A Conversation with Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson
In your introduction you say that a catalyst for writing the book was
your desire to help people see beyond the surface of boys' lives to the
often overlooked richness and complexity of their inner lives. What else
contributed to the genesis of this work?
Three factors come to mind. My wife and I were at brunch with
a woman friend of ours who is in publishing, and we were talking about the
popularity of Mary Pipher's book on adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia. At
that time I had this nebulous book idea, one born of my years of studying
and talking to an array of boys with an array of issues. Our conversation
turned to the idea of a Reviving Ophelia for boys. What would define a
book on male adolescents? What preconceptions and misconceptions about
them deserved scrutiny and challenging? My wife, a therapist as well,
thought that such a book was really needed, and encouraged the project.
The second catalyzing
event involved conversations that I had had with Michael Thompson, who is
at Belmont Hill, a boys' school comparable to the one at which I work, St.
Sebastian's. We spoke at length about the kind of teasing and cruelty that
we saw taking place repeatedly among students in grades seven through
nine--and beyond. As counselors, we were grappling with how to approach
the issue in a programmatic way: how to really try to do something about
it at an institutional level. We soon realized the complexity of the
problem, and the sort of time and commitment that would be needed to
properly address the matter. The conversations that followed became a
natural jumping-off point for the book.
The third event took place
when my five-year-old daughter asked me why boys are so mean. She
described this boy she was playing with who was really nice to her until
another boy came along, at which time he teased her and made fun of her. I
didn't have a really good answer for her, but it started me thinking. What
is it about boys that makes them capable of being so mean? Surveys reveal
that far more parents are likely to describe their sons, rather than their
daughters, as mean. This riddle and the other two events made me start to
think more about a book aimed at the psychology of boys and their
Let's discuss the subtitle for a moment. "Protecting"
suggests both fragility and endangerment vis-à-vis boys' emotional lives.
What other words were considered?
"Rescuing the Emotional Life of Boys" was one we played with
for a while. "Protecting," however, works for me; it suggests
that at least there is something there to start with. I think a lot of
people believe that boys just don't have the capacity for a rich emotional
life, and that we should treat them differently--boys will be boys. Others
regard them as wild animals that have to be tamed instead of nurtured.
There's been a kind of a cultural phenomenon which
suggests that girls need protection from boys, while boys simply need to
be controlled or educated or trained. We wanted to challenge that notion;
we wanted a word that suggested very specifically that boys need
protection as well. When I shared the subtitle with a school
administrator, she said, "My God, you're just going to license all of
those smothering moms." We had a good laugh before agreeing that boys
in fact did need protection in our culture.
What about the title's religious allusion? How do matters of faith
factor into a boy's emotional life?
That's an interesting question. Faith is a relevant matter: unless a
boy is emotionally literate, is in touch with his inner world, it is very
difficult for him to engage in a spiritual way with another world. To open
oneself up to that introspection is almost the first step to a true
religiosity, where you can be honest with yourself and humble in the way I
think you have to be in order to be truly religious. Because so many boys
are so on guard all the time in terms of needing to be tough or needing to
protect themselves from psychological attack, I think they have trouble
opening themselves up to that experience.
Given the predominance of visual imagery in the media to which boys are
exposed daily, is the goal of emotional literacy complicated by the
challenge of literacy? Does such wordless expression frustrate emotional
What we need to teach boys is instead of simply saying, "I'm
angry; no; I hate it," they should say, "I'm ashamed; that makes
me feel bad; that hurts my pride." It's not a huge expansion of
vocabulary. Elementary school guidance counselors have a poster of about
thirty-two different faces: surprise, joy, anger, disappointment,
etcetera. They use it just to ask, "What is it you're feeling?"
There's only one line of script under each face. We're not talking Joseph
Conrad here. It's primarily a visual tool. We're talking about a basic
emotional vocabulary, where if a boy gets to say, "I'm hurt,"
and he gets to say it over and over in an accepting environment, then he
can recognize that he's hurt because it's been validated. If you feel hurt
and nobody gives you the language and nobody validates the word, then
after a while you don't recognize it as hurt. You recognize it as some
kind of inchoate shame which makes you rageful, or you're not able to put
the sequence of things together: this happened to me, and I feel bad about
it, and the way I'm feeling has a name, and other people feel that way,
and I'm okay for feeling it. That's psychotherapy: the articulation,
acknowledgment, and validation of your life experiences.
I think rather than the visual aspects of media, isolation may
contribute to emotional illiteracy. What did you do after dinner within
families before there was television? Maybe you had to deal with each
other; perhaps the father would read the Bible to the family to initiate
discussion. There was interaction between people. Just sitting in front of
the television is a way of avoiding conversation; parents do that with
their kids all the time. The kids are out of control, and rather than
discipline them the parents will just turn on the TV to pacify them. I
think it allows us to hide a lot more than it did before. We don't really
get the practice we need when dealing with emotional upset and
Allusions to literature surface throughout Raising Cain.
What works of fiction have you discovered that capture and convey candidly
the trials of boyhood?
For years and years everybody would tout Salinger's Catcher in the Rye
as the ultimate book about boys. It's not. In my opinion, the best book
about adolescent boys is This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff. And what's
almost as wonderful as This Boy's Life is a book by Tobias's older
brother, Geoffrey, entitled The Duke of Deception, which I quote in the
introduction to Raising Cain. The Duke of Deception is a love poem to a
catastrophic father, while This Boy's Life is a love poem to a defective
mother. I also like those works by Richard Ford that deal with boyhood
(Wildlife and Independence Day).
