Bert: Why did you think
it was important to write The Wonder of Boys?
Michael: I felt that society
needed a book out there that gave an over-arching almost global
vision of what has happened to boys culturally. There are wonderful
books out there, like Raising Sons, but I felt we needed
a larger Vision .
I also wanted to get all the biological material
out to people. I wanted to help people see what our ancestors
always knew, that boys and girls are significantly different.
I felt it necessary to link some of the cultural problems we're
having today to the fact that we have neglected their biological,
and therefore their deep spiritual needs. Of course, any person's
spirituality is based in their body, their biology
A lot of my intuitions for working on this book came
from working in communities and with families, both in my private
practice and in my teaching around the Country. I was getting
a sense of what people needed.
Bert: Did you also get
a sense that there was something missing in people's approach?
One thing you seem to say in the book is that because of their
biological differences, boys need to be raised differently from
boys and girls should be raised together.
Boys and girls have the same concerns and the same self-esteem
needs, but at the same time, there are some significant differences,
Our culture has suffered because we haven't recognized this.
What girls will tend to do, when not raised correctly, is to become
depressed or anorexic. They turn on themselves. Or they'll get
pregnant early. These are cultural manifestations of not raising
girls well. Boys don 't tend as much to turn on themselves.
What they will do is turn on others. Our society fails to realize
that all that the gangs and the high crime rate are, are males
acting out the fact that they have not been raised well. We can
talk about anything else we want, but the point is that they're
not being raised well and they 're going to act out. If they
do that in late adolescence, then they're in jail. By then it
's too late. They' re going to try to get us to raise them well.
Bert: One of the responses,
if we say boy's are different, Is to say, "Well. Boy's will
be boys. That's just the way they are." You seem to be
carving out some kind of a middle course. There's a lot we can
do to train and teach boys. but first we need to recognize that
they're starting from a different place
Michael: I define myself
in the book as a "family feminist." My point of view,
to use Buddhist language, is the "Middle Path." My
middle path, for the most part,. comes from anthropological research.
When I look at American communities or other communities I've
been in, in Turkey, or India, or the Southern Ute reservation,
or Laramie, Wyoming, I see that the social systems of the communities
have always known-and we tend to forget-that boys must be trained.
The big mistake made by this culture is that we're just not training
them. What happened was that we tried to kick out the patriarchal
training, some which was dangerous. But we haven't replaced it
so the boys aren't really getting trained.
The model for the old patriarchal training was correct.
You must train boys in age appropriate ways. Now the content
within that frame might not be what we'd like. We don't have
to train every single boy to go out and kill people. But we need
to use the frame. The content within that frame might
be some of the training I mentioned earlier, like training in
sexuality, self- discipline, spirituality or morality.
They're not trained on what to do with their sexuality.
There's none of the sex education that elder males used to give
to boys. They're not trained in self-discipline or care of the
soul. These were all things that the old patriarchal community
did train boys in. Now we're in a vacuum.
I think that's my middle ground. It's the patriarchal
frame, but it's not just patriarchal. It's two million years
old. It's a pre-patriarchal, testosterone-driven frame. We can
use that frame, but change the content to fit the new millennium
Bert: I wonder if we can
bring this down to the practical level. You talk a lot about
these biological differences in the first part of the book, and
in the rest of it you tell what we should do about these differences.
Michael: We're talking
about a combination of testosterone and the male brain system,
which has been developing for over two million years. The male
brain is spatially-oriented, and makes males tend to be better
at spatial than emotional relationships. Add that to the influence
of testosterone, which causes quick physical release of tension
and higher levels of aggression. The best example is sports.
Sports are testosterone driven. They involve physical aggression.
The way we train for that is through competition. Then, we're
also going to see the boy's brain system working. Most of these
sports, like football, involve moving an object-a ball-through
space. The male brain system is going to emphasize spatial relationships
and moving objects through space. Also, everyone's working together
to move that ball. They work together as a team, and they're
being tribally nurtured. What the male brain and testosterone
need is a tribe. Unless you have a tribe, especially of elders
to guide the boys and peers to test them, the testosterone is
going to get out of hand. it's not contained. Further, the male
brain is not going to have goals to operate towards. What we're
going to have, in psychological terms, is boundary violation.
