll unpack that for us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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