Tag Archives: boys

Dealing with Your Grief before it Deals with You

Bulldog

When it comes to caring for our own mental health, most Americans are asleep at the wheel. There are road signs, signals, and exits everywhere, but most Americans are committed to keeping their eyes shut and snoozing right through anything remotely resembling mental health awareness.

Okay. This judgment is a too harsh. But, I’m thinking this way because, not long ago, I watched the film, Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck plays the lead character, Lee Chandler. Obviously the film got me a little worked up.

Early on, Lee Chandler’s negligence leads to his children dying in a fire. By any and every measure, this is a trauma and tragedy of immense magnitude. Chandler is emotionally desperate. He tries killing himself. He ends up choosing to live.

But how does Chandler handle his traumatic grief? He continues to drink alcohol and numb himself. He lives like an automaton. Who can blame him? His grief must be so huge that it can’t be addressed. Right? Well, not exactly.

Not long after his children die, Chandler’s brother dies. This is terrible and sad, but suddenly, Chandler gets a second chance. His 16-year-old nephew needs an adult role model. Chandler is the best option.

The film is about pain.  Chandler is devastated. I get that. But instead of showing a glimpse of what it might take to face grief, instead, the film shows Chandler studiously avoiding anything resembling counseling or psychotherapy or education or the possibility of any genuine human interactions that might be helpful.

To be blunt and unkind, Chandler is an emotional chicken. He doesn’t face his emotions or embrace an interest in improving himself or his relationships. He doesn’t do that before or after his traumatic grief. Why not? One reason might be because doing so would be against the cultural norm for real men. . . because real men avoid looking in the mirror and engaging in emotional self-awareness. Seriously? Is this all we expect of emotional development for men and boys? I hope not.

Chandler could have done better than that. We can all do better than that.

What do we know? There’s substantial scientific evidence supporting several ways Chandler might move toward addressing his grief, his depression, his alcohol abuse, and his damaged relationships. He could have been a better person a better man, and a better uncle.

Okay. I’ll calm down now. I understand this is just Hollywood . . . which is why I feel so free to attack Chandler for avoiding what might have been good for himself and his nephew.

All this brings me to my point. In the latest episode of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Dr. Sara and I interview Dr. Tina Barrett about how to talk to children about death and loss. Then, in the following episode (watch for it next week), we interview her again about how to help children through the death of a loved one.

If you don’t know who Dr. Tina is, you should. I met her in the mid-1990s, hired her at Families First in about 1998, and have followed her amazing work ever since. In our podcast, she provides wisdom and guidance and insights about death and dying. I hope you’ll take time to listen (and avoid being like the character Lee Chandler). Tina has some great ideas that might just contribute to your (and your children’s) emotional development.

As usual, you can listen at iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/practically-perfect-parenting-podcast/id1170841304?mt=2

Or you can listen on Libsyn: http://practicallyperfectparenting.libsyn.com/

Entering the Danger Zone: Why Counselors (and Psychologists) Need to Find the Courage to Talk with Boys about Sex and Pornography

This article was published in the Reader Viewpoint section of Counseling Today magazine this week. If you get the magazine, you’ll find it on page 52. If not, because it’s not available online, I’m posting the article (with minor modifications) in-full right here. To check out the Counseling Today magazine, click here: http://ct.counseling.org/

Here’s the article:

Reader Viewpoint

Entering the Danger Zone

Why Counselors Need to Find the Courage to Talk with Boys about Sex and Pornography

By John Sommers-Flanagan

For the most part, the United States lacks a coherent and systematic approach to sexual education. Instead, as lampooned in an online issue of The Onion, sex education is typically informal, unorganized, and inaccurate. The Onion article describes a scene in which a 10-year-old boy takes his 8-year-old cousin behind his parents’ garage with a page ripped out of a magazine and shares “the vast misguided knowledge of human sexuality he had gleaned from classmates’ hearsay as well as 12 minutes of a Real Sex episode he watched in a hotel room once.” The older boy recounts his rationale: “Every time people have sex the woman has a baby, and I just want [my younger cousin] to be completely prepared before getting naked with a girl.”

The good news about this is that The Onion is a fictional news source. The bad news is that the current state of sex education in our country isn’t much better than The Onion’s version.

