On this episode
We know gender stereotypes hurt girls. But what are they doing to boys? From a young age, our society tells boys they must be dominant and tough. They learn not to show vulnerability or ask for help. That emotional suppression makes it hard for boys to cope with, well, everything—and it’s painful for the people who love them, too. In this episode of Tilted, we talk about how toxic masculinity puts boys in “man boxes” and how we can help them get out. We’re joined by two experts on the topic: Peggy Orenstein, author of Boys and Sex, and Dr. Michael Reichert, author of How to Raise a Boy.
More about our guests:
- Peggy Orenstein is the author of The New York Times bestsellers Boys & Sex, Girls & Sex, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and Waiting for Daisy. Her TED Talk, “What Young Women Believe About Their Own Sexual Pleasure,” has been viewed over five million times.
- Dr. Michael Reichert is an applied and research psychologist who has long been an advocate for children and families. He is a founding director of The Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania and has also served as the supervising psychologist at an independent boys’ school, where he has had the opportunity to create and lead a program designed to enhance boys’ emotional literacy. Michael is also a part of the Global Boyhood Initiative, which has resources to guide boys to share emotions in healthy ways, connect with others, and break from stereotypes.
A few things you’ll learn:
- Help young boys name their emotions. Many boys learn to express any strong feeling as anger—by saying, “you seem sad” or, “that must be frustrating,” you can help them connect to what’s really going on.
- Give boys deep, sustained attention. Focus on validating their feelings, interests, and ideas instead of trying to mold them to fit an expectation.
- If a boy in your life is acting out, don’t just discipline him—ask him what’s behind the behavior and make a real effort to understand. Hold space for his feelings and help him process them so he can learn to manage those feelings better in the future.
Whether you’re listening to this episode with friends or your Circle, these questions are designed to help you dig deeper into the topic by sharing personal stories, connecting over common challenges, and workshopping solutions together.
- What was expected of boys when you were growing up? Which of those expectations were explicit, and which were unspoken? Is there anything that you hope will or won’t be expected of the next generation of boys?
- When you’ve interacted with younger boys, what assumptions have you made about their thoughts, feelings, interests, and behaviors? How do those assumptions change for older boys (e.g., teenagers)? How might your assumptions play into—or counteract—harmful gender stereotypes?
Rachel Thomas (00:01):
Welcome to Tilted: A Lean In Podcast. Tilted brings you conversations at the intersection of gender and culture. We dig into topics we’re curious about, highlight people in stories that inspire us and we hope inspire you too, and share expert advice to help you make the playing field a little less tilted. I’m your host, Rachel Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Lean In.
We know gender stereotypes hurt girls. But, as the parent of a daughter and a son, I’ve seen they hurt boys, too. Our culture teaches boys that they shouldn’t be compassionate or vulnerable. So, boys often lag behind girls emotionally. They’re more likely to struggle with behavioral issues, too. Just like girls, boys deserve to grow up in a world where they can be their full, authentic selves. And that’s the topic for this episode of Tilted.
Rachel Thomas (01:00):
First, you’ll hear from Peggy Orenstein. Peggy is a well-known expert on the experiences of girls and she’s written several groundbreaking books on the topic, including Girls and Sex, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and Waiting for Daisy. Now, she’s bringing her expertise to bear on boys’ experiences with her new book, Boys and Sex: Young Men on Hookups, Love, Porn, Consent, and Navigating the New Masculinity.
I am so thrilled to be sitting down with you. For everybody listening, I’m talking to the amazing Peggy Orenstein. If you know her work like I do, the first question you want to ask her—so I’m going to ask it for all of us—is: Peggy, we think of you, we think of girls and women. Why boys?
Peggy Orestein (01:41):
I know, right? Me, too. I’ve written about girls for 25 years. After publishing Girls and Sex and going around the country with that book, so many people, parents—
Rachel Thomas (01:53):
Which is an amazing book, by the way.
Peggy Orestein (01:55):
Thank you. Parents, girls, [and] boys would say, “When are you going to write about boys?”I kind of thought, Oh, I don’t know. I think that’s somebody else’s job. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that nobody really was talking to boys and nobody was really listening to boys in a changing time about their views about intimacy, sex, gender, [and] masculinity.
