At the front of the classroom filled with two dozen rambunctious middle school boys, Niobe Way calmly waited for order to descend. The boys fidgeted in their seats, kicked each other under desks, and kept cracking each other up with whispered banter. It was only the second time she’d met with these students from George Jackson Academy in the Lower East Side, but for Way, this was familiar territory. A psychology professor at New York University, she’d spent more than 20 years researching boys just like the ones sitting in front of her. So it came as no surprise to her when the handout she’d given them—detailing an emotional conversation between two older teenage boys on the topic of love—generated snickers from the room. “I’m curious,” she asked. “Why the laughter?”
After a brief silence, one of the boys piped up. “They sound like losers,” he replied. “They’re talking like girls,” another chimed in. “Boys don’t talk like that.”
“Well,” Way countered, “that’s actually what teenage boys talk like, especially when they’re older. They’re sharing honest feelings with each other. It came from an actual conversation.”
“For real?” the first boy asked.
“For real,” Way replied. And just like that, she knew she’d made a small, but hopefully significant, crack in their armor.
Way’s work at George Jackson, which began last September, is part of a three-year program she’s spearheading called The Listening Project, being held at seven middle schools throughout New York. The goal: to counter male stereotypes by having young boys learn interviewing skills— such as asking thought-provoking questions, listening to responses, and building relationships—that will, Way hopes, make them more empathic, inquisitive, trusting, and expressive.
So far, it seems to be working. In one exercise, Way even had the boys interview her, asking what-ever unfiltered questions they could come up with: Do you still love your ex-husband? Does he still love you? What does that love look like? Soon, nearly all the boys were waving their hands with questions at the ready.
Others struck up unusually direct conversations with each other about how to make friends, reconnect with old ones, and have “real talks” with a parent. A few days later, the boy who’d initially spoken up came to Way during a break. “Ever since our classes, I’ve been asking my friends totally different questions,” he told her. “We used to just talk about sports. Now I want to know what they’re curious about. What are they scared of? What do they love?”
According to Way, whether boys ever get in the habit of asking each other questions like these is a matter of the clash between nature and nurture. “Boys are just like girls,” she explains. “They both want relationships and connection, and are both born with a wide range of emotional skills to read the world.” But by early adolescence, “boys start to enter a culture that says they have to choose between true connection and falling in line with how society says they should behave.” The Listening Project allows them to act on their natural capacity to engage on a deeper emotional level with one another. “I see possibility here,” Way continues. “If we don’t create a space for them to shed their tough-guy persona, it just gets perpetuated.”
The cultural forces Way is pushing back against—patriarchy, toxic masculinity, traditional gender roles, bullying—are certainly nothing new. But movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp are shining a spotlight on their negative effects, not just for women, but for boys and the men they’ll become. A 2016 New York Times piece, “Teaching Men to Be Emotionally Honest,” links tough-guy stereotypes to men’s falling behind women in college and having a higher suicide rate, nearly four times that of women. A National Institute of Mental Health report, also released that year, claims that men are less likely than women to seek mental health treatment, in part because it doesn’t fit within common notions of masculinity.
The past 50 years have redefined what it means to be female in America, argues writer and comedian Michael Ian Black in “The Boys Are Not All Right,” a piece that appeared in The New York Times earlier this year, but boys have been left behind. “No commensurate movement has emerged to help them navigate toward a full expression of their gender. Too many boys are trapped in the same suffocating, outdated model of masculinity,” he writes. “To even admit our terror is to be reduced, because we don’t have a model of masculinity that allows for fear or grief or tenderness or the day-to-day sadness that sometimes overtakes us all.”
Expanding the limited definition of masculinity is prime territory for therapists. But when running up against entrenched social mores, how can we bring about change? “The solution isn’t teaching boys relational skills,” says Way. “It’s nurturing those skills, because they already have them. Once they’ve understood that it’s normal to have feelings, then they’ll talk about them.”
Marriage and family therapist Scott Sells, founder of the Parenting with Love and Limits organization in Savannah, Georgia, has been doing this with young men for more than a decade. His focus, however, is on the multigenerational aspect—the way fathers and grandfathers often place disproportionate value on physical strength, stoicism, and keeping emotions in check. “In graduate school, we’re not taught how to bring families into therapy, he says, and by relying on a single-patient model of treatment, we’re missing the boat. Bringing fathers into therapy to model expressive behavior and help sons broaden their emotional palette—what Salvador Minuchin used to call “expanding the symptom,” Sells adds—may be uncommon, but it works.
Sells recently used such an approach with 14-year-old Michael and his father, Darren. Working long hours as a truck driver had made spending time with the family difficult for Darren, ultimately leading Michael’s mother to file for divorce. After the separation, Michael drew inward. When his mother or sister would try to talk with him about the divorce, he’d become angry and aggressive. After a few sessions together, Michael told Sells that he often felt confused and abandoned, but found it hard to talk about his feelings. A few sessions later, Sells held a joint session with Michael and Darren, in which he learned that Darren’s own father had been a workaholic himself and, like Darren, was seldom around to model emotional behavior beyond the aggression and stoicism learned from male peers.