Consider that a report this past April from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that more than 80 percent of adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 have no formal sexual education before actually having sex. If teenagers have no formal sex education, then what informal sex education do you suppose they take with them into their first sexual experiences?

One such source of informal sex education is pornography. In 2009, University of Montreal professor Simon Louis Lajeunesse designed a study to evaluate how pornography use affects male sexual development. He planned to interview 20 males who had viewed pornography and then compare their responses with those of 20 males who had never viewed porn. Remarkably, Lajeunesse had to abandon his project because he couldn’t find any college-aged males who hadn’t already viewed porn.

Other researchers report similar experiences. It appears that most boys, rather than learning about sex from a well-meaning, albeit uninformed cousin, get their information from the pornography industry … and my best guess is that the porn industry isn’t focusing on the best interests of American youth. This is one way in which reality may be worse than The Onion.

The absence of formal and accurate sexual education is a particularly American problem that may find its way into the offices of professional counselors. Many young males probably have very little basic knowledge or hold unhelpful ideas about sex and sexuality. Some will have porn addictions. Others will want to talk about how pornography may be affecting their real sex lives. You may also have clients who are concerned about their partner’s or potential partner’s porn viewing behaviors. Working with young (and older) males (and females) who want to talk about their sexual knowledge, beliefs and behaviors, including watching pornography, is both a challenge and an opportunity for professional counselors.

Counselors have an ethical mandate to strive toward competence. As articulated in the multicultural counseling literature, this requires cultivating personal awareness, gathering knowledge and developing skills.

Awareness: Expanding your comfort zone

Talking about sex, sexuality and sexual attraction can be difficult at every level. Think about yourself: How easy is it to talk about sex with your supervisor, colleagues, students, or clients? Your own experience may give you a glimpse into how challenging it can be to broach the topic of sex — even for professionals.

In comparison, it’s probably an understatement to say that it is especially difficult for boys to initiate a conversation about sex or sexuality with a professional counselor. This is why counselors who work with boys should become comfortable initiating conversations about sex. If you don’t ask at least a few gentle, polite, yet direct questions, you may be waiting a long time for the boy in your office to bring up the subject.

On the opposite extreme, some young clients will jump right into talking about sexuality and push us straight out of our comfort zones. Recently, I was working with a 16-year-old boy who described himself as a polyamorous “furry” (which I later learned involved sexualized role-playing as various animals). Admittedly, it was a challenge to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude. But without such an attitude, we wouldn’t have been able to have repeated open and useful conversations about his sexuality and sexual identity development.

Knowledge: The effects of pornography on boys and men

Many potential areas related to sexuality deserve attention, focus, and discussion in counseling. But because pornography and mixed messages about pornography are everywhere, it can be an especially important subject.

Most counselors probably believe that repeated exposure to pornography has a negative impact on male sexual development. This negative impact is likely exacerbated by the fact that most boys aren’t getting any organized, balanced, and scientific sexual information. Nevertheless, within the dominant American culture, there remains strong resistance to both sex education and pornography regulation. Even in a recent issue of Monitor on Psychology, the authors of an article questioned whether porn is addictive and blithely noted that “people like porn.”

It’s not surprising that porn has advocates. After all, it’s estimated to be a $6 billion-plus industry. In addition, media outlets explicitly and implicitly use pornlike sexuality to attract an audience and sell products. Recently, we’ve seen the increased use of hypermasculine male body types in the media, but most of the rampant sexual objectification still focuses on young female bodies.

Given that sexual development includes a complex mix of culture, biology and life experience, it’s not surprising that researchers have had difficulty isolating pornography as a single causal factor in male sexual developmental outcomes. However, a summary of the research indicates that as the viewing of pornography increases, so does an array of negative attitudes, behaviors, and symptoms. Generally, increased exposure to pornography is correlated with:
• More positive attitudes toward sexual aggression, increases in sexual aggression, multiple sexual partners, and engaging in paid sex
• Increased depression, anxiety and stress, and poorer social functioning
• Positive attitudes toward teen sex, adult premarital sex, and extramarital sex
• More positive attitudes toward pornography and more viewing of violent or hypersexual pornography
• Higher alcohol consumption, greater self-reported sexual desire, and increased rates of boys selling sexual acts

In contrast to these findings, a 2002 Kinsey Institute survey indicated that 72 percent of respondents considered pornography to be a relatively harmless outlet. This might be true for adults. I recall listening to B.F. Skinner talk about how older adults could use pornography as a sexual stimulant in ways similar to how they use hearing aids and glasses.

