The War Against Boys: How Misguided Policies are Harming Our Young Men - Christina Hoff Sommers 2015
Save the Males
On June 4, 1998, McLean Hospital, the psychiatric teaching hospital of the Harvard Medical School, announced the results of a new study of boys.1 The press release, headlined “Adolescence Is Time of Crisis for Even ’Healthy’ Boys,” reported that researchers at McLean and Harvard Medical had found that “psychologically ’healthy’ middle-class boys” are anxious, alienated, lonely, and isolated—“despite appearing outwardly content.”2
The study, “Listening to Boys’ Voices,” was conducted by Dr. William Pollack, codirector of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Pollack, a psychologist, had already come out with a book publicizing the report’s dismaying findings, entitled Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood.3
Real Boys was moderately successful before the Columbine High School massacre in April 1999. But it really took off when a startled public, hungry for expert counsel on the rash of school shootings, saw in Pollack a confident authority. He appeared on Oprah, CBS This Morning, and Dateline NBC to explain his discovery that a silent crisis was engulfing American boys. He joined Vice President Al Gore on CNN’s Larry King Live for a program dedicated to understanding school violence. Among Pollack’s many speeches in the Columbine aftermath were a May 1999 keynote address to a convention of more than fourteen hundred Texas elementary school counselors and a June address to two thousand PTA leaders in Portland, Oregon.4 Referring to boys as “Ophelia’s brothers,” Pollack tried to do for boys what Carol Gilligan and Mary Pipher had done for girls: bring news of their diminished and damaged young lives to a large public. Real Boys stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for more than six months. What sort of research findings did Pollack provide in support of his disturbing portrait? Let’s go back to the McLean announcement of his discovery. The press release listed the study’s major findings. Among them:
• “As boys mature, they feel increased pressure to conform to an aggressive dominant male stereotype, which leads to low self-esteem and high incidence of depression.”
• “Boys feel significant anxiety and sadness about growing up to be men.”
• “Despite appearing outwardly content, many boys feel deep feelings of loneliness and alienation.”
We must bear in mind that Pollack is not talking about a small percentage of boys who are seriously disturbed and lethally dangerous. He is attributing pathology to normal boys, and his conclusions are expansive. “These findings,” he said, “carry massive implications for what appears to be a larger national crisis, one that we are now seeing can occasion serious violence.”5 This national emergency called for a major social reform: “The time has come to change the way boys are raised—in our homes, in our schools and in society.”6
It is unusual to find such sensational claims and recommendations issued from a staid research institution such as McLean. McLean is routinely ranked among the top three psychiatric hospitals in the United States, and its research program is the best endowed and largest of any private psychiatric hospital in the country. Any study bearing its imprimatur receives and deserves respectful attention. But this one strained credulity.
I requested a copy of “Listening to Boys’ Voices” from McLean. A few days later, a thirty-page typed manuscript arrived. It had not been published, nor was it marked as about to be published. It had none of the usual properties of a professional research paper. Unlike most scientific papers, which alert readers to their limits, Pollack’s was unabashedly extravagant, declaring that “these findings about boys are unprecedented in the literature of research psychology.”7
Pollack said he had been moved to do his research on boys in great part because of the “startling findings” of Gilligan and others on girls, which had awakened “our nation . . . from its gender slumbers,” alerting us to “the plight of adolescent girls lacking for voice and a coherent sense of self . . . many sinking into a depressive joyless existence.” Except for Pollack’s adulatory references to Carol Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow for their “profound insights,” the manuscript contained not a single footnote referencing “the literature of research psychology” to which he was making an unprecedented addition, or any other prior research. And his own research, interpretations, and reporting were eerily similar to Gilligan’s loose, impressionistic methods.
Pollack’s discovery of a boy crisis with national implications was based on a battery of vaguely described tests administered to 150 boys. He gives no explanation of how the boys had been selected or whether they constituted anything like a representative sample. And even if we disregard the limitations of the database, the findings appeared on first impression to be anything but grim and unprecedented.
