“In the book How to Raise a Boy, Dr. Reichert paves the way for a constructive reimagining of how a boy becomes a good man. The way to do this, he says, is not to force a way of being onto any boy, but instead to offer them a safe place to grow and connect through listening and by encouraging conversations about feelings, emotions, and physical pain (the area where boys are told most often to “suck it up”). Reichert offers the why and how, citing the latest insights from psychology and neuroscience, as well as stories about the boys he’s encountered over the years, to give readers the tools they need to help build more self-aware, caring men.” — from the book’s publisher, Penguin Random House
Dr. Reichert recently talked with The Good Men Project about what he calls “the power of connection to build strong men.”
Good Men Project: In your book How To Raise a Boy, you weave personal stories and research evidence related to the life of boys and how we raise them. In Chapter One, the reader can feel your family’s pain in your telling the story of your brother’s death resulting from a car accident. This terrible event and the circumstances that led to it shaped you and your adult work to help others to avoid some of the hardships your family experienced. Talk to us about the evolution of the work you did and how it eventually led to this book.
Dr. Michael Reichert: I relate the story about losing my brother in the opening chapter of the book to trace the arc of my own commitment to boys’ development. Its hard to pick a starting point, there were so many influences: coming from a family of 5 boys (and 1 sister), having two sons of my own, coming of age in the ’60s and ’70s when the women’s movement was taking off, my own relationship with my mom and dad, being a male clinician working with families and boys. But the loss of my brother certainly underscored the seriousness of my concerns about how well boyhood was working. The cultural disruption of traditional masculinity has invited a new level of honesty about the routine casualties of boyhood.
I was working as a consulting psychologist at a boys’ school outside Philadelphia just after the birth of my first son when the school invited me to establish a research and advocacy program. I agreed in part because I had a son myself and believed the new position would help me in my new role as a father. But there was also my unfinished need to do something about my family’s loss and the losses of so many other families.
After a number of years, the program evolved to become the Center for the Study of Boys and Girls Lives based at the University of Pennsylvania. The Center was asked in 2006 to conduct a series of large-scale studies of boys’ education by an international consortium of boys’ schools. In these studies, my team discovered that boys’ ability to engage in learning was dependent on the quality of the relationship they had with their teachers: as we said, “relationship is the very medium in which boys learn.” Absent a connection with their teacher, boys tune out, give up, and often even disrupt.
As I thought about this finding in the larger context of other research, my clinical work, and my own experiences as a parent, I realized that not only are boys relational learners, but they are relational, period—a head-turning insight that fundamentally challenged the design of boyhood, itself, and warranted the comprehensive treatment of a new book.
The influence you have had on individual boys and young men ripples to so many others in our society. Another story early in the book brings to light how one person can positively influence another expressing faith or belief in them. I’ve heard many times that teachers can improve a student’s grades just by letting the student know the teacher believes the student “can” do well. Tell us what you’ve experienced and what research shows why this external motivation is important to boys and young men.
Our research suggests that “primary”, not “external” motivation explains the powerful effect of relationships on boys’ learning. In fact, the student-teacher relationship is the only way to engage a boy in learning. We have always thought of motivation as “intrinsic” and “extrinsic,” but to say that boys get purchase as learners in a relational context is actually in-between; learning is actually located not inside the individual boy, but in the connection between the teacher/coach and the boy.
If we want a boy to go to the edge of what he can do or understand, we need to be sure he trusts the adult doing the asking and offering to help. He is more likely to trust if he believes his teacher knows and cares about him. When a boy feels “well held,” in a psychological sense, the effect is transformative: new skills are acquired, a new sense of self forms and the boy realizes he can rely on others to help him with his goals.
As hard as it can be for some boys to connect due to disappointments, hurts, and fears they have already experienced, these are the very boys most in need of being reached. In our studies, we found that every type of boy could be reached by someone approaching with the right strategy.
I believe in the inherent goodness of human nature—boys included. When we see a boy off-course, behaving badly, it suggests a boy who is adrift, cut off and unaccountable to any relational anchor. The solution is not punishment, control, blame or domination. The solution is connection.
How do masculine stereotypes affect our social norms related to raising boys? What are the consequences of a society that expects males to fit into the “Man Box”?
