Raising Boys With a Broader Definition of Masculinity

A psychologist explains how a strong relationship with a parent or teacher can help boys be their true selves, even when those selves don’t fit within narrow cultural norms.

Cohen / Ostrow / Getty

In recent years, some of society’s gender norms have begun to stretch and soften, while others cling fast. For many young boys, there continues to be a very small space that they can occupy to be considered traditionally “masculine,” and that small space can be restricting, forcing boys to lose what doesn’t fit inside it.

In his new book, How to Raise a Boy, Michael Reichert calls that space the “man box.” Reichert is a psychologist who specializes in boys and men, and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania. His book is written as a guide to parents who want to create more space for their boys to express themselves. The key, he writes is “a relationship in which a boy can tell that he matters … A young man’s self confidence is not accidental or serendipitous but derives from experiences of being accurately understood, loved, and supported.”

I spoke with Reichert about how parents, teachers, and other adults can strengthen their relationships with boys, even when those boys act out, and in so doing help them create a broader expression of masculinity for themselves. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

Julie Beck: You write that “boys’ first disconnection is from themselves.” What do you mean by that?

Michael Reichert: I use a quote in my book from a George Orwell story called “Shooting an Elephant.” He is a colonial policeman in Burma being asked to kill an elephant running amok in a village, and he is expected to do it without any show of hesitation or regret. The sentence he used to describe what that policeman experienced was: “He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.”

Requiring boys to differentiate what they show the world and what they feel inside happens really young. I have a two-and-a-half-year-old grandson who is already learning what's okay to show and what he has to keep to himself. A boy grows into that mask to the point where the mask becomes how he thinks of himself. He becomes cut off from his heart.

The first component of emotional intelligence is emotional awareness. But the rules of society mean that boys have to censor what they express, and sometimes the only way to do that is to convince yourself that you’re not feeling what you’re feeling. To become numb and detached. And if I’ve cut myself off from my own feelings, I’m going to be less perceptive about what you’re feeling, which means I’m going to behave in a relationship with less skill and deftness.

Beck: These norms of masculinity have been entrenched in the culture for so long that it seems unlikely they would go completely away within a generation. But in the book, you’re saying that positive relationships with parents or other mentors can be kind of a safe harbor for boys from all the madness swirling around out there, even if we can't get rid of the madness entirely. How does that work in practice?

Reichert: I think you're at the heart of it. I would say it a little differently: There are lots of signs that these cultural norms are shifting. I think this generation of boys is having a different experience and responding to a different set of opportunities than any prior generation. I teach this course in emotional literacy at a boys’ high school and I've been teaching it for 25 years. From what it was like when we started to what it’s like now is a sea change. There used to be a lot of resistance, particularly on the part of the guys who subscribed more fully to the masculine norms—athletes, leaders. Now we have football players and actors and student leaders voluntarily coming to [the class] during their lunchtime. The present generation of boys understands and accepts their need to be savvy with their emotional lives.

The power of a strong relationship with an ally like a mother, father, or teacher is that it strengthens the boy’s core sense of who he is and therefore empowers him to resist the pressures of a culture that is trying to fit him into a box. Boys are picking these messages up. Sometimes they’re being pulled in a direction that is unhealthy. For a boy to resist the pull of a peer culture trying to get him to go along with, for example, sexually objectifying girls and women—it helps to have a relational anchor. Someone really rooting him to a sense that he’s known and loved.

Beck: You have two sons— what was on your mind when they were born and you were looking forward to raising them? Were you already having some of these concerns about boyhood at that time?

Reichert: I was. Back in the late ’70s and ’80s I was beginning to connect with the men’s movement in the country. I was quite conscious of the fact that whatever was going on in male development wasn’t working. I had a fundamental commitment with my first son to prioritize attachment parenting. It was important to me and my wife to make sure he had the strongest relationship with both his mom and his dad that we could manage. We spent a lot of special time with him, did a lot of strengthening of his emotional voice, making sure he expressed what he needed to. We wanted a boy who had his own mind, who was picking up that who he was mattered to us, that we were going to get to know him rather than merely requiring him to fit into what we expected a boy to be.

Beck: How do you think that went? Your sons are adults now, right?

Reichert: I think both of my sons benefited from that kind of parenting. They still have really strong connections with both of us. And they evidence a strong capacity to love other people and to establish intimate relationships. My son is the father of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy and he is a wonderful father. When my grandson says Daddy, the way he says the word, you can just tell it's coming from his heart. It resonates with real connection and delight.

