01/17/2012 04:06 EST | Updated 03/18/2012 05:12 EDT

Teacher and dad Michael Reist urges retooled approach to raising boys in new book

TORONTO - As a longtime teacher and father of four, Michael Reist has had a front-row view of the ever-changing cultural landscape and its impact on youngsters.

And with the omnipresence of the Internet, tech gadgets and video games, he believes the task of educating and parenting kids needs to adapt with the evolving times.

In his new book, "Raising Boys in a New Kind of World" (Dundurn), Reist is encouraging a retooled approach in both practice and thinking when it comes to rearing boys in a media-saturated culture.

Reist has spoken extensively to parent groups and education conferences across Canada, with the main workshops centred around gender differences in learning and raising kids in a new world.

While girls have surged academically in recent years, Reist said statistics show boys aren't faring as well, and that higher percentages of girls are enrolling in universities.

Reist said cyberspace has had a huge influence. Part of the reason boys are falling behind in school is the amount of time dedicated to screens, which offer a feast of visuals and movement through space that are alluring to the male brain, he noted.

He understands parents' concerns with respect to too much screen time and recognizes the need for setting boundaries to limit usage; but Reist said there's nothing wrong with cyberspace or video games.

In the book, he outlines reasons why video games are good, such as allowing kids to relieve stress and offering an outlet for aggression. And while some see gaming as an isolating experience, he writes there is also a social aspect, as males tend to bond shoulder-to-shoulder through a shared activity.

"We're getting these boys who are spatial geniuses, they come into class and they're able to conquer level 500 of 'World of Warcraft' or 'Call of Duty,'" said Reist. "But they come into my class where the job is to read a 300-page novel and to write a 1,500-word essay, and that's a bigger leap today than it was 20 years ago."

"The culture has become more and more visual, and the culture has become more and more electronic."

Reist said one of his book's main messages is not condemning the new world, but rather empathy for today's kids who have to contend with turning off cellphones, video games, TVs and computers before settling into an assigned task. As a consequence, he said the decision to be literate is a bigger one than it's ever been.

That can be an added challenge for boys in particular, who Reist said have a year-and-a-half difference in both biological and cognitive development compared with girls.

He said "Raising Boys" is aimed at mothers and female teachers as he wants them to have a better understanding of the male brain and how it translates to their behaviour.

Reist writes that boys have a love and need for movement and prefer actions over words. He has observed in teaching that they tend to progress more slowly through the stages of language processing. As such, using approaches in trying to communicate with or discipline them such as moving in closely or forcing them to make eye contact may not always be the most effective strategies.

"A lot of boys they go into school and after a couple of years they don't feel at home. They feel as though this doesn't quite fit," Reist said. "And that's well-reported that boys feel a certain vague discomfort with school and that's one of the reasons I wrote the book. I would just like the institutions to be more open to male energy and the female brain to be aware of the differences."

Reist writes that much like a computer going into sleep mode, the male brain can act in a similar way when it's not stimulated. Cueing students visually through eye contact, verbally or through touch like a tap on the shoulder — or even just standing nearby — can help boys who may be zoning out.

During classes and homework, Reist suggests parents and teachers should incorporate breaks that allow for movement, which helps the child to focus.

Since boys tend to work better with structure and routine, he suggests doing homework at the same time each night — for instance after school or following dinner, but before any TV or video game screen time.

Reist said he's not advocating or preaching permissiveness, but rather establishing firm boundaries and ensuring the child knows the parent is there to offer unwavering support.

"Parents need to realize how important it is for kids to feel they are loved unconditionally so that whatever the problem is ... they can come to the parent and not be punished and judged — they will be accepted for what they have to say."

As a father to sons Thomas, 22, Justin, 20, Luke, 18, and daughter Rachel, 21, Reist said one thing he's realized is how unique each child is. He views his parenting role as seeing who they are as individuals and helping them to achieve their potential.

"I think for a lot of parents, they see their kid as a Mini-Me and my job is: `You're going to be the sequel to my life.' And that's a terrible burden to lay on a child," he said.

"I think one of the greatest gifts we can give the child is freedom to live their own lives in whatever path they choose."