Today, I'm interviewing Dr. Michael Reichert who’s the founding director of The Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania and who’s conducted extensive research globally. He has served as the supervising psychologist at an independent boys’ school and has created and led a program to enhance boys’ literacy. He writes a column for Psychology Today called The Power of Connection. His book, How To Raise A Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men, is his latest.
Welcome, Dr. Reichert, to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Thanks for coming on.
Dr. Michael Reichert: Glad to be here with you, Zibby, and with your listeners.
Zibby: How To Raise A Boy, the book, is my manual now. Thank you so much for writing this. I have two sons. One’s about to be twelve. One’s four and a half. I will be picking your brain for the next half an hour. Can you tell listeners what inspired you to write How To Raise A Boy and what it’s about?
Michael: I've been in the field of boyhood studies for close to thirty years, one way or another, working as a clinician, working as a researcher, working in a boys’ school for thirty years. It seemed to me that it was time to get real about the nature of boyhood. A particular tipping point for me was a meme that began to grow about boys are broken. I know boys. I have boys. I have a grandson. I work with boys. I know they're not broken. I do believe we’re reaching a tipping point or a point of disruption when we’re able to really acknowledge what's going on with the boyhood that we construct for boys. What I wanted to do was to be more rigorous about the science of human development and how it applies to male development in particular and to make the connection between the outcomes we’re not happy with, the broken outcomes, and violations of boys’ fundamental human natures. That's really the thrust of the book that I wrote.
Zibby: You actually start your book with a terrible, dramatic story of your younger brother dying in a car accident a long time ago. I'm so sorry about that. I was not expecting it in the book. It just broke my heart. You wrote that you, at the time, had started working as a family court counselor. You linked these two things. You said you felt like there was a common thread between the boys you were helping and what had been going on with your brother, who had been struggling with some things before the accident. You said, “It was their maleness” -- I'm going to quote -- “a cofounded sense of self, some degree of numbness, disconnection, and mental isolation.” Talk to me about all this.
Michael: There's a wallop in there, isn't there? I should first say that I came from a family of six children born in nine years. That brother that I'm talking about in that story was a middle child, in some ways, the invisible middle child. His accident was a shock to all of us in my family. In the way that we do when we’re trying to understand tragedy, I began chewing on it. It happened that I was working with primarily young males in the family court system in Delaware. I began seeing symptoms a lot like the way that my brother had been struggling prior to his accident. It was the mid-seventies. The women's movement had raised male consciousness about gender in some interesting ways, piqued my curiosity.
When I reflected on my clients, my brother, the work of the men’s movement that I was a part of, what I realized was that there was something about the devaluing of life, numbness. I use the word disconnection. What I mean by that is not really feeling other people in their hearts but being somewhat cut off. We historically have referred to that quality as independence. We really valorized it in male development but in a way that has violated the fundamentally relational nature of human beings, boys included. What I began to consider at that time, a long time ago now, was that there was something wrong with the ideas that had driven the way that the people caring for boys had recognized, why and where things were going off track. That's really why I included that story. I wanted to ground it in my personal experience connected to the broader issue of what's ways that boys are going awry and try to draw in some current research and thinking about boyhood studies and male development.
Zibby: Things have changed so much since that happened. Now we need this even more, I would argue. The women's movement has this resurgence now. What happens to the boys in the face of that?
Michael: That's the other reason that I wrote this book now. I actually think we’re ready. We’re actually ready to consider -- when I started the project at the boys’ school outside of Philadelphia, I’ll tell you a funny story. We struggled for how to name it. The school wanted to do it because there was some mistrust or misgiving about an all-boys school at that point in time. That would've been the late eighties, mid-eighties. A lot of boys’ schools were converting to coeducation because of that misgiving. This school decided it wanted to, needed to stay dedicated to boys but wanted to do it with a new rigor, asked me to create a national research advisory group and double down on understanding male development and boys’ education. I did that. We tried to figure out what to name it.
Our first thought was to name it after the head of the school at the time, was a former dean at Hobart College and had created a men and masculinities symposium there. We thought, great name. We’ll just replicate that at this secondary school. We field tested it. We discovered that people, in response to that name, assumed one of two things, either that we were going to take boys out into the woods to beat their chests and celebrate their masculinity, trumpet their masculinity, or we were going to turn them into sissies. Got rid of that name. The next one we tried was A Men’s Studies Project. That was a ho-hum. We wound up naming the project, the program, the On Behalf of Boys Project, trying to seize the moral high ground. That flew.
