What Today’s Boys Need to Learn to Truly Become Men

In order for boys to become healthy, well-rounded men, they must be taught to stray from typical masculine learnings and embrace their emotions.

by Michael Reichert
A dad and his son on a terrace

It’s not that stereotypes of the unfeeling male don’t have some basis. With masculine conventions still policed vigorously, most boys learn to keep their feelings private and to suppress and override them. With the exception of anger, boys often lose touch with how they feel. Cold showers, hazing rituals, bullying, and tests of courage have historically reinforced emotional disconnection. By the time a boy reaches adulthood, being emotionally present will likely be a challenge. A host of negative outcomes are associated with boys’ suppressing their feelings, from academic underperfor­mance to health-risk behaviors such as substance use, fighting, and recklessness.

But the notion of separate realms for acting and feeling is mis­taken. Particularly in a connected world, relationships are where we live. When a boy is cut off from being aware of his own feelings, he is less able to relate to others. Tucked out of sight and beyond his con­scious control, strong feelings are more likely to hijack his behavior. Unconstrained by empathy, he is more capable of hurting others.

If anything, emotional demands are even more complex and challenging for today’s youth. San Diego State University psychol­ogist Jean Twenge has tracked an alarming rise in unhappiness among young men and women. She warns of “the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades,” showing a dra­matic spike in loneliness, depression, anxiety, and dissatisfaction with life among iGen’ers (those born between 1995 and 2012) since 2011. Many males seem ready to acknowledge that emotional disconnection is a poor life strategy. In a recent survey of younger males in the United Kingdom, a majority re­ported that anxiety was prevalent and had a negative impact on their work and social lives. Additional data from a survey con­ducted by the US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) confirms that nearly a third of young people suffer from anxiety. The iGen’ers, also called Generation Z, are experiencing an “epidemic of anguish.”

Depressive symptoms have also “skyrocketed,” reaching all-time highs in 2016 according to Twenge, and a majority of first-year college students now rate their mental health overall as “below average.” Though 6 million men suffer from depression each year, symptoms are often confusing and can go undiagnosed. “Men are more likely to report fatigue, irritability, loss of interest in work or hobbies, rather than feelings of sadness or worthlessness,” Twenge explains. In addition, suicide, on the rise since 2000, is now the seventh leading cause of death among males, taking the lives of four times more men than women.

Researchers have documented the many ways that boys are handicapped in their emotional development. Psychologist Ronald Levant of the University of Akron has even suggested that alexi­thymia, or “no words for feelings,” typically found in trauma sur­vivors, also characterizes the emotional condition of many males. University of Connecticut psychology professor Dr. James O’Neil, who has spent a career researching men’s lives, concluded that “emo­tional restrictedness” leads to a long list of unhealthy outcomes, in­cluding “negative psychological attitudes toward women and gay men, violent attitudes toward women, dangerous risk taking in regard to sex and health issues, substance use and abuse, psycho­logical stress and strain, negative attitudes toward help seeking, de­linquent behavior, low self-esteem, hostility and aggression, higher blood pressure levels, depression, anxiety, and marital and family problems.”

While these findings are sometimes explained by positing dif­ferences in emotional hardwiring between males and females, the fact is that boys and girls begin life with equal capacities for ex­pressing their hearts. It is during childhood that emotional devel­opment diverges. Stephanie Shields, a psychologist at Penn State University, argues that it is in the expression of emotions, not their experience of them, that boys and girls differ. Conditioning ac­counts for the difference: “The boy learns to match ‘boy’ emotion to his own behavioral repertoire, the girl matches ‘girl’ emotion to hers, and both reject the emotional style associated with the other sex as unacceptable for themselves.”

University of California at Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “feeling rules” to describe how social norms govern human emotion. As children adapt to these rules, the rules themselves become second nature. Boys learn not just “surface acting” but also, more fundamentally, “deep acting,”9 in which they try to both show a proper emotional demeanor and actually produce it. They must manifest courage and unflappability and strive not to be afraid at all. Boys feel disappointed in themselves and ashamed when they experience fear.

The stresses of modern life catch boys’ parents in a squeeze: changing times prize emotional intelligence, and boys themselves want to take better care of their minds, but traditional models for socializing boys compromise their emotional literacy. Fortunately, these old-style ideas are being systematically challenged.

Schools, for example, are taking account of changing opportu­nities and are responding. Programs in social-emotional learning are now standard. In the boys’ school where I have long worked, school administrators decided to introduce all of their high school students to a program that encourages peer support and colis­tening. In workshops on emotional first aid, we talked about life’s routine upsets, hurts, and stresses, making a case against simply holding things in. Skills of talking and listening were described, and the boys were asked to choose a partner to try them out.

As they broke into pairs and spread out across the big, open room, most of the boys engaged in the listening exchange exercise with earnest commitment. I was surprised by how readily most of them took on the challenge; my surprise was another reminder how most of us harbor stereotypes, as University of New Hampshire professor Thomas Newkirk put it, about a “masculine distaste for sincerity.” But clearly this generation of young men, or at least those in front of me, wanted tools to combat stress and gloom. Looking around the room at the pairs arrayed on bleachers, sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, and on wrestling mats rolled up on the side, I was also struck by how they needed the permission of an adult to breach the taboo against talking with each other. They could go against masculine taboos on my say-so, but not on their own volition.

Some struggled with the challenge and might have disrupted the exercise. While most managed to have a go despite feeling awkward, these boys shuffled and shifted, on such unfamiliar and forbidding ground that they simply balked. One boy, who grew so antsy he began to distract his neighbors, professed to me, “I don’t have anything to talk about.” Both Newkirk and psychologist William Pollack, the latter the author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myth of Boyhood, sensitively describe the “double bind” of emotional sharing for males. According to Pollack, “A boy knows that were he to sit down and talk about his disappointing grades, his mother’s illness, or his lonely weekends, he would be breaking the Boy Code.”

I understood and told the boys as much when we debriefed. Most men make a habit of deflecting attention away from their in­terior lives. By the time I began to co-counsel as a young adult, I shared with the boys, I could not remember the last time I had been emotional. In fact, I could not remember a single time that someone had asked me how I felt — not my parents, teachers, coaches, or even my friends. If emotional intelligence consists of grasping feelings with awareness and coding them with language, I had become functionally illiterate. Like some of the boys before me in the room, I had great trepidation about talking with even close friends or my parents about the hard things in my life. I understood boys like the one who had “nothing to talk about.” My emotional life was a mystery, and figuring out how to communicate about it was prac­tically beyond me.

This piece was adapted from How to Raise a Boy by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2019, Michael Reichert, PhD.