But the point isn’t whether people like porn or whether porn can be relatively harmless for some adults. The point is that pornography is a bad primary source of sexual information for developing boys and young men. As a consequence, it’s crucial for counselors who work with males to be knowledgeable about the potential negative effects of pornography.

Skills: How can counselors help?

A big responsibility for professional counselors who work with boys is to consistently keep sex and sexuality issues on the educational and therapeutic radar. This doesn’t mean counselors should be preoccupied with asking about sex. Rather, we should be open to asking about it, as needed, in a matter-of-fact and respectful manner.

As with most skills, asking about sex and talking comfortably about sexuality requires practice and supervision. But as Carl Rogers often emphasized, having an accepting attitude may be even more important than using specific skills. This implies that finding your own way to listen respectfully to boys (and all clients) about their sexual views and practices is essential. It also requires openness to listening respectfully even when our clients’ sexual views and practices are inconsistent with our personal values. As with other topics, if we ask about it, we should be ready to skillfully listen to whatever our clients are inclined to say next.

Case example
Some years ago, I had a young client named Ben who was in foster care. We began working together when he was 10 and continued intermittently until he was 17.
When Ben was around 13, I started routinely asking about possible romance in his life. He typically redirected the conversation. Occasionally he gave me a few hints that he wanted a girlfriend, but he mostly still seemed frightened of girls. As my counseling with Ben continued, I became aware that I had been conspiring with him to avoid talking directly about sex, possibly because I was afraid to bring it up.

I finally faced the issue when I realized (far too slowly) that Ben had no father figure in his life and, thus, I was one of his best chances at having a positive male role model. With encouragement from my supervision group, I was able to face my anxieties, do some reading about male sexual development, and finally broach the subject of having a sex talk with Ben.

Toward the end of a session I said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking we’ve never really talked directly about sex. And I realized that maybe you don’t have any men in your life who have talked with you about sex. So, here’s my plan. Next week we’re going to have the sex talk. OK?”

Ben’s face reddened and his eyes widened. He mumbled, “OK, fine with me.”

The next session I plowed right in, starting with a nervous monologue about why talking directly about sex was important. I then asked Ben where he’d learned whatever he knew about sex. He answered, “Sex ed at school, some magazines, a little Internet porn, and my friends.”

I felt a sense of gratitude that he was listening and being open, even if we were both feeling awkward. We talked about homosexuality, pornography, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, contraception, and emotions. I tried to gently warn him that too much porn could become way too much porn. He agreed. He told me that he didn’t feel like he was gay but that he didn’t have anything against gays and lesbians. At the end of the conversation, we were both flushed. We had stared down our mutual discomfort and navigated our way through a difficult topic.

Professional sex educators emphasize that parents shouldn’t have just one sex talk with their kids; they should have many sex talks. What I thought was THE talk with Ben turned into something we could revisit. Over the next two years, Ben and I kept talking — off and on, here and there — about sex, sexuality, and pornography.

Final thoughts

Boys are a unique counseling population, and sex is a hot topic. Together, the two provide both challenge and opportunity for professional counselors. As counselors, we should work to develop our awareness, knowledge, and skills for talking with boys about sex and sexuality. You may not be the perfect sex educator, but when the alternatives for accurate information are pornography or someone’s uninformed older cousin, it becomes obvious that having open conversations about sex with boys is an excellent role for counselors to embrace.

BOX

John Sommers-Flanagan is a counselor educator at the University of Montana and the author of nine books. Get more information on this and other topics related to counseling and parenting at johnsommersflanagan.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

SIDEBAR
Readings and resources for working with boys and men
• A Counselor’s Guide to Working With Men, edited by Matt Englar-Carlson, Marcheta P. Evans & Thelma Duffey, 2014, American Counseling Association
• “Addressing sexual attraction in supervision,” by Kirsten W. Murray & John Sommers-Flanagan, in Sexual Attraction in Therapy: Clinical Perspectives on Moving Beyond the Taboo — A Guide for Training and Practice, edited by Maria Luca, 2014, Wiley-Blackwell
• Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, by Michael Kimmel, 2010, Harper Perennial
• Tough Kids, Cool Counseling: User-Friendly Approaches With Challenging Youth, second edition, by John Sommers-Flanagan & Rita Sommers-Flanagan, 2007, American Counseling Association
• The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, by Jackson Katz, 2006, Sourcebooks
• The Good Men Project: goodmenproject.com

What Kind of a Man Attends the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference?

