Books about how to raise sons come packaged with a few assumptions. Chief among them is that dads are, at best, semi-prepared for the job. The presumed father isn’t neglectful — he’s just fearful, even terrified, of the kinds of conversations the books demand. Responsible fatherhood in 2020 means open discussions about porn, relationships and toxic masculinity. Some of those discussions need to happen distressingly early. I’d be lying if I said these assumptions were misplaced. I grew up in an old-world immigrant household where the closest thing I got to The Talk was my father saying, “They learn that in school.” (True, in a way.) I check in on my 9-year-old son’s browser history with the same trepidation I’ve felt before entering a crawl space.
This concern puts authors of books on how to be a good dad in a bind. They want to deliver meaningful information to a tentative reader without coming off as condescending. In “Raising Boys to Be Good Men,” Aaron Gouveia attempts to square this circle by presenting himself as a relatable bro who’s acquired some high-profile good-dad bona fides. His sensitivity to matters of consent and misogyny are hard-earned after a youth of macho preening and homophobic slurs. He recalls with shame the brickbats he received after writing an essay defending old-fashioned chivalric gestures such as holding doors open for women. He was briefly in the national spotlight last year for a tweetstorm defending his kindergarten-age son after he was bullied at school for his colorfully polished nails.
Gouveia possesses no professional pediatric credentials, but he’s an engaging guide whose writing is informed by honest mistakes, solid research and social media flare-ups. Still, he sometimes delivers his advice with an intensity so earnest it borders on self-parody. At one point, he recalls the time his wife came home with a onesie reading “Mommy’s Little Stud,” which sets off a tirade about how girls’ garments celebrate cupcakes and shopping while boys’ highlight physicality and unchecked libido. “Sure, it’s a onesie,” he writes, “but small things add up, and every time we buy into this gendered b.s., we perpetuate the problem and further set ourselves up for failure.” (Gouveia’s book is larded with vulgar language, as if Quentin Tarantino had adapted a Dr. Spock manual. One chapter is titled “The B.S. Starts Before the Birth.”)
But for all of his posturing, and the occasional moment when he seems determined to browbeat you into raising the wokest boy in creation, Gouveia approaches his subject with honesty and concern for the dad as much as the son. Fatherhood, he notes, doesn’t just involve teaching sons about the tripwires of misogynistic language and behavior. It also demands that dads do some work on themselves — to think about how they approach matters of platonic touching, about taking parental leave and about how they cooperate with moms to set expectations and split up parental duties around the house. And do that work constantly: “Actively combating toxic masculinity is a daily practice, not a single one-time event that happened in your past,” he writes.
Though not as directly prescriptive as Gouveia’s book, Peggy Orenstein’s best-selling “Boys & Sex” operates from a similar sense that shortcomings in the way boys are being raised today have troubling consequences. The follow-up to her 2016 book, “Girls & Sex,” “Boys” is based on interviews with more than 100 young men, and it paints a distressing picture: women treated disposably, hardcore porn treated as aspirational, and machismo taken on as a kind of assigned uniform to cover for uncertainty about how to develop deeper relationships.
Such is the runoff, she argues, from a culture that elevates overpowering sexual partners instead of, say, talking to them. “Boys know such sentiments are wrong — they are not completely blank slates for the culture to inscribe,” Orenstein writes. “Still, they are barraged by these images and ideas, usually without challenge or context.” The root of the problem, for Orenstein, is an inability to communicate, and fixing it will require communication, as well. And, again, parent and child are asked to share the labor. One chapter subheading says, “You Must, You Simply Must, Talk About Porn.”
But Orenstein doesn’t write as a scold or even an adviser. She just lets examples from her reporting clarify the challenges and the stakes. One of the most potent of those stories involves Sameer and Anwen, two college students who hooked up at an off-campus party where he pressured her into what they now agree was sexual assault. They addressed the incident together through a campus restorative-justice program, ultimately sharing the experience publicly for a training program. If two college students can find the courage to not just confront a traumatic moment but also share it, the implication goes, a parent can bring up Pornhub, gay slurs, body image, consent, and more before such trauma occurs. It’s not about The Talk, but talking.
There’s a time-tested literary device for communicating that kind of material: the letter. The “Letter to” genre has had a good century — from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” — framing advice on difficult challenges (becoming an artist, addressing racism) in a way that’s at once sympathetic, confessional and prescriptive. Richie Jackson, in “Gay Like Me,” grasps how effective this form can be. A longtime stage and TV producer, Jackson was developing a show about an older and a younger gay man and their separate dating lives when his 18-year-old son came out to him, turning his “Odd Couple” concept into reality.
“Gay Like Me” is very much a book about raising a gay son. Jackson was too deeply affected by the AIDS crisis — and too troubled by the laissez-faire attitudes about sex promoted by Grindr and PrEP — to not want to address them directly and emphasize that a gay identity is a great gift and legacy to honor. That identity also presents challenges. For instance, Donald Trump, a friend of his husband’s family, attended his wedding, which Jackson takes as a reminder that “every same-sex wedding is inherently political.” Jackson encourages his son to develop a wary optimism: “Leave the sadness with me but share my anger,” he writes.
“Gay Like Me” also models an openness and candor that ought to resonate for any parent. (And, as a book that can be read in one sitting, delivers the message efficiently.) In his closing chapter, Jackson offers a brief “parent’s prayer” that in part reads: “I hope you’ll try, and if you fail, try some more.” Good advice, for sons and parents alike.
Mark Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”
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