Raising Real Men: Be Smart

2nd in a three (or four part) series on Raising Real Men in a Rude Crude World

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When I asked Hans and Xander separately on their ideas on raising smart boys I expected them to cite all sorts of examples such as reading books, learning a musical instrument, visiting the library etc. I was surprised by their nearly identical answer– “be prepared to be very different.” My older boys and my nieces from California confirmed the same idea; it is much more socially acceptable for a girl to “be smart” than a boy.

I realized my sons had gone to the very crux of educating boys with their first response. Google “American boys falling behind” or any sort of variation on the those words and millions (it’s Google after all) of articles pop up decrying boys’ lag behind girls in American schools.

An article from NPR pegs the problem, “We have lots of boys who at an early age start to think of education as being not masculine enough.”

How did we get here? In the past, education was highly valued. When did “smart” equate with “uncool”? And doesn’t every parent want to raise intelligent, creative children– boys and girls?

I have ideas on some of the reasons, but I’ll get to those a bit later. If you’ve read this far, you’re the kind of parent who cares about education, so I’ll offer up my best tips.

Take time to educate yourself. I’d placed this further down on the list, but my boys insisted nothing could be more important. When parents love learning, their kids will love it too. Read the paper, listen to the radio, teach yourself an instrument, (a language, any new skill), read books and talk about them, study the scriptures and enthusiastically share your ideas. Erik is the best example of this I’ve ever seen. He often says he doesn’t think he’s particularly smart; he just takes the time to learn. He’s always reading out loud something from Jewish World Review, citing a story he heard on NPR or studying books on economics and history. His example fuels my boys’ passion for knowledge. Learning isn’t a ‘program’ or occasional activity; it’s our family culture, it’s what we do.

Believe your child is brilliant. Shinichi Suzuki oft repeated, “Every child can learn.” while Einstein quipped, “Every child is born a genius.” Not every child can become a concert violinist or a nuclear physicist, but they CAN learn. We need to believe in our children’s abilities. Teach your child bits of foreign language, math, science, music…

Read to your kids.  This advice has been given so often and expanded on so many times, I won’t belabor the issue. Just don’t stop reading to your kids when they learn to read themselves– they still crave your voice and your attention.

Turn off the TV. Again, this may seem a bit obvious, but lack of TV does more than free up time for reading and practicing the piano. By avoiding commercial television, you also avoid modern stereotypes of masculinity. My kids don’t see the goofy, crude men in beer commercials and sit coms because they don’t see commercials or sit coms at all. With the advent of Netflix streaming we can no longer claim to be TV free– my kids have caught up on all kinds of series on my computer, but at least Netflix demands a conscious choice–not mindless flipping through channels. Xander tells me the gifted program at his school is full of kids who don’t have cable TV. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Buy books. Go to the library, borrow from friends, but make sure you have plenty of books in your home. I’ve heard expense cited as an excuse, but with garage sales, used book stores and the library close-out shelf, you can easily amass a decent library for $10 a month. It’s important to have books where you can fold the corners, write in the margins and read over and over like revisiting an old friend.

Read your kids books. At first, I did this as a precaution for my ambitious little readers. I wanted to make sure their books were age appropriate (handing Stefan Schindler’s List at age ten was NOT a good idea). But as they got older the boys (and now Mary) began to hand me books they’d read and loved. By reading their choices I was able to discuss themes and plotlines with them and because I listened to their recommendations, they were more willing to listen to mine. I’ve read all the Artemis Fowl, Pendragon, Fablehaven and Incarceron series my boys love. They’ve introduced me to Brandon Sanderson’s fantasy novels and spy books like Alex Ryder. I’ve learned to enjoy these genres I’d never found interesting before and I believe many of the best modern writers are penning children’s and young adult fiction. In return they’ve been much more willing to read masterpieces such as Peace Like a River, A Tale of Two Cities, Les Miserables and anything and everything from C.S. Lewis. In fact, any time my kids are grouped together reading (filling every couch and chair) one of them will be holding a C.S. Lewis book.

Play an instrument. Note the emphasis on play. You don’t need to raise the next Mozart (we all know his father was bit overbearing) but thousands of studies have shown the value in learning music. In my own home, I’ve seen musical training teach children sensitivity, math skills, the ability to work hard. Yes, music lessons and instruments can be expensive but there are a thousand ways to navigate costs. Trade skills with a friend, take advantage of community programs, practice on the widow’s piano next door…

When your child finds an interest, run with it! Nothing hastens learning more than personal enthusiasm. Obsessed with dinosaurs? Check out every dinosaur book in the library and visit your local Natural History Museum. Rocks, trains, animals, space– same drill. Just don’t be surprised when they drop that interest and move on to the next.


Be willing to place education above sports. Sigh…. this is by far the most controversial subject on my list. Sports ARE the true American religion; especially where we live. But when we have to choose, we choose education every time.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I love sports and consider myself an athlete. My boys are running around outside at this very moment playing some odd combination of soccer, baseball and archery. They’ve played on numerous soccer, baseball, football, lacrosse, basketball, track, cross country, Ultimate Frisbee, wrestling and swim teams. Team and individual sports teach cooperation and hard work while developing fitness and coordination. But I believe our country’s overemphasis on athletics holds the primary blame for boys’ lag in education and the United States’ low rankings in education worldwide. Europeans, who are unarguably more fit, place much more emphasis on schoolwork and promote intramural sports.

The worship of sports and athletes contributes to the fallacy “education isn’t masculine enough.” Ask a dozen eleven-year-old boys what they want to be when they grow up and ten will answer, “I want to be in the NBA, NFL, MLB.” While I appreciate their optimism, there’s simply no way every one of these kids will grow up to be a professional athlete. The amount of time and money invested in athletics would pay a boy back many times over if invested in education.

