Stand on the sidelines at any Saturday morning Little League baseball game and you’ll see at least a couple of boys looking as if they wished they were anywhere else. They’re the ones counting clouds in the sky, hoping the balls never come their way. Many of them are there only because a parent wanted them there.
These non-sporty boys don’t exactly align with the standard-issue, high-octane, risk-taking, heat-seeking missile of a kid many parents in this country envision when they think of having sons. I myself was the parent of a non-sporty boy, Jake—who’s now a non-sporty man. His dad and I were fine with his not liking sports, but we weren’t so sure about the rest of America. This was in the early 2000s. In the years since, there’s been a massive cultural shift in gender expectations, but even so, many parents remain wedded to more established gender roles, especially when it comes to their own kids. What’s more, in addition to being influenced by their peers’ values, elementary- and middle-school-age kids are heavily influenced by their parents’ values, and they’ll judge other kids accordingly—meaning a boy’s nonconformance with traditional measures of masculinity can quickly set him apart from the other boys on the block.
That’s exactly what happened to Jake when he was barely out of first grade. He’d spend mornings at the bus stop standing with the girls while the other boys played football. Recess was no picnic for him, either. I don’t even want to think about his phys ed classes.
As it happens, Jake has a twin brother, Austin, who’s extraordinarily athletic. In elementary school, Austin’s jaunty, athletic prowess earned him the esteem of his peers. Jake, on the other hand, loved reading and watching movies, and had trouble finding other boys like him. Seeing the impact of societal expectations on the emotional development of my sons inspired me to write a book about the psychological hurdles faced by non-sporty boys. Since then, I’ve taken a special interest when parents contact me with concerns about their child who doesn’t conform to gender expectations.
The Phone Call
Mark was one of these parents, who called me to discuss his concerns about his 11-year-old son, Cooper. “He’s always had outbursts when things don’t go his way,” he explained, “but now they’re getting worse. He talks back and screams at me, but at school, he’s a prince. Everyone loves him.” Mark paused for a second. “Also, he doesn’t really do anything that other boys his age do.”
I waited to see where he was going with this.
“Look,” he continued, sounding a bit more anxious. “I love my kid, but I know what it’s like out there for guys who are different. I hear all the jokes. I don’t think my son has ever picked up a ball in his life. Instead, he does theater. And sometimes he dresses up in girls’ clothing. Honestly, I don’t care, but I’m scared for him.”
Given his conformist sensibilities, I understood why Mark would be anxious about his son being different, but I wondered what Mark’s relationship with Cooper was like, and whether he was struggling to raise a boy who was so different from the one he’d imagined having. Lots of fathers feel more at ease with sons who meet gender expectations, playing sports being one of them. Many, in fact, consider sports a cornerstone of father–son relationships, an easy backdrop for talking and enjoying each other’s company. When a son shows little interest in this familiar bonding ritual, these fathers are left to come up with alternate templates for connecting.
Right before we finished our phone call, Mark sighed and added, “Maybe I’m too hard on Cooper. I raise my voice too much. My wife and I fight about this all the time, and I need help. We need help.”
We wrapped up with an appointment for Mark, Cooper, and Cooper’s mother, Vanessa, to come in together. Since Cooper wasn’t being bullied at school, it seemed the bigger challenges were at home. Working through family conflicts that arise when a boy doesn’t conform to gender-normative behavior is a team effort. It means enlisting the support of parents, and when one or both aren’t on board, it means attending to their beliefs and responses as well. As I soon learned, this can be delicate work, where a clinical misstep can mean the difference between seeing a boy through these conflicts and therapy ending prematurely.
The Cooper Show
In our first session, Cooper’s personality took up the whole room. He was a small boy with a big grin and a confidence that bordered on cocky. As Mark and Vanessa described the behavior challenges they faced at home, he looked at them intently, as if he were watching a movie, and smiled broadly. It was The Cooper Show.