William Golding's Lord of the Flies for me is certainly key in terms
of group dynamics among boys. It's clearly a book that touches a chord in
people; they recognize its authenticity.
I reread Catcher in the
Rye while we were writing this book, and my first thought was that it was
wasted on me as a thirteen-year-old. It was a much better book to read as
an adult. To me it is a book about how to deal with loss, rather than a
portrait of the male adolescent.
Co-authorship provides an apt challenge to the notion of man as a
solitary figure. How did you find the collaborative process?
Dan and I have really complementary sets of skills. His Ph.D. in
psychology is in research methodology. He cares about social science, and
appreciates scientific accuracy and truth. I have a tendency to idealize
research because I don't understand it anywhere near as well as he does.
Early on he said to me, "Michael, don't put so much faith in
research; it can lie." Dan has a crisp, clear mind that goes right to
the heart of the matter. He boils everything down. I am a rare bird; I am
what is known as a male hysteric. I love to talk. I love to amplify. I
tend to exaggerate. My family motto is "Never let truth interfere
with a good story." I'm a clinician and a storyteller. Dan, the
methodologist, knocked out a ton of my clinical cases by saying, "Not
representative enough," and I would say, "But this is a vivid
case!" We almost killed each other because we came at truth in two
very different ways. In the end, however, what I think lends power to the
book is that you get two guys so different stylistically, who come from
two different bases, yet are in complete agreement on the doctrinal
questions about raising boys.
Granted, your combined professional experience informs a large part of
Raising Cain, but to what extent did you draw from your respective
experiences of being a son?
A lot. Both Michael and I did. It was a very interesting journey; I
didn't expect to have been changed the way I was. Truthfully, it was sort
of like being in therapy: you're forced to face these issues in your past.
Speaking for myself, there were, ironically, some not really emotionally
literate ways that I would handle those moments. Often we were forced to
deal with a lot of the same issues that were in the book, and to recognize
we would always be sons. It really opened us up in a lot of ways.
Again, I am reminded of what Geoffrey Wolff says in The Duke of
Deception: "My mind is never completely empty of my father."
Has Raising Cain found its way into the hands of fathers?
I think so. Though men may not pick it off the shelf, many women have
come up to me after readings or talks to tell me that their husbands are
now reading the book. Unlike the many books that suggest middle-aged men
are such emotional-waste cases, and that moms have to make the difference
with their sons, Raising Cain advocates a balanced approach to parenting.
When you write a book, the first thing publishers tell you is that men
don't buy books, so you have to write for women. Yet I pushed all along
for making sure that Raising Cain was a book that men as well as boys
could read. I didn't want to lose sight of that because a lot of the
research that I've done has been on the role of fathers and families. Too
often men are marginalized; they are kept out of parenting or keep
themselves out of parenting, and this is detrimental to both the families
and the fathers themselves. The chapter we wrote on fathers and sons is
one that when men read it, they tend to be really moved by it. I've been
gratified by the response that men have had to the book, and to that
chapter in particular. Maybe the biggest place where the catalyst for
change will come is from the father/son relationship. If fathers serve as
a model for a more emotionally literate manhood, sons will follow suit.
While proffering a new role for fathers, you seem to assign mothers the
usual role of protectors and, to use your phrase, "teachers of
emotional understanding." Does this approach perpetuate the
stereotype you hope to undo, or have we some sort of paradox?
It's a paradox in this way: Dan and I would like to see fathers doing
more of the emotional work in raising their sons. We would like to see
more balanced parenting for boys, but the plain truth is that mothers are
doing the job. If the job's getting done well now, it's getting done by
mothers. It's important to note that.
The experience of most adult men and most boys now is that their
primary teacher about emotions is a woman. There's nothing wrong with
that, but men should play a part as well, especially for boys; they're
going to model themselves after their fathers usually much more than their
mothers. And if they see Dad as a guy who can't be wrong, won't admit that
he's wrong, and won't express emotion, they're going to model themselves
after that to varying degrees. Yet mothers should still play the role
they've been playing well all along, because they are going to be the
What light, if any, can Raising Cain shed on the Littleton tragedy?
I think Raising Cain is a guide to why a boy might become
inarticulate, angry, suicidal, and feel that he had to go out and
eliminate anybody who didn't find him strong. We know that boys often
choose violent solutions to complex problems, and we have to face that
reality--and what preceded it--to change it. Those guys in Colorado were
dead men walking. They murdered to be thought of as strong; it was a kind
of suicidal machismo.
Throughout Raising Cain appears a critique of the
institutions and cultural norms that trap boys in a narrow if not
deadening brand of masculinity. What sort of change is possible given the
rootedness and pervasiveness of the problem?
I just got a call this morning from the director of admissions at a
private school who had just read the book. She said, "Now I'm
starting to see these boys who come into my office and tend to be kind of
sullen and monosyllabic in their responses as different. I used to just
think of them as jerks, as people we didn't want, and then I started to
think about some of the causes for this." Here is a woman who's going
to see boys differently, a woman in a position of power to change boys'
lives. So I think that the book is a way of changing perceptions. Michael
and I realized that change is often accomplished by altering the lens
through which you view the world. As you start to see boys and men
differently and see what their real motivations are rather than what you
think they are, you treat them differently. I think because the book
changes perceptions, it is a sort of public health intervention in and of
Despite a number of grim statistics about boys' development and a
surfeit of negative media coverage, a tone of optimism pervades Raising
Cain. Wherein lies your hopefulness?
As a therapist you have to be optimistic. You have to believe that
change is possible, or else you couldn't do the job. I think both Michael
and I have seen enough kids come in who were hurting and go out who
weren't to know real change is possible. And this book is rooted in that