Then, as I was thinking about that and gathering wool and doing some preliminary interviews, the Me Too allegations broke. Suddenly, the scope of misconduct across every sector of society by men, young and old, became so obvious. There was a mandate to reduce sexual violence, but it also felt like it was a moment where we could, in a more positive way, engage boys in what it meant—what it meant to be a man, in issues around sex, in issues around consent, in issues around gender dynamics, in issues around emotion and emotional intimacy—and hear what was going on in their heads. Because we need to, in order to help them make the best choices.
Rachel Thomas (02:54):
So, I know you talked to, I think, over a hundred boys?
Peggy Orenstein (02:54):
Rachel Thomas (02:57):
What is in their heads? What did you learn?
Peggy Orenstein (02:59):
I have to say that, first of all, the thing that [stood out] even more than any specific conclusion was how much they wanted to talk. That I was not prepared for. The other thing I was really resistant about was, I thought, Talking to boys, what if they don’t say... they don’t have a reputation for chattiness exactly, like girls. Right? I wasn’t sure. I thought I’d have whole transcripts of, “Mm-hmm” (affirmative). That would be it.
Rachel Thomas (03:21):
I would have thought that, too.
Peggy Orenstein (03:22):
Right? And that was so not the case. Especially, I think, because we’re living in a time where there’s a whole lot of new expectations, yet they haven’t let go of the old expectations, either; they’re really thinking and struggling. It wasn’t just that they wanted to talk, which was amazing, but that they were also such insightful narrators of their experience. I think that it was just that our expectations are so low.
Rachel Thomas (03:46):
Well, it shows a real thoughtfulness.
Peggy Orenstein (03:48):
Yeah. Just having somebody ask them and say, “Okay, I want to know about your interior life honestly and frankly. And what’s more, we’re going to be in this partnership because we want to bring those ideas forward to society and to your parents, not your particular parents, but to parents, etc. Let’s go.” They just took the opportunity.
Rachel Thomas (04:07):
So, where did they take you? What did you talk about? What did you learn? What most surprised you? I have a million questions.
Peggy Orenstein (04:13):
I started with really talking about ideas about masculinity, even before we got to sex. With girls—I know you know this, as somebody who has worked with girls forever—a lot of what I’ve always been documenting and what we’re working with is this contradiction that girls face between all the old stuff, the being pleasing, the being deferential, etc., and all the new ideas, the wonderful new ideas and the wonderful new traits that we’re telling them they can embody. It probably shouldn’t be so surprising that boys too are struggling with the sort of old-new contradiction.
So, on one hand, yeah. They see their female classmates as worthy of their place in leadership, or deserving of their places in the classroom or [their] professional educational opportunities—much more egalitarian than previous generations. They have female friends; they have gay male friends. Yet, when I would ask them, “What’s the ideal guy?” it sounded like they were channeling 1955. It went right back to athleticism, dominance, aggression, wealth, sexual conquest, and emotional suppression. Really teasing apart that with boys, they would talk about things like, “I learned to build a wall inside of me and I trained myself not to feel.”
Rachel Thomas (05:25):
They’re that self-aware?
Peggy Orenstein (05:26):
They were that self-aware.
Rachel Thomas (05:26):
Peggy Orenstein (05:27):
Or, “The only feelings I feel I’m allowed are happiness and anger.” One boy said to me that he had trained himself not to cry. He couldn’t cry when his parents got divorced, so he streamed three movies about the Holocaust back to back. That worked.
Rachel Thomas (05:43):
Peggy Orenstein (05:45):
As I’ve traveled with this book and thought about it, it’s a new thing. When a book comes out, you have a whole different perspective on it. So much of this book, whether we’re talking about masculinity, whether we’re talking about porn, whether we’re talking about hookup culture, whether we’re talking about consent, so much of it at its core is about vulnerability and the ways that boys and young men wrestle with the taboo against it—whether they’re embracing it, rejecting it, capitulating to it, or denying it.
Actually, a male therapist recently said to me, I should stop saying “vulnerability” and start saying “emotional accessibility,” because that is easier for men. I don’t know, but maybe it is.
