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The Wonder of Boys

An interview with Michael Gurian

Copyright © 1996 by Bert H. Hoff

This story appeared in the October, 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

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Michael Gurian's book The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors and Educators Can Do to Shape Boys into Exceptional Men has turned into a best-seller. Order on-line or Audio Cassette Michael is the author of four other books.

Michael Gurian
Michael Gurian

The Wonder of Boys
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Michael Gurian, Boys and Girls Learn Differently!: A Guide for Teachers and Parents
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The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men
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A Fine Young Man: What Parents, Mentors, and Educators Can Do to Shape Adolescent Boys in Exceptional Men
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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 girls.

Michael: Absolutely 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 world."

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 fitting together?

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 for people

Bert: Can you give us an example?

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 discipline.

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 perfect world?

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.

MP3 WebCasts of Michael Gurian reading the introduction and Chapter 1 of The Wonder of Boys.


Book cover
The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men ,
by Michael Gurian
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Michael Gurian, The Wonder of Boys: What Parents, Mentors and Educators Can Do to Shape Boys into Exceptional Men.
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