On several of the tests he and his group administered, most of the 150 boys showed themselves to be healthy and well-adjusted. A self-esteem test found them confident. The Beck Depression Inventory, a widely used psychological assessment tool, uncovered “little or no clinical depression.”8 In private interviews, the boys said they were close to their families and enjoyed strong friendships with both males and females. Something called the King & King’s Sex-Role Egalitarianism Scale found the vast majority of them agreeing that “there should be equal pay for equal work,” “men should share in the housework,” and “men should express their feelings.”9
Pollack, however, repeatedly warns readers not to be fooled by such seemingly encouraging results. By interviewing boys and giving them tests that measure “unconscious attitudes,” he claims to have found a truer picture, one of forlorn, alienated, and unconfident boys: “The results of this study of ’normal’ everyday boys were deeply disturbing. They showed that while boys on the surface pretend to be doing ’fine,’ beneath the outward bravado—what I have called the ’mask of masculinity’—many of our sons are in crisis.”10
In one probe of the boys’“deeper unconscious processes,” Pollack used a “modified” Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). In TAT tests, subjects are shown ambiguous pictures of people and scenes and asked to describe them; it is assumed that subjects will project their own hopes and fears into the pictures. Pollack and his colleagues presented the boys with a series of drawings and asked them to write stories about them. One drawing depicts a young, blond-haired boy sitting by himself in the open doorway of an old, wooden house. The sun is shining on the boy, but a shadow eclipses the interior of the house. Pollack was alarmed by the boys’ responses.
“What was shocking,” he wrote, “was that sixty percent interpreted the picture as that of an abandoned boy, an isolated child or a victim of adult mistreatment”11 (emphasis in the original). Pollack saw the children’s stories as corroboration for the Gilligan/Chodorow thesis about early maternal abandonment: “The high percentage of stories featuring themes of abandonment, loneliness, and isolation, I believe, is suggestive of subconscious memories of premature traumatic separation.”12
Pollack called his test a “modified” TAT. Modified how? He did not say. Even if it were accurate to say that the boys’ reaction to the picture suggested feelings of loneliness and isolation, it is quite a leap to attribute their response to an early separation trauma. Before concluding that the boys’ stories are the effect of premature independence from mothers, we would need to know whether other groups—say, a group of girls or of adult female psychologists—would have similarly “shocking” reactions to Pollack’s modified TAT. Pollack makes no mention of control groups. In any case, before projecting his findings onto the entire population of American boys, he would need to establish that the boys he was testing were a representative sample.
It is worth mentioning that Pollack’s claimed discovery of an early and devastating separation trauma for boys contradicts findings of the American Psychiatric Association. Its official diagnostic guidebook, DSM-IV, says that separation anxiety disorder afflicts no more than 4 percent of children and more girls than boys. Furthermore, the disorder does not appear to be related to a premature separation from one’s mother. “Children with [this disorder],” says DSM-IV, “tend to come from families that are close knit.”13
Pollack also expressed concern about the boys’ apparent confusion about masculinity. A high percentage of his boys agreed with statements such as:
• “It is essential for a guy to get respect.”
• “Men are always ready for sex.”14
He pointed out that these are the very same boys who said they believed “men and women deserve equal pay” and “boys and girls should both be allowed to express feelings.” Pollack took these responses as evidence that the boys are hostage to a “double standard of masculinity.” He concluded, “These boys reveal a dangerous psychological fissure: a split in their sense of what it means to become a man.”15
This is unpersuasive, to put it mildly. We might well find teenage girls telling us that “it is essential for a girl to get respect.” As for “Men are always ready for sex,” why should any psychologist find it startling that adolescent boys agree with that? There is massive evidence—anthropological, psychological, even endocrinological, abundantly corroborated by everyday experience—that males are, on the whole, primed for sex and more ready to casually engage in it than females are. And this begins in adolescence. One well-known experiment compared male and female college students’ responses to invitations to have casual sex from an attractive stranger of the opposite sex. Seventy percent of males said, “Okay, let’s do it,” and almost all seemed comfortable with the request. Of the females, 100 percent said, “No,” and a majority felt insulted by the proposal.16
To recognize that males tend to welcome sexual opportunities is not to say that boys endorse an exploitative promiscuity. Given the biological changes boys are undergoing, their eagerness is natural and not unhealthy. On the other hand, society correctly demands that they suppress what is natural in favor of what is moral. So most parents try to teach their sons to practice responsible restraint. Pollack regards the boys’ positive response to “Men are always ready for sex” as an indication that something is deeply wrong with them. While this response may indicate some confusion among today’s young men about right and wrong, nothing in it suggests any kind of psychological disorder. Pollack’s reaction tells us more about his own limitations as a reliable guide to the nature of boys than it does about what boys are really like.
