Are we afraid of boys?

“We have seen a spike on suburban and rural violence among white boys that has finally aroused Americans to an awareness that perhaps we have been raising our sons wrong. …we raise boys in a way that leaves them inarticulate about their pain.”

By Michael G. Thompson

raising-cainIn 1999, my life dramatically changed. I wrote a book about boys — and it was published a week before the shootings at Columbine High School. Before the disaster in Littleton, Colorado, I didn’t consider myself a national expert on boys. I was a local psychologist with a private practice in the Boston area. In addition, I had worked as a psychologist at four coeducational schools over a period of 12 years. As with many counselors, a majority of my customers were girls who came to my office on their own initiative.

When I went to work as the consulting psychologist at the Belmont Hill School, an all-boys independent school with 400 students in grades seven through 12, my patients (obviously) were boys. They almost never self-referred to the psychologist. In fact, of the 41 boys I evaluated there last year, only one came top see me voluntarily. All the others had to be pushed to talk to me by their advisors, or by the dean, or by the trouble they had gotten themselves into. Tenth-grade boys don’t say to their friends, “Gee, guys, I’ve got to go see the psychologist to talk over some emotional problems I’ve been having.” I like to joke that if I were not for the dean and the disciplinary process, a psychologist at an all-boys school would be like the Maytag repairman.

Over the years of my work at a boys’ school, I saw boys and more boys for evaluation and therapy. Interestingly, my experience mirrored a trend in my private practice: My patient list grew to be 70 percent boys and men. (This was unusual, as women are the traditional consumers of psychotherapy services.) The experience of talking to lots of boys who were sad, disappointed, and ashamed, but expressed their hurt through anger and irrationality made me want to write about them.

A similar set of experiences at another boys’ school moved my coauthor, psychologist Dan Kindlon, to suggest that we write a book about boys. The result was Raising Cain. A week after publication came the carnage at Columbine High School. During the next three weeks, Dan and I appeared on The Today Showthree times, and I did television and radio interviews for months thereafter.

The journalists I met all tended to ask the same predictable questions about boy violence and school shootings. But after the microphones, cameras, and lights were turned off, something more interesting happened. At the end of the interview, the anchor or camera operator would ask me, “How do I know if my son is violent? He doesn’t talk to me. I don’t know what’s going on inside him. How would I know if he were going to hurt someone?” These kinds of questions came more often from women than from men, but the fear that boys are mysterious and potentially violent was visible in many people.

I was startled, because I have worked with and known boys all my life, and I have very rarely experienced them as threatening or potentially violent.

Of course, I am not a police officer, nor do I work in corrections or violence prevention. Though I originally trained on the south side of Chicago with a largely poor and African-American population, for the last two decades I have worked in a suburban setting with middle class and upper-middle class children, with their parents, and with their teachers. What I found was that many thoughtful, well-to-do adults who were raising their sons in secure surroundings were nevertheless a bit jumpy about boys. Or, if they were not scared of their own sons, they were scared of other people’s. I visit about 30 schools each year, and I have witnessed, unmistakably, this same subtle fear in all of them. And I believe this fear has an impact on the lives of boys.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean:

A couple of years ago, I arranged for a local TV anchorwoman in Boston to meet with five eighth-grade boys. She wanted to interview them alone, and she did. After spending half an hour with them she came back to me and said, with embarrassment in her voice, “I know this sounds stupid, but they were really very nice.” Implicit in her tone was something like, “I am genuinely surprised. I had half expected that they would be awful, or rude, or aggressive.”

More recently, I received a phone message from a mother saying that her four-year-old son was making his Legos into a gun and it was very upsetting to her, her husband, and her daughter. What could she do to stop him from doing that?

Then I received an e-mail from the mother of a five-year-old boy who had been suspended from Kindergarten for hitting his teacher with a stick. The school had told her that if it happened again, the police would be summoned and her little boy would be charged with assault and sent to juvenile court.

I recently received a call from an educator in New York who is starting a new all-boys school on the Lower East Side. “What,” he asked me, “is the one most important thing I should look for in starting out?” I told him, “Hire people who are not afraid of boys, because adults who are frightened of boys are of no use to them.”

