There’s a way to raise a son who understands the nuances of intimacy. And it can come down to recognizing, when he’s young, that he may need more connection with you than you think.
Reichert, founder of the research collaborative Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives, has roots in the region. He’s worked as a psychologist for more than three decades at the Haverford School, an all-boys’ private school on the Main Line and, before that, at Mother of Divine Grace School in Philadelphia.
The Inquirer spoke with Reichert about the #MeToo movement, recent allegations of inappropriate behavior with women surrounding former Vice President Joe Biden, plus how parents can use “the power of attachment” to raise boys who aren’t constricted by the stereotypes so often associated with masculinity. In the book, Reichert instructs on how to:
Below is our conversation, which was edited for brevity and clarity:
I wanted to summarize the whole body of more recent research, particularly from interpersonal neuroscience, which is a relatively new field that says human beings are wired to connect, and if we overlook that or ignore that, usually bad outcomes result.
A lot of the bad outcomes we see with boys, both in terms of behavior and risk-taking and even sexual harassment and assault, can be traced to what we might call “ruptured attachment” and the fact that the folks that are in the position to build relationships with them are influenced by stereotypes of boys as non-relational.
Too many parents [emotionally] let them go and forget to keep them close. That’s even more true as boys get older and enter adolescence.
The key is that the relationship exists for the sake of the boy and it’s for the boy to initiate in the relationship. What helicopter parents or snowplow parents are doing is they’re essentially acting out of their own anxiety and projecting onto the child what they believe the child feels and needs.
That kind of over-dependency happens at the parent end, not the child end. In a parent-child relationship, if the parent recognizes that relationship is for the child and it’s not the child’s job to soothe his parents’ anxieties, I think that really allows parents to stay very, very close to their sons without fostering confusion about dependency.
I think there is, actually. That’s the reason for the last part of the title: “The power of connection to build good men.” It starts with how they’re being cared for. If your experience is that people ... don’t want to hear what you feel, guess how you’re going to behave in a relationship? You’re going to resort to strategies of dominance and aggression.
I cite research done on college campuses that found 40 percent of the males that were surveyed said they would force a girl to have sex if they weren’t afraid of getting caught. Whatever the actual percentage is, there’s a lot of guys who don’t have a lot of skills when it comes to negotiating intimacy. They just want to try to force what they want on the relationship.
I’ve been paying a lot of attention to this conversation about Joe Biden. It wasn’t that [the woman] was accusing Joe Biden of sexual assault and harassment. It was that he was unaware of the impact of coming into her physical space. He didn’t have the attention or the understanding that he actually needed to check in with her first. And I think we have a lot of guys who simply don’t have that nuanced understanding of intimacy.
Absolutely. The whole #MeToo conversation is largely driven by millennial and younger women. It’s driving a more honest reckoning between males and females, and it’s got a lot of us older guys back on our heels because it’s a different standard than we grew up with. But I think that it’s a historic correction of injustice, and we’re just going to have to get with it.
The boys I work with understand that. They don’t have nearly the same confusion.
Whether boys feel confined is a really different question than whether they are. Previously, the presumption was that this was just biologically wired and gender just emerges from our genes or hormones. We still buy into that notion that male hormones define who we are.
It’s not that I don’t think we’re biologically different. I’m one who believes, however, what interpersonal neuroscience tells us, which is that experience is biology. If we treat boys in ways that don’t cultivate their language for emotion, their brains are going to show different growth than girls, who have much more facility with language and feelings.
Boys, if we give them opportunities to practice naming their feelings [and] communicating them, they’re going to develop those neural pathways just as likely as girls.
What “toxic masculinity” does is it conflates masculinity with these problem behaviors, as if there’s something inherently wrong with masculinity itself. And I’ve just seen way, way too much goodness in boys and men. There’s lots of good, and we can expect that good to grow if we build boyhood better.