In sum, Pollack’s paper does not present a single persuasive piece of evidence for a national boy crisis. I do not know whether “Listening to Boys’ Voices” was ever submitted for publication in a professional journal. Its sparse data and its strident and implausible conclusions render it unpublishable as a scholarly article.
Why did a research institute such as McLean give what amounts to a seal of approval to such dubious research? The press release speaks of “findings” and “correlations” and gives readers the impression that “Listening to Boys’ Voices” is a study that meets McLean/Harvard standards for responsible, data-backed research. McLean requires investigators to submit research projects to a twelve-member institutional review board for approval. According to Geena Murphy, a member of this board, approval is granted “on the basis of the study’s scientific merit.”
Pollack’s study, with its outsized claims and lack of evidence, could hardly have been approved on the basis of scientific merit. How did it get past the board? In conversations with psychiatrists, I learned that because of managed care, hospitals, administrators, and staff are continuously looking for ways to generate revenue and publicity for their institutions. Members of the McLean Institutional Review Board might have decided that an attention-grabbing “boys-are-in-crisis study” produced by its own “Center for Men,” would bring favorable attention to the hospital. If so, scientific merit, usually indispensable for a McLean study, may have been compromised.
I asked Dr. Bruce Cohen, chief psychiatrist at McLean, how Pollack’s “research” had managed to receive McLean’s endorsement and was told, “I prefer not to talk about this at this time.” Had he read Pollack’s study? I asked. “I don’t read every study that comes out of McLean,” he answered. I explained that this study was quite unusual. Pollack claims to have uncovered a national crisis; his findings are “unprecedented in the literature of research psychology.” Surely that must have come to Dr. Cohen’s notice. I asked how it was that, without having reviewed Pollack’s evidence, McLean had issued a press release giving Pollack’s work the cachet of genuine science. Cohen told me someone would get back to me. But before he hung up, I asked him for his opinion “as a clinician” of Pollack’s description of the nation’s boys as “young Hamlets who succumb to an inner state of Denmark.” “That’s in there?” he asked, in the worried tone of a high school principal inquiring about what seniors have put in the yearbook.
The next day, I received a call from Roberta Shaw, director of public relations at McLean. She explained that the decision to issue a press release had been based on the “news value” of the study. “We ask ourselves, ’Is it of public interest?’ ” She also assured me that Pollack “had several journals interested in publishing his study.” She didn’t know what they were. She suggested I call him directly. I did, but he never returned the call.
Universities such as Harvard are clearly uncomfortable with the use of their names to confer prestige on dubious work. In October 1998, Harvard announced a new policy barring faculty members from labeling their work as sponsored or endorsed by Harvard without the express permission of the dean or provost. As the Associated Press reported, “Many institutions in the Ivy League have found themselves . . . linked to disputed data or research.”17 Yale faced the same problem, and now anyone who wants to use the phrase “Yale University study” must get permission from the university’s director of licensing. McLean might consider establishing a similar requirement for its researchers.
The Media Blitz
Even before the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, news organizations around the country were carrying stories about new research on the nation’s anguished boys, citing Harvard and McLean scholars as authorities. In March 1998, the Washington Post ran a front-page story about the “plight of young males.” It quoted Barney Brawer, Carol Gilligan’s former partner at the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology, Boys’ Development and the Culture of Manhood, who said, “An enormous crisis of men and boys is happening before our eyes without our seeing it . . . an extraordinary shift in the plate tectonics of gender.”18
In a May 1998 Newsweek cover story on boys, Pollack warned readers, “Boys are in silent crisis. The only time we notice is when they pull the trigger.”19 ABC’s 20/20 aired a segment on Pollack and his disturbing message, “Why Boys Hide Their Emotions.”20 People ran a profile of Pollack in which he explained how boys who massacre their schoolmates are the “tip of the iceberg, the extreme end of one large crisis.”21
On July 15, 1998, Maria Shriver interviewed Pollack on the NBC Today show. He informed the program’s mass audience of the results of his research:
Shriver: You say there is really a silent crisis going on with, quote, “normal boys.” As a parent of a young boy, that concerns me, scares me a lot.
Pollack: Well, absolutely. In addition to the national crisis, the boys who pick up guns, the boys who are suicidal and homicidal, the boys next door or the boy living in the room next door is also, I have found in my research, isolated, feeling lonely, can’t express his feelings. And that happens because of the way we bring boys up.
