“The Stresses of Boyhood.” “The Uncertain Future of Boys.” “Can Our Boys Be Saved?” The headlines raise alarming questions about boys. A new book provides some answers. Michael Reichert, one of the world’s leading researchers on masculinity, has written a guide that can help boys grow into strong and compassionate men. Drawing on decades of research (including as a clinical psychologist), Reichert’s new book How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men does more than deconstruct conventional boyhood (and manhood), exposing how it damages young men. He offers detailed examples of a new expression of boyhood, and invites parents and educators to be partners, cultivating emotional and social terrain in which boys can grow and thrive.
Over the past quarter century, study after study of boys on the journey to manhood has convincingly demonstrated that boyhood—like manhood—is in transition. More recently the #MeToo movement has exposed the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault of women and accelerated the drive to devise strategies for raising respectful, empathic boys. How to Raise a Boy is an urgently needed voice in what is rapidly becoming a worldwide conversation. It very well may come to be seen as the essential book not only interpreting the monumental transition boyhood is undergoing but also offering practical tips for navigating the gender equality challenges ahead. The book dismantles the old paradigms of manhood—including their negative impact on boys—and also offers inspired advice for parents, educators, and mentors on how they can help boys to flourish both socially and emotionally. Filled with insights from psychology and neuroscience, it’s a book from the heart, offering a loving prescription for a new boyhood populated by more self-aware, more caring, and more compassionate boys on the road to becoming healthy, whole men. What follows is an excerpt.
Though the late nineties brought growing concern that all was not right in boys’ lives, problems of boyhood persist to this day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, parents of boys 4–17 seek help from health care or school staff at rates nearly twice those of girls. In addition to impulsive risk taking, inattention, and conduct problems, boys lag behind girls in the social and behavioral skills that facilitate success in school; they are more often fidgety, disengaged, defiant and unregulated. Being disruptive, unable or unwilling to heed adult limits, boys evoke corrective action from teachers. They are the primary recipients of disciplinary sanctions and medication prescriptions, even though, as University of Minnesota child development researcher L. Alan Sroufe argues, “to date, no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems.”
Boys are also far more likely than girls to act in ways that increase the risk of disease, injury and death, to themselves and others: they carry weapons more often, engage in physical fights more often, wear their seat belts less often, drive drunk more frequently, have more unprotected sex, and use alcohol or drugs more often before sex. The correlation between these masculine norms and uncivil behavior is troubling. In another cross-cultural study, Stony Brook University anthropologist David Gilmore found that various practices of misogyny, which he terms a “male malady,” are best understood as a manifestation of the struggle to suppress within whatever they perceive about themselves as feminine. As he wrote in Misogyny: The Male Malady, “Men who hate women hate themselves even more.”
Life within the box or behind the mask is not merely confining but erodes boys’ goodness and virtue. Shielded by a mask, presenting an inauthentic front, boys become isolated and unmoored, losing the “true north” of connections to others for their moral compasses. Pretense trumps authenticity, a “cool pose” beats sincerity, and academic disengagement replaces commitment. Whatever parents teach their sons about fairness, integrity, and sincerity is undermined in a bro culture of peer policing and Animal House celebration. Compelled to conform, boys are vulnerable to forces specifically designed to co-opt their minds and hearts. Cut off from their families, for example, boys are more susceptible to the marketing pitches of a pornography industry that distorts human sexuality and love. The list goes on.
The Good News
Fortunately, there is a solution to the problems of boyhood. If we muster the courage, we can open ourselves to boys’ actual experience and work to build a boyhood that permits them to be who they are. The spate of books about boys in the late 1990s offered important insights. But the books tended toward one or the other of two polarized views: (1) that boys are biologically driven toward rambunctious play, gratuitous aggression and incessant risk taking or (2) they are naïve innocents, victims of social oppression, suffering in silent pain. In both cases boys are victims, either of their genetics or of their social ecologies. What was missing is the lovely and inspiring part played by a boy’s own imagination for his life.
I am optimistic that a historic breakthrough is currently in the making. Though boys continue to be subjected to myths and prejudices rooted in the past, and new, healthier ways for being male have not yet replaced old paradigms, contradictions between economic realities, family dynamics, and traditional norms make boyhood’s reinvention inevitable. As new social demands reveal the stark limitations of the old boyhood, fresh ideas will gain currency.