Researchers find that archetypes and stereotypes, both conscious and unconscious, shape our relationships with boys from the very beginning of their lives. Paradoxically, in these times of greater equality, gender stereotypes have become even more pronounced. Toys are more color-coded than ever; GI Joe has put on 20% more muscle.
Unfortunately, cultural beliefs about boys run counter to their human natures and needs, causing caregivers to misrecognize them in fundamental ways. For example, parents emphasize teaching masculinity instead of meeting boys’ attachment needs; teachers fail to perceive that boys are relational learners and emphasize discipline and control over connection.
When boys lose their relational anchors, they are more vulnerable to the lower common denominator of the brotherhood, which encourages hypermasculinity and offers boys little freedom to be themselves. Boys who submit more completely to man box norms are at greater risk for perpetrating bullying, sexual harassment, and assault. They are also the ones who are more unhappy, anxious and depressed.
When asked where these cultural messages come from, nearly 60% in the US said they come from their parents. At a time when there is more uncertainty than ever about raising a boy, many parents fall back on historic tropes that work even less well than they did in the past.
What does your experience show about how violence prevention can help to counter societal expectations of boys and the act-like-a-man box?
I developed and ran a youth violence prevention project in and around Philadelphia for the local chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility for nearly 10 years. It was a group mentoring model based on the premise that “hurt people hurt people:” that boys exposed to high levels of street, school and domestic violence were at high risk for becoming perpetrators of violence themselves. Providing boys with spaces in which they could debrief their experiences and work through the fears and uncertainties that result from exposure to violence produced measurable, positive change.
What we found, in particular, was that most boys did not want to be violent despite pressures to posture in the face of peer threats. As one boy said, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” Getting jammed into a man box by overwhelming threat and pressure, where being strong, stoic, and ever-ready to fight is seen as a matter of survival, explains the bulk of male violence. When we allow boys to be themselves, ensuring their safety, what we see is deeply reassuring.
On the subject of authenticity, you say this: “For boys to resist masculine norms that are harmful, unhealthy, or unjust, they need at least one person who can support what matters to them.” What’s a healthy approach for parents, and for teachers of boys, to facilitate authenticity in boys?
For every boy, to be known and loved is the key. Each boy needs an ally, someone whom he believes sees and understands him. The only way to achieve that goal is for parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors to listen to boys, spend time with them creating what psychologists call a “holding environment.” For a boy to be “well-held,” he must experience someone who is committed to his interests, not trying to manipulate or dominate him into fulfilling their own vision for his life. The boy must perceive that his worth is integral, not instrumental.
So in my book, I provide 3 detailed strategies for parents to build stronger connections with their sons. Here are the basics of each strategy: The first is simply to practice deep listening: to still one’s own urgencies and all desire to correct or direct the boy, instead of giving him the gift of being heard, seen and, ideally, delighted in. The second, related strategy is special time: a time dedicated to the parent following the boy’s lead, doing whatever he wants (even if it is uncomfortable or seems a waste of time). Getting behind their son sends him the message that he is interesting and worth being with on his own terms; he is not required always to fit himself into his parents’ comfort zones. The third strategy is a model for discipline that sets a limit, not for the purpose of dominating, punishing, or controlling, but to invite the tensions and upset feelings driving the boy’s misbehavior out into the open so he can restore better self-control.
These strategies send the message that the parent knows the boy, believes in him, and wants him to be himself. When he finds such acceptance, the boy is better able to hold onto himself and to resist cultural and peer pressures to put on a mask, posture and pretend.
How do stereotypes and social norms contribute to depression and suicidal thoughts? What are the early warning signs a parent should watch for? How can parents be an effective counselor for their son?
The research is clear here: the more confined a boy becomes, the more inauthentic he must be in his relationships with others, the more alienated and lonely he feels. In the echo chamber of his own mind, upsets, fears, and disappointments become distorted, spiraling the boy down. Life without the pleasure of real connection or freedom can feel unbearable. At a time when adolescent anxiety, loneliness, depression, and even suicidal thinking is generally on the rise, being confined to a man box makes boys even more vulnerable.
The science of emotional development supports the idea that the strongest preventive factor is a “relational anchor,” a relationship in which a boy can tell that he can be himself and download upsets, worries and adverse experiences with someone who knows and cares about him. Because relationships of all kinds cycle through periods of connection-disconnection-reconnection, it is important that caregivers monitor the quality of their connections with their sons. A boy who becomes withdrawn, avoidant, or hostile is one who is at risk.