To help fathers like Darren expand their sons’ notions of masculinity, Sells coaches them in “emotional warm-ups,” as he calls them. Too many fathers keep an eye out for their boys’ shortcomings, Sells says. Instead, he recommends fathers draw attention to their sons’ accomplishments, not just the ones that meet society’s “masculine” standards. One creative way they can do this is by making a certificate that says they’re proud of their son for expressing himself or showing kindness—for admitting when they’re fearful or worried, for instance, or for reaching out to a lonely classmate.
Don’t be afraid to get playful, Sells tells the fathers. Sneak the certificate into your son’s cereal box, or playfully write a message on a foggy bathroom mirror. For many of his young clients, Sells adds, this marks the first time they’ll have seen their fathers being emotionally expressive. “That tiny step can make all the difference in helping boys find their own emotional language.” But don’t be surprised if you encounter a few bumps along the way, Sells says. Your son may tear up the certificate, or tense up when you hug them for the first time. This is perfectly normal, he assures the fathers. “If your young son isn’t used to this kind of behavior from you, his hug muscles are going to be out of practice. Yours will be too.” To prepare them for this, Sells and the fathers will role-play these scenarios in his office.
Psychologist Janet Sasson Edgette takes a multipronged approach in broadening boys’ experience of their masculinity. With two twin sons in their mid-20s—one athletic and social, the other less coordinated and more introspective—she’s been witness to “a living lab,” as she calls it, watching the developmental landscape of boys unfold before her eyes. Her more athletic son was easily accepted by male peers; the other was a victim of bullying and spent more time with female classmates, with whom he felt more at ease. After all, this is an America for the masculine man, Edgette writes in her book The Last Boys Picked, “home of the Marlboro Man and seven-figure pro athlete salaries, where it is assumed that being faster, stronger, louder, or mightier is always going to be better.”
Of prime importance, she says, is addressing the common male experience of not feeling truly known and understood, which can quickly morph into resentment, bitterness, and anger. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with boys who nodded their heads when I asked them if they felt invisible at home, or if they felt nobody really knows who they are,” Edgette says. As part of exploring their value systems and acknowledging them, Edgette likes to ask a set of questions: Is there anybody you feel really gets you? Why do you think that is? What happens when someone gets you? Don’t be alarmed, she says, if your client doesn’t respond right away. “You’ve got an entire gender that’s unskilled in using the language of emotional expression,” she explains. But as a therapist, she’s putting these topics on the table so she and her client can return to them whenever there’s an opening.
Like Sells, Edgette underscores the importance of parents or guardians in cultivating emotional fluency. She’ll ask parents how they expose their sons to experiences that allow them to find a passion and express themselves emotionally. “Too many parents tell me, ‘Well, we tried basketball and he didn’t like it. We tried soccer and hockey and lacrosse—he didn’t like those either. We’ve tried everything.’” Not only are those all sports, Edgette clarifies, but they’re all mainstream. “You didn’t try everything,” Edgette will reply. “What about archery? Go-karting? Falconry? Or, take your kid into the city. Take him to a museum. Tell him the person who finds the most exotic place to eat for lunch wins a prize.” This is the first step, Edgette says, in expanding a boy’s world beyond the physical, aggressive, and competitive one they’re most familiar with.
There’s already evidence that younger generations of men are taking an expanded concept of masculinity to heart. In May 2016, international survey firm YouGov published a report titled “The Decline of the Manly Man,” in which 1,000 American men were surveyed on whether they considered themselves more “masculine” or “feminine.” Less than one-third of men in the 18-to-29 age group reported feeling “completely masculine,” compared to 65 percent of those over age 65. Thirteen percent of those in the under-30 age group identified halfway between “masculine” and “feminine,” and 12 percent identified as “slightly feminine.”
Slowly, says sociologist and author Michael Kimmel, who’s studied gender for more than 30 years, we’re seeing men do away with the old conceptions of masculinity common in his grandfather’s lifetime. “Men are also saying ‘Wait, we have children, partners, aging parents, and we’re loving and kind and nurturing to them, and that’s also part of being human,” he noted in a 2015 interview with Esquire. Today, he adds, “Men are beginning to embrace their full humanity, but adding to it the half that we have denied ourselves for so long. This isn’t some feminist cabal of women saying they need to change men. This is men saying, ‘Look at me with my kids, I’m awesome.’”
In the meantime, every therapist and adult with a young man in their lives can do their part, Edgette says. When her twin boys were young, she used to point at the moon. “Look at that! It’s beautiful,” she’d exclaim. They’d usually roll their eyes, she says, but she knows her modeling opened up a space for them to be truly expressive and passionate, to find awe and connection. “When I hear about a young male client reaching out to someone in need, I’m genuinely moved, and I’ll tell them that,” she says. “This is the way we’re going to open new horizons for boys. By saying, ‘Yeah, he’s not so fast on the field, but you put him in a group of people, and he’s going to make friends with each and every one of them. That’s a real man!’”
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