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How to raise boys to be good men

By Susan Bodnar, Special to CNN
December 25, 2013 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
Upsetting stories about boys' sexual aggression frequently make the news.
Upsetting stories about boys' sexual aggression frequently make the news.
  • Susan Bodnar: Boys who make the news for bad behavior can come to symbolize all males
  • But we hear less about quieter boys who aren't part of such a caricature, Bodnar says
  • Parents can help boys become men with discipline and dialogue, she says

Editor's note: Susan Bodnar is a clinical psychologist who teaches at Columbia University's Teachers College and at the Stephen Mitchell Center for Relational Studies. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, two children and all of their pets.

(CNN) -- Boys do what they are taught. They become what they see. Unfortunately, from mid to late adolescence boys face an array of bad, sexy guy images.

Upsetting stories about boys' sexual aggression, such as the allegations of rape in Steubenville and Maryville, continue to surface.

These boys who make the news become symbolic of all males. We hear less from the other quieter boys, though they constitute a majority.

In the privacy of a psychologist's office such as mine, however, many boys admit to longing for that "miraculous feeling when you hold someone special's hand for the first time."

Boys, like girls, have complicated feelings. They struggle with their identities. They have no idea how to approach females. The anything goes sexual mores of teen sexuality create pressure to perform as well as pressure not to violate.

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Researchers have found that the more your son sees explicitly aggressive sexual behavior, the more his patterns of stimulation will be geared to such imagery. He will internalize these images as patterns. He will eventually be inclined to act upon them.

Those who perpetuate images of aggressive male sexuality do not get held accountable, but if your son gets caught in these acts, he could go to jail.

So what is the best way to raise a boy who has old-fashioned values?

It requires dialogue and discipline.

First, validate sexuality's confusing nature.

"Where do you draw the line?" asked 15-year-old Tom. "I've been broken up with for not kissing a girl. But if I kiss her too soon, what if she feels taken advantage of or hurt?"

The blurry line between when to act on sexual feelings and when not to can make it hard for a boy to know what to do, especially when alcohol is added to the mix.

Anxiety, however, slows people down.

Learning to manage anxiety helps a boy develop confidence in himself. He learns how to listen to what he feels. That enables him to hear others. He then develops good judgment about how to manage the delicate balance between sexual impulse and sexual actions.

Second, remain firmly opposed to underage drinking. Do not allow him to attend unsupervised parties. Share articles about how alcohol affects the growing brain and discuss its disinhibiting effects.

Alcohol and drugs obliterate the anxiety that can become the building block of character. They make it impossible to discover the unwritten rules between two people who feel attracted to one another. They make it impossible to define the small personal steps toward genuine intimacy.

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Sixteen-year-old Evan said, "When kids get together and drink, everybody expects some kind of sexual behavior. "

Kids jump from novices to lotharios without first learning how to be in a relationship. Sexual interactions become a faceless dance.

Third, advise your son not to have virtual or real sexual contact with someone he doesn't know well.

Encourage your son to avoid sending any pictures of his body using social media. No sexting. No oral sex parties. They should not have sexual contact with someone with whom they have not shared a meal.

Instead, talk to your son about the fun and excitement of getting to know someone. Share happy and embarrassing stories from your dating life.

Gay and straight young men will and should have sexual relationships. Physical intimacy can provoke unexpected and complicated feelings. Sexuality between consenting adults can be powerfully expressive, but a person has to be mature enough to handle the intensity.

Intimacy takes time to happen, and everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes they also figure it out. This happens far more often than the sexual aggression that makes the news.

Ron, now a college student, said he learned romance from novels. Small for his age, he fell out of the crowd of boys who started drinking and making comments about girls and their bodies.

By the time he became a senior in high school he had grown bigger and looked more manlike.

In the fall he found himself attracted to an 11th-grade girl. He talked with her. He got to know her. They talked some more.

And by December they were still talking.

He remembered, "Our school was about to break for Christmas. We stood at the corner talking about going away with our families. I took her hand for just one minute and I kissed her right on the mouth. And then, it started to snow, wild flurries everywhere. Not really. But that's how it felt."

Ron and his girlfriend dated all year. They remain very close.

With love and support, some kids still find the mistletoe.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Susan Bodnar.

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