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Boys And Masculinity In America


The allegations against Brett Kavanaugh took place against a backdrop of high school and college parties, and an atmosphere among boys that's been described by some as jovial male bonding and others as toxic masculinity. It's prompted discussion among parents about what it means to grow up as a boy in America and the fear and pressure our children feel to act in certain ways.

Child psychologist Michael Thompson is the co-author of the 1999 book "Raising Cain: The Emotional Life Of Boys." He joins us now. Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Thompson.


SIMON: We heard a lot this week in the hearings on Thursday about friendship. Christine Blasey Ford talked about the chilling laughter of boys, who she remembers hearing after she says they assaulted her and laughed with a kind of bonding moment. And we heard Brett Kavanaugh describe his friendships not just with other boys, but also with young women. What did you hear? What struck you?

THOMPSON: Yeah, I know. I work at an all-boys school, and this is the dark side of boys' lives - that they - sometimes their fun can come at the expense of girls. And I think we have to teach boys - we have to teach them about consent, and we have to teach them about sexuality in a better way than we do. Many of the boys at my school get no instruction from their parents whatsoever, so they get their instruction from peers and from parties.

SIMON: When you talk about the fact that - and you know firsthand - a lot of young boys you work with that haven't had these important conversations with their parents - how has that fallen down? What's happened?

THOMPSON: The conversation about risk-taking and sexuality is always an awkward one because the teenager thinks, oh, here it comes. Oh, no, this is awkward. And many fathers, particularly, feel awkward about talking to their sons about sexuality. What kids crave is to know that their parents accept that they are becoming a sexual being, that their parents are realistic about what the temptations are going to be. And they want some clarity from their parents about how they're supposed to behave.

And what they need from parents and teachers and schools and sex educators is real strong education in what consent is. In sex, not everybody moves at the same rate, especially kids who are developing. And some kids want to jump ahead, and some kids are holding back. And you cannot presume.

SIMON: How do you instill - I'm trying hard to avoid the word, teach, 'cause as a parent, I know I'm not sure how we teach. How do you help instill empathy?

THOMPSON: Well, you have to require kids to be empathic. Little kids don't share toys naturally. You know, we like to hold on to what we've got. But we have to train kids to feel the pain of another. Some kids take to it immediately. It is a natural human feeling. You know, when a 9-month-old pulls his mother's earring and she goes, ouch, because that's really - he yanked your earring, you can see a look of concern and guilt.

But when the person whom we are hurting comes from a different tribe, a different gender, a different party, our capacity to identify and empathize is diminished.

SIMON: How do you help a child to learn and to behave in accord with the idea that the other is as precious as he is?

THOMPSON: Well, if I were in charge of everything, Scott, every boy would take care of children at some point in his own boyhood. He'd take care of small children who get hurt, who cry, who need comforting. Many boys go through their whole boyhood - I mean, unless they have younger siblings, they're not asked to take care of other people. They're just asked to do their stuff and compete and be a good student and be socially attractive, but not to take care.

So I - for instance, I consult a lot to sleep-away summer camps. And boys who have been camp counselors, for instance, 18-year-old boys who've taken care of a cabin of 10-year-old, 11-year-old boys - they're different because they've had to take care of somebody's hurt and loneliness and homesickness and pain. And it changes the older boy, and it makes him a better young man.

SIMON: Michael Thompson is a child psychologist and co-author of the book "Raising Cain." Thanks so much for being with us.

THOMPSON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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