We're going to have boys who use up far more space than is appropriate
in the physical world, and who use up far more space in the interpersonal
world. By this. I mean power. People who are not containing
this, through self-discipline, are overwhelming others. This
is, in part, what women feel. Wherever I go, one of the comments
that moms will make is that their daughter can play in a little
physical space. The son need his blocks all over the living room.
If we don't help the boy contain himself within space, either
in the living room, or in a football game, or with his gun on
the street, what we're going to get is out of control boys.
But a tribal system, or a three-family system as
I talk about in my book, contains this. We can't raise boys well
unless they have a strong first family, the nuclear family it
could be a single mom, or two gay parents. It doesn't need to
be the blood mom and dad. The second family is the extended family.
This could include day-care providers and god-parents. It doesn't
have to be blood kin. The third family is the tribal family.
This includes the educational system, communities, peer-groups
and the media. The media has become a part of the boy's third
family. If we don't make sure that all three of those families
are working together to create a wonderful tribe for our boys,
then we're not respecting their testosterone and their brain system.
We're not giving them the three concentric circles of sacred
containers in which to develop themselves. The boy is going to
spill out of the container of space and go out and do things like
abuse and objectification of women, or destruction of other men.
In general, boys create aggressive social systems.
In a good society, these social systems are contained. The elders
say that this aggression is fine in this container. It allows
them to express shadow, work off energy, practice skills. But
the opportunity has to be used to say to the boy that this has
to be kept within that container.
One of the most important wisdom lessons that the
male has to learn is to differentiate between the world in which
he can express his negative shadow and be tested by his peers,
and the world where, if he expresses this shadow he will cause
harm. That's something that a female culture doesn't understand
as well as it needs to about boys. Boys are always at the edge
of causing harm to themselves or others because they're such physical
risk-takers. They need containers in which to do that safely.
One of the things that male culture has forgotten
is that males need to say, "Look, you're allowed to do that
within the container, and we'll step into that container and get
messy with you. But once you step outside that container it's
finished." Males have to learn that, and they have to start
learning that when they're really young. They need to learn how
to contain their energy so that it can develop and then explode
in healthy, appropriate ways.
Bert: I've hear some women
say that it's not good for boys to be raised by men, because men
will just teach them all those testosterone driven things. One
point in your book, that I've seen expressed elsewhere as well,
is that the opposite may be true. A male in the house would counter
the media image of a "man" as,, someone like Rambo,
by reminding him, "that's not how people act in the real
Michael: What we're talking
about, I think, is critical judgment, critical faculties. The
mom is good at giving that to the boy early on. He is mainly
in her world in the first decade of life. But when he starts
getting into the second decade of his life, that critical faculty,
the difference between TV shows and a social community, especially
has to come from the males.
We can say that there and a lot of troubled males
out there, but they've only a small minority. Most men are in
pretty darn good shape. Even if we look at domestic violence
statistics,. over 90 percent of American men have never hit their
spouse Most males are doing a good job of being males. They're
struggling, like everyone else, to find out who they are. Most
males are going to be good for the boy, in helping him develop
his critical faculties helping them distinguish fantasy from reality,
and the like.
It's the middle path again. The mom is absolutely
essential in helping the boy develop his critical faculties, and
the dad is absolutely essential. Of course, if there isn't a
mom and a dad, the feminine and the masculine are still both
absolutely essential. I wouldn't say one's better than the other.
It's a matter of timing. The mom is more essential in the first
decade of life, and the dad in the second.
Bert: One other area that
came up in your book is differences in schools. Girls are behind
in math and science, and there's been a push for programs to remedy
that. But boys are much farther behind in reading. That might
have to do with how we teach boys reading. For example, you
point out that it 's typical for boys to look quickly and look
away. This comes from millions of years of scanning the horizon.
Girls are more likely to look closely at one thing, and focus
their attention there for a longer period. You point out other
differences that affect reading. as well.