Connecting with Boys

When we sat down to write Raising Cain, Dan and I had some central concerns. As a professor at Harvard School of Public Health, Dan was worried that boys were at risk from a public health point of view. Twice as many boys die from accidental death in their teenage years than do girls, and boys are at a vastly higher risk of suicide. Eighty-five percent of completed teen suicides are boys. There had been a rising tide of male violence between 1975 and 1994, making the United States the most murderous and rape-prone country in the industrialized world. There are 23,000 homicides in the country every year, and 10 percent of them are committed by males under age 25.

Since 1994, boy violence in this country has dropped dramatically as inner-city communities have come to grips with drug problems. There is better policing and the black community has risen up to save its sons. What we are seeing now is that white suburban and rural America is coming to understand that the problems of the inner city were not specific to blacks and Hispanics, or even to crack cocaine. We have seen a spike on suburban and rural violence among white boys that has finally aroused Americans to an awareness that perhaps we have been raising our sons wrong.

As we worked, Dan and I focused on the fact that, in American culture, we raise boys in a way that leaves them emotionally uneducated and inarticulate about their psychological pain. In an effort to make our sons masculine, out culture has forgotten what boys need psychologically. We have lost touch with the work and rituals that connect boys to the adult world and meaningful adult manhood. We often take them at face value and react only to their obnoxious behavior and not to their inner lives. We either treat them like wild animals who need to be controlled or as entitled princes of whom we cannot ask very much on a moral basis. We seem to think they are too something — too immature, or morally backward, or fragile, or homophobic, or masculine.

Dan and I felt that boys were emotionally illiterate, burdened by a conception of masculinity that narrowed their lives. They were unable to express their pain, their sense of shame, their sadness and inadequacy, except through anger. Eighty percent of depressed teenage boys manifest irritability as their leading symptom because they do not feel that they are able to say they are sad. That would be a strike against their masculinity. Raising Cain was a complaint against the American conception of masculinity that narrows what a boy can say and reveal about his inner life.

The Education Gap

If you go into any Kindergarten class in the country at “Circle Time” you will see a group of girls patiently waiting for the reading or discussion to begin. But several boys will be wandering around the classroom. “Come on guys,” the teacher will say. “We’re ready to start.” Or, exasperated, she may say, “Come on guys! The girls have been ready for a long time now.”

Girls outperform boys in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college. At present, 56 percent of college degrees go to women; 55 percent of graduate degrees go to women, and that trend is accelerating. One actuarial statistician took the present trend out to its absurd conclusion and found that the last man in the United States to get a Bachelor’s degree would do so in 2068.

Twenty years ago, there was a significant gap between boys and girls in science and math — with boys ahead. Feminists and dedicated teachers worked with girls over the years to overcome their math phobias and their belief that science wasn’t “feminine.” And it worked. The gap has closed almost all the way. There is still a gap between boys and girls in math concepts but it now quite small. But — according to a meta-analysis of 15 different academic assessments, including the National Assessment of Academic Progress — the gap between girls and boys, with girls in the lead, is six times greater than the gap between boys and girls in math concepts. It is huge. And in writing, females outperform males by 25 points.

Many writers, including Tom Newkirk and Christina Hoff Somers, have drawn our attention to this gender gap in education. Last summer, Business Week magazine reported that girls have achieved almost all of the educational gains of the last 30 years. We owe it to our boys to close these historic gaps.

Fear of Boys

I believe the gender gap in writing and reading is at least partly attributable to the discomfort that normal, helpful teachers experience with boys. Against a backdrop of societal violence, 90 percent of which is male, those of us who work with children have to constantly make judgments about what is good or bad, about which kind of interventions will produce children of character, and about what the things that children are doing right now presage for their behavior as adults. This business of predicting how boys are going to turn out can be tricky if you extrapolate from their first grade or eighth grade behavior. I know. I was the class clown in my eighth grade! I am very sensitive to schools that have tolerance for boys, and to schools that seem chronically to distrust them.

What it is about boys that disrupts our world and frightens us?

Boys are active and take more physical risks than girls. They break stuff. Their impulsivity and apparent lack of control scares us because it always threatens to “disrupt the learning environment.” By school age, three-quarters of the boys in a class are more physically active, more impulsive and developmentally immature in comparison to girls the same age. Our average boy is also one to two years behind the average girl in his language development and reading. That’s not news to anyone — but it does mean that he is going to find school a difficult fit. Think about school from the average boy’s point of view. It seems to be a place that is all about sitting down and listening to women talk. And the girls have a decided advantage at that. The level of a boy’s physical activity means that he is restrained more often, that he is spoken to more often, than the girls are.

