Thompson: Trust boys’ natural development

SAALIK KHAN | Staff Photographer
Michael Thompson, psychologist and author, addresses the audience Tuesday morning in the Amphitheather. Thompson, who specializes in children and families, spoke on this week’s theme of “Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men.”

If Michael Thompson had been told 40 years ago he would become an advocate on young boys’ development, he would have laughed. In fact, his doctoral dissertation, written in the mid-1970s, was focused on anorexia nervosa as a cultural illness and the systemic educational unfairness directed at young girls.

But when he went into consulting and saw how many depressed and angry young boys there were, he became immersed in male youth development.

His expertise was on display during the morning lecture Tuesday in the Amphitheater. Referencing the Week Two theme “Boys Will Be Boys, Then Men,” he said he is not a fan of the original phrase.

“ ‘Boys will be boys’ is not my favorite expression,” Thompson said. “Too often it’s used as an excuse for lousy behavior or gives [boys] a waiver to be entitled princes.”

His work resulted in the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys, which he co-authored with fellow psychologist Dan Kindlon.

In a twist of fate, both tragic and timely, it was published six days prior to the Columbine shooting. In the aftermath, he became the pre-eminent psychologist on rearing boys. He saw them kept out of recess, stuck in power struggles with teachers and faced with punishment after punishment for their troubles.

Raising Cain was adapted into a two-hour PBS documentary of the same name and released in late 2005. Thompson showed a clip of it during his lecture. It focused on Kevin, a young Massachusetts boy and struggling student. He was restless, occasionally disruptive and often distracted. Thanks to a caring teacher as well as supportive parents, Kevin’s grades improved over time.

But his problems are hardly isolated, Thompson said, citing that America is the most violent country in the industrialized world. Murder and rape rates are 20 to 60 times higher than those in Western Europe. Ninety percent of violent crimes are committed by young men.

“Young men are all painted with the same brush of dangerousness while forgetting the truth that 90 percent of young men do not commit a violent crime of any kind in their lifetimes,” he said.

Thompson said this disconnect comes from a fundamental misunderstanding — or even a fear of — boys and masculinity.

“There is a deep distrust of boys and male energy because of the cloud of violence that hovers above,” he said.

He remembered a second-grade teacher he met in 2005 who would not allow her male students to write stories with war or violence in them. When he asked why, she replied that she did not want one of students to grow up, become president and order the invasion of Iraq.

Ignoring the fact she was far too late for that, Thompson took umbrage not only with her inappropriate politicization of the second-grade classroom, but her treatment of her boys as already in need of “violence prevention programs.”

“Backstage, Matt [Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services for Chautauqua Institution] talked about his son’s obsession with Spider-Man,” Thompson said. “But Spider-Man’s a hero. He does good and fights for people. From the Greeks to the Romans, young boys wanted to grow up to be Hercules, to slay dragons and villains.”

There is no such thing as aggressive or violent play, as long as no one is hurt and fun is had by all, he argued.

New technologies are allowing scientists to see brain activity of men and women solving problems. What they’ve found are meaningful differences that haven’t been seen before, Thompson said.

“The brains of men and women are 90 percent the same,” he said. “But there is a 10 percent difference, and it matters.”

Among the differences, boys are 75 percent more active by age 4 than girls. Boys also comprehend language differently. Whereas women will use both right and left hemispheres, boys will more often use the right, which has trouble grasping metaphor and figurative language. And school is three-fourths language-based.

“Boys are more physical, immature and impulsive [than girls],” he said. “This should not be news to many of you.”

They also display dominant behaviors, which are sometimes misinterpreted. Thompson drew on Mark Twain to illustrate his point

“He describes the opening scene of Tom Sawyer where boys meet and challenge each other to a fight right away,” Thompson said. “And Twain said, ‘This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.’ ”

Another cause of developmental issues is fatherlessness, something Thompson said even President Barack Obama coped with. The president focused his most popular book, Dreams of My Father, on the topic.

Feminism has done good for the world, Thompson said, but the pendulum has swung across genders. In 1965, 58 percent of college graduates were men. Today, it is 58 percent of women. 

“We’ve seen a 30-year decline in male participation in school activities,” he said.

Contrary to popular belief, boys are more sensitive than girls. They cry more as infants and during breaks in attachment — such as a mother leaving the room — bring anger, not curiosity. Thompson said even the rebellious Max in Maurice Sendak’s seminal children’s book Where the Wild Things Are could not stay king of the wild things because he needed to return to his mother’s love.

