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Here’s What I’ve Learned About Raising Boys in My 30 Years as a Child Psychologist



These losses begin very early on. As documented in her 2014 book, When Boys Become Boys, Stanford psychology professor Judy Y. Chu embedded with a small group of boys, from their years in pre-kindergarten to first grade. She regularly observed and interviewed them, their teachers, and their parents. Over two years, she reported that the boys became less present and more somber as they picked up cultural scripts tied to masculine stereotypes and learned to play the part of “real” boys. She watched as they changed everything—how they dressed, played, behaved—and traded their natural exuberance for a studied pose rooted in conformity.

Both mothers and fathers have believed that teaching their sons to be “real” men is at the heart of their job descriptions. As recently as 2020, research I helped conduct for the Global Boyhood Initiative of the DC-based NGO Equimundo found that parents of boys press them to comply with cultural standards, even at the expense of their personal authenticity. When asked what was most important for their sons, parents told us that they should be emotionally strong (94%) and physically strong (61%), play sports (48%), have a girlfriend (46%), and, overall, fit in (59%). 

As they try to meet these expectations, many boys lose all sense of being accepted for who they truly are. As Canadian scholar Michael Kaufman argues, there has long been a “strange combination of power and powerlessness, privilege, and pain” in masculinity. By their later teen years, many boys are stranded in a desolate state of emotional constriction, social isolation, and personal imposture. Not surprisingly, in a recent State of American Men survey we conducted at Equimundo, two-thirds of Gen Z men (between ages 18 to 23) agreed with the statement, “No one really knows me well.”

“Every boy, known and loved.”

When I first heard those words—a school motto coined by the late Tony Jarvis, legendary headmaster of Roxbury Latin School outside Boston—I was moved by their clarity and power. 

I continue to believe they capture exactly the right spirit and direction for our times.

We know what a child needs to flourish. We’ve just been slow to apply it to our sons. A few years ago, my research team surveyed nearly 1,500 boys between the ages of 12 and 18 in six countries, as well as 1,200 of their teachers, and asked what was working in their education. In their responses, the teachers focused on the details of their lessons, but the boys wrote, often with deeply moving expressions of gratitude, about the personalities, quirks, and gifts of their teachers and coaches. They told us clearly that they need connection to do their best, whether in the classroom or on the field.


Yet, even in their families, too, many boys feel alone. In the same State of American Men survey, a large percentage of younger men reported feeling like they don’t have anyone they can talk to when they are stressed or troubled. And without supportive relationships, psychologists tell us, people become more vulnerable and their lives more precarious. In school, for example, disconnected boys are at higher risk of tuning out, giving up, or becoming “problems” in the classroom. When they do not feel “well held” and accountable to someone who cares for them, boys come adrift and look to their peers for their sense of belonging and purpose. Once they become disconnected, it is a great deal harder for young men to aspire or strive to be their best selves.

What can parents do to support their sons?

Much of the work of parenting a boy, especially as he gets older, is to build and maintain a strong enough relationship with him, so he knows he has an affirming place to turn when he feels tense, angry, fearful, or otherwise upset. A place where he is known and loved. These relationships are the foundation of a boy’s ability to resist all of the potentially harmful temptations and pressures of our modern culture.

Source: Self

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