Pollack’s easy slide from “boys who pick up guns” to “the boy next door”—who, he assures us, are not very different inside—scared a lot of parents. This slide from abnormal boys to normal ones is, of course, illegitimate. There is not a shred of evidence in Pollack’s research that justifies his “tip of the iceberg,” “boys-are-in-crisis” hypothesis. Yet Pollack tossed it into the media echo chamber.
In an earlier interview (March 28), Jack Ford, the cohost of NBC’s Saturday Today, asked Pollack, “Should I sit down with my eleven-year-old son and say to him, ’Look at what happened here down in Arkansas. Let me tell you why. Part of it is your makeup, part of it is how we’ve been bringing you up. Now let’s sort of work through this together,’ or is it too late for that?”
Pollack did not tell Ford that it would be wrong to suggest to his son that he too is capable of killing people. Instead he replied: “I think we should do that with eleven-year-old boys. I think we should start with two- and three- and four- and five-year-old boys and not push them . . . from their mothers.”22
This is a remarkable exchange—one that would be inconceivable if the children under discussion were girls. No one takes disturbed young women like Susan Smith (who made headlines in 1994 when she drowned her two sons by pushing her car into a lake) or Melissa Drexler (the New Jersey teenager who, in 1997, gave birth to a healthy baby at her senior prom, strangled him, and threw him in a trash bin) as tip-of-the-iceberg exemplars of American young women. Girl criminals are never taken to be representative of girls in general. But when the boy reformers generalize from school killers to “our sons,” they’re including your son and mine as well as Jack Ford’s and Maria Shriver’s. Would it ever occur to Jack Ford to ask a psychologist whether he should sit down with his daughter and say to her, “Look at what happened at that New Jersey prom . . . Part of it is your makeup, part of it is how we’ve been bringing you up. Now let’s sort of work through this together”?
Pollack sees the killer boys at the extreme end of a continuum that includes “everyday boys.” To the contrary, what is typically striking about killer boys is their extreme abnormality. Thirteen-year-old Mitchell Johnson, one of the two Jonesboro, Arkansas, shooters, practiced self-mutilation and was also undergoing court-ordered psychological counseling for molesting a two-year old girl.23 Kip Kinkel, the fifteen-year-old boy who shot classmates in Springfield, Oregon, had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. The night before the school shooting, he killed his parents and spent the night in his house with their dead bodies, playing opera music from Romeo and Juliet continuously. As for the Columbine High killers, they were sociopaths inspired by the example of Timothy McVeigh, the domestic terrorist who blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building, killing 168 people and injuring 680.24
By putting all boys “pushed from their mothers” onto a continuum with the school shooters, Pollack does not adequately distinguish between healthy and unhealthy young men. Before we call for radical changes in the way we rear our male children, we ought to ask the boy reformers to tell us why there are so many seemingly healthy boys who, despite having been “pushed from their mothers,” are nonviolent, morally responsible human beings. How do those who say boys are disturbed account for the fact that in any given year less than one half of 1 percent of males under eighteen are arrested for a violent crime?25
With the help of the media, Pollack’s explanation for adolescent male violence in schools contributes to the national climate of prejudice against boys. That is surely not his intention. It is, however, an inevitable consequence of his sensationalizing approach to boys—treating healthy boys as if they were abnormal and abnormal, lethally violent boys as “the extreme end of one large pattern.”26
A Nation of Hamlets and Ophelias
In regarding seemingly normal children as abnormally afflicted, Pollack was taking the well-trodden path pioneered by Carol Gilligan and Mary Pipher. Gilligan had described the nation’s girls as drowning, disappearing, traumatized, and undergoing various kinds of “psychological foot-binding.” Following Gilligan, Mary Pipher, in Reviving Ophelia, had written of the selves of girls going down in flames, “crashing and burning.” Pollack’s Real Boys continues in this vein: “Hamlet fared little better than Ophelia. . . . He grew increasingly isolated, desolate, and alone, and those who loved him were never able to get through to him. In the end he died a tragic and unnecessary death.”27
By using Ophelia and Hamlet as symbols, Pipher and Pollack paint a picture of American children as disturbed and in need of rescue. But once one discounts the anecdotal, scientifically vacuous reports that have issued from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the McLean Hospital’s Center for Men, there remains no reason to believe that girls or boys are in crisis. Mainstream researchers see no evidence of it.28 To be sure, adolescence is a time of some “inner turmoil”—for boys and girls, in America and everywhere else, from time immemorial. But American children, boys as well as girls, are on the whole psychologically sound. They are not isolated, full of despair, or “hiding parts of themselves from the world’s gaze”—no more so, at least, than any other age group in the population.
