Psychologist Michael Reichert wants to reinvent boyhood and make it less dangerous — for everyone.
Teen boys are more likely than girls to carry weapons, more likely to get in a fight, more likely to drive drunk, more likely to use drugs or alcohol before sex and far more likely to die young, Reichert writes in his new book, “How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men.”
He argues that this isn’t something boys are born with — it’s created by boyhood’s enduring cultural norms, clichés and pressures, as moms push sons away to avoid raising a “mama’s boy” and boys are told to “man up.”
We talked with Reichert, who has two sons and a grandson, about the steps that parents, coaches and teachers can take to intervene, how his work connects to the #MeToo movement, and why he dislikes the term “toxic masculinity.”
Q: Why is it so dangerous to be a boy?
A: The danger is the impact of the cultural norms of masculinity on how boys perform, particularly for other boys. The risk-taking, the unwise decisions, the trying to prove that you’re a tough guy, or macho, or dangerous, or bold — beginning really, really young. These norms actually impact boys’ behavior and attitudes as young as 4 years old.
I think that one of the secrets that I’m not sure women, even mothers, fully understand about the lives of the men that they have relationships with is that most all of us have had to reckon with a threat that’s often quite immediate and physical. And it begins really, really young, and under the nose of the adults who care for us.
Q: How does your work connect to the #MeToo movement and the call to raise boys who respect girls and women?
A: I think it’s high time that we were honest about where some of this misconduct comes from. The UCLA finding that one-third of college age men said they might force a girl to have sex if they weren’t afraid of getting caught … it’s upsetting as hell when you think about the impact of that on, for example, freshman year girls.
But when you step back from that concern and you think about the boys themselves who are harboring that kind of idea, that kind of attitude about sexuality and intimacy, it’s rather pathetic, I think.
We know for example, that 72% of young men, after a hookup, feel regret, wishing that something more intimate had happened. So those same guys, I assume, some of them, they don’t know how to negotiate a relationship.
As the architects and managers of boyhood, if we provide the kind of connections that boys need in order to flourish as human beings, I think much of this problem will go away. Boys will be self-regulating, boys will be more empathic, boys will be better able to advance their own, more important goals.
Q: How can parents reconnect with sons?
A: I would begin, frankly, with what I call “special time.” Where the parent simply goes back to a reset moment and decides that they are going to summon both their capacity to pay attention to their son, and their capacity to enjoy him, delight in him.
And they are going to simply find the boy, and sit down and do whatever he’s doing, without trying to dominate it, or modify it, or make it about their own preference or convenience. But simply to communicate to the boy, “I like you, and what you’re doing is interesting to me. I’m going to hang with you.”
For the first bunch of times, the boy might ignore you, or radiate hostility. But if you hang in, what I try to tell parents is, you’ve got the power. You’ve got what the boy fundamentally wants and needs. You have to understand that.
Q: What do you think about the saying, “boys will be boys”?
A: It’s a rationalization for violence and sexual assault and loss of boys’ health, and loss of their lives. More fundamentally, I’m concerned about that rationalization obscuring our taking responsibility for the boyhood that we’ve designed for boys.
It’s the parent’s and the teacher’s and the coach’s job to create a relationship for boys so that they come into the kinds of conditions that let them flourish as human beings.
Calling it “boys will be boys” and attributing observed differences on PET scans in male brains and female brains, and arguing that that’s just biology … I think that that’s a really dangerous deflection from the responsibility we all have to get it right.
Q: What about “toxic masculinity”?
A: I’m not a fan of the term. I think it misdirects our attention away from the conditions that create the bad behaviors that we then label as toxic.
No question, boys can be bad. Whether it’s in a classroom or in a family, or on the streets. I’ve certainly spent time with young men who have done terrible things. We don’t want to mince any words about that. It’s bad behavior. But to attribute that behavior somehow to a particular brand of masculinity as if that masculinity is the thing we have to change, that’s a misdirection, it’s a deflection.
I think what we understand, really, is that goodness, morality, it happens in a relationship.
Q: How has our thinking on boyhood evolved?
A: I think we’re in great flux right now. I think the post-millenial generation, in particular, is in a different place. I think that this generation is inventing new ways, not only to be male and female but to be in relationship to one another and to be parents.
Q: Can some of the advice in your book be applied to girls, as well?
A: Children are relational, emotional. They need limits when they’re acting out, but it’s a kind of limit that’s not about dominance and power, but more about interrupting an acting-out behavior so that the child can process what’s going on.
I think that’s true of children in general. It’s certainly influenced by gender, and understanding what the masculine dynamics of boyhood are, what the stereotypes and the prejudices and the unconscious beliefs are, is really critically important to getting it right.