Michael: The educational
system has done a great job in the last few years of understanding
girls, but it has pretty much neglected boys. But we're starting
to wake up, and I hope my book will contribute to this. Some
stuff is hard-wired. For many, many, many generations the probability
is that males will continue to tend, on average, to do slightly
better at math because their brains are more spatial, and that
females would do better at reading. There are differences set
up in the brain systems. Little girls tend to get their verbal
and reading skills earlier than boys. Society needs to decide
what to do about this. Society has decided that we need to make
girls better at math. We're putting huge amounts of money into
that. We have to put equal amounts of funding into making boys
better at reading. One of the fallouts we're seeing with boys
in education, as I lay out in my book, is that the educational
system is better for girls than for boys We have more boys dropping
out. We have more young women in colege than young men. We have
more young women in grad school. By the time the boys become
adolescents, the girls actually have an advantage over the boys.
What I hope we're trying for is a culture where both are
equal. There are many ways to do this. Certain boys need separate
education just as some girls do. For many boys and girls, this
isn't a necessity. For those boys and girls, what we need is
different ways of teaching. Dade County, Florida is working on
ways of teaching boys. They learned that boys are learning by
memorizing. This isn't good. So they're experimenting with more
individualized work with boys.
Bert: What are the biological
causes for differences in reading, and what are the kinds of
approaches we need in reading, to reflect those biological differences.
Michael: The boy's brain
is set up to do spatial relation ships better. and to be a much
more visual brain. So it looks for images. The corpus callosum
is not as big, so there's less cross-talk between the right
and left hemispheres. Compared to a girl 's brain, fewer parts
of a boy's brain light up when he reads. What this means is that
not as much of the boy's brain is brought to the are experience.
So what does this mean for reading? Boys tend to memorize
more because they're having more difficulty. They're not taking
in as much data, and not as much of the brain is lighting up.
So in Dade County they're saying, "Let's do more one-on-one
teaching." If the boys get more time and attention in reading,
that in itself will help them. Let's take them out of competing
with girls, who are faster at it early on. Then let's look at
how they're processing the individual words when they sound them
out. What works better? Well, phonetics works pretty well with
them, so we'll do more of that and less rote reading.
Bert: How do these biological
differences affect a boy in the second decade of his life?
Michael: One of the biggest
differences is that in adolescence he's getting six or seven surges
of testosterone a day. He's sexually affected, of course. He's
having trouble because his physical body is changing at such a
fast rate. He's unclear on what his energy is doing. He needs
massive amounts of male attention. He needs men to be take him
to the workplace a lot. He needs men to take him hunting, or
whatever the family equivalent of that is. Testosterone is very
necessary for hunting. If the family doesn't hunt, they need
to come up with an equivalent to that. like backpacking and searching
out what's in the natural world.
One thing for parents, mentors and educators of adolescents
to think about is the archetype of the Hunter. That s what the
boy is becoming, a hunter. So how are they going to help him
hunt? Again, I'm being somewhat metaphorical. I don't necessarily
mean hunting in the woods with a gun.
So what does hunting require? It requires a huge
amount or self-discipline. How are we going to help him develop
that? Martial arts is a good way. Sports is a good way. Studies
show that boys who participate in sports are less likely to turn
to crime and substance abuse.
Hunting is also a very spiritual experience. The
hunter is alone quite a bit in the natural world, with a sense
of inner peace. So how are we going to get these boys to engage
themselves. and their concept of the Divine? They need a lot
of elder males teaching this, and modeling it in their own lives.
Certainly females, too. But adolescents need a lot of males
showing them what it is to be in connection with the Divine and
what the sacred and mystical world is like. All of this is what
a hunter would experience.
Hunting implies a sacred role. The boy is hunting
for the food to feed his community. So in those adolescent years
we have to be giving him a sacred role. In Chapter 10 of my book
I lay out what I think the sacred role for boys ought to be.
I call it the husbandry role. But whatever parents decide, they
must consciously give the boy a sacred role. The hunter has
a sacred role. But the 14-year-old boy who is rebelling against
his mom and dad and on drugs has no sacred role. That's part
of his problem
We also have to be teaching him what is food, and
what is not food. That's going to help him clarify his values
incredibly well. To extend the metaphor into real life, is taking
these drugs food? We're talking about food for the soul, and
for the community. Is his drinking providing food? Or is it,
in fact, going to starve the community or create a drought in
the community? The community here also means the archetypal community
outside the self and the social community. If we just keep this
hunting metaphor going we can see what we need to do for adolescents.