Thompson noted an unintended consequence of the No Child Left Behind Act was the cutting of recess in schools, sometimes entirely. It’s no coincidence, he said, that there’s been a rise of cases of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder among boys in the years since. 

“Boys know they are going to be measured by some test, whether academic or behavioral,” he said. “And they get frustrated because they get stuck and can’t focus.”

Just because boys can be more sensitive doesn’t mean they need to talk about their feelings.

“When they become teenagers, they want to impress friends, get respect and talk sex,” Thompson said.

Mothers who want to get to know the inner life of their sons would be more effective asking how they are constructing their world.

“Start with the negative: ‘What do you hate about school?’ That always gets things going,” Thompson said.

If the test of masculinity is properly understood as gaining the respect of peers and finding their value to the world, then young men will be more emotionally adjusted.

“Give them something meaningful to do,” he said.

While society worries about gender equality, faith in boys’ natural development has dwindled.

“Boys’ development is trustworthy,” Thompson said. “But if they don’t feel trust, they withdraw and won’t listen. They want interest. Give it to them.”


Q: The latest “Mad Max” film has a very strong female lead and a feminist message to it, and online there was an outcry from groups who identify themselves as men’s rights groups in being appalled by the strong feminist message. So for me, it’s a question of how your work can work alongside strong feminist work as well?

A: I’m afraid I’m kind of a middle-of-the-road kind of guy. I’ve always experienced there being 20 percent of people on either end who are exquisitely sensitive to any slight of their gender. I don’t want to go there. What I know is this: If you come at a teenage boy with what they regard as an anti-male message, you lose them. They have to know that you respect them, first and foremost. Every college is doing date-rape training and well they might because date-rape is a problem. Entitled boys who think they can sexually exploit women, or entitled young men, are a problem, and some education needs to be done. But if you go at boys like they are all potential rapists, the first thing they are going to feel is resentment. If you tell them that they all aren’t meeting your standard of sensitivity to women, they get sullen. You know, because they’ve been hearing from girls all the way through middle school that “boys are stupid, boys are gross, boys are … Right?” Boys in school get a running commentary from the other side. It goes back and forth. You can command the self-respect and moral feelings from boys when you’re teaching about date rape, and you can talk about what confident, loving boys do. You can talk about why confident, self respecting, loving boys don’t exploit women, and why they are then loved by women. And trusted by women. These things are available, and they can be taught. I just know because I’ve been in schools for a long time, that when you start with an attack on traditional masculinity, then high school boys say “oh it’s a femi-nazi.” and they dismiss it out of hand. So you have to win boys over to the message. But they have sisters, they have mothers, they want to be loved by women, many of them. There are ways to do it without as long as you’re not assaulting them.

Q: Video games are not going to go away. How can they be leveraged educationally to have boys learn by doing, instead of listening?

A: We have to get off our devices and spend time with them. We are all a little bit addicted. The average American checks his or her phone 110 times per day. Kids see this. So we have to have outdoor experiences and not just competitive athletic ones. I camped in Green River Valley right outside Asheville, North Carolina. I camped in the Green River Reserve, which is a nature camp. They might as well said “send us your non-athletic boys.” I went to nature camp. I loved this place, but the nurse told me that they had boys age 9, 10, 11 and girls who would play a free-range game like kick the can or capture the flag, and they would come up to the nurse’s office thinking they were having an asthma attack when they were simply winded. Because town sports often has you standing in a line learning skills when you’re young and having an adult coach you. But free-range games that might run for two or three hours, we don’t have those. I’ve only seen them in summer camps, and I’m a huge fan of summer camps as a result. But I’m looking for outdoor experiences because they can be competitive. But let’s face it, even if you have six people sitting around a campfire with guitars, if somebody doesn’t know the lyrics to the song, somebody is going to pull out their cell phone. I’ve seen folk singing around the campfire with everyone reading the lyrics off their cellphones. That’s not stoppable, but we need to have compelling experiences. One thing mothers and fathers can do is ban together with people in their neighborhood and have neighborhood play. It makes you better neighbors, and it helps your children get to know one another. And gives them a safe place to play.

Q: For moms who don’t like guns, how do you handle boys who want you to buy them toy weapons.

A: I had a mother in Philadelphia tell me that she was a birthright Quaker. And that she would never ever have a toy gun in her house. I get it, she’s a birthright Quaker. She said “What do I do about my son? He chewed his toast into the shape of pistol and shot his younger brother.” I call this the Quaker mother problem, and there are a lot of Quaker mothers out there. Look, play is play. Boys know the difference between play and hurting. They have been hurt sometimes intentionally. They may have hurt somebody intentionally sometimes and were punished for it. Boys know what hurt is and they know what play is. Why would you stop them from playing what they want to play? Boys in primitive societies undoubtedly picked up sticks and made them into spears and threw them. This is a universal impulse and perhaps it comes from a biological tendency. Certainly, scientists talk about rough and tumble play as one of the distinguishing features between the genders. I was once at the Rockefeller University in New York. I don’t often go into higher education because I’m a popularizer, not a primary researcher. They paired me for a fundraising event with this lovely neuroscientist from the University of Maryland, and I showed my film clip of Kevin and all the boys wrestling at recess. That had been open recess but it had been raining so many kids didn’t want to go out and get wet. My boys did, so they were rolling around in the wet. She had her white rats in her lab. She was studying the uptake of hormones in the female and male rat brains. She had a fish tank with white rats in it and in the back she had a whole group of female rats grooming eachother and in the front she had her male rats all rolling around on top of eachother. I thought “We’re showing the same film.” So here’s the deal, do not yourself get alarmed about the fact that it’s shooting, but look at the play as consensual and whether it’s fun. I was at a little precious preschool in New York City on a roof. These private schools, they have no space so they get up to the roof and they pad it. So you could throw yourself on the ground and you would bounce. I was watching a little pre-k class and there were these two boys who were much better athletically than any of the other 4-and-a-half-year-olds in the class. One was kicking the ball and the other was in the goal defending and they would switch places but every now and again they would start to wrestle. Immediately, a teacher was there to break them up. Other boys tried to come and play soccer with them but these two boys were just so much better friends and they were athletes who were clearly well matched, but occasionally they wanted to wrestle. I watched the teacher break it up three times, and I asked “are you assigned to these boys?” She said “Oh yes, ever since the incident.” I said “Tell me about the incident.” She told me that the huskier boy sat on the smaller boy’s chest and pinned his arms to the floor. She didn’t need to tell me any more. My older brother did that to me every day of my life. He’s now a professor at the University of Illinois. So the larger boy sat on the smaller boys chest and he stayed there too long and the smaller boy got frustrated and when the larger boy leaned down, the smaller boy bit him in the face. The mother of the bitee was stricken. The mother of the biter was embarrassed and stricken. The mothers stopped speaking to each other and wanted their boys separated. They stopped inviting the other boy to their house. The little preschool negotiated a settlement where the boys could play together, if they were supervised. That was why they had a teacher assigned to them. Four-and-a-half-year-old boys can learn something from experience, and there is a lesson to be learned by the larger boy, which is don’t sit on your friend’s chest so long that he bites you in the face. This is what I mean about trusting in boy development. The idea that girls will learn from experience but boys won’t. That boys can’t. That boys are all “monkey see, monkey do,” and everything they see in a video game they are going to imitate. Is that actually true? Many of you have peaceful sons and grandsons who played first-person shooter games and it doesn’t affect the way they treat their families and their friendships. The problem is that they are sitting in one place too long alone. That gets depressing, and then you gain weight.

Q: With an increase in same-sex households and divorced single parent households without fathers or men, what do you recommend for same-sex mothers or single mothers of boys for bringing father figures into the home and family?

A: For a while, when I had a practice, I seemed to be the choice of two-women families who had a boy. These moms were always worried about their sons lacking a role model, but what’s interesting is that most of these moms did just what they should have. They got an uncle or a grandfather involved. These moms put a real effort in to get male role models in their lives and they loved these boys to pieces. I didn’t think this was an occasion for therapy but an occasion for reassuring these moms. The research has been done. Two-mom families are not a problem. A mother who hates men is a problem. Because if you are a boy and you know you are going to grow up to be a man, then you are in constant conflict. So if your mom is divorced and she has nothing good to say about your father, and your father is half of your genes, then you’re always in a bind with your mom. I tell mothers in the first chapter of my book, “It’s a Boy” to get a photograph of a man you admire and love and respect. Your father, grandfather, whoever it is, and frame it in your son’s room. When the room is a mess and you want to strangle him, when you’ve really had it and you don’t understand, look at that picture and think “that man I admire was probably like this.” It’s not a problem who raises a boy as long as they have contact with men and don’t grow up with male hating because that is destructive for boys.

Q: It makes sense that boys and girls behave differently, but when you raise both, how do you parent fairly in similar situations?

A: No one ever parents fairly. What does that mean? This was unravelled for me in a book by Phyllis Theroux. She said her kids were always saying, “That’s not fair, that’s not fair.” She said she felt so accused and at a loss. Then one day, in her annoyance she said, “OK, you’re right. From now on, I will give you all the same bedtimes and all the same Christmas presents.” And they said, “That’s not fair!” She thought, “Yes, I have discovered the secret.” Which is, you can never parent fairly. It’s just one of the weapons of childhood to exploit your mother. I couldn’t tell you in a minute what it means to be fair to one gender or another because you have to consider the child you’ve got. Teresa and I adopted children fairly late into life, and our daughter JoAnna was a three-sport varsity athlete all four seasons of high school. I never got a look from a JV coach. I have this sensational girl athlete and I have an anxious, cautious boy who liked school. He never met a teacher he didn’t like. So in my own house, I’m thinking, “I write this stuff and my own kids contradict it at every step.” And that’s the way it is with parenting, you have to figure out who you’ve got and what to do. Gender is only one of those factors. I have stories from mothers who say, “My husband really favors my son, and I don’t know what to do with his daughter.” that makes me sad because it’s really a lost opportunity for the father. Having a daughter is a real chance to experience the world the way your daughter sees it. You never want to experience it the way your wife tells you to experience it. But through the empathy you have for your daughter, you can see the world in a different way. It’s the same for sons and mothers. Through her empathy for her son, she sees the world in a different way. My friend, Polly, said when she wrote her 25 reunion blurb for Smith College, for her classmates that, “If you ever told me the best times of the week for me would be sitting down Sunday afternoons with my son and husband watching a Chicago Bears game, I wouldn’t have believed you. But it is in fact one of the best times of my week.” That is a mother who has let her son change her.

Q: What about porn?

A: What about porn? Boys are seeing porn for the first time at 11 years old on average. Half of them are seeing it for the first time before then. All of the boys I teach in sex education classes have seen porn for years. They are seeing porn weekly. They are using it as a masturbatory aid. They really like it. It’s a quick stimulation. They know exactly what it’s there for, and none of their parents have talked to them about it. Moms call me and say, “I know you are teaching sex education, but I hope you don’t talk about porn because my son has never seen it.” And I think, “Ha.” If you want the Internet to teach your son about sex and sexual values, then the Internet will. But get up your courage and talk to your sons and grandsons about porn. This is a pornified society. The biggest consumers of porn are boys ages 12 to 25. Don’t be clueless. If you want to have an impact on your sons life, then start early so you can have these conversations with him as he starts seeing this stuff as he becomes more sexual. You have to be franker than you ever thought, because what he is seeing is so frank or ugly or whatever. But you can’t hide from it.

Q: Do you see a benefit in single-gender education?

A: I’m always asked this because I’ve been the consultant for more than 20 years in an all-boys school. I have a little prepackaged talk for this. We know what makes a successful school. I work at a very good school and it’s a good school because of all the reasons that make a school good. Strong leadership, high moral in the faculty, a coherent mission, resources, small class size. Every child known, every child cared about. That formula works in any school, co-ed or single sex. So if you have a choice between a wonderful co-ed school and a mediocre single-sex school, choose this one. If you have the choice between a mediocre co-ed school and a fine, well led, well resourced high moral single sex school, choose this one. It only gets interesting when you have the choice between a fine school system and a single sex school, then you look at your child. My son, Will, would have been miserable at my own school Belmont Hill. I would rather send him to a much more arts-based, co-ed school because the culture of an all-boys school tends to be more sports oriented and that would have been a burden to my son. He went to a school where he thrived. Luckily, I had the resources to make a choice for my child. If your child is in the public school system, then become a participant and check on what the situation is for boys. I saw public schools make a special effort to get girls up and running in science and math to get girls over their phobia, to get female teachers to teach math and offer honors math in middle schools so that girls would then go on to calculus and physics and it worked. In one generation girls surpassed boys. In 1982 girls passed boys. They pulled even in 2003. There are now more girls taking calculus and precalculus than boys. But I’ve never been to a school where they got a charismatic writing teacher for seventh grade boys or do single-sex classes for seventh grade boys. It’s in middle school that boys fall into the tank and fall dramatically behind. Schools aren’t supporting this because I think they don’t want to fall behind the patriarchy. There are ways in which schools work for girls and don’t work for girls and ways that schools work for boys and don’t work for boys. We need to take that into account. We need to look at what we did that worked for girls and look at what we are doing for boys that doesn’t work and change those. Gender is in the mix and we have to address it, we have to talk about it. A school that is good for boys is a school where they are talking about what is good for boys. So lets keep that conversation going.