Rachel Thomas (06:23):
Peggy Orenstein (06:24):
But when we deny people’s capacity for emotional vulnerability or accessibility, we deny their humanity... Brene Brown says that vulnerability is the secret sauce that holds relationships together. So, we reduce young men’s capacity to attain and sustain the kinds of mutually gratifying relationships that we want them to have—and that hurts them, and that hurts their partners, as well.
Rachel Thomas (06:51):
Paint a picture of what it looks like for boys who really are truly suppressing and truly getting caught up in bro culture. What does that look like? Then, we can talk about how we don’t get there.
Peggy Orenstein (07:06):
They would talk a lot about the locker room. And it’s not just the locker room, it’s those all-male enclaves, whether it’s the locker room, fraternities... Silicon Valley, all these places where...
Rachel Thomas (07:16):
That rings a bell.
Peggy Orenstein (07:16):
Yeah. Where this culture can flourish. But, in sports culture, I think it’s particularly interesting because, on one hand, we’re hearing that sports creates teamwork, that it builds character, that it does all these things that are great and true. It’s fun. And it can be a smokescreen for the worst kind of bro culture, bullying, us-against-them mentality, sexism, and homophobia.
What boys would talk about hearing in the locker room was the classic stuff... they use bragging about sex as a way to bond and reinforce the idea that they’re heterosexual and that they bond through the control of women’s bodies. And so, what do they say? “I slammed that. I banked, I hammered, I pounded, I nailed, I hit that. I tapped that.” I can go on and on. It’s like they visited a construction site. It’s not about intimacy.
The thing was that the guys that I was talking to were not just embracing this. They were not just blank slates on which the culture was inscribing. A lot of them were really struggling with this. Some of them have dropped out of sports that they loved, not because they didn’t like the team or weren’t good at it, but because they didn’t like the culture, which could sometimes be coming from the coaches directly, by the way. But also, I talked to guys who would try to challenge that. One boy, Cole, told me that he and a friend tried to say something when an older boy was saying something despicable and they got made fun of. So, the next time Cole said he didn’t say anything, but his friend continued to.
Rachel Thomas (08:42):
But then he’s struggling with that.
Peggy Orenstein (08:43):
Yeah. So, he’s watching. He said, “My friend, he gets marginalized. They don’t like him as much. They don’t listen to him. He’s spending all this social capital.” But he said, “I still have buckets of it, and I’m not spending it. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to have to choose between my dignity and these guys. But how do I make it so I don’t have to choose?”
Michael Thompson, the psychologist who writes about boys, talks about the silence in the face of [the] cruelty and misogyny in which boys become men. So, it’s not just the boys that are doing that. It’s... what can’t other boys say? What can’t they say? What don’t they say? What won’t they say that also creates this kind of edifice of masculinity and disconnection? Its purpose is to keep you in check and to keep the lines of that man box solid, so that you don’t challenge it and you don’t go beyond it.
Rachel Thomas (09:31):
Could you talk a little bit more about the man box, what it is and how we should understand it?
Peggy Orenstein (09:37):
Yeah. The man box is those rigid norms that we’ve been talking about.
Rachel Thomas (09:41):
Peggy Orenstein (09:41):
And the ways that they police boys’ behavior. They will say, by the way, that they get a lot of those messages from their parents, and particularly from their dads. The guys that I spoke with, some of them would say, “Yeah, my dad would tell me, ‘Man up or don’t be a little bitch.’” But a lot more of them would say, “My dad wasn’t sexist. My dad wasn’t homophobic. My dad didn’t teach me the so-called toxic masculinity stuff. But he did teach me the stunted side of masculinity, because he wouldn’t talk about emotions. He was more of a sigh-and-walk-away kind of a guy than the kind of guy who’d ask you what was going on. So, I learned not to have those conversations from him.” It’s all these ways that boys learn to disconnect, all these things that police them.
Peggy Orenstein (10:22):
What we know is that guys who hold more tightly to those rigid norms, whether it’s ideas about dominance, aggression, and wealth building, or emotional suppression or sexual conquest, all of that, they are not only more likely to sexually harass, to assault, [and] to bully, but they are more likely themselves to be the victims of violence. They’re more likely themselves to be bullied. They are more likely to binge drink, to be in car accidents, to die by suicide, to be depressed, [and] to be lonelier than other guys and have fewer friends, real friends that they can confide in. So, it’s a tough place in there. And, for all the rewards—because there are rewards—boys would talk to me about that. Like, if you embody those things, you might get to be captain of the team or you might get to be president of the United States, you know?