Several years ago a former student caught up with me in the hall outside my office in the College of Education at the University of Montana. He had taken an Intro to Psychology course from me way back in 1982. He re-introduced himself, complimented me on my teaching from three decades previously, and then, glancing at my name on the door, asked, “What kind of a man hyphenates his last name?”

I was speechless (which doesn’t happen all that often). He had just told me of his divorce; he had marveled at me being married for 25 years; and yet there it was, a small-dose of straight on masculine-shaming.

I said what most of us probably say when questioned about our masculinity.

I said nothing.

In retrospect, I wish I’d said: “I hyphenated my name because I’m the kind of man who wants to stay married and have a real partnership with his wife.” Hmm. That might have been over-the-top.
I didn’t have a balanced answer then and I’m not sure I have a good one now. But, how about cutting to the chase and meeting his question with one of my own?

“What kind of a man questions another man about his masculinity?”

That might have been fun, but obviously not perfect. And that’s the point; it can be difficult to find the right words in response to comments on our masculinity.

This past Saturday I had the privilege of embracing all dimensions of my humanity, without needing to worry about sideways—or straight on—masculinity comments. That’s because I had the good fortune of attending the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference. Of course, my comfort might have been because the chief conference organizer, Matt Englar-Carlson, a faculty member in the Department of Counseling at Cal State Fullerton, is also a hyphenator. But more likely it was because this particular conference was all about acceptance, inclusion, listening, understanding, learning . . . and most of all CONNECTION. Masculine shaming was nowhere in the room.

The conference organizers, Englar-Carlson, David Shepard, and Rebekah Smart, set the tone for understanding and inclusiveness in their opening comments. The opening keynote followed and it was BY A WOMAN . . . which this leads me to back to my masculine-shaming theme for today:

“What kind of a MEN AND MASCULINITY organization sponsors a conference on psychotherapy with men and then has an opening keynote speech BY A WOMAN?”

Answer: “The kind of organization populated by people who have the good judgment to be very interested in listening to and understanding women’s perspectives.”

And so we all got to listen to—not just any woman (although that would have been fine too, because the conference wasn’t about status)—but the renowned Judith Jordan, author of many books and co-director of the Jean Baker Miller Institute. How cool is that?

After Jordan explored how we can raise boys to be competent and connected men, we scattered to different break-out sessions. As my adolescent clients would say, this sucked because it’s hard to make hard choices. My principle regret of the whole conference was that even though I have two last names, there’s still only one of me and so I couldn’t attend EVERY SESSION, but instead had make choices. And although I was perfectly happy to start my break-out experiences listening to Christopher Kilmartin, professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington, as Irvin Yalom would say, it meant the death of the rest of my choices.

But seriously . . . here’s the important question: “What kind of a man accepts a faculty position at an institution named THE UNIVERSITY OF MARY WASHINGTON?”

Answer: “The same kind of man who gets asked to spend a year teaching sexual assault prevention at the Air Force Academy.” Now that’s a pretty good answer.

Kilmartin was awesome (just ask my wife, because I’ve been quoting him all week). But being at his break-out session made me miss the amazing Jon Carlson who might be the kindest, gentlest, and most humble person I know with hundreds of professional publications, video productions, and spare time to raise five children (two adopted) including the hyphenated conference organizer, who happens to have full professor status despite looking like he just shaved for the first time last week.

Naturally, the psychotherapy with men conference lunch had a vegetarian option (at this point I should also mention the Starbucks coffee and whole wheat bagels in the morning and the Panera coffee and cookies in the afternoon). Right after lunch, we gathered to listen to Fredric Rabinowitz, the afternoon keynote. Rabinowitz, who also happens to play tournament poker, talked about Deepening Psychotherapy with Men. He emphasized that, for men, there’s a substantial vocabulary about defenses, but not Department of Connection. For the past 20+ years he has helped men go deep and express their pain and loss in ways that are (surprise!) contrary to how society expects men to express their pain and loss. Unfortunately, Rabinowitz had to miss an annual fancy poker tournament to attend the conference . . . which leads to the obvious question:

“What kind of a man misses a poker tournament to talk with a bunch of sensitive psychotherapy-types?”

