How to Raise Boys Who Are in Touch With Their Feelings
By Jill Suttie
After college, psychologist Michael Reichert worked as a counselor at family court, helping make recommendations for the many teenage boys caught up in delinquent acts like stealing, fighting, and running away from home. When reading through police and school reports, he would often be struck by how many of these offenders had had extremely troubled, heartbreaking experiences of abuse and neglect.
“There was a common thread—an unspoken tragedy—at work . . . in my clients’ stories: their maleness,” he writes in his new book, How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men. “In each case, a confounded sense of self, some degree of numbness and cluelessness, disconnection and mental isolation, lay behind choices that ranged from self-defeating to self-destructive.”
The problem is one that’s rampant in American culture: Boys are raised to ignore their feelings or at least keep them bottled up inside. But this only prevents them from understanding themselves and connecting with others in deeper ways.
Reichert’s book argues that by pushing boys to reach some cultural ideal of a “real man”—devoid of feeling and never vulnerable—we are ignoring their social needs and making them sicker, sadder, angrier, and more volatile. He calls for us as parents and as a society to raise boys differently so they can grow in positive, healthy ways.
The cost of boys’ disconnection
Though much of the current cultural debate spotlights the suffering of girls and women in society—still a critical issue, of course—Reichert’s book shines a light on how disconnected males suffer, too. For example, boys generally enter school less prepared socially and behaviorally and adapt more slowly to the school environment, making learning more difficult for them than for girls. They also tend to receive harsher punishments for misbehavior in school than girls—especially boys of color—making them miss more school time, which puts them more at risk for later criminal behavior.
As they grow up, men who adhere to male stereotypes most strongly tend to suffer setbacks—they are more likely to be depressed and suicidal and to have relationship troubles. They often feel disconnected socially and carry distorted beliefs about sex and love—such as believing that their sexual urges are uncontrollable or they don’t need intimacy—that can lead to misunderstandings or, worse, sexual coercion or assault. And they tend to receive poorer health care and die younger than women.
“Disconnected males show up at the wrong end of gender gaps in education, employment, and civic participation,” writes Reichert.
What can be done to turn this around? It will probably not be easy, as accepted gender roles are hard to change overnight. As Reichert points out in his book, many parents still hold to the myth of the “mama’s boy”—spoiled or “made soft” by loving attention. As boys grow, they are called upon to fight and to distance themselves from their male friends, or risk being called “sissies” or considered “gay” when they are not.
“The historic model of boyhood, unchanging for generations, is woefully behind the times,” writes Reichert. The social pressures to conform are hard to ignore, but the damage they do is unmistakable.
How to raise a boy
Luckily, the news is not all grim. Reichert offers some important tips for parents who want to help the boys in their life grow into compassionate men. Much of his advice centers around developing closer relationships with boys, while helping them to grow in autonomy and keep their humanity at the forefront. Here are some of his recommendations.
Nurture boys with love. There is no reason to tear boys away from their mothers’ arms at a young age to somehow “toughen them up.” They will move toward autonomy when they are good and ready, and trying to keep love at bay is a mistake. As developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik writes in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, kids need loving relationships to help their brains grow, and the warmth, safety, and security offered from a loving parent is necessary for healthy development. The more we deprive boys of this nurturing, the more difficulty they face in life.
Listen to boys and show interest. The pressures to conform to toxic forms of masculinity are very strong for boys, even from a young age. To help them stay strong in the face of these pressures, it’s important that parents and teachers help boys develop integrity—an alignment of their values, goals, and behavior.
An adult mentor—such as a parent, teacher, or coach—who truly listens and shows up with care and persistence can help boys to figure out who they really are and to follow their own course. “When caregivers muster the willingness to simply listen and observe, without offering judgments, it can make a world of difference to boys who are trying to develop confidence in their own judgment,” writes Reichert. Though sometimes hard to do, listening and expressing curiosity typically works better than offering advice.
Encourage emotional expression. Boys have feelings just as girls do; they are simply not encouraged to express them, or they feel unsafe doing so. Parents can remove those barriers by building trust and by checking their own reactions when boys share difficult emotions like angst, anger, or sadness.
While it might be difficult to not take a son’s anger personally or not be hijacked by your own worries, being receptive to a boy’s entire repertoire of emotions helps them to understand the value of these emotions and to recognize and manage them more easily. As Reichert writes, “Gaining insight into how feelings influence thinking and behavior is the defining skill in emotional intelligence.”
Promote autonomy, not independence. Too often boys receive the message that their goal for adulthood is independence—a Lone Ranger kind of ideal, where they act alone and in isolation. But what boys really need is autonomy: knowing how to advocate for their own needs and values in relationship to others. It’s important to support boys as they learn this—but that doesn’t mean intervening in their relationships or preventing them from experiencing disappointment and loss, says Reichert. Instead, providing a safety net as they venture into new territory will help them grow in autonomy.
Autonomy needn’t be pushed; it emerges naturally in the course of relationships—such as when sons and parents disagree about family rules and expectations, and sons are encouraged to express independent thought rather than simply acquiesce. This ultimately allows for disagreement without antagonism. Reichert writes, “While compromise and negotiation are always necessary in any relationship, apparent conflicts often evaporate when respect, listening, and the release of tense feelings are encouraged.”
Advocate for boys. It helps if parents understand the pressures their boys face while growing into men. Too often, adults suffer from their own preconceived notions of what a boy is or should be, and they fail to see their boy’s underlying need for connection.
A good place to start is finding ways to see the good in him and reminding him how he delights you. Outside of that, you can also educate yourself about boys by reading developmental books that shine a light on their humanity and encourage empathy and compassion for their plight. And you can stand up for them when they are bruised by the insensitivity of others, letting them know you see them and love them for who they are—not for someone else’s vision of who they should be.
Reichert’s book is a convincing argument for all of us, as a society, to better support boys in their development. It’s up to us to make sure we don’t inadvertently pressure them to conform to some distorted view of manhood, but instead help lift them up. That’s the only way to encourage them to fulfill their full potential as men…and as human beings.