Rachel Thomas (11:08):
I do know.
Peggy Orenstein (11:09):
But there’s a huge cost.
Rachel Thomas (11:12):
Peggy Orenstein: (11:12)
To them personally, to their romantic partners, and, at this moment, to the country.
Rachel Thomas (11:17):
So, how do we get them out of the man box?
Peggy Orenstein (11:20):
Jumping way ahead—this is still not discussing actual sex, consent, porn, or anything like that—but one thing is, when we have little boys, naming their emotions is really important because guys learn over time. Many adult men can’t actually name the emotion they feel in their body when that emotion has to do with sadness, grief, betrayal, [or] heartbreak. All those things boys learn funnel into anger. So, they learn that all those should be expressed through anger, which obviously is clearly unhealthy when you think of it that way.
So, just saying to your four-year-old, “Wow, it seems like you’re really sad” or, “That must be very frustrating.” Or, when they express that anger, what’s underneath that? What can you see? Just... fathers or father figures, men in boys’ lives, listening and talking to them compassionately in a connected way, which I know is hard because they weren’t raised that way themselves, but taking that leap. Even... just taking the risk a little bit helps young men know that they can stay connected to themselves. I think that’s step one.
Rachel Thomas (12:22):
In your view, a lot of parents are getting the sex talk wrong.
Peggy Orenstein (12:25):
Rachel Thomas (12:26):
How do we get it right?
Peggy Orenstein (12:27):
First of all, it’s not a talk any more than you could sit down with your child and say, “Hey, this is table manners. You hold your fork with your left hand. You put your napkin on your lap. You say please and thank you, may I please be excused. All right. Go forth and be polite. I’m sure you’ll be fine.” Wouldn’t happen.
Rachel Thomas (12:46):
There you go.
Peggy Orenstein (12:47):
There you go. It’s moving forward a little bit, but it’s about having a lot of different kinds of talks, small talks over time, with your child about a lot of different things that involve sex, but not just sex—, that involve media, for sure, that involve porn, that involve personal accountability, [and] that involve female pleasure. Because, boy, boys have that really, really wrong. It’s about personal accountability. It’s about… love. It’s about caring. It’s about what it means to treat people with dignity. There’s all kinds of opportunities.
Peggy Orenstein (13:20):
Another set [of talks] would be about sexual assault. We talk about assault in terms of good guys and bad guys. If you’re a good guy, and a good guy can’t assault, you can’t have assaulted because you’re a good guy. That is a problem.
Rachel Thomas (13:35):
Yeah. That is a problem.
Peggy Orenstein (13:36):
Guys, we know from research, they know what consent is. They can define consent. But when they’re faced with a situation where their actions don’t meet their definition, there is a tendency to expand the definition rather than look at their actions. So, making those kinds of dynamics visible to boys, making it visible to them that, when they drink... we don’t talk a lot about boys and drinking. We need to talk a lot more about that. When they drink, they’re prone to seeing any expression of friendliness on the part of a girl as consent. That’s a false assumption. When they drink, they’re prone to seeing the place where something happens as indicating consent, like a dorm room. That’s a false assumption. They are much less likely to hear “no” when they’re drunk. They’re less likely to notice a partner’s hesitation. There is a socialization for both boys and girls that puts male pleasure before women’s feelings. Having that conversation with guys is really useful.
So, it’s a lot of different kinds of conversations. They can be spontaneous. The car is a really good place. They can’t get away. No eye contact.
Rachel Thomas (14:43):
Can you talk a little bit about how they treat each other? I know a lot of this is about conquest and their relationships with women, but a lot of it is about how they talk to each other and interact with each other, as well.
Peggy Orenstein (14:54):
Sure. One really great example of that is how guys use homophobic slurs.
Rachel Thomas (14:58):
Peggy Orenstein: (15:00)
One thing that was different was that older guys, the ones in college, were less likely to use [homophobic slurs] than they used to be. That was for sure. Also, a lot of the straight guys had gay friends. They would say, “Oh, well, I would never use that word to a gay person. That would be homophobic and rude.” And I was like, “So it’s not homophobic when you say it to a straight guy?” It was a very peculiar idea. But it was because they saw it as a referendum on masculinity, not as a statement of sexual orientation. I began to feel that that word was very much like “slut” for girls, in that it’s just fluid.