Answer: “A pretty cool dude who knows his priorities.”

After Rabinowitz’s keynote, there were more decisions. In my program I had circled presentations by David Shepard and Michele Harway as well as Chris Liang. But I should confess here-and-now that I got slightly intoxicated with Panera coffee and cookies and ended up wandering into the wrong room with three Canadian presenters who were talking about how to help men transition from military to civilian life. It might have partially been the coffee, but the Three Canadians ROCKED MY WORLD . . . which begs the question:

“What kind of a man gets his world rocked by Three Canadians?”

Answer: “The kind of man who recognizes they have such fabulous clinical skills and compassion and cleverness that it makes him wish he was born and raised in Vancouver, B.C. instead of Vancouver, Washington (not that there’s anything wrong with Vancouver, WA).”

After my Canadian experience I staggered into Mark Stevens’s presentation on Engaging Men in the Process of Psychotherapy. Stevens showed photos of little boys and asked us to remember that ALL OF OUR MALE CLIENTS were once sensitive boys (not little men). He urged us to engage men slowly, but to not judge or underestimate them in ways that minimize or shrink their humanity. This was awesome, but I have to ask:

“What kind of a man shows photos of little boys during a professional presentation?”

Answer: “The kind of man who understands how to work effectively with men.”

At this conference you didn’t need a hyphenated name and you didn’t need an un-hyphenated name, because there was no shaming either way. There was just acceptance; acceptance of being scared boys and scared girls who are doing the best we can to openly affirm and connect with each other. And these connections reached across races, to the transgendered, to the women, and even to graduate students. If you’re interested in this sort of thing (and I think you should be), you should check out Division 51 of the American Psychological Association at: http://www.division51.org/

BTW, at the post-conference social I got to meet lore m. dickey, who presented earlier in the day on Affirmative Practice with Transgender Clients. He immediately shared with me that he is a female to male transsexual. That’s the sort of openness and connection you get at the Psychotherapy with Men conference. But I’m sure you know this leads me to another purposely masculinity-shaming question.

“What kind of a man chooses to go through a female to male transgender process?”

“The kind of a man who has achieved clarity about his male identity.”

The day ended with me hanging out with the Three Canadians—whom I should name here (Marvin Westwood, David Kuhl, and Duncan Shields). They welcomed me to their table at the social time where we engaged in an extended international mutual appreciation festival. You should really look them up.

All this brings me to my final question:

“What kind of a man writes an fluffy, complimentary, and sycophantic blog about the 4th National Psychotherapy with Men Conference?”

Answer: “The kind of man who wants to offer the conference organizers and participants the thanks and praise they deserve.”

 

Boys Will Be Boys . . . Unless We Teach Them Something Better

What follows is a reprint from the ACA blog I wrote a couple weeks ago just in case you didn’t catch that. Have an excellent weekend.

Some of you may already be aware of Rosalind Wiseman’s work. She initially became recognized as a national parenting authority with the publication of her popular book, “Queen Bees and Wannabees” (2003).  This book inspired the movie “Mean Girls.” Despite her lack of academic credentials (a B.A. in Political Science from Occidental College), she has done some good work around the topic of girl bullying.

In her latest book, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World she ventures into new and exciting territory. But from the perspective of a grown up boy, I think, despite her best intentions, she doesn’t really get the boy world. This is probably because she never was a boy and can only try to understand the internal struggles and experiences of boys from an external perspective. This doesn’t make her effort bad or unimportant . . . but it does limit her reach. For the purposes of this blog, I want to focus on one particular excerpt that I found both ridiculous and potentially damaging.

On p. 87, she wrote:

“It’s important to allow him [your boy] to have a wide range of feelings.  Moms, if he’s feeling so angry that he wants to release his anger by punching a pillow or a punching bag, or going into his room and yelling at the top of his lungs, or playing really loud music, or even playing a violent video game, let him do it.  If he punches the wall, that’s okay too, as long as he isn’t threatening someone else when he’s doing it.  Plus, after he’s calmed down, he can then learn the skill of drywall patching. The bottom line is that a lot of women can be intimidated in the presence of men’s anger (with good reason).  But at the same time, your son needs a healthy outlet to express his anger without feeling like you think he’s a violent, crazy person for having his feelings.”

