02/13/2014 05:30 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2014

What Boys Need

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In the run-up to Valentine's Day, some are still asking, "What do boys want?" A case in point is a recent article in Time magazine (Dec. 2013) bearing a derivative of that question as its title. In "What Boys Want," educator and author Rosalind Wiseman revisits a larger body of work suggesting that while boys are interested in sex, what drives their psyche is far more nuanced than the hunter-gatherer narrative that shortchanges boys and misinterprets adolescents of both sexes.

Leaving behind the notion that boys are simply testosterone turbo-charged stalkers of the opposite sex, we can shift the debate about what they want to what they need.

And there we discover the nurture deficit that leaves many boys voiceless.

Weisman reminds us that in turning the page on "the boy code," we unveil a script for taking better care of adolescent males: tuning in to their actual motivations to fall in love, avoid heartbreak, and be free to explore and articulate their emotionality.


Not so much. A spate of boy-books dating back to the late '90s cover similar, if then somewhat uncharted, ground. They include such seminal titles as Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack (Henry Holt, 1998) and Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson (Ballantine, 1999).

For their part, Kindlon and Thompson share that, despite the role of biology in the expression of emotion -- something that is first revealed in infancy, according to psychologist Anthony Rao, author of The Way of Boys: Promoting the Social and Emotional Development of Young Boys (William Morrow, 2009) -- our culture actually encourages emotional development among girls while discouraging it among boys. They say, "Boys yearn for emotional connection, but they are allowed very little practice at it." Kindlon and Thompson argue that key proponents of such opportunities should be parents.

But sometimes they aren't.

Discussing his relationship with his parents, a 19-year-old young man said, "I don't discuss my feelings very much, or emotions. I don't know if I get it from them. They've always been very loving and caring, but not in a typical way. They don't say it much," (Wallace, 2008).

In this regard, fathers may be particularly challenged.

National Journal Editorial Director Ron Fournier points out, "Fathers and sons don't always know how to talk to each other, which is why we have sports" in his article titled "How Two Presidents Helped Me Deal With Love, Guilt and Fatherhood."

Sports and sex. There you have it.

In reality, our society has somehow come to confuse emotion -- and affection -- with sexuality, at least when it comes to boys. Such confusion contributes to what Kindlon and Thompson refer to as a "culture of cruelty," which disallows, for all intents and purposes, the encouragement of boys to identify, understand and explain their feelings. Indeed, the disconnectedness of boys, and the sadness and anger it spawns, leaves them longing for meaningful dialogue. That void, in turn, makes them particularly susceptible to dangerous, or potentially dangerous, behaviors.

What does that mean? When there's no healthy outlet for emotion, it comes out in other ways, such as drinking, other drug use, violence -- or even sex.

Pollack says,

Boys long to talk about the things that are hurting them: their harassment from other boys, their troubled relationships with their fathers, their embarrassment around girls and confusion about sex, their disconnection from, and love for, their parents... their constant fear that they might not be as masculine as other boys.

Perhaps it's time we redefine masculinity.

Nurturing, attention and affection engender the emotional intelligence we value in girls and are too often suspicious of in boys. Yet they are the important ingredients of humanity that help anchor young people against the robust tide of adolescence, reaffirm their place in the world, and give them the emotional energy to weather this most difficult of life's transitions.

That is what boys need.