Rachel Thomas (15:35):
Peggy Orenstein (15:36):
It can mean anything, right? You can get called that for dropping a pencil, for reading, for playing a musical instrument, whatever, not knowing drug terminology. It doesn’t matter. But its purpose is to keep you in check and to keep the lines of that man box solid so that you don’t challenge it and you don’t go beyond it.
Rachel Thomas (15:56):
Peggy, you mentioned this a bit, but how is the experience for LGBTQ+ boys?
Peggy Orenstein (16:01):
There is a level of acceptance by this generation of same-sex encounters or of a gender spectrum, of trans kids, that has never been true before. And that’s really exciting.
One thing with gay boys in particular was that they actually kind of provided a model of what consent can look like, because they were really good at navigating. Not to say that everything was perfect in their world, but they were good at navigating the parameters of a sexual experience because they kind of had to be—because it was not obvious what was going to happen or who was going to do what with whom and how.
Rachel Thomas (16:36):
Peggy Orenstein (16:36):
They had to talk about it. As one guy said to me, “I don’t get straight guys’ resistance to the consent conversation. Because when we’re talking about consent, that means we’re going to have sex. That’s great.” So, that was kind of interesting.
Dan Savage, who’s a sex columnist in Seattle, talks about the four magic words that gay men will use at the beginning of a sexual encounter, which are: “What are you into?” It’s wonderful because it’s an open-ended question, as opposed to, in a heterosexual context, we so often think of a pre-prescribed set of questions that usually the boy is asking the girl that require a yes-or-no-only answer. So, it really opens it up.
Peggy Orenstein (17:16):
That said, in thinking further about that since I’ve written the book... if you put that in a heterosexual context and a guy asked that of a girl, she might well say, “I have no earthly idea.” Right? “I don’t know what I’m into.” Because of the way girls are socialized. That was so much of what Girls and Sex was about. So, in a lot of ways, I felt like that little question really revealed how our socialization undermines our connection, and also the ways that those two books were talking to each other. What if we could get to a point where young men and young women could say...
Rachel Thomas (17:52):
Where that’s the norm.
Peggy Orenstein (17:52):
“What are you into?” And anything could be ruled in and anything could be ruled out at that moment. That would just be amazing.
Rachel Thomas (18:03):
After my conversation with Peggy, I followed up with psychologist Dr. Michael Reichert to learn more about boys’ experiences. Dr. Reichert is founding director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s also the author of several books about boyhood, including his latest, How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connections to Build Good Men.
Michael, given you are such an expert on raising boys—and of course, I have my own boys, so I’m endlessly curious about what I can do better—I am so thrilled to be sitting down with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Michael Reichert (18:40):
Rachel, it’s great to be with you. I’m happy to have a chance to talk with you and have a chance to talk with your listeners in this way.
Rachel Thomas (18:47):
First of all, congratulations on your new book, How to Raise a Boy.
Michael Reichert (18:51):
Rachel Thomas (18:51):
In the book, you cite research that boys seek help from healthcare or school staff twice as often as girls and are more heavily medicated than girls, which is just heartbreaking. What is going on with our boys?
Michael Reichert (19:05):
Yeah. That statistic actually is that of their parents, but also all of the caregiving world is more concerned, it seems, about boys’ behavior than girls’. It just tells us something about how well boys are fitting into the boyhoods that we’ve created for them. The way I think of it is that, there’s just an awful lot of poor fit going on in boyhood. And all of the different ways that we’re seeing boys acting out, struggling, or falling down—what they’re signs of, I think, is a failure to flourish in the conditions that we’ve created.
Rachel Thomas (19:43):
What’s happening to boys on a day-to-day basis? What messages are we sending them that are ultimately, and probably unintentionally, really hurting them?
Michael Reichert (19:52):
There’s an experiment that was reported by Olga Silverstein, who wrote a book called The Courage to Raise Good Men. She talked about an experiment in a doctor’s waiting room, where a mother with an infant dressed in white came into the waiting room. Unbeknownst to the other folks in the waiting room, there was a hidden video camera. The nurse would come to the mother and would say, “The doctor can see you now.” The mother with the infant dressed in white would alternately hand the baby to one or another of the folks in the waiting room, saying, “Would you mind holding my son? Would you mind holding my daughter?” And the video camera would run while the mother was away for a bit.