Let me just say this, “Like OMG. This is like some really gnarly bad advice.”

As you can see, I’m about as good at channeling my inner girl as Wiseman is at channeling her inner boy. To get back to my adult male persona, what I really want to say is that in this short excerpt, Wiseman’s ideas are so limited that I find them disturbing.

Perhaps the worst part is that Wiseman doesn’t seem to understand the basic and crucial difference between emotions and behaviors. It is and should be completely acceptable for all boys and all girls to experience anger. Anger is a natural and inevitable human emotion. But the emotion of anger is not the same as aggressive behavior. The fact is that boys CAN acknowledge and express their anger WITHOUT PUNCHING THINGS. And they SHOULD be expected to NOT PUNCH THINGS.

Let me emphasize this by saying it again: Boys can and should be expected to express their angry emotions without becoming violent or aggressive. It’s absolutely crucial for boys to learn to use their words and to control or inhibit their aggressive behaviors. A big problem with Wiseman’s message is that she’s coaching moms (and other adults) to accept inappropriate and unacceptable aggressive behaviors—from boys. She seems to be advocating the all-American excuse that boys will be boys and so therefore we should tolerate their aggression and not expect anything different. This is an unhelpful and potentially destructive message. Instead, the message from parents and caring adults needs to be: “I accept your angry emotions; but aggressive behavior is unacceptable.”

Part of what Wiseman is suggesting isn’t terrible. The idea of a natural consequence of drywall patching after an unacceptable aggressive outburst is reasonable. And the idea that moms shouldn’t be intimidated in response to their son’s anger or aggression is very important. But there’s a big difference between accepting an emotion and tolerating an aggressive behavior. Boys need to know that punching and destroying things is an unacceptable way to express their anger.

I think one of Wiseman’s limitations is that she’s never experienced anger and aggressive impulses from the inside of a male body.

As for myself:

I remember the last time I punched a wall . . .

I remember the last time I broke down a door . . .

I remember the last time I ripped a cupboard door off its hinges . . .

I also recall the last time I lashed out in anger and used a particularly unacceptable word to describe a woman. And I’m thankful to the person who taught me very clearly and very directly that I was engaging in an unacceptable behavior. It took me one firm but gentle lesson from a caring adult to learn to never use that disparaging word again.

I remember getting laid out as flat as a pancake by a 290 pound offensive tackle at Reser Stadium in 1978. And I remember wanting nothing more than another chance to get him back.

I also remember how I learned to watch my anger instead of acting on it. I remember the lessons my parents taught me. I remember practicing a deep breath and talking with my psychotherapist about my angry rages. I remember learning to deal more constructively with my revenge impulses even though I wanted so badly to give another male a physical pay-back. And I remember NEEDING SOMEONE to set limits on my aggressive behaviors.

It’s not easy for boys to learn to control their behavior. It’s also not easy for boys to learn to talk about anger (rather than acting on it). But this isn’t all about biology and testosterone. It’s also—and perhaps primarily—about the social expectations that most people hold for boys. If we expect and tolerate aggressive behavior as just part of being a boy, then we have very little chance of changing or improving how boys are capable of behaving.

The bottom line for me (and I know this is personalized and not completely unbiased) is that boys need caring and loving adults to raise the bar for them. I needed—and many boys need—higher (not lower) expectations when it comes to dealing with our anger.

My memories (and my counseling and psychotherapy work with boys) inspire my conclusions. Here they are:

IT IS ESSENTIAL for caring and loving adults to actively teach their boys that anger and sadness and fear and guilt and joy are all acceptable and expected emotions.

It’s equally essential for these same caring and loving adults to teach boys that aggressive behavior is NOT ACCEPTABLE.

If we don’t teach boys these lessons, then we’re lowering the bar to the point that we have no right to expect them to behave in civilized and non-violent ways.

And most of us are far better off when boys and men understand and manage their anger—rather than acting on their aggressive impulses.

Please help spread the word that we should expect more (not less or the same old thing) from boys. I know Ms. Wiseman is well-intended, but in this case we need to counter her bad advice with some good ideas.

