“How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men” is written for anyone charged with raising boys, anywhere from birth to late adolescence. This includes parents, but also teachers, coaches, extended family members, mental health professionals and anyone else who interacts significantly with boys of any age. The author makes good use throughout of general conclusions from research and compelling examples from his own experience and practice.
Author Michael Reichert is a clinical practitioner and founding director of the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the father of two sons and one grandson. This book is well-written for the general public but is also thoroughly annotated with extensive notes in the back citing the relevant research used as the basis of his recommendations. On numerous occasions, he stresses the importance of acting on research-based conclusions.
Reichert begins by discussing the fairly familiar and unhealthy masculine gender-role socialization messages, such as keeping emotions locked inside and not opening up to parents. He also notes that men generally have shorter lifespans than women, and women are pulling ahead of men in both numbers and performance at all levels of education. These problems have been stated by many and are probably not new to most readers, although Reichert presents these arguments exceptionally cogently and convincingly. Most of his emphasis in the book is on what we can do to counter these toxic macho tendencies, and readers will find these suggestions quite useful.
One hopeful aspect of this message is that Reichert argues that, contrary to the totally buttoned-up macho image of boys and men, many if not most boys actually want to reach out to others and develop deep emotional connections, but they do not know how to do so. As the subtitle suggests, Reichert’s major takeaway message is that boys (from preschool to adolescence) need meaningful connections with caring adults. He makes it clear, though, that it must the the adult, whether it be parent, teacher, extended family or mental health professional, who reaches out to the boy or teen. It is very unlikely that the boy will take the initiative to connect with an adult, and adults in boys’ lives must not simply expect and wait for that to happen.
Taking that initiative to reach a troubled kid is not easy, however. Reichert is very clear that one must not be judgmental; a boy will promptly shut down if he senses an adult is not accepting him on his own terms. This is, of course, easy to say and much harder to follow in practice.
After laying out his basic argument that boys need close connections with adults, Reichert explores specific aspects of boys’ lives in several thematic chapters, including school, “brotherhood and boys’ clubs,” love/sex/affection, sports and health, violence and bullying, and digital challenges. He clearly encourages men other than parents, especially teachers, to reach out to boys who do not have the affirming connections at home. Some readers may question the way he seems to place even more responsibilities on already overworked teachers. Clearly no teacher can be that special person to all of his or her students, but Reichert encourages teachers to be alert to the occasional opportunity to make a big difference.
Some recent social changes have made the job of boys connecting with others even more difficult. In his discussion of body image, Reichert notes that, while unrealistic body image aspirations used to be a largely female problem, that is no longer the case. With boys, however, the drive is to be highly muscled rather than extremely thin. Boys are about as unlikely to sculpt their bodies into the ribbed six-pack of the cartoon and superhero males as girls are to force their bodies into a Barbie-doll figure.
This book will be useful to those raising boys and young men, whether they are parents, family members, educators, mental health professionals or other mentor figures.
Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K-State.