Full Show Notes
We’re all familiar with the term “boys will be boys.” It’s often used when guys are physical, detached, aggressive, and violent. making it seem as though these behaviors are the norm. Much of society acts as though these traditionally “masculine” tendencies are simply intrinsic to male DNA…which can make us feel like there’s nothing we can do when our sons get into trouble for it.
But what if there was a way we could talk to our boys to help them realize that this behavior is not the only option? What if we could show them that, by slowing down and thinking about the situation at hand, they may find it wiser to simply keep the peace instead of causing a ruckus? This week, we’re revealing how you can sit down with your son and prevent all the brawling before it starts, or get through to a teen boy who’s masculinity might need a makeover.
Our guest is Andrew Reiner, author of Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency. Andrew is a professor at Towson University, where he teaches a seminar entitled “The Changing Face of Masculinity.” His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR and more. He speaks at schools and conferences around the globe…but today he’s sitting down to speak with us!
Andrew and I are discussing why it is that boys are compelled to react with violence or aggression when triggered. We’re also diving deep into the importance of vulnerability, and how we can help our sons accumulate a supportive community where they can express their emotions without fear.
Taming Toxic Masculinity
Although we often think that unruly behavior is rooted in male biology, Andrew argues the contrary. As he says in the episode, male and female brains are almost 98% identical– in his eyes, it’s our cultural norms and societal pressures that push boys in the direction of violence. That means that if we take the right steps, we as parents could create a generation of men who don’t feel like they have to fight their way through life! But how can we help topple this toxic masculine mentality?
To start, Andrew explains that we have to get to the bottom of where aggressive male tendencies originate. He believes it all begins with the way we teach boys, in subtle ways, that they can’t be weak or vulnerable. Then, when someone calls them a name, cuts them off in traffic, or bumps into them in a crowd-making them feel weak–they don’t know what to do but feel ashamed! This shame provokes them to want to get the upper hand, to handle the conflict with aggression, says Andrew.
If we want to free our boys from letting shame control their lives, the first step is to have an intentional conversation, Andrew explains. It might help to remind them that when another guy insults them, or tries to rile them up…it’s not personal. Whatever’s going on with that guy is not their problem! They don’t have to feel any shame–and letting them know that can make all the difference, says Andrew. If we can help them see that their strength or dignity isn’t on the line just because someone else wants to ruffle their feathers, they’ll be able to keep the peace instead of throwing fists.
Now, getting guys comfortable with vulnerability is a lot easier said than done. Andrew and I give some tips in this week’s episode to help boys feel at home with their own emotions.
Making Vulnerability Viable
Having been raised to believe they have to live up to society’s toxic masculinity standards, many young men struggle with vulnerability. They’ve been taught to associate it with weakness! It’s not always easy to help them change their way of thinking and become open to being open. However, encouraging our sons to both process and express their emotions can help them be much happier and healthier. Plus, it might even save their lives–many young men are ashamed of feeling anxious or depressed and don’t reach out for help, causing suicide rates among them to rise in recent years.
Interestingly, Andrew points out that humans cannot compartmentalize our feelings. If we repress the negative ones, we’ll also repress the positive ones, says. This keeps a lot of our boys, who feel they can’t have intense feelings, from displaying their sadness, but also their joy! Andrew and I talk about how young men often take cues from the media, the same media which shames prominent men for exhibiting deep sadness or happiness. If we want our boys to believe they can feel freely, it might be wise to encourage them to think critically about the dialogue they see about men online and in the news.
Andrew advises talking to your son through the physical and spiritual effects of emotions. Why do certain things make them angry while others make them want to jump up and down with excitement? Helping them understand and communicate the way they feel can be a great start to free emotional expression. Although it may seem odd, Andrew actually suggests that boys talk to themselves about their feelings! Sometimes, it’s the only way they feel safe to start talking things through at all!
Whether or not they’re working through things on their own, having a supportive community can help. Andrew and I talk in the episode about how you can help your son build up a safe network and share what he’s going through.
Creating a Safe Community
When we think of a group of young men who hang out regularly, we might think of a sports team, or even a group of boys who play video games together. Although these can be good sources of community for young men, Andrew talks about how there are often some elements of misogyny among these groups, or even an atmosphere of toxic competitiveness that pits guys against each other. Behaviors like trash-talking or one-upping each other are pretty common among these communities.
