Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys

Two leading child psychologists share what they have learned in more than 35 years of experience working with boys and their families.

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Karsen: From the Parents Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional life of Boys. Written by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson.

In this New York Times’ Bestseller, two of the country’s leading child psychologists share what they have learned in more than 35 years of combined experience working with boys and their families.

Karsen: Vincent Phamvan on the key takeaways [pause] and what you need to know.


Karsen: Vincent, the authors reveal a nation of boys who are hurting. Often sad, afraid, angry, and silent. What do boys need that they aren’t getting?

Vincent: You’ve probably heard the saying that “boys will be boys.” This implies and reinforces that boys will always be troublesome, whether they’re in school or fighting with others. The authors say this is problematic because it makes parents think that there’s no cause for concern.

That leads to a society where we groom boys into men, with all the problems that come from the process.

Karsen: Is any of this related to society’s image of masculinity?

Vincent: The authors say yes. Boys are raised with this image of masculinity where “real men don’t cry.” There are theories that women prefer men who are strong and silent over a man who shows emotion.

This creates a perception that the ideal man is tough, violent, and emotionally detached.

Karsen: That makes me think about the heroes in movies, like John Wayne and James Dean. Even in video games that boys play like Grand Theft Auto, the protagonist is often cold and fixes his problems with a gun.

Vincent: Yes, that’s true. Many parents try to protect their children from these types of images, but that can be hard because it’s everywhere. Even in TV commercials, this image of the typical male stereotype is present. It’s a man who drives fast cars, drinks whiskey, and objectifies women.

Boys grow up trying to live up to the ideal man image, who proudly binge drinks, gets into fights, and has casual sex.

Karsen: What does the research show in this area?

Vincent: There was a 1995 survey of adolescent males between the ages of 15 and 19 who were interviewed about their behavior. They were asked questions about whether they agree or disagree with statements about masculinity. For example, one of the questions was “A guy loses respect when he talks about his problems.”

Then, in other questions, they were asked about their behavior with sex and drugs. The results showed that the more a boy agreed with the stereotypical ideas about masculinity, the more likely he was to take drugs or coerce someone else into having unprotected sex.

Karsen: So a boy’s perception and thoughts about masculinity do translate into how they behave.

Vincent: The research definitely supports that. The other thing I thought was interesting was the rate at which boys develop certain skills is later than girls, which could cause them to underperform in school.

Karsen: Could that lead to boys acting out in school?

Vincent: The authors say that if you watch school teachers reading to a class of young children, you’ll often see the girls quietly paying attention while the boys get more restless and goof around with each other.

The primary reason that boys misbehave in elementary school is that they mature at a later age than girls. Psychologist Diane Halpern says this is due to biological differences with the synapses that connect our neurons. They develop at a faster rate in girls than in boys.

Karsen: And this leads to girls, on average, performing better in school?

Vincent: That’s correct. That’s why girls are quicker to pick up skills like reading, counting, and identifying objects and colors.

Some researchers have actually suggested that a potential solution would be to rearrange classes so that eight-year-old boys are taught together with six-year-old girls, so that the children are at the same developmental level.

Karsen: Are there other skills that boys are slow to develop?

Vincent: Impulse control is one of them, which can lead to problems acting out in school, struggling to stay seated, or hyperactivity. One study in Tennessee, showed that four percent of all boys showed symptoms of hyperactivity, compared to just one percent of girls.

Karsen: What are ways to solve this?

Vincent: Many montessori kindergartens have created an exercise corner for children to jump rope or do jumping jacks. This helps burn off excess energy, which reduces disruptions in the classroom.

Karsen: What causes boys to shut down emotionally?

Vincent: The authors are psychotherapists who work with adolescent boys, and they say that many times, it’s because bullying is so common in the school environment.

They shared two stories, one from an unpopular boy, who’s classmates purposefully forgot his name when they sang happy birthday, and they gave him a cake that was actually a block of ice covered in frosting.

The other examples were in the school locker room, where bullies would pee on another boy’s clothes or in his shampoo bottle. This causes some boys to avoid using the bathroom because they’re afraid of being pushed into a urinal.

Karsen: Wow, I could see how that might cause a boy to live their life in fear.

Vincent: Yes, which would lead to a life of being emotionally guarded. If you’re living in fear, you know how vulnerable you are. One embarrassing incident or display of emotion could cause them to become less popular. So the resulting behavior is that it’s better to be the perpetrator than the victim of this hostile environment.

Karsen: Are there ways to change this perception? What if a boy has an emotionally involved father?

Vincent: That definitely helps. Traditionally, children are raised by their mother. Even in a lot of psychological research, the studies mainly focus on the mother-child relationship.

Then in 1998, the New York Times pointed out this discrepancy and so research started appearing on father-child relationships.

Karsen: And what did that research show about the father-child relationships?

Vincent: It showed that a father’s role is important in the family. Boys who had fathers that played an active role in their lives performed better in school, were more psychologically stable, and generally had better jobs later in life.

Karsen: How did the researchers gauge success later in life?

Vincent: That’s a great question. They looked at how much money the men earned when they were 27 years old. What they found is that the most significant determining factor was how often their fathers had attended school parent-teacher meetings.

When an involved father is involved in their child’s development, it has a big impact, especially for young boys.

There was also a 1998 study from the University of North Carolina that found that when a father is emotionally involved, the risk of his children committing acts of delinquency or vandalism is significantly reduced.

The same study showed that involved fathers tend to give special attention to their sons, which can be really important for the emotional well-being of young men. Boys can be slow to mature, so fathers can be important role models, especially in showing how to develop empathy and establish healthy relationships with women.

