Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Book Review: Swagger by Lisa Bloom

(First of all, don't forget to go enter my giveaway here for a copy of Project Conversion.  It's only open until midnight on Friday!  Secondly, a warm welcome to my Meridian readers whom I cunningly coerced into clicking over to read this review on my blog by cruelly omitting Numbers Six through Ten of Ms. Bloom's "Ten Rules for Raising Boys Right Now" from my review there.  If you'd like to scroll down past the first bit (most of which you'll have already read) that's fine, though there are a few variations, so it might not be a bad thing to just start at the top. You'll get to Rules Six through Ten eventually...)

Along the lines of her last book, Think, Ms. Bloom calls it like she sees it in Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture. And boy, is how she sees it scary.

(**Trigger warning for explicit sexually violent lyrics in this paragraph** )
Ms. Bloom first lays the ground work by identifying four social and economic factors that disproportionately harm boys: the failing public education system, the struggling economy, "thug culture" including particularly music that glorifies violence, and mass incarceration. I'd read about public schools and the economy quite a bit, so much of those chapters was review for me. As someone who listens primarily to either country or classical music, the chapter on "thug culture" was quite a revelation. It includes quite a few lyrics from rap and hip-hop songs and, let me tell you, it was disturbing. After reading some Snoop Dogg, Allen Iverson, and Notorious B.I.G. lyrics I was appalled and grateful that my sons are thrilled to have recently discovered Michael Jackson and Bon Jovi. There just doesn't seem to me to be any way to read those lyrics like "Man enough to pull a gun, be man enough to squeeze it" (Iverson) or "f&*# you with an umbrella and open it up while the $#!t's inside ya" (Eminem) other than as a glorification of murder, violence, and rape, not to mention the objectification of women. While I'm hesitant to tar the entire genre with this brush, I certainly didn't see any redeeming qualities in the image held up in these songs for kids to idolize.

I was also blown away by the chapter on our prison system. I had no idea just how large the "enormous surge" in the American prison population was or how disproportionately it affects men and particularly minorities. Over two million adults are incarcerated in the United States today, 93% are men. Another five million are on probation or parole. Those are absolutely insane numbers. With the "War on Drugs," drug addiction became a crime to be punished instead of an ailment to be helped. Four out of five - 80% - of drug arrests in 2005 were for possession. Only one in five was for actually selling drugs. And the life-long penalties after incarceration are stunning. In many states, after a felony conviction, voting rights are taken away, as is the ability to serve on a jury. Finding employment becomes increasingly difficult, federal educational assistance is denied so you can't go back to school, federal food stamps are not available, the military will not allow enlistment. With few options, recidivism rates are high, and the cycle continues into the next generation. And it costs taxpayers millions while our schools are desperately in need of funds to cover the basics. Just how is this logical??

Ms. Bloom's "Ten Rules for Raising Boys Right Now" actually made me feel pretty good about how we're doing in our family of three boys (ages 4, 7, and 10). We're right on track with many of these suggestions already, but they also provided food for thought on ways we can improve, too.

1. Lose the Swagger, Kid - Humility (as opposed to overconfidence) and modesty (as opposed to bragging) are important values that our children are not learning. "Your son is an important person, a child of God, with the spark of the divine animating him. But so is every other person on the planet--no more, no less."

2. Set College Expectations Early and Often - Ms. Bloom bangs this drum repeatedly. In spite of rising college costs, a college degree is still an absolute necessity for a middle-class lifestyle. Not only is life-time earning potential more than twice that of a high school graduate, but job security is greater with unemployment rates for college grads significantly lower that those for high school dropouts or high school grads.

3. Make Your Home a Reading Mecca - Preaching to the choir, here! Fluent reading is critical. Period. The National Endowment of the Arts concluded that "Reading correlates with almost every measure of positive personal and social behavior" according to an extensive study done.

4. Eliminate the Competition - The competition for reading time is TV, video games, anything with a screen, so cut back or completely eliminate it. After recounting numerous scientific studies and their findings regarding TV watching in particular, Ms. Bloom concludes "if we were child haters and wanted to come up with one magic device that would make them stupid, mean, narcissistic, fat, and sick, we would have invented the television and twenty-first-century programming and put them in every home, even in kids' bedrooms..."

5. Become Aware of the Data Pinging In and Out of Your Boy's Brain - "George Orwell's 1984 has arrived, just a few decades behind schedule. Only it's not big government that's watching us; it's corporate America." In order to help our sons navigate the enormous amount of messages that are thrown at them every day by peers, companies, the media, etc., we need to educate ourselves and know what those messages are! One pointed suggestion here was to insist that "a condition of his access to the Internet must always be your ability to watch him there."

6. Teach Your Boy to Be Ever-critical of All Media - Ms. Bloom provides 5 key questions (from the Center for Media Literacy) to teach your sons to ask about the media he sees, so he's less susceptible to its messages:
* Who created this message?
* What techniques are used to attract my attention?
* How might different people understand this message differently from me?
* What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented in or omitted from this message?
* Why was this message sent?

7. Support His Teacher - Ideally, you and your child's teacher have the same goals and the same desire to help your child succeed. They are not the adversary! Undermining their authority with your child doesn't help anyone. We've been fortunate to mostly have great teachers for our children and I love the advice Ms. Bloom gives to "help your son succeed by teaching him strategies to behave well and do his work even if" he doesn't like his teacher, or he's not feeling well, or whatever...

8. Teach Him to Respect Girls and Women - Of course, we all want our children to show respect to everyone, but in this day and age there is no excuse for making demeaning, sexist, or rude comments about women, even as a "joke." Ms. Bloom advises moms to "demand respect for yourself." No more martyr routines. Teach your sons to cook, clean, do laundry and wash dishes. Encourage them to have friends of both genders so girls aren't "the other" and your children are comfortable interacting with both boys and girls. Point out harmful and disrespectful stereotypes. "Teach him that respect is active."

9. Make Community Service a Regular Part of Your Family Life - Include your children in the service you do. For example, I have a Meals on Wheels route I do every other week. My oldest two are in school at that time, but my four-year-old loves MoW days and the "grandmas and grandpas" love to see him helping. The others are excited to have a chance to help out this summer. "Make it a family affair."

10. Take Him Away - Brand new experiences broaden horizons and open minds. "Expose your boy to difference." Not all of us may have the resources that allowed Ms. Bloom to travel with her children all around the world, but we can look for historical sites, museums, natural wonders close to our homes and make it a point to visit them and expand our knowledge and our children's minds.

My only quibble with Swagger is that wholesale changes are needed in the public education system, the economy, the prison system and society in order to turn things around for the most vulnerable boys and I'm doubtful that the political will exists to make those changes. But perhaps that's just my cynical side coming out.

And, of course, most if not all of these suggestions would be effective in raising girls as well as boys.

Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness and Thug Culture
ISBN: 9781936467693
Buy it on Amazon (hardcover, paperbackebook, audiobook)
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

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