Zibby: I like that.
Michael: That worked. That was the impetus for that work. What I found at the beginning was there was so much mistrust of any particular attention to boys, that it might rob the women's movement and the resources going to girls, the uplift of girls. That was the current we were swimming against. As girls and women are feeling much more secure in the new opportunities, the new gender landscape, what I'm seeing today is there's a lot of curiosity, almost a hunger for an equivalent understanding of boys and men.
Zibby: Then it’s perfectly timed.
Michael: That was the point of the effort.
Zibby: There you go. You make a lot of suggestions of what people can do to help raise their boys in a healthy, wonderful way. One of the things is having an ally and how that can help boys resist some of the harmful, unhealthy cultural norms that are going around. What are some tips? Let's say you want to be an ally of a boy to help him through, what are some tips? You talk a lot about the kinds of listening that you can do to help boys out. It was just in this Wall Street Journal article you did. Tell me about the listening and how you can help be an ally to a boy.
Michael: I'm happy to talk about that. First though, let me say that the concept of strengthening boys’ resistance by providing them with what we call a relational anchor, just a sentence or two about that. I'm not recommending in this book, snowplow or helicopter parenting. Our efforts on behalf of boys in terms of strengthening boys’ independence and individuality, I don't think that we’re trying to take that down. I actually think we got that part right. Children are unique and independent creatures. They have a right to their own mind and their own directions for their life. What I am arguing, though, is that there’s a force that our sons have to contend with, these cultural norms. Whether we call them man-box norms or toxic-masculine norms, whatever it might be, those norms are going to continue in our culture at least for a generation. I don't see that changing. In fact, in some ways, it’s intensifying right now. Your son, my grandsons are having to contend with that.
My wife and I discovered right off the bat that we were not going to be able to circle our wagons and protect our sons from the influence of those norms. What we can do, what you can do with your son, what your listeners can do with their sons is we can strengthen their ability to think for themselves. The way to do that is to strengthen their hearts and their connection to themselves. The way to do that is to provide the resource of attention, listening. What I say is every boy should be known and loved by at least one person, hopefully more, hopefully they find that in their schools with a teacher or a coach, but known and loved by at least one person. The most fundamental way to know someone is to listen to them. It’s amazing. I lead this emotional literacy group at this boys’ school for seventeen and eighteen-year-old boys. What they uniformly say is it’s rare that someone actually pays attention to them independent of what they do. A lot of people are paying attention to how they perform academically, athletically, socially. To actually pay attention to them independent of any particular outcome we’re seeking from them, to look in on their hearts, their minds, know them, and come at them with no agenda other than to know them, that's a rare gift.
The first quality in listening involves attention. You're listening to me right now. What you're giving me is the blessing of an open mind. You're absorbing what I'm saying. Whatever thoughts you have, whatever reactions you have, you're doing a great job of keeping them to yourself. We don't do that often with our children and particularly with our sons. We come at our sons with worries, desires, hopes, urgent needs. We find something they're doing or saying troubling to us or irritating to us.
Within a very short time of being with a boy, often, we find ourselves intervening, switching in a certain sense, the spotlight from them to us, what's on our minds. What boys do is that they withdraw from that. They begin keeping things to themselves. They don't really want to have to deal with their parent’s reactions if they can avoid it. What they do is they learn to turn to their video games with their friends or their music or whatnot, their TV shows. Unfortunately, what happens then is they're deprived of that oxygen, personalities that character needs to grow and become strong. We are the providers of that particular form, that nurture, that oxygen. It comes in the form of attention and listening.
Zibby: Basically, I should interview my son next? I’ll put him right here.
Michael: Your son is receiving messages. This is probably worth saying to a mother. He’s receiving messages that he shouldn't be particularly close to his mom. Mothers are receiving messages that they shouldn't endeavor to keep their twelve-year-old sons close to them. The mama’s boy myth really, really weighs in mother-son relationships in heavy ways. Your son might not sit in this chair at the outset. If he does sit in this chair, he might be so constrained that he might not find a way to open up. What I recommend is go and just sit next to him wherever he is and hang out with him. Pay attention to him. As you do that, it’s like a plant to light. What you offer is irresistible.
