Rarely, it seems, does a day go by when we do not bear witness to the tragedies of boys – and men – behaving badly. From the famous (think Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein and many more) to the infamous, such as Brock Turner and Owen Labrie, they collectively beg the question: how are we raising our boys today?
Some answers can be found in acclaimed journalist Peggy Orenstein’s New York Times best-selling book Boys and Sex – Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity. What does that new masculinity look like? I wanted to hear from boys directly, so I reached out to a number of them I know through my work in organized camping. [Their names have been changed for privacy purposes, presented here as Cody, age 19; Christian, ages 17 and 18; Matthew, age 18, Michael, age 17; Ken, age 19; Nathan, age 18; and Topher, age 18.]
But before we get to them, what does Orenstein have to say? A lot. Perhaps most alarming for someone like me who has spent a career advocating for, and attesting to the positive power of, direct, open, and honest conversations between caring adults and young people in shaping morality, character, and behavior. Sadly, Orenstein writes, “I already knew that Americans talk precious little to their daughters about sex, but I soon learned that they talk even less to their boys” (Orenstein, 2020).
This phenomenon is something carefully documented in my more than twenty years of in-depth interviews (IDIs) and focus groups with boys and girls across the United States. It is also partially explained in Andrew Smiler’s book Challenging Casanova, which reveals that parents are more likely to talk with girls about puberty, sex, and first menstruation, as they are cast as a health priority, than they are to talk about the male biological equivalence of first ejaculation, as it is viewed as being more closely aligned with sex (Smiler, 2012).
Such a lack of dialogue with boys may also be pegged on some misbeliefs as to what boys are really all about. As I explained in my HuffPost piece “What Boys Need,” leaving behind the notion that boys are simply testosterone-turbocharged stalkers of the opposite sex, we can shift the debate about what they want to what they need. And there we discover the nurture deficit that leaves many boys voiceless.
Orenstein frames that voicelessness as existing in the context of what psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson discuss in their seminal book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys. They offer that our culture actually encourages emotional development among girls while discouraging it among boys, saying, “Boys yearn for emotional connection, but they are allowed very little practice at it.” Kindlon and Thompson argue that key proponents of such opportunities should be parents (Kindlon and Thompson, 1999).
Regardless, it seems universally accepted that boys are constrained from exhibiting a full range of emotionality.
In his article “How Two Presidents Helped Me Deal With Love, Guilt and Fatherhood,” author Ron Fournier points out, “Fathers and sons don’t always know how to talk to each other, which is why we have sports” (Fournier, 2012).
Sports and sex. There you have it.
Following the savage beating death of University of Virginia student Yeardley Love by her sometimes-boyfriend lacrosse player, I expressed in Psychology Today my hope that our culture will abandon its ambivalence about athletes acting badly, not giving them an easy out because of their prowess on the field but rather holding them accountable because of their influence off of it.
In reality, our society has somehow come to confuse emotion – and affection – with sexuality, at least when it comes to boys. Such confusion contributes to what Kindlon and Thompson refer to as a “culture of cruelty,” which disallows, for all intents and purposes, the encouragement of boys to identify, understand, and explain their feelings. Indeed, the disconnectedness of boys, and the sadness and anger it spawns, leaves them longing for meaningful dialogue. That void, in turn, makes them particularly susceptible to dangerous, or potentially dangerous, behaviors.
What does that mean? When there’s no healthy outlet for emotion, it comes out in other ways, such as drinking, other drug use, violence – or even sex.
After a nationally publicized, oral-sex scandal at the prestigious Milton Academy just south of Boston, former students Abigail Jones and Marissa Miley penned a book titled Restless Virgins: Love, Sex, and Survival at a New England Prep School. They talk about the deference girls give to boys regarding sexual behaviors. In a related note, Frances E. Jensen, M.D., and Amy Ellis Nutt, in their book The Teenage Brain – A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, say, “The dual motivation of expediency and emotion is perhaps nowhere more engaged in adolescent behavior than around sexual activity” (Jensen and Ellis Nutt, 2016).
Some of what may today be viewed as a “normative” culture of violence seems at odds with the values boys profess to hold.
- Christian – Compassion, sympathy, justice
- Cody – Honesty, trust, sympathy, empathy
- Ken – Respect, integrity, empathy
- Matthew – Loyalty, respect, selflessness
- Michael – Family, dedication, perseverance
- Nathan – Friendship, family, respect for others
- Topher – Loyalty, caring, loving
Those values seem to shape both character and morality. Each linked to the other and at play in decision-making about personal behavior in relationships.
Psychologist Jean Piaget, an early trailblazer in the study of morality, used observation of children at play to better understand their belief systems about what is “right” and what is “wrong.” He came to believe that, like so much of the human life cycle, it all comes down to a developmental process. He posited that younger children begin this process in a “heteronomous” stage of reasoning reflecting a strict application of obedience to rules and authority. As they grow, Piaget said, they move to an “autonomous” stage more heavily influenced by mutual respect, reciprocity, and a solutions-based focus on what is fair to everyone involved (Wallace, 2018).
