These losses start very early. As documented in her 2014 book, When boys become boysChu is a professor of psychology at Stanford University with a small group of boys, from the pre-K through first grade years. She observed and interviewed them and their teachers and parents regularly. Over a two-year period, she reported, boys became less present and more distressed as they picked up on cultural scripts associated with male stereotypes and learned to play the role of “real” boys. I watched them change everything—how they dressed, played, acted—and traded their natural enthusiasm for a thoughtful posture rooted in conformity.
Both fathers and mothers believe that teaching their sons to be “real” men is at the heart of their job descriptions. In 2020, research I helped conduct for the Washington-based NGO Equimundo’s Global Boyhood Initiative found that parents of boys pressure them to conform to cultural norms, even at the cost of their own personal authenticity. When asked what is most important to their sons, parents tell us they should be emotionally strong (94%), physically strong (61%), exercise (48%), have a girlfriend (46%), and, in general, fit in (59%) .
While trying to meet these expectations, many boys lose all sense of acceptance for who they really are. As Canadian scholar Michael Kaufman argues, there has long been “a strange mixture of strength and weakness, privilege and pain” in masculinity. By their late teenage years, many boys are stranded in a desolate state of emotional deprivation, social isolation, and personal deceit. Not surprisingly, in a recent survey of the state of American men that we conducted at Equimundo, two-thirds of Gen Z men (ages 18 to 23) agreed with the statement, “No one really knows me well.”
“Every boy is known and loved.”
When I first heard those words—the school’s motto coined by the late Tony Jarvis, legendary principal of the Roxbury Latin School outside of Boston—I was struck by their clarity and power.
I still think they capture exactly the right spirit and direction for our time.
We know what a child needs in order to thrive. We have been slow to apply it to our children. A few years ago, my research team surveyed nearly 1,500 boys ages 12 to 18 in six countries, as well as 1,200 of their teachers, and asked what works in their education. In their responses, the teachers focused on the specifics of their lessons, but the boys wrote, often with very moving expressions of gratitude, about the personalities, quirks, and gifts of their teachers and coaches. They told us clearly that they needed communication To do their best, both in class and on the field.
However, even in their own families, many boys feel lonely. In the same American Men State Survey, a large percentage of younger men reported feeling like they had no one to talk to when they were stressed or agitated. Psychologists tell us that without supportive relationships, people become more vulnerable and their lives more precarious. At school, for example, disengaged boys are at greater risk of indulging, giving in, or becoming “problems” in the classroom. When they don’t feel “well-carried” and accountable to someone who cares about them, boys pull away and look to their peers for their sense of belonging and purpose. Once they separate, it becomes very difficult for young people to aspire or strive to be their best selves.
What can parents do to provide for their children?
A big part of the parenting job, especially as he gets older, is building and maintaining a strong relationship with him, so he knows he has a sure place to turn to when he’s stressed, angry, scared, or upset. A place where he is known and loved. These relationships are the basis for a boy’s ability to resist all the potentially harmful temptations and pressures of our modern culture.