I was once standing on a school playground with some Kindergarten teachers who were supervising the children at recess. The boys did something loud and potentially disruptive, but the matter settled down quickly. One of the teachers turned to the other and said, “Oh, it’s just the BBC.” They laughed. Later I asked what BBC meant. You have probably already figured out that it stands for Bad Boys Club.

Here is a conversation recorded between Kindergarten children by Vivian Paley in her brilliant book, Boys and Girls:

Superheroes in the Doll House:

“Karen says: ‘Girls are nicer than boys.’

Janie adds: ‘Boys are bad. Some boys are.’

Paul then says: ‘Not bad, pretend bad, like bad guys.’

Karen, undaunted, continues: ‘My brother is really bad.’

Vivian Paley poses a question: ‘Aren’t girls ever bad?’

Paul answers: ‘I don’t think so. Not very much.’

Vivian Paley: ‘Why not?’

Paul: ‘Because they like to color so much. That’s one thing I know. Boys have to practice running.’

Karen then adds: ‘And they practice being silly.'”

If you ask third-grade boys whom teachers like better, they always say, “The girls.” If you ask third-grade girls whom the teachers like best, they’ll say, “The girls.” And, of course, they’re both right. How would you react if you had to go to a place every day where you thought you were destined to be liked less well and where you would be less successful than the other half of the population? You would start to challenge the authority of the people who run the place.

Boys challenge us. Boys often seem to be proud of being bad and there are moments when they have no use for our ideas of politeness. Boys in groups seem obsessed with things that are rude, crude, and antisocial. I don’t know how many times I have heard an adult say that a particular boy doesn’t seem to have a conscience.

Boys don’t seem to value what we value, especially in literature. Boys value low-class literature; they value TV, comics, and video games. This makes us nervous. We often think this is because we are so moral and high-minded and interested in character. But it is often a matter of taste and educational elitism — and a wish for control. Rousseau, writing in 1762 about his son, Emile, said, “Emile ought to do only what he wants; but he ought to want only what you want him to do.” We all have that problem. We all want our children to feel free — but not really.

I was talking with a teacher recently about a learning-disabled boy in her class — a boy who struggles with reading. He had read one of the Captain Underpants series and loved it. The teacher tried very hard to steer him away from reading any more of them. One was OK, she told me, because the boy wasn’t a reader. But she was reluctant to have him read more because he was a bad speller and there are many misspelled words in the book. Please! Do you really think this boy was in danger from Captain Underpants?

Last summer, my daughter’s 17-year-old boyfriend told me, “I know I should read more,” in the same tone of voice that people say, “I know I should lose weight. I shouldn’t have this dessert.” When we tell boys that reading is good for them, it sounds like self-improvement. It sounds like betterment. We do things to boys to suggest that we are going to improve them, and they resist us.

Tom Newkirk of the University of New Hampshire, in his book Misreading Masculinity: Boys, Literacy and Popular Culture, gives a detailed analysis about how teachers subtly discourage boys from reading, primarily by creating a hierarchy of good literature. He also says that we are never going to get boys to read unless they have the experience of reading as deep pleasure. But we make it like medicine.

Teachers have a “free-choice” reading period, for example, and if a boy wants to read comic books the teacher says, “Well, perhaps you should save those for home and read something worthwhile.” Where’s the free choice in that?

Newkirk provides another subtle example: A child picks a book on his own and you say, “Oh, good choice.” I’ve said that myself and I’ve heard people say it many times. But Tom Newkirk says no, don’t do it. A “good” choice implies that there wasn’t really a choice in the first place because there are good choices, and then, of course, there are bad choices. Any boy worth his salt can hear that undertone in what we intend as positive reinforcement. And any boy worth his salt will be tempted not to make a good choice the next time, precisely because he hears that the “good” part eclipses the “choice” part.

It is different to say to a boy, “Oh, I loved that book!” or “So many kids have loved that book.” That is descriptive, not judgmental.

Our Worst Fear

The thing that really scares us, however, is a boy’s potential for violence. That is the heart of the matter. That is why the Boston anchorwoman expected the eighth-grade boys to be scary. That’s why the mom worried about her son turning Legos into guns. That’s why the Kindergarten administrators threatened an impulsive five-year-old with the police.