One wonders why the irresponsible and baseless claims that girls and boys are psychologically fractured have been so uncritically received by the media and the public. One reason, perhaps, is that Americans seem all too ready to entertain almost any suggestion that a large group of outwardly normal people are suffering from some pathological affliction. By 1999, bestselling books had successively identified women, girls, and boys as being mentally anguished and in need of rescue. Then, in late 1999, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man called our attention to yet another segment of the population that no one had previously realized was in serious psychological trouble: adult men.29 Faludi claims to have unmasked a “masculinity crisis” so severe and pervasive, she finds it hard to understand why men do not rise up in rebellion.
Although Faludi seems to have arrived at her view of men without having read Pollack’s analysis of boys, her conclusions about men are identical to his about boys. She claims that men are suffering because the culture imposes stultifying myths and ideals of manliness. Stiffed shows us the hapless baby-boomer males, burdened “with dangerous prescriptions of manhood,”30 trying vainly to cope with a world in which they are bound to fail. Men have been taught that “to be a man means to be at the controls and at all times to feel yourself in control.”31 They cannot live up to this stoical ideal of manliness. At the same time, our “misogynist culture” now imposes its humiliating “ornamental” demands on men as well as women. “No wonder,” says Faludi, “men are in such agony.”32
What is Faludi’s evidence of an “American masculinity crisis”? She talked to dozens of unhappy men, among them wife batterers in Long Beach, California, distressed male pornography stars, and teenage sex predators known as the Spur Posse. Most of Faludi’s subjects have sad stories to tell about inadequate fathers, personal alienation, and feelings of helplessness. But she never tells us why the disconsolate men she selected for attention should be regarded as representative.
If men are experiencing the agonies Faludi speaks of, they are doing so with remarkable equanimity. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which has been tracking levels of general happiness and life satisfaction since 1957, consistently finds that approximately 90 percent of Americans describe themselves as happy with their lives, with no significant differences between men and women.33 When I asked its survey director, Tom Smith, if there had been any unusual signs of distress among men in the last few decades—the years in which Faludi claims that a generation of men have seen “all their hopes and dreams burn up on the launch pad.”34 Smith replied, “There have been no trends in a negative direction during those years.” But Faludi believes otherwise and joins Gilligan, Pollack, and the others in calling for a “new paradigm” of how to be men.
Faludi cites the work of Dr. Darrel Regier, director of the Division of Epidemiology at the National Institute of Mental Health, to support her thesis that men are increasingly unhappy.35 I asked Dr. Regier what he thought of her men-are-in-distress claim. “I am not sure where she gets her evidence for any substantial rise in male distress.” He was surprised that one of his own 1988 studies was cited by Faludi as evidence for an increase in “anxiety, depressive disorders, suicide.” “Well,” Dr. Regier said, “that is a fallacy. The article shows no such thing.”36 What does he think of these false mental health scares? I asked. “I guess they sell books,” he said.
Apocalyptic alarms about looming mental health disasters do sell well. In a satirical article entitled “A Nation of Nuts,” New York Observer editor Jim Windolf tallied the number of Americans allegedly suffering from some kind of mental disorder. He sent away for brochures and literature of dozens of advocacy agencies and mental health organizations. Then he did the math. “If you believe the statistics,” Windolf reported, “77 percent of America’s adult population is a mess. . . . And we haven’t even thrown in alien abductees, road ragers, and internet addicts.”37 If you factor in Gilligan’s and Pipher’s hapless girls, Pollack’s suffering and dangerous boys, and Faludi’s agonized men, the figure must be very close to 100 percent.
