Our audiences are no longer skeptical. The change would be more heartening if not for the tragic events that have enlightened them in a few short years. Killings or other violent acts by emotionally troubled adolescent boys have heightened public awareness and sparked widespread discussion of "the boy problem" in schools and communities across the country. Statistics state the case boldly. About 95 percent of juvenile homicides are committed by boys. Boys are the perpetrators in four out of every five crimes that end up in juvenile court. They account for almost nine out of ten alcohol and drug law violations. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among boys in their mid- to late teens (accidents and homicides occupy the first and second spots). The vast majority of "successful" suicides are boys. Compared to a girl the same age, a boy in late adolescence is seven times more likely to die by his own hand.
Although murder is an almost exclusively male enterprise, most boys don't kill. Most boys, despite feelings of anger and pain, are quieter students of emotional suffering. They long for love, acceptance, and approval from their parents and peers. They struggle for self-respect. They act impulsively, moved by emotions they cannot name or do not understand. Boys exercise their emotional ignorance in cruel treatment of one another or girls. Their inner turmoil is expressed in academic failure, depression, drug addiction, alcoholism, troubled relationships, or delinquency.
At a junior high school orientation program for parents, the principal asked parents of daughters to take an active role in discouraging cliques and social competition among their girls. In contrast, the social trials of boys in junior high school were dismissed with a good-natured thumbs-up: "We don't worry so much about boys at this age because they are a lot more resilient and straightforward about it all," the principal said. "They get mad, they push each other around a little to blow off steam, and then it's done. They don't hold grudges."
Yet boys do struggle with the same painful feelings of failure and rejection and not fitting in that we so easily attribute to girls. When they can't hold the pain any longer, they act on it. At any age, boys cut off from meaningful relationships miss critical opportunities for emotional growth. There is plenty of reason to be concerned: a confused young boy grows into an angry, emotionally isolated teenager, and, predictably, into a lonely, middle-aged man at risk for depression.
What do boys need to become emotionally literate? We think the answer is clear. Boys need an emotional vocabulary that expands their ability to express themselves in ways other than anger or aggression. They need to experience empathy at home and at school and be encouraged to use it if they are to develop conscience. Boys, no less than girls, need to feel emotional connections. Throughout their lives, but especially during adolescence, they need close, supportive relationships that can protect them from becoming victims of their turbulent, disowned emotions. Most important, a boy needs male modeling of a rich emotional life. He needs to learn emotional literacy as much from his father and other men as from his mother and other women, because he must create a life and language for himself that speak with male identity. A boy must see and believe that emotions belong in the life of a man.
Dan with Mario, Robbie, Jack, and Friends
I sit in a small, rectangular room with a group of eight seventh-grade boys. Characteristic of their age, they are a varied lot. One, Mario, is taller and physically more mature than the rest, already well along on the journey through puberty. His straight, jet-black hair hangs at a severe angle across his forehead. In my youth this would have been considered a bad haircut, but for Mario and the others it is fashion. His friend Jack looks like a baby by comparison. A head full of soft, fine blond hair and vivid blue eyes give him an undeserved look of innocence. Jack is sharp-tongued and witty, the dominant personality in the group. Mario sometimes vies with him for leadership but more often serves as his lieutenant. A third boy, Robbie, whose trials are the focus of today's discussion, has a physical package that lies somewhere in between Jack and Mario. With a soft, pudgy build, he shows none of the budding athleticism of some of the other boys, but he is also taller than everyone but Mario. His mouse-brown hair is never combed, and his clothes look as if he has slept in them.
Excerpted from Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. Copyright© 1999 by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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