The Importance of Masculinity in Boyhood Development

“The question is: do parents have enough trust in boy development to let them take some risks and make some mistakes?”

Megan Rosker spoke with Dr. Michael Thompson, a psychologist, school consultant, and author. Dr. Thompson is best known by his New York Times best-seller Raising Cain. He is also author of It’s A Boy! and Homesick and Happy, as well as five other books.

What is it about your own development from child to adult that helped you recognize the pivotal necessity of breaking out of the social norm of not recognizing the importance of masculinity?

My life experiences have given me plenty of chances to watch boys grow and develop. As a boy, I attended all-boys’ schools and I am presently the supervising psychologist for the Belmont Hill School, which is also an all-boys’ school. I see the way in which boys behave—and misbehave—every week. For that reason, I am always surprised when I encounter teachers in coed settings who keep hoping that with constant punishment preaching (and lost recesses!) boys will be different, that they will begin to act like girls. They won’t. While there is an enormous range of what it means to be male and female, the average boy is always more physically active, more impulsive, and less mature than girls of the same chronological age. If you want to understand boys, you have to appreciate the differences.

What innate tendencies are being lost as we suppress masculinity in education and in parenting that would naturally allow boys to become healthy, happy fathers and providers for their families? 

All over the world, boys play hunt-and-chase games and they wrestle. Many people call this “aggressive” or “violent play,” but I disagree. It isn’t meant to hurt or do harm. Boys are wired for “rough-and-tumble play” and for certain kinds of dominance behaviors; other boys understand that most of that is not bullying.

How would a boy develop a sense of confidence if his education were less structured by the academic community?

A majority of boys seem to learn through experience, not through being told or trying to follow rules. They develop both skills and confidence by recovering from their own mistakes. The question is: do their parents have enough trust in boy development to let them take some risks and make some mistakes?

Originally appeared on Let Children Achieve.

—Photo Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr

About Megan Rosker

Megan Rosker is the mom of three young children, a former teacher and ed and play advocate. She writes about how to change education and the culture of childhood in America. Her advocacy has been featured in the New York Times and she is the recent recipient of the Daily Points of Light Award.


  1. It’s funny how these discussions about boys acting out in school never venture into the area of what they are doing after school. If a kid sits around playing video games for 6 hours, than yeah, biology class is going to get a bit boring. How can any school subject compete with GTA?
    Kids used to go outside and play and run off all that energy, not anymore.

  2. As someone who works in a boy’s school (and a feminist at that), I think feminism and a “feminised” curriculum has less to do with it than poor policy and public liability, and the fact that all kids are generally more entitled and rude and are getting progressively worse – or at least it is in the particular clientele I work with.

    I honestly don’t care if the kids want to go on play equipment, or play tackle football, or run around and be loons at lunch time. Lunch time is great, and god knows I need it as much as kids. But I have to stop games that look too rough because it’s in my contract to uphold the behaviour management policy of my school, which is strictly hands-off. I would be happy if kids could settle their disputes with their fists, within reason, or be a little bit silly, but one vexed parent or overly cautious school administrator is all it takes for me to be hauled in for questioning.

    I also think the issue of disruptiveness in class isn’t a gendered debate. Disruptive behaviour in the form of calling out, poorly managed impulse control and rudeness to teachers is a basic manners and respect problem. I might have a small handful of boys who are disruptive due to legitimate learning disabilities or behavioural issues, but there are still plenty of boys who are just poorly brought-up, undisciplined and rude. I work hard to be respected by my students and by and large the majority of boys aren’t disruptive learners. It would be about 7-8 in each class of 30 that are significantly disruptive students and as much as I cater to their individual behaviour and cognitive needs, what happens to the equity of the other 22 boys in the room? What happens to the quiet boys with serious learning needs who cope through passivity or being withdrawn? How do I challenge the best and brightest kids? What about the boys who don’t fit into the traditional mould of masculinity who are bullied and tormented by disruptive jerks who use the difference of others to unsettle a whole class? What about the boys from ESL backgrounds who could thrive if they had an opportunity for more one-on-one time?

  3. Thanks for this- I agree completely, and with Eric also. I too wish the interview was longer.

    Men want to be the providers for their families – but they want to be respected for doing it. Young men see the way their fathers and uncles have been treated, and how good men who work hard for their families are too often separated from their children and disenfranchised from any role in the family besides contributing financially with extortionate child support. It isn’t so much that they hate to provide their children with financial support – but that it removes them from any decision making about how that money is spent.