Gilligan, Pipher, Pollack, and Faludi all find abnormality and inner anguish in an outwardly normal and happy population. Each traces the malaise to the “male culture,” which forces harmful gender stereotypes, myths, or “masks” on the population in crisis—women, girls, boys, and men. Girls and women are constrained to be “nice and kind”; boys and men are constrained to be “in control” and emotionally disconnected. Each writer projects an air of sympathy, and of earnest desire to rescue the anguished casualties of our patriarchal culture. But the Gilligan-Pipher-Pollack-Faludi construct creates a serious problem. By taking a small, unhappy minority as representative of an entire group, the writers present the groups themselves as pitiable, incompetent, and unworthy of respect. Pollack, for example, wants to rescue boys from “the myths of boyhood,” but unwittingly harms them by arousing public fear, dismay, and suspicion. In characterizing boys as “Hamlets,” he stigmatizes an entire sex and age group. His seemingly benign project of reconnecting boys to their inner nurturers pressures boys to be more like girls. The effect is to put boys on the defensive—not an incidental effect, as we shall see.
Boys Out of Touch
I have inveighed against the large, extreme, and irresponsible claims of the crisis writers, pointing out that no credible evidence backs them up. What about their more moderate and seemingly reasonable assertions? Gilligan and Pollack speak of boys as hiding their humanity and submerging their sensitivity. They suggest that apparently healthy boys are emotionally repressed and out of touch with their feelings. Is that true?
When my son David was thirteen, he sometimes showed the kind of emotional disengagement that worries the boy reformers. He came to me one evening when he was in the seventh grade, utterly confused by his homework assignment. Like many contemporary English and social studies textbooks, his book, Write Source 2000, was chock-full of exercises designed to improve children’s self-esteem and draw them out emotionally.38 “Mom, what do they want?” David asked. He had read a short story in which one character always compared himself to another. Here are the questions David had to answer:
• Do you often compare yourself with someone?
• Do you compare to make yourself feel better?
• Does your comparison ever make you feel inferior?
Another set of questions asked about profanity in the story:
• How do you feel about [the main character’s] choice of words?
• Do you curse? Why? When? Why not?
• Does cursing make you feel more powerful? Are you feeling a bit uneasy about discussing cursing? Why? Why not?
The Write Source 2000 Teacher’s Guide suggests grading students on a scale from 1 to 10: 10 for a student who is “intensely engaged,” down to a 1 for a student who “does not engage at all.” My son did not engage at all. Here is how he answered:
Do you often compare yourself with someone?
Do you compare to make yourself feel better?
“No. I do not.”
Does your comparison ever make you feel inferior?
I was amused by his terse replies. But in the spirit of Gilligan and Pollack, the authors of Write Source 2000 might see them as signs of emotional shutdown. Toy manufacturers know about boys’ reluctance to engage in social interactions. They have never been able to interest boys in the kinds of interactive social games that girls love. In the computer game Talk with Me Barbie, Barbie develops a personal relationship with the player: she learns her name and chats with her about dating, careers, and playing house. These Barbie games are among the all-time bestselling interactive games. But boys don’t buy them.
Males, whether young or old, are on the whole, less interested than females in talking about feelings and personal relationships. In one experiment, researchers at Northeastern University analyzed college students’ conversations at the cafeteria table. They found that young women were far more likely to discuss intimates: close friends, boyfriends, family members. “Specifically,” say the authors, “56 percent of the women’s targets but only 25 percent of the men’s targets were friends and relatives.”39 This is just one study, but it is backed up by massive evidence of distinct male and female interests and preferences.
In another study, boys and girls differed in how they perceived objects and people.40 Researchers simultaneously presented male and female college students with two images on a stereoscope: one of an object, the other of a person. Asked to say what they saw, the male subjects saw the object more often than they saw the person; the female subjects saw the person more often than they saw the object. In addition, dozens of experiments confirm that women are much better than men at judging emotions based on the expression on a stranger’s face.41
These differences have motivated the gender specialists at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Wellesley Center, the Boys’ Project at Tufts, and McLean Hospital’s Center for Men to recommend that we all try to “reconnect” boys. But there is no evidence that boys need what they are offering. Would boys be improved if they were taught to be comfortable playing with Talk with Me Barbie? Are their preferences and attitudes signs of insensitivity and repression, or just innocent and healthy expressions of their inner nature?
If, as the evidence strongly suggests, the characteristic preferences and behaviors of males and females are expressions of innate differences, the differences in emotional styles will be difficult or impossible to eliminate. In any case, why should anyone make it their business to eliminate them?