I hadn’t expected this. Most boys who aren’t very sporty or competitive don’t show up so boldly in session, but Cooper was all too comfortable with his behavior at home—almost smug. How had this kid managed to gain such leverage? I wondered.
“Tell me what you think about the stuff your parents say happens at home,” I asked Cooper. “Does it sound on target?”
“Yeah, I guess it’s kind of true,” he replied, flippantly.
I looked around the room to find all three of them smiling. It seemed that Cooper’s cleverness and charm had trumped his parents’ better judgment, giving rise to an enormous blind spot.
I wanted to learn where Cooper showed up better in life, so I turned to Mark and Vanessa. “Where is Cooper’s heart its biggest?” I asked them. “Where is he most generous?”
“Onstage,” Vanessa responded almost immediately. “When Cooper’s in front of an audience.”
“Oh, I love that,” I responded, turning to Cooper, but before he could elaborate, I noticed Mark roll his eyes. I made a mental note to return to Mark’s apparent disdain for Cooper’s zeal for theater another time. In the meantime, I invited Cooper to meet with me privately, no parents. I wanted to hear what he thought about the conflicts at home. More importantly, I wanted to hear about the things that mattered to him. What would he bring up on his own?
I didn’t get to find out, because Cooper showed up at the next session with his mother in tow.
“Cooper was worried he wouldn’t have anything to say if he came in by himself, so he asked me to come in with him,” Vanessa explained. “Is that okay?”
“Of course,” I responded. “We can meet any way you want.”
“Cooper’s mad in his belly,” Vanessa began. “Mark will never say it, but he has a big problem with Cooper liking to dress up and put on plays. He says he supports Cooper in whatever he wants to do, but Cooper doesn’t see that, and it makes it harder for him to cooperate at home.”
We scheduled a third session, and I again invited Cooper to come in by himself, but this time he came with both parents in tow. I thought it might be Cooper’s way of saying that a larger family conversation was more important than anything he and I might discuss alone.
Vanessa and Mark chose to open this session with yet another account of Cooper’s poor behavior at home. But I wanted to distinguish between Cooper’s character and Cooper’s behavior. “Hey, Cooper,” I said, turning to him, “you seem like a decent guy. What’s up with all this conflict at home?”
“I kind of have this feeling that I shouldn’t have to do what my parents say,” Cooper began, shooting a sidelong glance at his parents to gauge their reaction.
“There’s a lot more pushback if it’s Mark who’s asking,” Vanessa said sharply.
I sat back in my chair and paused. This was a flash fire waiting to happen. “Cooper,” I offered, “last time we met, your mom mentioned that you get a lot angrier with your dad than you do with her. Tell me more.”
“Well, my dad and I have a different relationship,” Cooper said.
“What do you mean?”
“We don’t always like the same stuff,” he continued, his eyes darting between his parents and me, “so there’s nothing to talk about.”
“What does your dad like to do?”
“He likes sports. He wants me to play sports.”
I looked over at Mark, who stayed quiet. “Help us out here, Mark,” I said. “Cooper thinks you want him to play sports.”
Mark sighed. “When Cooper was little,” he said, “I did try to get him involved in sports: different ones, because none of them seemed to suit him. It became clear it wasn’t his thing, so I stopped.”
“I hear you say you stopped chasing the sports thing,” I replied, “but Cooper is speaking in the present tense. I think he’s under the impression that you still want him to play sports.”
This pressure to play sports—or at least the messaging of, C’mon kid, act like a “real” boy—was still active in Cooper’s mind, even if it wasn’t in his father’s. Cooper’s innocent use of the present tense was the perfect opportunity to bring this dynamic forward. It made it harder for Mark to dismiss the pressure he’d placed on Cooper years ago as no longer relevant.
“No, I gave that up,” Mark replied.
“Does Cooper know that?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I think my dad is disappointed in me,” Cooper offered. “I don’t think he likes the things I like.”
Vanessa shot Mark an I-told-you-so look.