If we train boys to be sacred males, which takes
nurturing of the Hunter, we end up with males that are going to
feed our women physically and spiritually. They will know how
to be intimate. They're going to take care of their kids rather
than abandoning them through overwork. addiction or divorce.
The female culture is going to respect them more because they
will know who they are and making women more willing to raise
families with them. This will happen more easily if we allow
the male to be the male. For the adolescent male this means a
lot of the Hunter. The King also has to start developing.
That's what four or five years of initiation will
do. In my book I lay out six kinds of initiation that are occurring
in our society. But we're not conscious of it. We don't organize
it for the boys so they don't notice. I don't think huge things
are needed. The first thing that's needed is vision-to see the
initiations that are occurring. We need to point those out to
the boy and say "Oh look! Did you notice what just happened?"
Then the boy develops a road map The map is a wonderful concept
for the Hunter. The Hunter always had to have an internal map.
Males wander a lot and need a map. Metaphorically the boys need
an internal map of what's going on for them in the second decade
of life. initiation will do that.
Bert: I see a lot of similarity
between the themes in your book and those in Robert Bly's new
book The Sibling Society. How do you see these two books
Michael: I think Robert's
book is wonderful. We' re saving many of the same things. One
thing I tried to do in my book. As in all my other books is to
be practical. I see his book as laying out a larger world of
ideas and my book helping to make many of these ideas practical
Bert: Can you give us
Michael: Let's look at
discipline. The first practical piece of advice is that from
the start, discipline has to be systematic not, piece meal. The
parents have to have agreed on a discipline system when the child
is in the womb. The parents have to stick with it. They will
find that they will continually need to dialogue about it and
sometimes modify it but they can never undercut each other. Family
unity is essential in creating self-discipline in boys.
There are practical pieces of that. For example
boys are experientially oriented and don't spend as much of their
energy inside their brain figuring things out. They are more
physical and take up more physical space, it's really important,
then, for parents, mentors and educators to give boys physical
space. We have to have louder voices and sterner tones with boys
than with girls. In my book I list twelve techniques for healthy
I also talk in my book about teaching values. There,
I lay out the stages of a boy's moral development and tell people
to be very clear that they understand these stages. A lot of
people are trying to build moral structures in kids that the kids
are not able to construct yet. They're trying to teach abstract
reasoning to a six-year-old. The six-year-old has no clue, and
the kid gets frustrated.
Another very practical thing is the media. The media
is an important part of the boy's third family. Whether we like
it or not, the kid is bonding with people in the media. We have
to cut down our boy's intake of media. And we have to be a part
of what they take in from the media. We have to help them interpret
what they're taking in.
None of what we've said is going to create the men
we want unless boys have a sacred role. In my book I lay out
ten principles behind a sacred role. Practically speaking, every
family must decide what role it wants its boys to develop into.
It can be a very flexible role, but the boys must know it from
very early on. For example, when the boy drops a plate to the
ground, the parent shouldn't pick it up. The boy should pick
it up. The boy has to start learning very early on how
to be responsible, how to participate in the community; how to
express himself emotionally but within sacred containers.
Bert: Where would you
like to have this book take us? What's your vision for a more
Michael: My book is written
as a gift to families, educators and mentors, to bring them together
and have them see they are unified. I think The Wonder of
Boys builds the web. It shows what people are doing and how
this can all be put together. Even if you don't have kids of your
own, you're actually part of raising kids. If we all work together,
in new ways that fit our society today, we will end up developing
boys who are wonderful. That's where the title The Wonder
of Boys, comes from. I feel very positive about what people
are already doing. In all the communities I work in, I see people
working themselves to the bone to do their best.
Ultimately, if you raise good men, you raise a good
society. If you don't raise men up to be good, healthy men, society
destroys itself. The grand vision is that we're going to be raising
boys into men who are spiritually alive and emotionally vital,
who feel that they belong in the spiritual and the social realm.
With the help of the women around them, they will lead our society
into the new millennium.