It was never easy being the parent of a boy. For years now, a crisis has been building for men, a crisis brought to a head by the #MeToo movement. Many parents raising boys are now questioning and waking up to the skewed ideals surrounding masculinity. What are we teaching our boys about what it means to be a man? How do we prevent our sons from making the kinds of mistakes we see and hear about all around?
From the time they are very young, boys face pressures to look, talk, walk, play and act in acceptably masculine ways. Man-making is unforgiving, driving a boy to hide aspects of who he truly is.
In my work with boys, I have witnessed that when a boy dares to be his authentic self and refuses to conform to what’s expected, other boys often react ruthlessly. Sadly, even the most well-meaning adults in their lives may not provide what boys need to get through these difficult experiences. Too often, they attempt to “manage” the problem, offering unhelpful advice or intervening out of fear that their sons cannot figure things out for themselves. But only a boy can navigate his life, and what he really needs is people he can talk to about his struggles.
To be known and understood strengthens a boy’s self-confidence. And yet, in our culture, boys are encouraged to conform to stereotypical notions of traditional masculinity that include the idea that men need a strong sense of individuality: It’s not okay for males to rely on others. Meanwhile, the surest way to empower boys is to allow them to depend on us, and listening is the most important tool parents have for building boys’ resilience.
Every boy has the ability to imagine a life entirely of his own design. Inspired by their dreams, they will resist pressures to be something they are not. As they assert who they are and who they want to become, with parents’ support their trust in their own judgment grows. When there is no one to bounce things off or to check in with, a boy is left with only the echo chamber of his thoughts and feelings.
Listening to boys seems quite basic, but is not always easy. Many boys respond to the pressures of boyhood with mistrust, disconnection and reticence. They learn to play it cool, showing little of what they feel and adopting a pose of indifference, boredom or irritation. Confronted by an off-putting mask, many parents and teachers become confused and discouraged. Some even give up or blame the boy who seems unwilling to open up. But when an adult focuses on the connection, without blame or despair, and reaches for the boy who has grown apart or gotten stuck, it can help him find his way back to himself.
With boys, especially, listening is about much more than receiving information. It is more like holding. There is communication, sometimes words and meanings are exchanged, but on an emotional level, a deep resonance develops, allowing something primitive and visceral to happen: The one listened to is “known.” The boy’s self, aspects of who he is that are understood and accepted by his listener, is strengthened.
For boys who are not well known, a split arises between their core selves and their more public selves, and they often turn for acceptance to a peer group that exacts a stiff price. Living behind a mask, however, is lonely. As psychologist Michael Nichols explains, “What never gets heard affects more than the difference between the socially shareable and the private; it drives a split between the true self and a false self.”
Listening certainly requires attention. But it is hard to sustain listening to a boy if your attention is dominated by pressing concerns about their behavior. When parents are unable to put aside their worries or upsets, it is probably not a good time to attempt to listen — better to clear your mind first. Without real attention, these interactions can turn into occasions when the boy winds up feeling that he must reassure or take care of his parent.
But equally important, listening enables boys to communicate their emotions. When parents listen to their children, tense or difficult feelings are released, and closeness, warmth and understanding of a caring other are absorbed. According to neuroscientist Daniel Siegel, successful communication of emotions is fundamental to an individual’s sense of vitality and meaning. The experience of “feeling felt” when his parent tunes into the emotional level of his experience frees the boy from bad feelings. As he offloads tensions, a boy notices his power to restore his own mind and his independence from the various pressures and threatening norms of his life.
When parents make it clear that connection is the goal, what the boy does next or how he understands things is less important than affirming and strengthening his core self. Listeners learn to trust that boys will figure things out and are more likely to do so when they are not alone.
So how does a parent establish a listening relationship with a boy? First, just try to be around him, join in with whatever he is doing, make sure not to dominate the moment. Even better, parents can show delight in the boy. Go ahead and show your son what you love and enjoy about him. Simply being enjoyed is a rare experience, particularly for adolescent boys. When parents can offer receptive, delighted attention, it is a rare boy who doesn’t lean more into the relationship.
Still, it can be hard to listen to boys. Boys often test parents or teachers by pushing them away, shutting down or defying them. For parents, staying present while listening means trying to manage reactions so you don’t hijack the connection you’re building.
What matters, in the end, is less whether parents manage to sustain listening and more that they keep coming back to try. For parents who find it hard to hang in there with their sons, the trick is not to give up. Boys don’t need perfect listeners. They need to see their parents reaching for them, struggling against the pull to disconnect, and doing their best to offer their sons an opportunity to be themselves, known, not alone and loved.
In parents’ commitment to being with their sons, no matter how hard it is, boys perceive how much they matter, just for being themselves.
Michael C. Reichert is founding director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s a clinical practitioner, specializing in boys and men. He is the author of a new book, “How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build a Good Man.”