The gender experts will reply that boys’ relative taciturnity puts them and others in harm’s way; in support they adduce their own research. But that research is flawed. There is no good reason to believe that boys as a group are emotionally endangered; nor is there reason to think that the typical male reticence is some kind of disorder in need of treatment. In fact, the boy reformers such as Pollack, Gilligan, and their followers need to consider the possibility that male stoicism and reserve may well be traits to be encouraged, not vices or psychological weaknesses to be overcome.
A Plea for Reticence
The argument in favor of saving boys by reconnecting them emotionally rests on the popular assumption that repressing emotions is harmful, while giving discursive vent to them is, on the whole, healthy. Psychologists have recently begun to examine the supposition that speaking out and declaring one’s feelings is better than holding them in. Jane Bybee, a psychologist at Suffolk University in Boston, studied a group of high school students, classifying them as “repressors” (those not focused on their inner states), “sensitizers” (those keenly aware of their moods and feelings), or “intermediates.” She then had the students evaluate themselves and others using these distinctions. She also had the teachers evaluate the students. She found that the “repressors” were less anxious, more confident, and more successful academically and socially. Bybee’s conclusion is tentative: “In our day-to-day behavior it may be good not to be so emotional and needy. The moods of repressed people may be more balanced.”42
In 2012, University of Missouri psychologist Amanda Rose and her coauthors published a study in Child Development that tested the Gilligan/Pollack assumption that boys were fearful and ashamed of sharing their feelings with others.43 Rose and her colleagues surveyed and observed nearly two thousand children and adolescents and found that boys and girls have very different expectations about the value of problem talk. Girls were more likely to report that personal disclosure made them feel cared for and understood. Boys, overall, found it to be a waste of time—and “weird.” Contra Pollack and Gilligan, boys did not feel embarrassed about sharing feelings and were not filled with angst about being ridiculed or teased for being weak or unmasculine. Instead, said the lead author Amanda Rose, “boys’ responses suggest they just don’t see talking about problems to be a particularly useful activity.”44 Rose has sound advice for parents. If you want your son to be more forthcoming, it won’t help to make him feel “safe” about sharing confidence. You will have to persuade him that it serves a practical purpose. As for daughters, she warns, excessive problem talk is linked to anxiety and depression. “So girls should know that talking about problems isn’t the only way to cope.”
It is worth noting that in most past and present societies, “repression” of private feelings has often been regarded as a social virtue. From a historical perspective, the burden of proof rests on those who believe that being openly expressive makes people better and healthier. That view has become a dogma of contemporary American popular culture, but in most cultures—including, until quite recently, our own—reticence and stoicism are regarded as commendable, while the free expression of emotions is often seen as self-centered and immature.
Pollack, who is a champion of emotional expressiveness, instructs parents, “Let boys know that they don’t need to be ’sturdy oaks.’ ” To encourage boys to be stoical, says Pollack, is to harm them: “The boy is often pushed to ’act like a man,’ to be the one who is confident and unflinching. No boy should be called upon to be the tough one. No boy should be harmed in this way.”45
But Pollack needs to show, not merely assert, that it harms a child to be “called upon to be tough.” Why shouldn’t boys—or for that matter, girls—try to be sturdy oaks? All of the world’s major religions place stoical control of emotions at the center of their moral teachings. For Buddhists, the ideal is emotional detachment; for Confucianism, dispassionate control. Nor is “Be in touch with your feelings” one of the Ten Commandments. Judeo-Christian teaching enjoins attentiveness to the emotional needs and feelings of others—not one’s own.
The insights of the save-the-male psychologists into the inner world of boys are by no means self-evident; nor is it at all obvious that their emotivist proposals would benefit boys. Boys’ aggressive tendencies do need to be checked. But the boy reformers have not proved that they have the recipe for civilizing boys and restraining their rough natures. Before the gender experts at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the practitioners of the new male psychology are given broad license to reprogram our sons to be “sensitizers” rather than repressors, they should first be required to show that the repairs they are so anxious to make are beneficial and not injurious.
These reform-minded experts should seriously consider the possibility that American children may in fact need more, not less, self-control and less, not more, self-involvement. It may be that American boys don’t need to be more emotional—and that American girls do need to be less sentimental and self-absorbed.