If you stay with offering that, one time, two times, a dozen times, he will lean into it on his own terms for his own reasons. He may not satisfy you that he’s responding in a way that you recognize. I've been amazed in my work with boys at how they take things in and only cautiously reveal the depth to which they're registering your attention. Ultimately, the proof will be in the pudding, is what I say. Stay with and keep an eye on what you're seeing. I'm confident, certain actually, that you will find that your son is using your attention, your listening, in ways that he needs to.
Zibby: That's great. Thank you. It’s nice to know he hears. [laughter] That was so much really great stuff. You said in the book, “To repair boyhood, we must first acknowledge its problems and reach a common understanding of its causes.” What do you think the major problems of boyhood are, aside from what you've already touched on?
Michael: The outcomes are not great. The development outcomes are not great. If we look at, for example -- this is referencing my brother and so many other males. The premature mortality rates in the age category fifteen to thirty are seventy-five percent male. It’s preventable. It’s lifestyle choices. It’s taking risks. It’s doing unprotected sex. It’s drinking too much, driving crazy, not doing routine things to take of our health, not tending to or caring for our bodies but being pushed by hypermasculine peer norms to do crazy things. The outcomes are not great. That's one problem. Going all the way back to that period in the late eighties when I thought about what underlies that, what I concluded was that in the same way that our environment is hardwired with limits -- there is a lot of elasticity in the environment, but only up to a point. At a certain point, pollution begins to mount. We see signs of an ecosystem that's failing.
In the same way, human development is very, very resilient up to a point. If we violate basic human needs, though, there's going to be poor outcomes. In the case of male development, that violation takes place at the level of connection. Too many boys are not known and loved. For too many boys, there's no one paying attention to them, no one really anchoring them in a relationship to some sense of moral accountability. Too many boys are adrift and out there free to do what they want without any sense of connection or owing to somebody else a sense of being a good man, and no internal compass guiding them to take care of themselves, value themselves. That's where I see the fundamental problem of boyhood. We have not prioritized connection in boys’ development, just the opposite. We prize independence in this ill-conceived way.
Zibby: It goes back to the whole connection piece and being there.
Michael: I think so. The field of interpersonal neuroscience didn't exist thirty years ago, particularly. This is a body of research that's really confirmed that human minds are wired to connect. Our species prioritizes connection. We become people in the context of our relationships with somebody else, with other people. The most basic understanding, for example, of self-concept development is that I am who I think others see me as. We need to reflect to our sons who we see them as. They are treasured by us. They are known by us. They're interesting. They're delightful, independent of what they do for us.
Zibby: Love it. What else? I'm trying to raise the perfect boy. You have a lot of other things like advocating for your son, offer relationships to promote a strong sense of self, encourage emotional expression, exercise authority, and promote autonomy. What are the most important things to take away on how to raise a well-adjusted, happy boy? assuming those are the goals, which I think are my goals.
Michael: I'm sure they're the goals for many of your listeners too. It’s important to talk about the value of setting limits with boys. There's a lot of confusion about that, both for parents but also for teachers and coaches in my experience. What we know, for example, in schools is that boys predominate in disciplinary realm. Whether it’s demerits in schools or punishments or suspensions or expulsions, it’s male. We know that -- let's see if I can say this simply -- how a child regulates themselves is in some internalization of their parents or the authority figures in their lives. People that they respect and trust become a part of themselves, a conscious we call it. For many boys, if those connections have been weakened or broken and there's no conscious guiding them or their conscious has become weaker or obscured by peer pressure or whatnot, it’s likely that boys are going to act out. It happens at a real micro-level. It happens at a real major level. Consequently, the discipline, setting limits with boys is a really important parenting skill.
It’s critical to understand that when we’re setting a limit with a boy, unless there really is a dire circumstance, we’re playing a long game, not a short game. What we’re trying to build is their capacity to self-regulate. What that means is we don't simply step in, dominate the boy, use our power to make them afraid, or shame them into compliance. We can always do that. It happens all the time in boys’ lives, that “Tsk-tsk-tsk,” finger waging shaming or that threat or that punishment. “I'm going to take your Game Boy away. I'm going to send you to your room.” That's all possible to do, but in my experience, not particularly skill-building. It’s important for your son, though, to know that there's limits and that he's accountable. I describe the listen, limit, listen model for exercising authority. Basically, it is a long-game version of limit setting. The first step is to make sure you're clear-headed, that you're not coming into this situation irritated or urgent. Your son just says something mean to your daughter. You're upset. You come into that situation, you're likely to convey your upset to your son in a way that’s going to make him embarrassed or ashamed or angry. “You didn't understand, Mom, what she did to me,” that defensiveness.