More recent work advanced by Carol Gilligan is based on theories of care, which “implies that there is moral significance in the fundamental elements of relationships and dependencies in human life. Normatively, care ethics seeks to maintain relationships by contextualizing and promoting the well-being of care-givers and care-receivers in a network of social relations. Most often defined as a practice or virtue rather than a theory as such, ‘care’ involves maintaining the world of, and meeting the needs of, ourselves and others. It builds on motivation to care for those who are dependent and vulnerable, and it is inspired by both memories of being cared for and the idealizations of self” (Sander-Staudt, 2018).
In my conversations with the seven boys of summer (and hundreds of others along the way), I experienced what Orenstein described. “My biggest fear when I started … was that guys wouldn’t talk to me. Unlike girls, they don’t exactly have a reputation for chattiness. Plus, I look like I could be their mom. But if anything, they were more forthcoming, talking extensively, honestly, bluntly, eagerly, including – perhaps especially – about the very things boys are supposedly loath to discuss: their feelings. They confided their insecurities, pressures, and pain; their anxieties about sexual performance; their desire to connect and their fears about doing so … They struggled with the social cost of challenging ‘locker room’ talk, [and] chafed against the assumption that guys only want sex” (Orenstein, 2020).
William Pollack, author of Real Boys and Real Boys’ Voices, offers, “Boys long to talk about the things that are hurting them: their harassment from other boys, their troubled relationships with their fathers, their embarrassment around girls and confusion about sex, their disconnection from, and love for, their parents … their constant fear that they might not be as masculine as other boys” (Pollack, 2000).
Ahh, masculinity, and how we define it may be key in reducing unacceptable, unwanted, and aberrant behaviors.
One boy, Cody, defined his transition from boyhood to manhood as “when I first had sex.” He was 17.
High-school student Edward, whom I interviewed for an earlier qualitative study on adolescent behavior, told me that he was afraid to go vacations with his family, concerned that their plane might crash and he would die a virgin.
Oh, the pressure!
For his part, Christian spoke to a “toxic masculinity” and a common culture of “testosterone-pumped up bravado” that he said is, ultimately, somewhat damaging, preferring, he said, to ditch the stereotype of a manhood defined by burliness and non-emotionality.
Of violent behavior by boys and men, Cody told me, “I just don’t get it,” while Matthew stressed the importance of “being able to understand a sense of community.” Topher noted that manhood is evidenced by mental and emotional states that acknowledge struggles and the importance of the social and emotional development of boys.
Ken described two types of men:
- Those who are intelligent, communicative, knowledgeable about social norms, self-aware and sensitive to community, and
- Those who don’t think things through, making rash decisions that don’t reflect well on men. This type, he said, is unfortunately “most amplified.”
In his noteworthy op-ed in The Boston Globe, “Passage Into Manhood,” Michael Thompson said, “Many boys, actually, almost every boy, struggles with what it means to become a man. Boys (or young men, if you prefer) of 17, 19, and into their early 20s wrestle with the riddle: What test do I have to pass to become a man, and who will be able to recognize that I have reached that point?” (Thompson, 2005).
For better or for worse, boys confront a daunting task of navigating a path to manhood. Just like the boys of summer.
Stephen Gray Wallace, M.S. Ed., is a doctoral candidate in educational innovation and leadership at St. Thomas University in Miami, Florida. He is also an associate research professor and director at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE). Stephen has broad experience as a school psychologist and adolescent/family counselor. He is a member of the professional development faculty at the American Academy of Family Physicians and American Camp Association and a parenting expert at kidsinthehouse.com, NBC News Learn, and WebMD. Stephen is also an expert partner at RANE (Risk Assistance Network & Exchange) and was national chairman and chief executive officer at SADD for more than 15 years. Stephen is an award-winning writer and author of the books Reality Gap and IMPACT. Additional information about Stephen’s work can be found at StephenGrayWallace.com.
Fournier, R. (2012). How two presidents helped me deal with love, guilt and fatherhood. National Journal. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/11/how-two-presidents-helped-me-deal-with-love-guilt-and-fatherhood/461733/ (17 April 2021).
Jensen, F. and A. Ellis Nutt. (2016). A neuroscientist’s survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. New York, NY: Harper Paperbacks.
Jones, A. and M. Miley. (2007). Restless virgins: love, sex, and survival at a New England prep school. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Kindlon, D. and M. Thompson. (1999). Raising Cain: protecting the emotional life of boys. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Orenstein, P. (2020). Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity. New York, NY: Harper.
Pollack, W. (2000). Real boys’ voices. New York, NY: Random House.
Sander-Staudt, M. (2017). Care ethics. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. www.iep.utm.edu/care-eth/ (17 Jan. 2018).
Smiler, A. (2012). Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of the promiscuous young male. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Thompson, M. (2005). Passage into manhood. The Boston Globe. July 26, 2005. http://archive.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2005/07/26/passage_into_manhood/ (17 April 2021).
Wallace, S. (2018). Big little lies. Psychology Today. January 17, 2018. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-teens-make/201801/big-little-lies (17 April 2021).
Wallace, S. (2014). What boys need. HuffPost. April 15, 2014. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/what-boys-need_b_4773812 (17 April 2021).
Wallace, S. (2012). Love and legacy: hope for what Yeardley left behind. Psychology Today. March 2, 2012. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/decisions-teens-make/201203/love-and-legacy-hope-what-yeardley-left-behind (17 April 2021).
Wallace, S. (2008). Reality gap: alcohol, drugs and sex – what parents don’t know and teens aren’t telling. New York, NY: Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing.