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 emotional development.
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 expression?
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 frustration.
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 primary caretakers.
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 itself.
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 knowledge.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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