Beck: Were there ever moments when your kids were growing up where you felt yourself falling into some of traps you’d hoped to avoid? How did you work past them?

Reichert: Yeah, all the time. Ideas that I was unconscious of that resided in the back of my mind would pop out in these odd moments. One story is: My son had an early experience with bullying and got chased from the playground. I initially tried to build his self-confidence by sending him back to the playground to stand up for himself, and not settle for being driven from something he loved to do. One day when he came back home from the playground, defeated once again, I simply said, “You can’t come in. You have to go back and figure this out.” And he had a huge emotional reaction. I wouldn’t let him retreat, I didn’t offer him safe harbor, I was making him go back and contend with these mean boys.

On a conscious level, I was thinking, You’re doing the right thing; you're teaching him to stand up for himself; you’re saying he doesn't have to let a defeat define his possibilities. But I realized, when I reflected, that I was actually coming from a place where I was scared for him. I had these dire imaginings of a young man who was not going to be able to fend for himself in the dog-eat-dog world of boys’ peer culture. I was essentially trying to toughen my son up by passing along a lesson I had learned, and that my father had learned, and probably his father before him. Unconsciously, I was passing along a narrow vision that was about fitting into the peer culture rather than transcending it.

Beck: Once boys get to school, there is a lot more about their lives that parents can’t control, and friends are one of those things. Obviously kids’ friends can be a positive or negative influence on them regardless of gender, but do you think that works in a different way for boys than for girls?

Reichert: Friendship is a critical influence on what boys are learning about cultural norms and permission to be yourself. Because of the way children are separated by gender beginning in elementary school, boys’ first friendships are often with other boys. They learn to practice skills of sharing and intimacy and connection with other boys well before they do it with girls. And we know from research that boys’ friendships can be rich and deep and life-sustaining. Boys will say, “Without my friends I think I’d die.”

So there’s a very positive side to male friendships that unfortunately becomes harder to maintain as boys get older and pick up cultural messages that they shouldn’t be close to another boy because of homophobia. A lot of boys lose their friends in later adolescence, to their detriment. I know a lot of adult men who don’t have any friends at all.

But the downside of male friendships is really important to keep in mind, too. Norms that boys pick up in the peer group become a part of their normal. Whether it’s substance use or misogyny or risk-taking, I think that hypermasculine peer-group norms can be a danger, particularly if the young man doesn’t have some kind of mentor or parental figure grounding him in a connection, serving as a moral compass, almost.

Beck: In the book, you talk about how a bad reaction when boys act up or test authority can make them even more disconnected from their caretakers. What’s a bad way to react,  and what would a better way be?

Reichert: I’ll speak first about schools. Boys in classroom settings are more willing to misbehave, to be defiant and disruptive, if they’re not into the lesson, and girls in those classroom settings tend to be quieter or more willing to go along. And most discipline—detention, suspensions, expulsions—most of those are directed towards boys. When a boy is rejecting a teacher or challenging their authority, what the teacher feels is very negative. Instead of remembering that the boy is a child and the adult’s job is to cultivate a connection with the boy, what teachers often do instead is suppress the boy; they exercise force and power for punishment.

This is also true of parents. I have an awful lot of parents who seem to shut down or withdraw.  I had a mom tell me today that her son is saying to her, “You’re just so annoying, Mom,” now that he’s 12 years old. The mom begins to question herself: Am I annoying? What’s wrong with the way I'm approaching my son? Maybe I just don’t get boys. That kind of self-questioning causes parents to withdraw and even to give up—to come to believe that what the boy needs isn’t connection, or at least not connection with me; maybe he needs his friends or he needs his coach. The outcome of that is the boy winds up alone.

What I’ve been training teachers to understand is that absent a relational connection, a boy is going to be disengaged from learning. If you notice that a relationship has become weakened or broken between you and a student, your job as the relationship manager is to repair the breakdown. That job falls to the adult, not the child.

So when it comes to parents, I reiterate the same thing. You have the goods, you have what that boy needs. If he seems to be pushing you away at every turn, or critiquing your parenting, your job is not to buy it. You are not required to be perfect, but your job is to keep reaching for your son even when he’s not giving you any indication you’re on the right track. When a boy is misbehaving in some way, your job is to intervene, not for the sake of suppressing his misbehavior or punishing him, but to require him to face whatever emotional energy might be driving him off course.

I know a lot of boys who push against their parents because they know that their parents’ unconditional love means they can afford to display how angry or scared they feel with something else in their lives. They can’t take it out against their teacher or peer group but they can show their parent.