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How To Invest in Boys — Michael Thompson

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life Stew Friedman spoke with Michael Thompson, a consultant, author, and psychologist specializing in children and families.  He is the co-author of the New York Times best-selling book, Raising Cain: Protecting The Emotional Life of Boys as well as the author of Speaking of Boys: Answers to the Most-Asked Questions About Raising Sons, and It’s a Boy!: Understanding Your Son’s Development from Birth to EighteenThey spoke about how our hyper macho culture affects boys and ultimately all of us

Stew Friedman: There’s a great deal of focus on girl power, on women leaning in,  on not on using the word ‘bossy’ to describe women, so how did you come to focus is on boys?  Aren’t boys and men the dominant group?  Why do they need our help and special attention?

Michael Thompson: I wrote my doctoral dissertation on, anorexia nervosa — a disease of self-starvation that’s far and away a female disorder.  It’s the second most lethal disorder in psychiatry and it comes about because girls get obsessed with the idea of thinness and they starve themselves.

If you had told me 30 years ago that I was going to end up studying boys, I would have said that’s absurd.  But I began to consult to schools and the overwhelming number of referrals to a school psychologist are boys.  There are more depressed and anxious boys under the age of 10.  There are more boys with learning problems.  And, of course, there are far more disciplinary problems.  Two-thirds to three-quarters of school suspensions and expulsions are boys.  When you get into a school setting, the kids who give teachers trouble, and the kids who get into disciplinary trouble are boys, not girls.

Over my years of school consultation, I’ve seen girls, to a significant extent, thriving more than boys were.  In my lifetime, I’m 68 years old, the academic fortunes of girls and boys have flip flopped. When I graduated from high school in 1965, 58% of college graduates were young men. The pendulum has swung from one side to the other.  56% of graduate degrees now go to young women.  Girls outperform boys in school: in elementary school, middle schools, high school, college and graduate school.   Boys never catch up.

SF: What do you do to help them?

MT: I run workshops for teachers about the nature of boys.  What are the brain differences, between boys and girls?  What are acceptable behaviors that they are going to see in boys which will sometimes disrupt the classroom and which will make some teachers feel boys are the enemy of what they’re trying to do?

SF: Are teachers receptive to this?

MT: They’re really receptive because many teachers see that boys struggle more in school, and they want to help them.  They find that the boys can’t sit still.  I had a woman, I met at an International School in China.  She said she was the first woman teacher at a boy’s Catholic school in a very rough area of London.  She said, “Boys spend the first two years trying to freak me out and gross me out.”  She said that once she passed the test, she was in and stayed there for nine years nine month teaching boys.  She said, “The thing I learned is you can’t ask boys to sit for more than 20 minutes. You have to let them get up and move because by school age, three quarters of the boys in the classroom are more physically active than any girl.”

SF: You were one of the experts who appeared in the film, ‘The Mask You Live In.’ I recently facilitated a conversation about that film here at The Wharton School at the invitation of a group of men centered around the rugby team.  So these were super macho dudes.  They call themselves “the 22’s” to represent how much less women are paid than men in our society.  They’re committed to try to close that gap.  We screened this film and had fantastic discussion about it, and you were one of the people who spoke so eloquently about the risks of hyper masculinity in our society.  One of the points you made, Michael, was that, when you look at the distribution of attributes comparing men and women, there are mostly overlapping.  Mostly men and women are alike in so many ways.  It’s only at the extremes that you see differences.

MT: Some people want to simplistically say, “Boys and girls are the same. Any differences are a result of social learning and training. We just leave them alone they’ll be very, very similar.”  Other people want to say, “Well, the boy brain and the girl brain, as if they were separate brains.”

The truth, as far as I’m concerned, is that the male and female brains are 85% overlapping.  For the most part, children need for love, and attention, and support, and guidance and challenge; they’re mainly the same.  That’s why co-ed schooling works.  If they had two separate brains, then we shouldn’t have the same schooling for both.  But on a number of dimensions, boys and girls, as a group, differ dramatically.

One is physicality; two is the way boys and girls use language; and the other is the standard behaviors which boys, I believe, are biologically wired for, which are dominancy.  A first grade boy may come up to another boy and start a friendship by saying, “I can run faster than you.”  Elementary teachers whose take is “Oh, that’s not nice. We have to fix that. Those boys lack empathy.  Those boys are mean.”

SF: But this is their way of connecting.

MT: Yes, that competitive invitation is often the way boys fall into friendship.

SF: Our show is about works and life and there are a lot of parents out there who worry about their sons.  It distracts them while they are at work and can cause them to fail to be able to pay attention to things that matter to them at work.  What advice do you have for parents of boys in our society to be able to be the kind of mother or father that they want to be and still be able to attend to the things that matter to them in other parts of their lives, such as work?

