Two recent high-profile books give advice on how to raise boys. They are both worth highlighting because of the importance of the topic and the ways they approach the issue.
The first one is Warren Farrell’s “The Boy Crisis,” which I reviewed in late March here. The second book is just out, Michael C. Reichert’s, “How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men.” It’s the “it book” on the topic, enjoying wildly major press in the last few weeks in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Atlantic, CBS News, Time, and NPR. Every review is laudatory. They shouldn’t be.
The message of the 278 pages of “How to Raise a Boy” comes down to just two points: 1) The main problem with boyhood today is boyhood itself. 2) Boys will be fine when we move away from traditionalism and they are allowed to be more relational and in touch with their inner selves.
These are certainly not original ideas. Same drum, new drummer. This has been the boyhood story with so-called progressives since the Age of Aquarius.
Given this, though, it’s remarkable to examine how Reichert makes his case. He wants us to believe boys need us to stop teaching what he disapprovingly refers to as “the old ideas of manhood” and start listening to what boys actually want—as if it’s one or the other. For him, it most certainly is.
He contends we must stop reflexively shoe-horning boys into the “man box.” His title choice for chapter one is a troubling indicator of where he’s taking readers: “Confined By Boyhood.” Is he referring to the problem of keeping our boys boys and not moving them on to manhood? He is not. He believes the only thing we have to fear about boyhood is boyhood itself.
The Problem Is Men Being Men, and Boys Being Boys
As you might guess, Reichert’s great concern is what he regularly refers to throughout the book, in various ways, as “masculine stereotypes,” “the historic model of boyhood,” the “stark limitations of the old boyhood,” “harsh man-making rituals,” and that “boys continue to be subjected to myths and prejudices rooted in the past.”
Thus, he says, teaching manhood has resulted in shame, which is “an integral part of male development infecting every boy’s self-image”(emphasis added) because of an “unachievable standard of masculinity” that is constantly forced upon them.
He doesn’t qualify that this exists only in some of the rare and extreme instances. No, this is the road toward boyhood itself. It is clear that he sees nothing good in the general boyhood script. He wants the violators who’ve infected every last boy’s self-image held responsible. Those who’ve been “in charge of boyhood must take responsibility for it casualties,” because “no boy grows twisted and hurtful on his own.”
Just who are these folks who are in charge of boyhood? He never tells us. He assumes we know. He also never tells us what’s wrong with these traditional ideas of boy and manhood. It’s as if we all know and agree on the terribly toxic disaster maleness has been to date.
Only once does he get at detailing what masculinity entails in whole. These would be “self-sufficiency, acting tough, physical attractiveness, homophobia, hypersexuality, aggression and control.” That’s today’s masculinity to him.
Now, nearly no one has such things in mind when considering what they want their boys, as boys, to aspire to. Not moms. Not dads. Not granddads. Not coaches.
Nonetheless, Reichert seriously contends that these are precisely what parents and other community adults are pushing toward when they work to lead their boys toward authentic manhood. He says with all seriousness that “an emphasis on learning masculinity can obscure the more vital development of the boy’s humanity and his acquiring skills necessary for success in modern society.”
So manhood stands directly against the human and social development of our boys. Thus, our historic conception of boy- and manhood to date is not only problematic or misguided, but malicious. The sooner it’s done away with, the better.
For Boys to Succeed, They Have to Stop Being Masculine?
So what’s his solution? He is quite clear. “The best way to prepare boys for the world ahead is not to train them to follow outdated standards [of manhood] but to permit their humanity to flourish.” Take your choice, parents: Human flourishing or masculine indoctrination, ‘cuz you can’t have both.
We will see emancipation as we “open ourselves to boys’ actual experiences and work to build a boyhood that permits our sons to be who they are.” We can “repair boyhood” by developing “a new model for boyhood that begins, naturally, in relationships.”
It’s unclear who these “isolated-boyhood-is-best” and “don’t-let-boys-be-who-they-are” advocates are that he’s countering, but I suppose we are supposed to know. Here’s the very last line of his book: “Holding boys in relationship where they are known and loved is the best way to build good men.”
As wonderful as all this sounds, his solution is not a solution at all, because he comes nowhere close to isolating an actual problem. He’s operating purely in stereotypes and prejudice.
I’ve worked at Focus on the Family for a quarter of a century. Few believe more deeply in the necessity of our boys learning healthy, traditional, and unapologetic manhood than we do. To Reichert, we are no doubt part of the problem, perhaps a very major part.
But in counseling thousands of parents every year, giving boys loving, supportive relationships of affirmation, helping them have at least one person in their lives who listens to and loves them unconditionally is a foundational part of our daily advice and has been since our founding in the mid-1970s.
I trust every other advocate for healthy, genuine boyhood not only recognizes these are essential, but is dedicated to making sure as many boys as possible have these in their lives. Teaching healthy, genuine boyhood is not an either/or proposition of traditionalism versus happy emotional development. How many parents really think that it is?
A False Solution to a Fake Problem
What Reichert unfortunately ends up giving his reader is a false problem and a false solution. It also makes one wonder who he’s actually writing for. Parents, teachers, and coaches who want to learn wise ways to help our boys become, not just good people, but good men, will find largely antagonism and insult here. They are only told that their goal is harmful.
Those adults who believe that maleness itself is a problem to be eradicated at all costs will find nothing new in this book. It will only make them feel better about their crusade. This book peddles in simplistic stereotypes and feel-good solutions, plowing no new ground. The ground it does plow, the well-worn trope that the worst thing about boys is boyhood itself, is very harmful to our boys, tomorrow’s young women, and the larger community.
That’s because it refuses to recognize the obvious and most natural of facts that one half of humanity are not just androgynous humans, but boys who need to be taught how to be good men. And good manhood is a very specific thing that our author never even comes close to outlining.
Women Are Still Waiting for Good Men to Be Raised
Among many things, if manhood is not modeled and taught, today’s girls will not have the kinds of husbands and fathers for their children that they dream of today and will so desperately search out tomorrow. And it is not happening today. Ask any twenty- or thirty-something woman.
That is one of the most serious problems facing humanity today because it is so basic to a society’s continuation, health, and happiness. A parenting script that fails take into account the substance and wonder of boys’ masculinity and doesn’t to mold it in directions that are strong, protective, determined, and loving will intentionally fail at helping their sons become what they are created to be and what others’ daughters will one day need.
Single ladies, how many of you are simply looking for a “nice, well-adjusted male person” to share your life with and trust with your heart and future? Of course, you’re looking for something far better: a man, and an unapologetic one at that. And that word really means something to you, something very good and desirable.
It is unfortunate that Dr. Reichert, and so many of the books being published today on boyhood, will be of little help to parents who must produce those very men for tomorrow’s women and tomorrow’s society. We need more books on boyhood that see manhood as an essential virtue, and we need the major media to celebrate them. But I’m not holding my breath.