Are We Raising Good Men?
A Charlotte magazine contributor, longtime sportswriter, and mom of three young boys searches for answers in a two-part series
Already a boy mom and pregnant again with twins, I found out we were having our second and third sons in one fell swoop. The sex of “Baby A” was obvious on the ultrasound. But “Baby B” was ducking and rolling. A second doctor had to be called in, and after an extended pause and several deep breaths, we heard, “It’s a…..boy.”
Of course it was.
Well, good, I thought. Having three boys meant they could play with the same toys, wear the same clothes, maybe share similar interests. I used to be a sportswriter, so sports mom made sense. And besides, having all boys meant we could skip the middle school drama, right? Having lived through that tumultuous time with my own angst, I know it’s no small thing.
But here’s what I didn’t think about that day: Raising boys brings challenges that can go way beyond mean girls and hurt feelings. Boys are more likely to twist an automobile around a tree. They’re more likely to commit suicide. Statistics show they are more likely to lag behind girls in school.
My oldest son, Wade, is in kindergarten at Charlotte Country Day. His principal recommended a book called How to Raise a Boy by psychologist Michael Reichert that makes the case that boys’ problems aren’t just rooted in adrenaline and pent-up energy, but pent-up emotions.
Even in a culture where the roles of men are changing—my husband does most of our grocery shopping, is a better cook, and helps me put the kids to bed every night, none of which my father ever did—the traditional measures of masculinity remain the same. Succumbing to them can leave boys caught in a vortex of suppressing their feelings to live up to a “cool” exterior, or what Reichert calls the “Darwinian masculine code.”
“Too many boys lose their intimate connections and emotional voices early in their lives,” he writes. “…(They lose) touch with their sense of who they are.”
Sounds awful. At least my boys aren’t affected yet, right? They still have soft cheeks. I can plant a kiss on one any time and not care who sees me do it.
But I have to admit, gender lines are already being drawn. Wade announced proudly after completing his final year of preschool that he hadn’t cried at school all year. But then I thought, “Wait, why isn’t it OK to cry?” He was 5.
I still want my boys to be tough—or tough-minded, anyway—in addition to being empathetic and kind. So how do I encourage them to be all of those things?
I asked Bill Mulcahy, Country Day’s head of lower school, to weigh in. “These are foundational building blocks that we think will fall into place by happenstance,” he said, “and they need to be taught.”
Wade comes home talking about what to do when a friend is feeling sad, about mindfulness, and the calm-down area in their classroom. But how in touch is he with his emotions? How do I keep him connected and engaged so he can thrive, both in school and out? The key, educators like Mulcahy and Reichert say, lies in relational learning.
“When boys are relationally engaged, paid attention to, known and understood as they know and understand themselves, they will try,” Reichert writes. “…Attentive, caring relationships transform boys—especially boys struggling or in peril.”
The fact that relationships with coaches and teachers are important to children is not exactly groundbreaking. But that it’s a better predictor of academic success for boys than girls surprised even Mulcahy.
“It’s a generalization, but I think there’s some truth to it—girls build and develop relationships easier, so people think relationships are more important for girls than boys,” he said. “That’s not the case. The research shows the opposite. That surprised me because I think sometimes boys aren’t as open about the importance of relationship.”
Mulcahy is the father of two sons and the former head of lower school at an all-boys school in Connecticut. But it was his experience teaching a challenging third grade boy at a co-ed, K-9 school in Virginia that drove home the importance of relational learning.
An administrator assigned Mulcahy to a troubled student and encouraged him to reach this student by building a meaningful relationship with him.
That meant getting to know him and getting to know his parents. It meant sacrificing time that would normally have been spent planning shooting baskets at recess with a student who loved basketball.
That was 14 years ago. The boy recently graduated from the University of Virginia and works for Deloitte. He was back at his grade school for an alumni event recently and sent word through faculty there what a difference Mulcahy had made for him.
“That’s the stuff that we live for as educators,” Mulcahy says.
As parents, too.
Hearing Mulcahy’s story made me realize why it felt so good to see Wade light up the day his favorite preschool teacher showed up at his tee ball game, or why it was so nice to see him playing “rock, paper, scissors” with an assistant choir director after his first practice at church.
Raising boys is not easy. But parents don’t have to go it alone. We’re not supposed to….
…and in the case of boys? We’d better not.
CARROLL WALTON was a longtime sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and co-authored Ballplayer, the Chipper Jones biography, in 2017. Today she lives in Charlotte with her husband and three sons and continues to freelance for several media outlets.