    Sex segregated schools are a good idea – but unfortunately only available to the very wealthy.

    Feminist organizations like NOW are actively against any reform that would help boys. Sorry, but that is the truth. NOW for example is always against shared parenting, they are against reforming domestic violence and sexual assault laws to discourage rampant false accusations, and they promote programs that pathologize normal boy behaviors.

    The “guy code” is an important part of socializing boys into men. Suppressing it hurts boys and raises them to be the kind of passive, weak willed men that women hate.

  4. Annoyed by the generalizations. Girls can be just as rough and tumble too. I know I was. And yes, I did get in trouble for that rough-and-tumble play, so it’s not just boys who get in trouble for it for being boys. If anything, in my experience girls got in more trouble for it because it wasn’t “expected” of us. So I found myself getting in trouble for every little thing, even if it was a pure accident or something I didn’t realize I had done while the boys got off a lot easier for the same.

    Has anyone ever considered that boys are rough and tumble because our culture outside of school encourages it? Same with girls being meek? Just saying. Societal factors can play a bigger influence than biology. We are not inherently anything when we are born.

    • Amber, first, as nice as it would be otherwise there is ample evidence that we are *all* given certain character traits when we are born. This has been confirmed rigorously through twin and adoption studies.

      Second, our school system punishes boys for being “rough and tumble” but does not punish girls for being meek. Studies of public schools find that boys are suspended twice as often as girls (10% compared to 4% for whites, 28% compared to 18% for blacks), and suspensions directly affect the ability of a student to go on to college. In one extreme case, 50 percent of black males in Milwaukee middle schools had received at least 1 suspension.

      No one ever gets suspended for meekness.

      So no, girls do not “get into trouble” in the same manner as boys do. Your experiences may have impacted you personally, but they are not typical and do not reflect a genuine problem faced by boys in our society.

  5. I agree with Liz McLellan and jameseq as well, people need to be allowed to be people and that means taking into considerations personality traits or needs that do not correspond with the norm.

    “What innate tendencies are being lost as we suppress masculinity in education and in parenting that would naturally allow boys to become healthy, happy fathers and providers for their families? ”

    This quote is not taking into consideration differences. Talking about boys as future providers is already making assumptions and ones which are extremely gendered. Not to mention the heteronormativity implied. How could we allow someone to be an individual if we already have set goals for him?

    • I have to agree with the “provider” tag and how it brings in assumptions and stereotypes! It’s not so much about setting goals as setting value judgments – be they explicit or implied.

      One of my class mates from high school days was inculcated with the “provider” tag, both at school and at home. He spent many years in college, and through his 20’s and 30’s working out how to be “A Provider”. He became very good at it. It got in the way of his life. He worked to provide, He married, had kids and was always lacking something in his life. The provider tag was used to gauge his value and worth.

      After years of angst as a provider – he finally came clean. He was a carer! With support from his wife he trained and ended up working as a carer with some of the most challenging people in society. Now he not only is a carer he trains others how to do it. To achieve this, he stayed home, kept house, did child care and studied and his wife became the provider.

      So many questioned him giving up his career ( high paid ) to become a carer, which they did not equate with being a provider. Now he is himself – he provides for himself, his family and he provides care.

      Money is Not Money, it is a promissory note. Gauging worth and value by promises held stops many from being who they can best be.

      Children show much promise as they grow – but that does not mean such promise should be tied to promissory notes.

  6. J P McMahon says:

    Liz, I have taught in both public and private high schools for the last 20+ years ( Mid-Atlantic) that were quite diverse in terms of class and ethnicity, and I have to say that I saw very little bullying of disabled kids or of kids that had different ways of thinking about their gender. Human nature being the way it is, kids do sort out who is in an unwritten hierarchy based, often separately but sometimes overlapping, on looks, intelligence, and physical ability. Being able to participate in, and deal with this sorting out process, even it it means getting scrapes and bruises both physically and emotionally, is what makes a successful human no matter how beautiful, smart, or strong you are.

  7. Liz McLellan says:

    Girls need adventure, play, risk taking and physical challenges too…. We need not to learn just to “follow rules” – but to cut paths for ourselves. It really is not a special case for boys – though yes they do develop at a different pace. All kids need to learn risk taking, handling mistakes and failure and getting up again, team work…. non- of this is gender specific. It’s a shame that’s how it is framed.