What they found, Rachel, was that when the baby was identified as a girl, the folks in the waiting room would hold the baby close, smile, laugh, and keep her close. When the baby was identified as a boy, within 30 seconds, he was placed on the floor and given keys to play with. The idea is that we have this prejudice, this stereotype, this belief that boys shouldn’t be or don’t need to be kept close. The problem with that is it really violates their most fundamental human needs. We say that human beings are wired to connect. That includes boys as well as girls, men as well as women.
Michael Reichert (21:18):
Very closely related to this relational nature is the emotional nature of all human beings. We’ve evolved as creatures where our minds, our beings, process emotions in a relational way. We need to be talking about what we’re feeling. Unfortunately, what happens to boys is that they get the message that if they dare to show that kind of human vulnerability, it’s going to be interpreted as weakness or softness.
Just yesterday, I was meeting with the high school boys’ emotional literacy group that I meet with every other week at this boys’ school outside of Philadelphia. I had a conversation with them because the prior time I had met the 18-year-old boy, the senior that I had worked with for a bit of time, [and he] was telling a story about how he had had a terrible falling out with his father. His father, in the college process, I guess, was hassling him about one thing or another and, in the context of an argument, called him soft. And the boy, when he was telling this story—and this is in front of the 40 or 50 other boys in the room—he began to cry with frustration, anger, and rage. He said, “For him to call me soft means that he doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know how hard I’ve worked to be the person I am. And in particular, he doesn’t understand how hard it was for me to work through what happened when he left my mom in a divorce that happened a few years ago.”
Rachel Thomas (22:53):
That’s a really moving story. Thank you so much for that. That’s a great segue to what can we do, particularly the parents and the caregivers who are listening, to break this down and to lift our boys up?
Michael Reichert (23:06):
There are a number of decisions that the parent has to make. The most important one is, we have to assess. We have to be honest with ourselves. Do we have control of our attention? And can we offer it in an easy way to our sons? That’s the most profound way a parent can validate a child—to offer them our attention.
I’m finding as I go around and give these talks, very few parents actually have done much of that. Instead, we think that if we quiz our kids, or if we attend their soccer games and stand on the sidelines and cheer for them, we’re accomplishing the kind of relationship-building that they need. But, if we’re overlooking this need to offer our attention... and attention doesn’t just mean turning our gaze upon them. It really means finding that place in our hearts where we find them both interesting and delightful, and staying in that place while paying attention to them and listening to what they say.
Rachel Thomas (24:16):
This really resonates with me. I feel so much better about my very lengthy conversations about the mythology behind Star Wars, which is of zero interest to me, but we talk about it all the time.
Michael Reichert (24:16):
Rachel Thomas (24:27):
And my D&D sessions with Gavin, who is also obsessed with D&D, because it really is kind of meeting them where they are.
Michael Reichert (24:36):
Rachel Thomas (24:36):
And leaning into their interests and what’s important to them.
Michael Reichert (24:39):
What you’re saying to your son is who he is on his own terms is of interest to you. That is so character building, so building of a strong sense of self for Gavin. And that’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to use the resource of our attention, our interest, our love, to strengthen our sons’ sense of self.
That was the insight in my educational research. And it’s been the reliable finding in my clinical work, that parents have this enormous power to affect their sons’ hearts and to reel them in if they get lost—if they get out there, to bring them back close. But we have to exercise [that power] in a thoughtful, tactical way.
What I find is that many, many parents—just as many, many educators—we often don’t realize the power we have. And we don’t know how to wield it. So, the point of the book, really... if you were to ask me, “Why did [you] write this book?” It really is to broadcast that message that we have the power to build a better boyhood to help our sons navigate these threats and these challenges. It resides precisely in our ability to connect with our sons.
Rachel Thomas (26:05):
You have some really interesting practical recommendations.
Michael Reichert (26:05):
Rachel Thomas (26:05):
Could you share a couple of those with us?
