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Real Boys:

Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood

by William Pollack, Ph.D.
Review © 1999 by J. Steven Svoboda


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Harvard clinical psychologist William Pollack cares about boys. His substantial and well-documented book, Real Boys, presents persuasive arguments for refusing to buy into what he calls the "boy code," the conditioning which induces us to be tougher on boys than we are on girls. We learn that we need not worry about lavishing "too much" love on our male children; the author shows us that it is a myth that doing so will lead to their growing up to be less masculine than we might desire.

Presenting us with numerous real-life examples typifying the struggles, triumphs, challenges and paradoxes of pre-adolescent and adolescent males, Pollack stresses that it is impossible to give too much love to any child. Boys who run into trouble will much more typically suffer instead from a lack of a male role model or from having been left to chart their own emotional waters at too young an age. Fathers can retain their unique parenting abilities while still being nurturing and staying attached, as the author strongly urges fathers to do. Be sure to split the role of disciplinarian with your partner, he counsels.

The book is peppered with numerous practical hints as to how to implement the overarching principle of loving our boys and supporting them up to any limits they may choose to set. It also includes a wealth of individual stories of real boys and their struggles. Some stories are deeply moving, others just as profoundly disturbing.

Chapter four contains an invaluable discussion of "action love," boys' preference for side-by-side connection during shared activity rather than the more typically female model of talk-oriented face- to-face intimacy. (If we do not appreciate the different male style of relationship, we may miss how critical friendships are to most boys or may even neglect to notice an important connection.) Chapter six delves into numerous examples and specifics as to how fathers may create empathic and fully masculine bonds with their sons. Pollack is not afraid to remind us that neither gender model is better; they are simply different. Typically fathers' play teaches children to handle intensity and to tolerate a wide range of situations while interacting with a caregiver.

The author does not shrink from challenging the still common perception that it is girls who are treated worse by the school system. Moreover, he continues, the very structure of most coeducational schools favors girls. Boys' esteem, he shows us, is clearly more at risk than girls', and the problem is polarized much more strongly along lines of gender than race. He summarizes the major ways in which our schools are failing our boys, including: 1) schools' poor performance at noticing the problems many boys are having in certain subjects; 2) their poor performance in handling boys' social and emotional needs; 3) schools are often not warm or friendly toward boys; and 4) the rarity of curricula and teaching methods designed to meet boys' specific needs and interests. The author shows us examples of teachers successful in turning around this woeful situation. Tailored education can work wonders.

We learn that depression is common in boys and we gain some valuable tips on performing the often difficult task of detecting something that many boys will do anything to hide. Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that the diagnostic criteria were originally developed for use with adult women, who have dramatically different issues and symptoms than do adolescent boys. In boys, even violence can often be a silent cry for reconnection.

I did not find this to be a perfect book. It is perhaps overlong. More importantly, in a generally well-documented book, Pollack shrinks in several places from providing relevant data or reaching fairly straightforward conclusions which might have run the risk of displeasing feminists. In a discussion of the importance of "family" in protecting adolescent boys from harm, he fails to analyze the dramatic evidence (some of which he himself generated) of the particular need boys have for a father. Instead, he mouths some unconvincing platitudes strongly implying that single mothers can raise boys on their own as effectively as can an intact family.

Real Boys also suffers from a puzzling, even disturbing lack of political and social context. A detailed, forthright discussion of how we got to where we are today regarding boys is absent from an otherwise exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) book. The need for affirmative action for male teachers also seems a topic which ought to be fully addressed in a book which frequently alludes to the mostly female makeup of school teaching staffs.

But on the whole, Real Boys is profoundly worthwhile, even invaluable. The lists of practical tips alone are worth the price of admission. One example: What can parents and families do to build strong relationships with their adolescent sons? Among other things: 1) Discuss the complexities of adolescence honestly; 2) make regular "dates" with your son; 3) don't wait to talk to him about sex, drugs, or other tricky topics; and 4) show that you understand the "adolescent crucible."

Over and over again Pollack reminds us that simply listening to your sons with love and without judgment can make a critical difference as they struggle with the complexities of growing up and becoming young men in our perilous society. And, most importantly of all, we support them by giving them the gift of bountiful love in a form they can accept and even cherish. This simple truth may be this book's most valuable lesson.

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