Why Evolution is a Bad Explanation for Human Behavior

Nearly every day I hear, read, or see the latest news story about how the human brain is hard-wired to make all humans act in one particular way or another. These stories annoy me because:

  1. They emphasize that all humans are the same and ignore the fact that we’re all unique and, to a large degree, unpredictable.
  2. They imply that humans are unlikely to change or deviate from one another.
  3. They repeatedly claim we’re all hard-wired despite the fact that the human brain has NO WIRES.

Even worse, at the bottom of most of these “Your brain is hard-wired” stories is a mythical evolutionary explanation. This annoys me even more . . . because when it comes to everyday human behavior, evolution makes for very bad explanations. But if you’re listening to what pundits and scientists say in the media, you’d be inclined to believe the opposite of what’s really true about humans.

For mysterious reasons, many scientists—especially evolutionary scientists—want to put humans in a box. They suggest and imply and assert that human behavior is predictable. But the truth is that—apart from breathing—there are very few predictable human behaviors. As decades of controlled psychological experiments have shown, even under laboratory conditions where little choice is possible, scientific predictions typically account for no more that 30-40% of the variation in human behavior. This means that humans are 60-70% unpredictable . . . even under highly controlled conditions.

Aside from being mostly wrong, simple evolutionary and biological explanations for human behavior also often are translated into messages that are generally unhealthy for society. Let’s take one big example.

An especially popular media and science topic is male sexual behavior. The argument usually goes like this: Over millions of years males have become hardwired to be attracted to fertility and novelty in sexual partners. This is because . . . the argument continues . . . males seek to perpetuate their gene-pool. This is why, they say, males are attracted to younger females who exhibit signs of reproductive health. This also explains why males—especially young males—are driven to have sex with multiple female partners.

Given current U.S. social problems—think sexual assault and high divorce rates—it makes little sense to promote the mostly false ideas that males seek sexual novelty to perpetuate their gene pool. This information is unhelpful to women who want safe and stable relationships with men and it’s unhelpful to the majority of men who—in contradiction to evolutionary theory—want safe and monogamous intimate relationships with women (or other men).

Most of the time, most males engage in sexual behavior that’s not at all designed to spread their seed or perpetuate their gene pool. Young men are often strongly motivated to NOT get their girlfriends pregnant. Recent data indicate that many young men are NOT especially interested in engaging in indiscriminate sexual behavior.

Even in a 2011 research study at Syracuse University, 333 undergraduate males apparently hadn’t gotten the memo about being hardwired to want sex with novel partners. When asked, whether they could “. . . imagine themselves enjoying casual sex” these young men showed an average response that was largely in the “undecided” range. Think about that: males from 18-22 years-old at Syracuse University couldn’t really decide if they might enjoy casual sex. This is good news. And it’s not consistent with evolutionary-based myths about contemporary young men.

In the same study, 300+ Syracuse University women reported—in direct contradiction to evolutionary theory—that they had been engaging in casual sexual encounters at approximately the same rate as the males.

And so next time you hear or read or view a media story about how millions of years of evolution explains why human males or females behave one way or another, remember that many immediate conditions can and do override evolutionary-based predictions. Evolution is a generality that may or may not apply to a single organism living in the 21st century. Evolution does not trump choice. And that’s the point: Your choices tomorrow will have much more to do with the situations you’re facing today (and that you’re anticipating tomorrow) than they’ll have to do with yesterday.

Raising Boys in the 21st Century

As some of you may already know, yesterday I had a blog piece posted on the American Counseling Association website. The piece was titled, “Boys will be Boys . . . Unless we teach them something Better.” Check it out here, if you like: http://www.counseling.org/news/blog

There’s also much more helpful information on “raising boys” on the internet. One example is this featured blog on the Good Men Project website: “How We Can Improve Sex Ed for Boys.” Here’s the link for that: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/the-good-life-how-we-can-improve-sex-ed-for-boys/

I hope you’re all doing well in the run-up (as the Brits would say) to some major holiday activity.

John SF

 

Hooking Up: Two Play That Game, and Not Just on Campus

Hey. Here’s a piece Rylee S-F wrote that articulates some of the work and thinking we’ve been doing together as a father-daughter team. The focus is on male sexuality. Give a big shout-out to Rylee for getting this in the Connecticut Review and please reblog, like, and please make the world a better place by helping promote some sensible thinking about boys/men and sex. Thanks for reading! John SF