    I don’t think boys or girls are “inherently evil” – but kids ARE brutalizing each other – kids. It is not gender specific. And it has nothing to do with “rough and tumble play” – It has to do with a brutalizing culture online.
    Kids attacked most often are kids that don’t fit into gender norms or kids who have disability.

    I would like smart adults to stop acting as if all boys fall to one side of the gender scale and all girls fall to the opposite side. The discourse at this level is just lame. It’s as if none of what we know about the range of gender expression – from science – is true. Specific kids have specific needs…Let’s start THERE.

    • Good interview Megan, shame it wasnt longer. Masculinity whether found in a male or female body does have, as highlighted in the interview, slightly different needs from Femininity (whether found in a male or female body). It is good this is starting to be addressed in schools, and not just by a return to the old thinking, to the old way of doing things.Where are all boys were to be one way, and all girls were to be another way

      I would like smart adults to stop acting as if all boys fall to one side of the gender scale and all girls fall to the opposite side. The discourse at this level is just lame. It’s as if none of what we know about the range of gender expression – from science – is true. Specific kids have specific needs…Let’s start THERE.

      I agree with Liz about recognising the gender spectrum in children.
      Human thought is so naturally and repulsively coarse, that it requires constantly educating the public that a tendency in a group does not define all the members of that group. That gender variance exists and more importantly, that such variance is not undesirable and does not need ‘correcting’.

  8. How refreshing! After seemingly dozens of articles and countless of comments stating or implying that boys are inherently evil (e.g. “Guy Code”, “Don’t be Guy”) for acting like boys, it’s nice to hear from someone who understands that not to be the case.

    • Eric, you would love Michael Thompson’s books, and also those of Leonard Sax, Michael Gurian, to name just a few. Lots great expertise and reading materials and boy advocacy out there. Also check out The Achilles Effect on facebook, a boy advocacy group. There are great blog posts, reading lists for boys, and other resources. There’s lots, lots more than you may think. I spent many years working exclusively with boys and found there is an abundance of resources. Our educational system is failing boys, and there is plenty on that. Try Richard Whitmire, or even, dare I say it, me?? 🙂 Up to you. You can find what I’ve written on boys if you want to!

      • Lori, thanks, but they aren’t telling me anything I don’t know very well. It would just annoy and anger me further that there aren’t any policy or legislative changes even being considered. I know you consider yourself a feminist (at least I think so), but there is absolutely now way the minority but extremely vocal, active, and influential feminist movement would permit any policy or legislation to get through to improve the lives of boys in education or otherwise (e.g. something like Title IX focused on K-16 education). Hell would freeze over first.

        Everytime I hear “male privilege” and similar crap (pardon my French), I think of the (what should be) shocking education and related statistics, especially among black boys and young men and it makes me nauseous that, relatively speaking, there is not enough concern to overcome the prejudice against them to effect any real societal, policy, and legislative change – and these boys who are growing into the men of the future continue to be, relatively speaking, ignored.

        As an anecdote, I went to a huge minority business black tie gala some time ago. The guest keynote speaker was Earl Graves, the publisher of Black Enterprise magazine. Instead of talking about black business success, he spent 45 minutes discussing the travesty of young black men. He cited stat after stat after that was thoroughly depressing, including his own experiences in having far more young, sharp, educated black women applying as interns as black men. There were almost none.

        We (our nation collectively) can continue to ignore this problem but the chickens are and will continue to come home to roost by an increasing number of young, frustrated, disenfranchised, testosterone laden, un- or undereducated and relatively ignored men becoming succeeding generations of criminals, drug abusers, homeless men, and yes, fathers. That isn’t and won’t be a good thing economically or socially, within the country or for the sake of international competition.

        When you can see my frustration coming out in comments, it’s because of this reality. I do my personal best individually to help but I can’t overcome the national disenfranchisement these kids face.

        • Eric, I dis agree with this statement:

          “I know you consider yourself a feminist (at least I think so), but there is absolutely now way the minority but extremely vocal, active, and influential feminist movement would permit any policy or legislation to get through to improve the lives of boys in education or otherwise (e.g. something like Title IX focused on K-16 education). Hell would freeze over first.”