Here are three examples on a small scale hinting at what’s possible:
When a historic boys boarding school went coeducational after 150 years, it developed an attrition problem it had never faced before. Just a few years after girls entered, ninth- and 10th-grade boys began dropping out. I was called in to meet with male students, their families and their teachers to find an explanation for boys’ new unhappiness. It wasn’t hard: under everyone’s noses—so taken for granted that it was practically invisible—was a hazing system that encouraged older boys to mistreat younger ones with no parallel among girls. Boys entered a school steeped in harsh man-making rituals, underwent considerable abuse, and received a promise that they could take advantage of the new boys coming after them. It was a proud tradition, defended as character building and tacitly endorsed by parents, teachers, coaches and school leaders. Only, with girls having such a different experience, it was harder and harder for younger boys to tolerate. The way the school had always done things, its model for the development of boys, was disrupted.
I offered my evidence for a link between hazing and the attrition problem and school leaders took strong action. They restructured their program for younger boys, emphasizing safety and mentoring, and made steady progress eliminating the “rat” system. Though stubbornly resistant to change, hazing gradually receded from boys’ relationships and the school’s attrition rate fell. Today the school is on strong footing as a modern institution.
A second example arose in the question-and-answer period following a talk I gave to parents. It was clear from their questions that what had brought them out on a wintry weeknight was hope for help with boys they worried about. Both mothers and fathers shared quite personal stories of anxiety, loss, frustration. One mother raised her hand. She explained that she was a single mother, separated from the boy’s father, and that her son had become harder and harder to deal with. He was withdrawn, surly, and rejected her authority to place limits on him.
She asked, “Is this normal, and should I just let his father take care of him now that he is a teenager?”
There were nods of understanding and even agreement across the audience. I have heard this question in some form or other from the start of my work and have come to expect it. I have even been on panels with experts who have confidently asserted that, of course, it takes another man to initiate a boy into the fraternity of manhood. One expert, in fact, has advised that it is the mother’s role to “build a bridge to the father” for her son.
There are problems with this view on several levels. First, there is no evidence that only another man can support a boy to become a man himself. In fact, such mentoring most often ensures the perpetuation of traditional ideas. That’s not to say that boys cannot learn important things from rubbing shoulders with an older man: how he gets up, shaves, relates to his partner, conducts his affairs. Boys love to see what other males have figured out. In the absence of real contact, in fact, boys are more vulnerable to exaggerated views. But an emphasis on learning masculinity can obscure the more vital development of the boy’s humanity and acquiring skills necessary for success in modern society.
This is what I said to that mother: “As much as I value strong relationships between boys and their fathers, the idea that mothers should back away from their own relationships out of fear that they might spoil their sons’ masculinity—turn them into mama’s boys— violates everything developmental scientists understand about the child’s need for a secure, dependable attachment. Boys, just like girls, have basic human needs that are ignored only at peril. The child who does not have the unconditional acceptance and love of a parent—or someone, somewhere—will be less bold, less confident, more vulnerable to a host of negative influences.”
There were nods from the fathers and looks of surprise, gratitude, and renewed confidence on the faces of the mothers. What struck me was how captive this mother was to bad ideas that violated nearly all of her parenting instincts—and how ready she was for permission to trust those instincts.
The third example came in a violence prevention program developed for early-adolescent boys in neighborhoods in and around Philadelphia. Because the link between becoming violent and witnessing or experiencing violence is strong, my research team began by assessing boys’ exposure to violence: fights, witnessing shootings or hearing gunshots, directly experiencing crime and personal threats. The goal was to build a program grounded in real data about the frequency and severity of experiences that evoked the fight-or-flight response characteristic of acute stress reactions.
We found chilling levels of violence. Despite the evidence of abnormal environmental stressors, we encountered skepticism from our funders and advisory board about whether these boys could benefit from an intervention that would aim both to protect them and help them recover from toxic stress. Some argued that the stresses were too severe, the boys too far gone, their resources too thin, community norms promoting violence too strong. Old racial, class and gender prejudices were offered; ideas that would have kept things just as they were.
But pressures to prevent at-risk boys from becoming twice victimized were persuasive. We organized after-school groups and quickly found that many boys were all too happy to meet with other boys and an adult leader to talk through how they felt about this and other aspects of their lives. Many boys showed up for years, in fact, to talk, play games and generally work through tensions they were confronting at home, in school and around the neighborhood. The open discussions allowed them to be honest about what they felt and, evaluation research confirmed, made them less vulnerable to blindly reenacting violent scenarios.
When asked, many boys shared the sentiment voiced by Terrence, that though he sometimes had to defend himself with force, he “don’t love no fight.” A younger boy, Juan, elaborated on his view:
“Usually, I’m a person that doesn’t like to fight. Like, I’m like a ladies’ man. I don’t fight. Usually, well, I’m a lover not a fighter, right? I write poems, I do different stuff.”
In each of these examples, a truer read of boys overcame historic prejudice. With a commitment to boys’ human development as the starting point, very different outcomes in families, schools and communities come into focus.
Michael C. Reichert is founding director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania. A clinical practitioner specializing in boys and men, he has conducted extensive research around the world about boys and men. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.