At the Best for Boys Speaker Series lecture in Ball Auditorium on May 8, 2019, Dr. Michael Reichert spoke about “Boyhood in the 21st Century.” Dr. Reichert is a consulting psychologist at The Haverford School, where in 1989 he started a peer counseling program designed to support boys’ emotional health.
Reichert notes that while traditional cultural norms still dominate the definition of boyhood and masculinity, there is a groundswell of rethinking how we can best meet boys’ needs.
Routine losses and casualties have been an inconvenient truth about boyhood for generations. When we look at a whole host of different outcomes – health, education, sexuality – what we see is the normalization of loss and casualty. It’s not the boy that’s the problem, it’s that the structures of boyhood don’t actually match what boys need.
“The really good news is that there’s never been, in my estimation, a better time to be raising a son and educating a boy,” said Reichert. “The unthinking reproduction of a cookie cutter idea about how a boy “should be” has been disrupted by the movement for equality that has swept through our culture. We are now in a position to consider: Is what we’re doing with boys actually matching their natures, their needs? Prior to this disruption, we were more concerned with reproducing a certain kind of man than we were about what was best for the boy.
“Routine losses and casualties have been an inconvenient truth about boyhood for generations. When we look at a whole host of different outcomes – health, education, sexuality – what we see is the normalization of loss and casualty. It’s not the boy that’s the problem, it’s that the structures of boyhood don’t actually match what boys need. We’re still operating in a time when the cultural norms of masculinity are being passed along from one generation to the next … embedded in families, in schools, in sports programs. Boys are profoundly affected by those norms.”
Reichert shared personal experiences as well as research he conducted as part of The Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, now at the University of Pennsylvania. He pointed to several stories in which parents unknowingly perpetuate some of the myths about boyhood. A friend of Reichert’s was pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl. She said: “I know which one is the boy; he’s the one who kicks me.” “As soon as we discover the sex of the child, even in utero, we project onto that child what we think that means,” said Reichert. “We begin to behave in relation to him accordingly.”
While we may assume boys are not emotional creatures, they do in fact have sensitivities and crave connection, a theme Reichert spoke about at length. He ended the session with three strategies to help parents form strong, positive bonds with their sons.
1 – Listen
Provide your son with the luxury of paying attention to him without an agenda or desired outcome. Listening can take many forms; your son doesn’t need to use words to speak volumes. What we know about the way that our brains are wired is that we read each other and feel each other in an intuitive process. Often that communication is deeply reassuring. In that moment, boys feel what psychologists call “well-held” – they feel like they belong.
2 – Special time
Find the thing that your son wants to do and do that with him – without in any way modifying it to fit your comfort level. What you communicate to your son in that moment is: “You are interesting to me. I want to go where you are, and I want to be with you there. I’m going to carve out time from my busy life and my cluttered mind and I’m going to pay attention to you, and you can count on me doing that week after week after week.”
3 – Discipline
Prioritize connection. Because we have created a culture in which boys don’t have as much opportunity and access to process their emotions, they are more likely to be compelled into action and behavior by their tensions and upsets. Rather than dominating your son or exercising authority in a way he fears or submits to, slow him down and put a halt on what he’s doing by firmly saying, “I’m not going to let you do that.” Then listen to what wells up inside your son. Check the misbehavior when you notice it and provide an opportunity for him to blow up or melt down, and simply hold him there while he gets the steam off his chest. He will self-regulate when he’s no longer driven by that energy.
“We can’t live our son’s life for him. But as parents, we can strengthen his capacity to know his own heart, to hold onto his own values, and to boldly live his life,” Reichert concluded.