“Go ahead, Vanessa, let me have it,” Mark quipped. Clearly, this was an issue with history.
Vanessa didn’t hold back. “Okay, how about the plays he puts on downstairs,” she said. “You never go down to watch, and you roll your eyes if he’s Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.”
“I go to all his school plays,” Mark blurted defensively. “I haven’t missed a single one of them, and I’m always proud of him.”
I saw Mark’s remark as his way of trying to escape accountability for his disinterest in Cooper’s plays, so I decided to respond quickly to shut down that exit, as if to say, Dude, do better.
I turned toward Mark. “That’s great, Mark, but school plays are easy. All the parents go. You kind of have to.”
Mark looked at Cooper. “Would you like me to come down when you’re doing your plays?” he asked, flatly. It seemed that Mark’s resentment toward Vanessa was affecting his ability to respond to his son in a warmer, more supportive way.
“I don’t know,” Cooper replied, looking down.
As therapists and parents, educators, and mentors, we’re positioned to help families relax old normative ideals, allowing the full bloom of masculinity to come into view in all its splendor.
“I’m pretty sure that’s a yes,” I said to Mark. “I don’t know that Cooper would ask outright for something he’s not sure he’ll get. It’s too risky.”
Not skipping a beat, Vanessa jumped in. “How about his choice of friends, Mark? Almost all of them are girls. I know it makes you uncomfortable.”
Vanessa was bringing up another great point, but I felt she was riding Mark pretty hard. I’d wanted to give Mark a breather at this point. I’m typically careful about controlling the pace and direction of a session, but I let this one get away from me. In hindsight, it might have cost me the next session.
“Look,” Mark began, “I know what guys are like. I just worry. I think middle school is going to be brutal for him. I’m just thinking that if he had just a couple guy friends, then it might be easier for him, that’s all.”
“I’m not worried about middle school,” Cooper chimed in. “I really don’t care.” I believed him.
“I don’t know,” Mark said, his voice trailing off.
“You don’t know what?” I asked him. It might’ve been just a throwaway remark, but it was dismissive of Cooper’s comment. “Mark, you’re telling Cooper that he should disguise his true self and masquerade as a different kid for the sake of staying under the bully radar. I get that you want to protect him, but how would that even work?”
“I don’t know,” Mark said again.
“Your son gravitates naturally to girls for friendship,” I continued, “and they respond in kind. The idea of Cooper trying to manufacture friendships to avoid being teased is exactly the thing that could get him teased! Plus, what message are you sending to him? Cooper doesn’t need boys around to protect him. What he needs is the validation and support of his parents. That’s how he’ll get through middle school.”
I looked over at Cooper and smiled. “Besides, your kid is such a smart-ass, he’ll shut down anyone who messes with him.”
For the first time in a while, Cooper smiled broadly.
Before ending the session, I turned to Mark and Vanessa. “Don’t lose sight of the fact that you both want the same thing for Cooper. But in your argument over who has the ‘better’ way of helping him get there, you’re going further and further into a standoff. Let me help you each support Cooper, but from the same side of the fence.” I invited Vanessa and Mark to come in by themselves, and they agreed to do so. But in a follow-up email, they cited scheduling problems, and didn’t return.
I can think of several possible reasons why this happened. One, Mark got hit pretty hard, and there wasn’t a counterbalancing conversation about Vanessa’s role in their conflict, about how her protectiveness of Cooper supported the narrative that Mark was unilaterally the problem. Second, Mark initiated the therapy ostensibly because of Cooper’s behavior at home. Concerns about Cooper’s nonnormative leanings and the conflict between him and Vanessa were presented as important, but secondary, concerns. Third, our focus quickly shifted from Cooper’s “bad” behavior to Mark’s, and I don’t think I joined with Mark enough so that he didn’t feel marginalized.
I’d have liked to have controlled the session better by interrupting Vanessa’s bombardments and finding ways to feature Mark’s huffy demeanor as a function of his wish to protect Cooper from what he was witnessing every day as an unwitting member of the old boys’ club.