Why does boys’ play violence make us so nervous? It is because we believe that boys cannot make a distinction between play and reality. We believe that they will be pulled into violence against their will, that they won’t be able to help themselves.

I believe we have never really faced the roots of violence in this society at the deepest level, so we spend our time on trivial stuff like stopping our children from making Legos into guns. But the truth is that’s not the problem. If we think that making toy guns or playing violent video games is really the problem, and not broken homes or child abuse or that fact that we’re spending 40 percent less time with our chidlren than we did in 1965, then we are deluding ourselves. We’re wringing our hands for no reason. And we’re scapegoating boys.

The impact of our hand wringing is that we lose credibility with boys. They experience us as either excessively controlling and mean, or they consider us clueless. Or, worst of all, they see that we are afraid of them. When little boys think that adults are scared of them, they become truly terrified.

I believe that children who have been brutalized may find media violence is in tune with them, but I don’t believe that children who come from loving, attentive homes are going to be induced unwittingly into violence.

I also know that boys can tell the difference between play and reality, between games and real violence. Violence is what happens when one person intends to hurt another person and succeeds. When that happens in a classroom, all the kids point to it. Violence is now what happens in movies; that is pretend violence and kids know it. Yet we act afraid of our boys. We talk as if we are afraid of them. We have to get over that fear. We have to conquer our assumptions and inhibitions if we are going to be truly helpful to our boys. I have five suggestions to get us started.

1. The Bettelheim Solution
The late Bruno Bettelheim was my professor at the University of Chicago, and when I was there in the early 1970s he was working on The Uses of Enchantment, his great book about the meaning of fairy tales and the ways in which they help children master the most ferocious conflicts and developmental struggles of childhood. Through his book, Bettelheim asks us to come to grips with the dark side of human life. Now, that’s the problem with boys. They often throw the dark side of life in our faces. They are too open about greediness, competitiveness, lust, murderous feelings, fury, perfectionism. They’d rather urinate on trees in the playground than use the bathroom — and they do that psychologically as well. We don’t always want to deal with their powerful emotions in our quiet settings. We prefer the way girls protect us. It is not that girls aren’t grappling with all the same conflicts. They are, but they make it easy on us. Bettelheim would tell us that the problem is with us. We have forgotten how ferocious childhood is. And we need to remember.

2. The Paley-Katch Solution
Teachers and writers Vivian Paley and Jane Katch talk to children. They let them dictate stories. They have them act out their deepest conflicts right there in the classroom. They are utterly fearless in what they let kids talk about. In her book, Under Deadman’s Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children’s Violent Play, Jane Katch describes a discussion of the rules about talking about violence in the classroom. The original list was: (1) No excessive blood; (2) no chopping off of body parts; (3) No guts or other things that belong inside the body can come out. But one of the girls said it would be unfair to stop the boys from talking about these things every day. So they went to an alternate-day format. The kids had a wonderful, moral, democratic discussion about violence because Jane Katch trusted them. Be afraid of teachers and administrators who won’t let you talk to kids this way.

3. The Newkirk Solutions
Acknowledge the complexity of “violence” in art and literature. Keep asking whether it is really violence, or humor, that kids are after. Often, what they seek is the feeling of mastery of violence. We should be able to see this in their choices. And, Newkirk notes, we should allow cartooning as a serious business in the classroom. We should accept youth genres in which fiction becomes a way of assuming freedoms, powers, and competencies that the writer does not possess in real life. It is an act of wish fulfillment, not an accurate and realistic rendering of their experience. The writing is often extreme and exaggerated — and it’s funny.

4. The Captain Underpants Solution
Dav Pilkey, the author of the Captain Underpants books, often issues ironic warnings. When Harold and George must confront two evil robots, Harold worries, “We’re not going to have to resort to extreme graphic violence, are we?” George replies that he hopes not. The next chapter is titled “The Extremely Graphic Violence Chapter” and it begins with a label: “WARNING: The following chapter contains graphic scenes showing two boys beating the tar out of a couple of robots. If you have high blood pressure, or faint at the eight of motor oil, we strongly encourage you to take better care of yourself and stop being such a baby.”

5. The Thompson Solution
Now, here’s mine: Every time you start to worry about boy behavior, think of a man you love — your father, your brother, your cousin, your husband, or your very own son. And then talk to him. Get in touch with his inner life. Put away your fear.


Another Michael Thompson book: Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys 

See also: Proposed White House Council on Boys and Men

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