Again, we’re not anti sports. But when a team demands excessive time during and after school, we drop the team, not the AP class.

Use the internet for good. Yes, the www can drain all our time and energy, but the educational resources are tremendous. Any time my boys are on the computer you can bet they are competing  on DuoLingo to see who can learn the most French and Spanish, listening to a TED talk, studying on Khan Academy or watching a science or history video on YouTube (they also visit facebook and play mindless tank games too). Truly, I detested YouTube until my boys showed me these incredible videos explaining difficult concepts: minutephysics, Veritasium, CGPGrey, The Art of Manliness, ViHart and VSauce. The Piano Guys and mormon.org are favorites too.

If you only click one of these links, check out Khan Academy— hands down the best, free educational resource on the planet. Need math tutoring? Confused by the French Revolution? Khan has it all. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Last, Own It. I’ll admit, for years, I encouraged my boys to keep their brains under a bushel– “don’t raise your hand too often.” Stefan hid it so well, his track coach asked if he was thinking of going to college. And while it’s never wise to brag or act superior to anyone else, it’s fine to admit you like learning. At the beginning of Hans’ sophomore year, he noticed no one was answering the teachers’ questions. He was often the lone sophomore in a class full of juniors and seniors, but he decided to raise his hand whenever he knew the answer. Soon, the entire class was participating.

The more our boys own their intelligence, the sooner the deficiencies in boys education will disappear. As parents (and especially as fathers) we can make learning masculine again. We don’t need to swing the pendulum back to educating boys and ignoring girls; but move forward, where education is a priority for everyone.

 I’m convinced our generation of parents can raise the most intelligent and creative wave of children the world has yet to witness.

August 23, 2013



  1. Chocolate on my Cranium

    August 19, 2013

    First, terrific post! Education is our way of life too. There is so much to learn about everything! My kids also have the benefit of amazing grandparents who are interested in hearing what my children are learning about, asking them questions, discussing topics with them, recommending books, etc.

    Second, my girls CAN NOT stop laughing! Stefan, “Meet Kirsten.” 🙂

    Third, after showing them the boys camp post they sighed, “Why can’t boys like that live here?”

  2. annie

    August 19, 2013

    Love this. Years ago, the first time I became aware that a friend was pulling her child out of three days of school so he could play in a baseball tournament in Idaho, my jaw hit the floor. Now that my own boys are the age that it is a regular occurrence among their friends, I still marvel at it.

    We love sports and my boys are all athletic, but they know that we play for fun and nothing more. My friends often comment that they wish they could be less committed to their child’s athletics, (like we are, I guess) but yet year after year they continue to sign their child up for high commitment sports teams.

    Ok, stepping off soap box now.

    I also had to giggle at the intent reading of the American Girl book.

  3. Heather

    August 19, 2013

    I LOVE this series you’re doing. Thank you, thank you for all of the ideas you shared!

  4. Jenny Hatch

    August 19, 2013

    Great post, I wonder if you have done any research on Common Core and if you have any concerns.



  5. mom keck

    August 20, 2013

    finding a sports team that plays for fun becomes more difficult as boys get older. Even the church games become too intense to be called fun games. So our boys general enjoyed individual sports like cross country , tennis etc. when they were older.

    At our home we say loud and proud We love our geeks

  6. Michelle

    August 20, 2013

    I LOVE this post.

    I love Erik’s approach. I just read a book called Mindset that talks about what he said — that we can help our kids see that brilliance is not biology but dedication and focus and willingness to try and fail and learn. Students who do well are able to see failure or the need to work as opportunity rather than identity.

    I love this series.

  7. Lisa

    August 21, 2013

    Great post…and the best part is you practice what you preach. You and Erik are raising wonderful human beings at your house. Thank you for sharing this and them.

  8. Kerri

    August 21, 2013

    Sigh. I love this. So fantastic to read your opinions on raising boys. These things are evident in how you have raised them, but it’s great to have them all together. I’m grateful that you are doing this series.

  9. Michelle

    August 21, 2013

    Thank you all for your kind comments. I’m still awaiting the hatemail for coming down on team sports. 🙂 Jenny– I am really worried about Common Core. I’m convinced rebelling against the system is the only way to get your kids a good education.

  10. Jenny Hatch

    August 21, 2013


    I promise not to be a hater about team sports. My daughter, the jock, who did competitive Gymnastics, then switched to Varsity High School Basketball, Soccer, and Track after a gymnastics shoulder injury, admits her extra curriculars hurt her GPA.

    But she has no regrets and as a senior this year at SUU in Athletic Training, her wide range of experience in team sports will serve her well in her future field.

    As I expressed concern to her about her schedule in high school (which included four years of early morning seminary in Colorado) – and as a Mom I was more concerned about her health than grades at certain points- she reassured me that the Lord was with her in her pursuits.

    At some point we have to trust our children are being guided by the spirit when they make choices that may close certain doors in educational circles. At least I had to be willing to take that leap of faith with her.

    As for Common Core, the more I learn, the more revolted I get, especially about what is going to happen with Math this year in Utah.

    I have been blogging about it quite a bit and even was involved in a little flame war with one of the Pearson Math Curriculum Developers.

    If you want to read about it, click here: http://jennyhatch.com/2013/04/30/uncommon-lore-the-original-saxon-math-curriculum-math-a-firm-foundation-to-build-a-homeschool-on/


  11. Cath

    August 23, 2013

    Keep writing these Michelle. They’re tremendous. Your boys are a light to those around them. And your influence (and Erik’s) is unparalleled. xo

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