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.