The Culture of Therapy
The British writer and social critic Fay Weldon has coined the useful, if somewhat ungainly, term therapism for the popular doctrine that almost all personal troubles can be cured by talk.46 Weldon is more concerned with therapism as a pop phenomenon than an educational practice; but in either sphere, talk therapy, once primarily a private therapeutic technique, has gone public in ways undreamed of in Sigmund Freud’s philosophy.47
Strangers, proudly in touch with their feelings, share their innermost thoughts and experiences with one another. Talk-show participants make intensely personal disclosures to wildly applauding audiences. The endless stream of confessional memoirs, the self-esteem movement, the textbooks and questionnaires that probe children’s innermost feelings are all manifestations of a profound and rampant therapism.
The contemporary faith in the value of openness and the importance of sharing one’s feelings is now so much a part of popular culture that we find even such staid organizations as the Girl Scouts of America giving patches for being open about grief. Lingua Franca writer Emily Nussbaum reports that “a Girl Scout troop in New York instituted a ’grief patch’ in 1993—troop members could earn this epaulette by sharing a painful feeling with one another, writing stories and poems about death and loss and meeting with bereavement counselors.”48
One sector in our society has so far been highly resistant to therapism: little boys are no more interested in earning “grief patches” than they are eager to interact personally with dolls. When homework assignments require them to explore their deeper feelings about a text, it is likely that they will not engage. I suspect that efforts to get little boys to be more overtly emotional rarely succeed. But I do not discount the powers of the would-be reformers to wreak a great deal of harm and grief by trying.
All through the 1990s, self-esteem was the education buzzword. Everyone needed it; many demanded it for their children or pupils as a basic human right. But the excesses of those who promoted techniques for increasing students’ self-esteem provide a cautionary example of what can happen when teachers, counselors, and education theorists, armed with good intentions and specious social science (for one thing, no one agrees on what self-esteem is or how to measure it), turn classrooms into encounter groups.
It has never been shown that “high self-esteem” is a good trait for students to possess. Meanwhile, researchers have uncovered a worrisome correlation between inflated self-esteem and juvenile delinquency. As Brad Bushman, an Iowa State University psychologist, explains, “If kids develop unrealistic opinions of themselves and those views are rejected by others, the kids are potentially dangerous.”49
John Hewitt, a University of Massachusetts sociologist, has examined the morality of the self-esteem movement in a fine scholarly book called The Myth of Self-Esteem. Hewitt documents the exponential growth of self-esteem articles and programs from 1982 to 1996.50 He points to the ethical hazards of using the classroom for therapeutic purposes. In a typical classroom self-esteem exercise, students complete sentences beginning “I love myself because . . .” or “I feel bad about myself because . . .” Hewitt explains that children interpret these assignments as demands for self-revelation. They feel pressed to complete the sentences “correctly” in ways the teacher finds satisfactory. As Hewitt acutely observes, “Teachers . . . no doubt regard the exercises as being in the best interest of their students. . . . Yet from a more skeptical perspective these exercises are subtle instruments of social control. The child must be taught to like himself or herself. . . . The child must confess self-doubt or self-loathing, bringing into light the feelings that he or she might prefer to keep private”51 (emphasis in original).
Far from being harmless, these therapeutic practices are unacceptably prying. Surely school children have a right not to be subjected to the psychological manipulations of both self-esteem educators and the reformers intent on getting boys to disclose their emotions in the way girls often do.
Therapism versus Stoicism
The vast majority of American boys and girls are psychologically healthy. On the other hand, there is strong evidence that they are morally and academically undernourished. Every society confronts the difficult and complex task of civilizing its children, teaching them self-discipline and instilling in them a sense of right and wrong. The problem is old, and the workable solution is known—character education in a sound learning environment. The known, tested solution does not include therapeutic pedagogies.
Children need to be moral more than they need to be in touch with their feelings. They need to be well educated more than they need classroom self-esteem exercises and support groups. Nor are they improved by having their femininity or masculinity “reinvented.” Emotional fixes are not the answer. Genuine self-esteem comes with pride in achievement, which is the fruit of disciplined effort.
American boys do not need to be rescued. They are not pathological. They are not seething with repressed rage or imprisoned in “straitjackets of masculinity.” American girls are not suffering a crisis of confidence; nor are they being silenced by the culture. But when it comes to the genuine problems that do threaten our children’s prospects—their moral drift, their cognitive and scholastic deficits—the healers, social reformers, and confidence builders don’t have the answers. On the contrary, they stand in the way of genuine solutions.