For centuries, parents have been the primary artisans shaping the way their children think about gender and gender roles. They’ve served as the filters through which their sons and daughters absorb society’s messages. Some of that is beginning to change, as young people move forward boldly and bravely with new, more flexible frameworks for thinking about such things.
But older generations are the last to change, and that means that, in the meantime, many children will be subjected to rigid, binary thinking patterns of the past. That’s where we therapists can play an important role in facilitating the harder conversations that families like Cooper’s don’t know how to have—or don’t even know they need to have.
Despite cultural taboos and parental condemnation, kids almost always reveal their authentic selves over time, but some show the world who they are earlier than others. True to form, my son Jake became an outstanding middle-school English teacher, his respect for stories and books both compelling and contagious. Austin, his twin, went on to excel at baseball and ended up getting drafted to play with the San Francisco Giants.
There are a million and one ways to be a boy, and then a man, each one as honorable as the other. Our sons need the collective and affirming voice of adults who value their nonphysical skills and emotional sensibilities as much as they do their physical ones. As therapists and parents, educators, and mentors, we’re positioned to help families relax old normative ideals, allowing the full bloom of masculinity to come into view in all its splendor.
By David Treadway
I really appreciated Janet Edgette’s tough self-assessment of where she might’ve been off base in her work with Cooper and his family. We can always learn from our mistakes, but we have to be aware enough—and brave enough—to see them. Clearly, Edgette possesses this insight. She acknowledges that since Cooper was the focus of therapy from the beginning, and since his behavior at home was the presenting problem, she moved too quickly to challenge the father, Mark, in such a direct manner, essentially siding with the mother, Vanessa. After that fateful session, Mark probably heard more criticism from Vanessa on the car ride home.
From Edgette’s reflection, it sounds like she might’ve sided with Vanessa inadvertently. We’ve all made this mistake. When I’m out of alignment with a client, as Edgette was with Mark, it’s usually due to my own reactivity. Sometimes our most challenging cases are those in which an issue a client is dealing with mirrors one we’re dealing with ourselves. Edgette writes about having raised a non-sporty son, and it makes sense that her views might naturally align more with Cooper’s and Vanessa’s. It explains why she might’ve seen Mark as the real problem.
As Edgette writes, in order to have coached Mark well, she’d have needed to join with him better and show more appreciation of his concerns for his son. Even more importantly, she’d have needed to challenge Vanessa’s shaming and blaming of Mark.
As an experienced and capable clinician, I’m sure Edgette is well aware that countertransference is always at play in our work. I don’t judge it critically. It’s a normal, albeit tender, occupational hazard. Since she’s already demonstrated bravery in sharing her experience with us, I’ll bet she’s considered how the overlaps between her story and that of Cooper’s family might have unconsciously impacted her response.
Although Mark never overtly states it, he’s likely wondering if Cooper’s lack of male friends and attachment to playing roles like Dorothy may indicate something about his son’s gender identity or sexual orientation. Of course, boys’ interests in playing dress-up don’t necessarily imply anything about gender and sexual identity, but there’s always a possibility that these interests may be an expression of such. And as Edgette clearly understood in her analysis of the work, the whole family might’ve benefited from more time to embrace all the possibilities that Cooper’s future might hold.
I loved Edgette’s statement that “there are a million and one ways to be a boy, and then a man,” but let’s not forget that the same is true for all gender and gender-fluid expressions.
I really want to thank Edgette for her courage and honesty. She’s my kind of therapist!
ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY WERN COMPORT
Janet Sasson Edgette
Janet Sasson Edgette, PsyD, is the author of Adolescent Therapy That Really Works, Stop Negotiating with Your Teen, and The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don‘t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood.
David Treadway, PhD, is a therapist and trainer of 40 years. His latest book is Treating Couples Well: A Practical Guide to Collaborative Couple Therapy. He’s also the author of Home Before Dark: A Family Portrait of Cancer and three other books.