My own research confirmed that the adult—parent, teacher, coach, mentor—must be the relationship manager, the one who makes sure there is a vital connection and restores connection if it becomes weakened. To manage the quality of the relationship requires vigilance and a willingness to reach out when it looks as though the boy has drifted away. Listening, spending time with him, and reaching for him even when he withdraws or pushes away are primary prevention strategies with boys who might become sad, anxious, or otherwise in distress. These strategies should be regular routines and can be doubled down on when a boy seems “off” or not his usual self.
As I mentioned earlier, my three strategies for establishing strong relationships with boys are deep listening, special time, and the Listen-Limit-Listen model for discipline. At the root of these strategies is the long-game we want to play, not to take over our son’s life or substitute our thinking for his, but to empower him to make good, sound choices and to handle tough situations. If we want boys to hold onto themselves, we have to hold onto them ourselves.
Gender norms in our society have said that girls are better communicators than boys, and boys have been suffering for this as a result. How can parents and teachers help boys to be good communicators so they can learn to have better relationships on all levels?
I find that communication, particularly about emotions, is a function of practice. If we provide no opportunity for boys to practice coding their feelings with words and letting someone else know what they are experiencing, naturally they will wind up less skilled. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy to act as if boys may not be able to put words to their feelings or may be unbearably uncomfortable doing so. In the high school emotional literacy program I do at a boys’ school outside Philadelphia, boys are routinely able to share profound emotions – because it is “normal” in the group to do so.
It falls to families and schools to provide boys with opportunities to be real, in relationships where someone truly sets aside their own agenda in order to listen. Fortunately, the boy himself is an ally in this effort: every boy wants the chance to let someone in on how he is doing. He just has to perceive that it is safe, that he will not be humiliated, judged, or somehow retaliated against for opening up. I coach parents to simply button their lips, put themselves in their son’s vicinity, and pay attention to him: what may seem “weird” at the outset can become something he trusts and counts on if parents don’t use the time for their own purposes.
Our culture has also said that girls are social and boys are more independent. Tell us how this has affected male-male friendships and their non-sexual affection. Why are boys’ clubs and men’s group important, as a result?
Yeah, it is another myth that can have self-fulfilling effects. Boys’ friendships with other boys are as deeply caring and meaningful—life-saving, as researchers have found—as any. Masculine pressures, particularly homophobia, play on boys as they get older, driving them away from their close bonds to the point that many adult men lose all friendships but perhaps with a single heterosexual partner. One of the positive outcomes of single-sex opportunities, like schools, fraternities, and sports teams, is the life-long friendships they foster.
The problem is that these same-sex spaces can become hotbeds for misogyny and hypermasculinity, encouraging sexual harassment of women and peer performances like excessive risk-taking and partying. There’s some recent research suggesting that toxic masculine norms do not necessarily arise when boys get together with each other, but it takes an explicit commitment to the broader goal of supporting each other to be good men to avoid the default option of a lower common denominator.
Based on your life’s work so far, how would you define a “just and good man,” and how can we raise our boys to be such a man.
I believe in the innate goodness of human nature and see boys and young men confirming that faith practically every day. In my book, I tell the story of three men in Portland, Oregon, who interrupted another man who was harassing two young women. Two of these men died from injuries inflicted in the ensuing struggle, but each exhibited the heroism, courage to do the right thing, and willingness to make sure others are okay that we associate with the best a man can be. More recently, in Charlotte, North Carolina the young man, Riley Howell, gave his life to prevent more people from being killed in the active shooter tragedy at UNC-Charlotte. These men were unexceptional – their heroism sprang from their masculinity. Boys and men practice similar virtues all the time.
The science of character education teaches us that the most important instruction we offer boys is in how we treat them: if we treat boys well, recognizing their most basic needs and trying our best to meet them, they are more likely to hold onto themselves, their hearts, their empathic connections to others – and thus, to their virtue. And when a man is good, when he has integrity, is brave, willing to work and to sacrifice for his family or community or country, the whole world benefits.
Read more from Dr. Michael Reichert, here on GMP:
How does masculinity train our boys?
How do we connect with our sons?
This content is sponsored by Michael Reichert, Ph.D.
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