Karsen: It sounds like the best way to show boys how to respect women is by having a father who also models this behavior. What about the role that mothers play in raising their boys?

Vincent: The authors noted that physical contact between mothers and sons can be awkward, but that the boys actually need this. There was one story in the book about a patient who was concerned that her thirteen-year-old son was still climbing into her bed to cuddle.

Karsen: It sounds like mothers can fall victim to the masculine stereotype as well by fearing that giving too much physical comfort will make the boys overly sensitive.

Vincent: That’s right, and the child psychologists found that a nurturing touch is important to the children’s development. And Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist, said that it continues to be important as they grow into young men.

It has other benefits too, like reducing stress. Some boys as they grow into adolescence can be embarrassed by public hugs when getting dropped off at school. For example, Hope was a mother whose son Aaron stopped leaning in for a hug when dropped off. Instead, they just smiled and waved goodbye.

But then Aaron really missed the nurturing contact and so did his mom. So Aaron came home and asked his mom for a hug after school. This way, he could get comforting and a de-stressing hug, but in a different way. This ended up making both of them really happy.

Karsen: For teenage boys, you often think of boys who may hide in their room playing video games, instead of socializing. Why is this?

Vincent: The authors say that young boys often find it hard to communicate or come to terms with their own emotions. So instead, they shut down and isolate.

Karsen: Oh wow, can parents help with this?

Vincent: Well, one example was a boy named Martin, who didn’t get much emotional support from his parents. His father was hyper critical and never happy. And Martin’s mom was emotionally distant and preferred to spend time with his sisters. At school, Martin didn’t have any close friends.

This led to Martin often seeking solitude in his room, where he’d sit by the window and stare out at the rest of the world. The authors say that boys who have emotional difficulties like this need help from their family to properly address them before they get worse.

Karsen: And we talked about before, asking for help could be perceived as a sign of weakness since young boys are often embarrassed to talk about their emotions.

Vincent: Yes, so this makes it even more important for parents to recognize the signs of unhealthy symptoms so that they can help.

The stereotypical image of the depressed and withdrawn boy or teenager is so common, that some people just see it as a normal phase of growing up.

Karsen: If parents notice that their son retreats to isolation from his friends and spends a lot of time stuck in a gloomy mood, then they should seek help potentially from therapy?

Vincent: That’s exactly the suggestion. The misconception is that boys are strong, resilient, and can get through anything. However, the statistics show that boys are at great risk. While more girls attempt suicide, boys account for more casulties.

In a 1997 review of American National Health Statistics, there were 1,890 suicides by people between the ages of 15 and 19, and 1,625 of these fatalities were from boys. So boys accounted for 86% of the fatalities.

The same held true for younger boys aged 10 to 14 where 77% of the suicides were boys.

Karsen: Those statistics are really concerning, so what can parents do to identify distress signals?

Vincent: The biggest thing the authors note is that it’s important to take distress signals seriously because boys tend to be ignored when they do call out for help.

For example, the authors shared the unfortunate story about Keith, where one of the authors was a counselor at his school. Keith shared a note with others in his class that he was going to jump from a bridge that afternoon.

When the author talked to Keith, he denied that he was going to jump off a bridge, but the author insisted on informing his parents. The parents reacted by saying it was just a joke and they didn’t even bother to come to the school. Even when they did show up, they refused to see the note as a call for help.

Karsen: That’s really unfortunately, what ended up happening?

Vincent: Well, the story gets worse. Keith was moved to a different school, where he eventually did commit suicide.

Karsen: So by the time his parents knew that he was serious, it was too late. What are the other consequences of having emotional problems?

Vincent: Another impact for young boys or even young adults have when it’s hard for them to process emotions is it gets in the way of having healthy relationships with women.

When they get hurt in relationships, they can end up leaving their emotions unprocessed. This results in continuing to strain  their future relationships, and out of fear of getting hurt, they often only engage in casual sex.

Karsen: Does this change over time?

Vincent: The authors say that men tend to mature and learn how to deal with their emotions when they reach their thirties. One example in the book was with Geoff, who spent his youth as a notorious womanizer. He would only talk to women as a way to get them into bed. If he developed any serious feelings, he would withdraw or push her away by offending her or ghosting her.

Luckily, this attitude changes when they hit their thirties. Geoff ended up turning out okay, as a loving husband and emotionally available father.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that men are not selfish, emotionless humans, even though the stereotypes often portray them this way. Boys often grow up in hostile environments where classmates and bullies attack them when they show any sign of emotion or weakness. This gives them the tendency to hide their feelings and emotionally or physically cut themselves off from the world. By allowing boys to have an internal emotional life, they will be able to build better relationships and reach higher levels of success at work later in life.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki. See you next time.


In Raising Cain, Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., and Michael Thompson, Ph.D., two of the country’s leading child psychologists, share what they have learned in more than thirty-five years of combined experience working with boys and their families. They reveal a nation of boys who are hurting–sad, afraid, angry, and silent. Kindlon and Thompson set out to answer this basic, crucial question: What do boys need that they’re not getting? They illuminate the forces that threaten our boys, teaching them to believe that “cool” equals macho strength and stoicism. Cutting through outdated theories of “mother blame,” “boy biology,” and “testosterone,” the authors shed light on the destructive emotional training our boys receive–the emotional miseducation of boys.

Kindlon and Thompson make a compelling case that emotional literacy is the most valuable gift we can offer our sons, urging parents to recognize the price boys pay when we hold them to an impossible standard of manhood. They identify the social and emotional challenges that boys encounter in school and show how parents can help boys cultivate emotional awareness and empathy–giving them the vital connections and support they need to navigate the social pressures of youth.

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