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
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.