Michael Reichert (26:07):
That relational teaching insight from the educational research, that really cued me to develop a set of strategies for parents to use in their own relationships with their sons. Among the strategies that I describe in the book are three: deep listening; the notion of special time, even with an 18- or a 20-year-old; and a model for discipline that is called listen, limit, listen. We often come to our sons urgent, worried, or irritated, stressed in some way or other. What the boy picks up is that it’s less him that’s of interest and more about fitting his behavior into the comfort zone of the parent.
We want our sons to come away from their interactions with us carrying in their hearts a sense of being well: well known, well understood, and well loved. So, these are all strategies to deepen and maintain a connection. The very first one is simply to offer our attention, and in a sustained way. Not asking our boys questions that we need answers to, but rather following their lead and letting them reveal—in whatever way they can—who they are, what’s on their minds, what’s in their hearts, [and] what’s of interest to them.
Rachel Thomas (27:35):
Michael, I want to know a lot more. Let’s start with, what is deep listening?
Michael Reichert (27:40):
Letting them direct the flow of the conversation, inserting ourselves only in as much as it enhances their ability to reveal themselves. That’s what I mean by deep listening: simply to listen to them and not require them merely to satisfy our curiosity or need to know. And that’s true whether your son is three years old or 18 years old. That validation from a parent is irreplaceable.
Rachel Thomas (28:12):
The other thing you talked about was this concept of listen, limit, listen. Could you pull that apart for us a little bit too, so we know how to actually do that with our boys?
Michael Reichert (28:20):
Sure. When we notice a boy who is off course, misbehaving, acting inappropriately or in ways that are simply unworkable, the boy that is being mean to his sister, or the boy that is lying, or the boy that is unable to sit still through dinner, or refusing to get a bath, or doesn’t do his homework adequately, what we’re witnessing isn’t a boy who’s simply defying authority and needs to be dominated. We’re seeing a boy that’s acting in a way that is not in his best interests. He’s not thinking well. It’s a cry for an intervention, for sure. I’m not a liberal parent and I’m not encouraging other parents to be liberal in relation to misbehavior or boys’ misconduct. Rather, I think I’m asking that we interpret that misconduct as a need for us to move in and to set a limit with them, so that they actually have an opportunity to understand better what the heck is driving them off course.
The only way that they’re going to do that, though, is if we come into the situation first with kind of a clean slate. If we come at them because we’re reacting impulsively in the moment out of frustration or anger, or we’re worried and we come at them with our worries broadcast all over our faces, what they’re going to pick up is that our minds are preoccupied with our own emotional upsets and that we’re simply looking for them to comply or submit themselves to the force of the moment. They’re never going to gain any particular insight, much less better control over their behavior.
So, if we first assess that we’ve got the space, we’ve got the freedom to come in, and we’ve determined that, in fact, this is a good moment, time, and place to intervene, what we do is we simply… come up to the boy that has just been mean to his sister. We come up to him, we step right up to him, and we say, “I’m not going to let you do that. That’s not who you are. I know you don’t want to hurt your sister. What’s going on?” We set the limit. “I’m not going to let you do that.”
Michael Reichert (30:45):
If we can simply stay in that place where we’re available, we’re attentive, we’re calm, and we’re looking at them with real knowing and care, what ensues is the boy in that kind of uncontrollable way might simply explode with upset, with feeling. And what will come out in the open is the truth behind the misbehavior. So, what I say to parents is that third step, the listen step, that’s the real point of this model because, as the boy melts down, explodes, [or] erupts, whatever it might be, the parent’s job is to be what we call the holding environment, the one who simply stays present with him and helps him navigate his way through those upset feelings that otherwise would drive him off course.
That’s the pay dirt. That’s the real point of the model. We might think that we can tell our boys over and over and over again, “Treat your sister with respect. Treat her well. That’s what we do in this family.” As if a boy can simply incorporate those words, change his behavior, and become a better big brother. The problem is the boy just feels scolded, driven underground, told essentially that he has to manage whatever upset he’s acting out on his own, and that the parents’ only real interest is in controlling him and dominating him, even punishing him.
Rachel Thomas (32:17):
That leads me to two questions. One is, what does a better boyhood look like? What does success look like? And then the other is, what gives you hope here? How do we leave listeners with hope that we can get this right?