          First of all, it is way too sweeping in its generalization, in exactly the way you hate to see seeping negative generalizations of men.And don’t we know that those negative sweeping generalizations about men are false and inflammatory? Well, so are the ones about women and feminists. But second, are you aware that mothers do not only have daughters? Have you known any mothers (many also teachers) who have sons themselves and are concerned about them. I know a LOT. Just something to think about. It’s not a black and white world.

          • Lori, do you know of any feminist organizations that are supporting policy or legislation to improve the lives of specificlly boys in education?

            • Luckey, I don’t know very much about the legal side of things, but can try to find out for you. It’s a busy day for me as one of my own posts just went up on GMP and I’ve got a lot to do at work today, but seriously, ping me in a day or two if I have not gotten back to you. But the answer might still be I don’t know, because it’s not my area of expertise, but I’ll see what I can find out through colleagues. I’m not sure what legislation is even out there for them to support. Belonging to so many “feminist” groups, that are supportive of the boy empowerment groups (like Achilles Effect), the zeitgeist is amazingly collaborative. The groups focusing on boys support the ones focusing on girls, and vice-versa, because we all realize this is the only way change will happen. If you got involved in some of these groups, you might actually see things you assume don’t occur, and change your views to being less polarized. I see the collaboration literally every SINGLE day. It’s worth taking a look and maybe suspending presumptions until then. But in terms of educational policy/legislation, let me first see what is out there along these lines (if anything) and then see if “feminist” groups lend support. It may be that the support comes from “educational” groups of mixed gender. An interesting question for you would be whether any “men’s groups” (what is the corollary to “feminist?”) are getting behind the push to get more women to pursue STEM careers. There may be some! But what I see in comment threads on this topic is a lot of men bashing any articles about efforts to help women close the math/science gap. You’ve seen that dynamic, right? Let’s keep talking…

            • Luckey, getting back to you after a busy day, and heading out of town in the a.m…

              Check this out:

              Richard Whitmire is one of the most knowledgeable experts on boys and education (specifically) right now. He writes for Huffington Education, Ed Week, and lots of other places. He is the author of the well-known book “Why Boys Fail” about how they are struggling in school. I don’t have any more time to put into this, but you can find him through HuffPo or Ed Week or his website, contact him, and ask your question. He has generally been responsive to me in the past when I was researching things about boys. If anyone will know the answer to the legislation question, he will. As far as the assumption that no feminist organization would support that, I simply won’t get into that because it does not make sense to me at all, and will leave that kind of questioning to you if you choose to do it. So contact Richard Whitmire if you’re serious about these questions. Good luck.

          • Lori,

            If you read my comments, you will see that I NEVER negatively generalize women.  Ever.  Women and feminism/sts are certainly not one and the same any more than men and the MRAmovement are one and the same.

            Note that my statement was about the feminist movement, not you or any individual person.  I read your article posted on HuffPost and I agree with it.  I only noted that you consider yourself a feminist so that you would not take the subsequent statements personally.   They were not meant to be. 

            However, there is simply no evidence that the feminism (as a movement) has concern over the educational problems being experienced by boys resulting in the every growing gender education gap; rather, the contrary is in evidence.  For example, you mention that there’s a near 60/40 education gap and they will be sure to respond: “Yeah, but that women are still represented less than 50% in science, engineering, and technology and there’s still a ‘wage gap.’”    (I’ve had the conversation more times than I can count)

        • Well said Eric M. While it’s well known in some circles(though not P,C.) that youngBlack Men have been societys’ “throw aways”, it seems that in some perverse sence of “equality”, young white males are joining that grouping. Thier growing despair is evedent in the fact that 80% of all sucicides are in fact white males. Our public education system (female dominated) keeps telling our young men that there is something wrong with them for being , young MEN. Why O why can’t they behave like young girls? I am a father of three young women who did fine in public school. I’m also the father of a young man who , if I had to do it over again, would have somehow found the money to send him to private school.

    • Michael Rowe says:

      Well said, Eric.

  9. Megan, thank you for this. I am a huge fan of Michael Thompson, having spent seven wonderful years as admissions director at The Fenn School in Concord, MA. Thompson spoke at Fenn several times, and I also had the pleasure of hearing him speak at the International Boys School Coalition and at NAIS. We need more focus on boys in this country and especially on how to make our educational system work for them. Nice post.

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