How to raise boys, how to get respect, how we look upon marriage. Here is a quintet of books directed at the many challenges of maintaining the most basic of institutions.

For those of us who were deeply disturbed by the recent events in Littleton and Conyers -- and who wasn't? -- a remarkable new book about lethal youth violence has just been published. James Garbarino, the author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them (Free Press, $25), has spent over 25 years studying violence and its impact on children and youth both here and abroad.

Garbarino blends statistics, personal experiences with violent kids, and suggestions about "reclaiming" lost boys. As the co-director of the Family Life Development Center and professor of human development at Cornell, he shares some of the data that prompted him to examine this problem. "According to the FBI," he writes, "juvenile arrests for possession of weapons, aggravated assault, robbery and murder rose more than 50% from 1987 to 1996. . . . But perhaps the most disturbing trend is that while the overall youth homicide rate dropped in 1997, the rate among small town and rural youth increased by 38%. And that last statistic highlights my conviction that no longer can any of us believe that we and our children are immune to lethal youth violence, because today almost every teenager in America goes to school with a kid who is troubled enough to become the next killer -- and chances are that kid has access to the weapons necessary to do so."

Geographical influences (Southern states have historically been the country's most violent) as well as the lack of spiritual, psychological and social anchors for boys, play roles in fostering youth violence. But what sets Lost Boys apart from the ordinary lament is the author's palpable sense of care and compassion for troubled boys: The helpful appendix (titled "Where To Get Help") lists more than two dozen prevention and intervention resources.

"Boys will be boys" used to be the excuse of choice for any socially irritating behavior by young males. But the brilliant book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson (Ballantine, $24.95) will help anyone who cares about boys -- and the adult males they will ultimately become -- to better understand why boys behave the way they do. The two Boston-based psychologist authors have worked with boys for more than 35 years of their combined practice, and their findings demonstrate that culture actually encourages boys to disregard their emotions. The authors argue that boys need, but are rarely given, "an emotional vocabulary that expands their ability to express themselves in ways other than anger or aggression. They need to experience empathy at home and at school and be encouraged to use it if they are to develop conscience. Boys, no less than girls, need to feel emotional connections -- they need close, supportive relationships that can protect them from becoming victims of their turbulent, disowned emotions. Most important, a boy needs male modeling of a rich emotional life. . . . A boy must see and believe that emotions belong in the life of a man."

Writing in a clear, almost conversational tone, the authors take the reader through the potential mine fields of a boy's life. Chapter topics include "Mothers," "Fathers," "Harsh Discipline," "Drinking and Drugs," "Solitude," and even "Girls." The last chapter, "What Boys Need," offers seven simple, sensible guidelines to help enhance the emotional fabric of any boy's life. This affectionate, encouraging book should be required reading for anyone raising -- or educating -- a boy.

Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a professor at the Harvard School of Education, has compiled six different examples of how valuable the quality of respect can be. In her book Respect (Perseus, $23), she claims that it can create "symmetry, empathy and connection in all kinds of relationships." She writes lengthy profiles of individuals (a midwife, a law professor, a minister, a doctor, a teacher and a photographer) who treat others (often people who rarely, if ever, get it) with respect.

Among her subjects is Jennifer Dohrn, a nurse midwife at the Childbearing Center in the South Bronx, who explains her approach to serving the families who come to her clinic. "It is always a question of how to respect their pain without taking it in," Dohrn explains, "so I give them the space, my full attention, and I listen. I acknowledge that I hear them, even though I don't always have solutions. Sometimes that is all I can do." An Episcopal priest (and AIDS activist) who works as a pastoral psychotherapist among the terminally ill acknowledges that to successfully work with the dying, one must find sympathy, mutuality, connection and "a respectful distance."

Lawrence-Lightfoot does an exemplary job of giving the reader a glimpse into the lives of six people (three men and three women) who manage to follow their own brand of respectful, creative and professional interaction with others.

Although the proportion of never-married people in the United States has risen dramatically in the past 25 years, there is no doubt that we live in a couple-oriented culture. For her comprehensive look at partnerships, Couples (Overlook, $26.95), Sally Cline interviewed 160 women and men who represented "straight and gay couples of different ages, social classes, races, ethnic groups and religious persuasions; some who lived together, some who lived apart, some with children, some childless." Her quest was to discover a) what value they saw in coupledom, b) what values each "unit" held, and c) whether patterns existed between and among couples.

Cline discovered that six essential elements were needed to make a successful couple: "commitment, communication, coping with change, cherishing, compromise, and inter-dependence"; she devotes full-length chapters to each trait. She found in her study "that women revealed that the more they were cherished the easier it was to communicate, whereas men said if they didn't feel `adequately needed' (and admired) they found it hard to communicate. Communication breakdowns occurred in couples when men and women offered each other the type of talk they needed rather than the type the opposite sex required. Women wished men would behave toward them as they behave toward everyone. Men, like Rex Harrison in `My Fair Lady' (`Why Can't A Woman Be More Like A Man?') assumed that women would want what they want." Largely composed of transcribed interviews, this book has an almost voyeuristic aura about it, complete with the intimate aspects of the couples' relationships.

E.J. Graff is a Boston-based writer and journalist who, as an adolescent, knew that she didn't want to emulate her mother and "be a wife." But when she decided to marry Madeline, she found herself approaching same-sex and heterosexual marriage with an open-minded curiosity. An affiliated scholar at Radcliffe's Schlessinger Library, Graff began a personalized research odyssey designed to answer the question What Is Marriage For? (Beacon, $24). Although jam-packed with historical data about the institution of marriage, Graff's book has a breezy tone that makes it entertaining as well as informative: "Take the Romans. Their weddings included pledges exchanged by -- are you sitting down? -- the groom and his father-in-law. In the standard upper-class Roman ceremony, the groom said, `Do you promise to give your daughter to me to be my wedded wife?' The bride's father answered, `The Gods bring you luck! I betroth her.' She said not a word."

Each of the six social pillars of marriage (money, sex, babies, kin, order and heart) is examined in a lengthy chapter that includes a historical overview, a commentary (often full of thought-provoking questions), as well as rational arguments for the validation of same-sex marriages. For anyone curious about the history behinds the state of "wedded bliss" Graff has assembled an encyclopedic collection of facts, observations and insights. Her first-person interjections turn what could have been a dry textbook into a lively personal examination of what it means to choose a life partner (regardless of race or age or sex). She writes "I cry at others' weddings because I was so happy at -- and am still so happy with -- my own."

Marilyn Murray Willison is a Florida-based author and book reviewer. Her e-mail address is marmurwill@aol.com.