Michael Reichert (32:32):
To your first question, I think what we want for boys is that they be free to be themselves. I think that’s the most important characteristic of a boyhood that’s just and fair for boys... that they no longer feel like they’re being forced into a man box, required to submit themselves to a set of norms, cultural norms that interfere with their most fundamental developmental needs and violate their natures. I think that the chance to be free, to be themselves, and to determine the kind of individual that they want to be, rather than have to perform masculinity in narrowly defined ways, that’s what boyhood is going to look like.
Rachel Thomas (33:24):
Well, that alone gives me hope.
Michael Reichert (33:26):
Rachel Thomas (33:27):
Michael, speaking of hope, are you seeing signs that we’re moving in the right direction?
Michael Reichert (33:31):
I’m really clear here, Rachel. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to raise a boy in the whole of human history. I don’t think we were in the position we’re in today ever before where we’re really able to be honest about, who is a boy? What does he really need? And what can we do to ensure that he can hold on to himself? I was just with that group of 40 17- and 18-year-old boys yesterday. I was trying to talk with them, as I said, about soft and hard, tough and vulnerable. I was trying to have this conversation and they kept pushing back at me, saying essentially, “Well, Dr. Reichert, you’re sounding a bit generational. Things are different for us now.”
Rachel Thomas (34:18):
Yes, I’ve heard that too.
Michael Reichert (34:19):
It was one of those moments. There are so many. They’re basically saying, “Your picture of what it means to be a man doesn’t exactly jibe with the realities of our lives.” Things are changing rapidly, Rachel. As I said before, I think it has everything to do with the women’s movement and how that has changed gender dynamics, gender relationships, possibilities for girls, and, consequently, possibilities for boys. There’s just never been a better time for you to be the parent of a 14-year-old or for a teacher to be teaching boys. We’re just learning things. We’re finally, I think, able to think critically about inherited assumptions and prejudices. And we’re debunking myths left and right.
Rachel Thomas (35:10):
I have a huge smile on my face at even the prospect that the women’s movement has played a small role in helping our boys [by] shining a light on what they need. That really makes my day. So, thank you for sharing that. Here’s what Peggy had to say when I asked her the very same question. I think this is a perfect place to end. How else are boys different than they were in prior generations?
Peggy Orenstein (35:36):
One of the things [that] was really exciting and wonderful for me was that I really think a lot of the things that I was discussing with boys, and even the things that they were wrestling with and having a hard time with, they wouldn’t have even considered maybe even five years ago—the fact that they were looking at masculinity, the fact that they were considering lines of consent and what that meant. All of those things were really rich and wonderful. And they really were eager, not only to talk to me—and I’m a total stranger—but they really wanted to talk to the adults in their lives about it. As one guy said, “It might be cringy, it might be uncomfortable,” but he said, “I wish my parents had forced me to have more of that conversation, because trying to work this all out myself is really hard.”
So, I think that was the most exciting thing. I felt very much like... I started writing about girls in the ’90s. At that point, everybody was sort of shocked that girls still were carrying these old ideas with them and that they were still harming girls. It opened up this conversation that we’re still having, that you all have been such a big part of, about change and expansion of girls’ lives. I feel like we’re at that moment now because of what’s happened in the culture with boys, where we’re recognizing what’s been harmful to them about old expectations and the way those old expectations make it difficult for them to embody new expectations... We’re thinking about what would be the way forward that would be healthier, more expansive, and allow for them to be their fullest selves, and have the best possible relationships. That’s a super exciting place to be.
Rachel Thomas (37:20):
If we want to get to real gender equality, we need to challenge tired and, let’s be honest, really limiting stereotypes of manhood. After hearing from Peggy and Michael, I’m optimistic that we’re finally doing exactly that for our boys. As Michael put it, “We’re debunking myths left and right.” And as Peggy said, “That’s a super exciting place to be.”
That’s it for today’s episode of Tilted. You can subscribe to Tilted on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer is Sandy Smolins. And special thanks to Ali Bohrer, Chelsea Paul, Kate Urban, Madison Long, and Nicole Roman from the Lean In team. And Caitlin Thompson, Ireland Meacham, Jacob Kramer-Duffield, and Matt Noble at Audiation. I’m your host, Rachel Thomas, and I’ll join you next time on Tilted.