MT: Because a lot of mothers and fathers worry about their under achieving boys, their boys not living up to their potential, their boys not being organized,  I often ask the dad, “When did you become organized, to take the initiative, to do your homework on your own?”

SF: I was about 49, I think!  Most people would say that I wasn’t organized then either.

MT: Right.  Most of them at least marry somebody will help them organize. Most men answer, Freshman year in college.  Junior year in college. First year of graduate school.”  Then I ask women, When did you get to be an organized student in school?” And they say 4th and 5th grade, 3rd grade, kindergarten, 5th grade, 6th grade.” It’s very different.

Boys and girls, as a group, take to school differently.  Boys often think that they’re in it alone. There’s no team work.   Research has shown that boys work better in conditions of team work, competition, movement, and getting up and showing off. Boys say, “I don’t like to write.” Well, they don’t like to write in a 5th grade journal that they’re supposed to keep about their feelings.  They know it’s really a diary.  They want to write science fiction.  They want to write action.  There are a lot of elementary school teachers who think that they are doing a service as if they were doing violence prevention.  But there is no relationship between what you write in 5th grade and whether you turn out to be a violent person!

SF: The well-meaning redirection takes the boy away from what is natural to him.  So how can parents do to deal with the worries they have about their boys so that they can get their own work done?

MT: I try and get them to stop worrying. Moms worry constantly that their boys are too active, that they’re going to be trouble in school, they’re headed down a bad road.  What I’m telling moms is that if you love your son, if you have good teachers, he may get into trouble because he got up on the desk, he was standing on his chair, and he was telling something to friends across the room but you do not need to panic about that.  If your boy has things he loves, even if it’s sports and you think that that is not academic, if he shows perseverance and focus, and if he is a good member of a team, then all those abilities he is developing are going to serve him very well.

SF: What you tell dads who worry about their sons?  How do you help fathers to stay calm and assured about their son’s development?

MT: Many adult men believe that masculinity has to be won through a series of tests.  It’s a very common belief in men.  Women, somehow, believe they’re going to go from being girls to women without passing tests.  Boys and men devise tests for each other:  Are you truly masculine? Are you truly tough?  Are you truly strong?  Are you not scared?

Of course, most of us are scared on the inside.  When you’re a boy, you worry, “I’m not going to win the respect of other boys. Therefore I’m not going to be a respectable man.” There are a lot fathers who still have that fear for their son, and who think that their sons aren’t going to be tough enough, aren’t going to be strong enough.  The fathers, instead of actually talking to their boys, are constantly benchmarking them. They’re evaluating them.  I work in an all-boys private school outside Boston.  They tell me their fathers try to start a conversation that goes something like this: “How are things going in math?” That’s not a conversation. That’s a conversation killer. That means my father wants me to tell him entertaining stories of how I’m getting high grades in Math.  That’s’ every boy hears and starts to close down.

SF: What’s a better way to approach that?

MT: “Do you like Mr. Bailey better than Mr. Anderson?”  That’s a father who knows the name of his son’s two Math teacher, this years’ and last years.’  That’s a father asking his son a question that only one person can ever answer; his son. His son will know he’s being used as a consultant on his own life as a boy, and he will feel the respect of that.  Everybody likes being a consultant.  Don’t you, Stew?  I do.

SF: So to tap into what he knows distinctively, uniquely?

MT: Exactly.

SF: That’s great advice. What are some other questions that a parent could ask?  What other kinds of questions do you recommend that fathers ask their sons to have a real conversations that invest in and empower their sons?

MT: I think it’s helpful to ask boys about negative things.  Human beings, in general, like to complain.  I guess I believe that because I’m a psychologist and I have heard a lot of human beings complaining, and I complained a lot myself.  If you ask a boy to tell you something that he hates about his day, something that’s real and concrete.  Moms tend to ask, How are you?  How was your school day?” And boys respond, “Fine.” They say, Okay.” They don’t want to open up a long conversation in which their weaknesses might be exposed.  The hyper-masculinity has the effect of making boys want to hide their shame, their self-doubt, and their uncertainty.

Well, who doesn’t have shame, self-doubt and uncertainty?  Every human being does.  Boys are taught if you’re strong, if you’re a respectable boy, you don’t have it. They very often feel that their mothers are going after their inadequacy. That’s not all with the mothers intend. Mothers think they’re being empathic.  The boy thinks, “She’s trying to unravel me.” And they think the father is saying, “You have to live up to these marks. You have to win my respect. You have to pass this test.”  Boys tell me how important it is to hear about their father’s struggle.  I don’t mean eight paragraphs.  I just mean a father saying, “I struggle with that.”

SF: That’s beautiful advice, Michael.

To learn more Michael Thompson visit his web site www.michaelthompson-phd.com.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

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