Zibby: Were you watching what went on here over the weekend? No? Okay.
Michael: [laughs] He's not listening to you. He's simply shielding himself from what he perceives to be your disconnection and your criticism of him. He's not really feeling you bolstering his sense of self. He's feeling you exiling him to the realm of bad boys. The first step, the listen step, is to check yourself. Come at that problem with a clear mind when you can and then making sure that what's happening actually is your son being off base as opposed to something in the situation that really warranted that response. If he's truly mistreating his sister, that's not who he is. That's certainly not your family value. It makes sense to step in. The way to step is warmly, calmly, firmly, and to say, “Jack, I'm not going to let you hurt Nelly. That’s not who you are. That's not what we do. What's going on?” Move into his space. Let him feel you. He's being driven by some emotion that he probably doesn't recognize. It’s energy that's driving him off course. He requires intervention. The intervention he requires is someone checking the acting out and inviting him to express that emotion directly, not in a way that's a harmful or undermining of his own personal character and values.
The third step is listen. That's really the payoff. The point of setting a limit is that third step where your son melts down or explodes or tells you in some way or other, verbally or with behavior, what's really driving him. That's what you want him to be able to do, is to process that painful emotion. You become his counselor, his container, his holding environment, we psychologists say. You become the person who is receiving the energy that’s been driving him off course. He has needed to get that off his chest. He hasn’t been able to do it by sitting down and talking the way adults do. He's acting it out. He's trusting you to recognize that he's not a bad boy. He's the same boy he was an hour ago or last night. He's your dear son. He's off course because something is happening that he needs to get off his chest.
Zibby: I'm going to practice that.
Michael: It’s hard work because often, we have reactions to our sons. The way that boys act out is provocative, often. We think it’s mean. It’s evil. It’s despicable, shameful. That's what I see a lot. I've been working in the field for a long time. I'm often in the position with teachers or coaches or parents where what boys have been doing is really awful. I try to indicate to them that as the adults, it interferes with their ability to function as a helpful person in relation to that child if their reactions are dominating their minds. He feels you. He feels at a really fundamental level. In his reptilian brain, he feels your painful emotion. He doesn't know how to access you as a resource in that moment.
Zibby: I love that. Excellent. Going to focus on being a repository of energy.
Michael: Then you can go and talk to your husband about what's upsetting to you.
Zibby: Perfect. We’ll all be venting our feelings around here all the time. Check back in with us in a few weeks. Before we go, I know the Me Too movement is such a big thing right now. How do you raise sons to be aware of that and navigate that complexity of the world we live in?
Michael: I'm actually not worried about that. I know lots of parents of boys are. I had one father of athletic boys, high school-age boys, say that he sat down and had a talk with his sons and said, “You've got a target on your back simply by virtue of being big, athletic boys.” I don't actually think that we have to presume to tell our sons how to navigate a changed gender landscape. I think they see it better than we do. When we do that, we’re projecting our upset feelings about this new world onto our sons’ perceptions of things. I actually think our best way to guide our sons -- this is certainly true for me with my sons -- is to make sure that they have somebody who knows and loves them, somebody that they're accountable to, and to trust that their natural sense of empathy and justice and respect will be the foundation of how they build relationships with women.
That certainly has proven true in my experience. I meet with forty or fifty boys every other week at this school. We talk about difficult topics, topics like relationships with parents and relationships with each other and bullying, relationships with girls, sex, pornography. I'm very reassured by what I'm hearing from those boys about the inherent goodness and inherent commitment to real connection and relationship, unless something's driving them off course. There's lot of forces that would drive boys off course, but they're not inherent to who the boys are. There's ideas out there. There's stereotypes of boys as feral predators, sex-driven, hormone-dominated creatures. That's nonsense. Not true, as you know with your son.
Zibby: Any last parting advice to parents of boys that they cannot forget?
Michael: What I say is if you want your son to hold onto himself, you have to hold onto him yourself.
Zibby: That's a good one. You should put that on some bookmarks. I'm serious. Hand that out. Thank you so much for all of your insights and help and all of your time. Thank you for coming on.
Michael: Thank you, Zibby.