Oftentimes, this leads men to turn towards women or girls for deeper emotional support, whether that be a female friend, girlfriend, or a woman in their family. And while this can be helpful, Andrew emphasizes the astronomical comfort men can find from friendship with other men! Even when men have one or two close companions, they often don’t feel a deep level of trust with them. If we want our boys to live emotionally healthy lives, encouraging them to be vulnerable with other guys their age can be a good way to start.
As Andrew says in the episode, the script for how boys are supposed to look, act, and feel is stricter than ever. It’s no wonder our sons feel the need to act out–they aren’t being taught to handle it all! Luckily, with Andrew’s advice, we can change that.
In the Episode….
Andrew has a lot of unique ideas about how we can transform visions of masculinity in our society. In addition to the topics mentioned above, we also discuss:
- Why boys are so worried about “social perfectionism”
- How most male prisoners have one essential thing in common
- Why testosterone behaves differently than commonly believed
- How you can help your son feel comfortable opening up
I really enjoyed my chat with Andrew and it definitely made me think about what rules men are beholden to in the present day. Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to subscribe and we’ll see you next week.
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. Explain the problem with suppressing emotion:
“The more that we learn to suppress and swallow back those emotions, the more that we are self-numbing and that is taking us on the path to depression. That is a big part of the reason why it becomes so hard as guys get more and more used to doing that, it gets hard to help them re-engage with and tap into their deeper emotional lives.”-Andrew Reiner
2. Help your teen recognize their feelings by connecting it to the physical:(Members Only)
3. Trace a physical sensation to an emotion: (1 of 2)(Members Only)
4. Trace a physical sensation to an emotion: (2 of 2)(Members Only)
5. Challenge your teen to get comfortable being alone in public:(Members Only)
6. Give your teen some perspective on being “dissed” by strangers: (1 of 4)(Members Only)
7. Give your teen some perspective on being “dissed” by strangers: (2 of 4)(Members Only)
8. Give your teen some perspective on being “dissed” by strangers: (3 of 3)(Members Only)
9. Give your teen some perspective on being “dissed” by strangers: (4 of 4)(Members Only)
10. When your son (or daughter) seems upset at the end of the day:(Members Only)
11. Empathize with your teen to show them that displaying emotions is OK:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: So Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency. Talk to me a little bit about this. What inspired this book? What got you interested in these topics and how did you get here to be the person writing about it?
Andrew: Yeah, sure. So this has definitely been a snowball effect for me. If I really had to break it down, there really were these two reckonings that I’ve had in my own life. And the first one occurred when I stopped fighting as a boy.
Andrew: What happened was, I won’t go into the whole drama of the backstory, but basically there had been this really traumatizing fight that I’d been in, and there was this one with this neighborhood kid, and it was a brutal fight. It really was. I was seven or eight years old, he was the same age, and it was not the kind of fight that ever occurred in our neighborhood. This kid, this boy, had just humiliated me very deliberately. Later that day I finally come home and I hear my oldest brother screaming and yelling at my mother and he’s talking about me and he’s saying what a coward he is and what a black sheep, about what a loser I am, and all these things.
Andrew: My mother is not stopping him. She’s just kind of saying, “Well, maybe he’ll grow out of it,” which didn’t exactly feel like a lot of bonafide support coming from my mother either.
Andy: No. Right.
Andrew: As often happens is that you lean into the very thing, thinking that that is going to bring you redemption—that is going to bring you out of the shame. That’s what I did. I leaned into fighting a lot more than I even had.
Andrew: And so…at one point, I was in fifth or sixth grade, and I’m in a fight with this kid on the black top at school. For the first time I really feel, and really hear sound of my fist against this kid’s jaw. It just reverberates and it creates this like sickening sound, this crack, and I’m just nauseated by it. After that day, and after that fight, I just really put my fists down. I really did. That was really the first big reckoning I started paying attention to, and I realized how much I didn’t like the expectations of the script. When I put my fists down and unclenched them, it kind of created this space to open up inside of me and I started paying attention to just really how awful so many boys and so many men treated boys and the expectations that they had for if you were going to be accepted as an ascending man, what that meant.
Andrew: What I wanted to do once I started paying attention and became aware of this script and the expectation and the treatment and the ways that it just didn’t sit inside of me as acceptable, I started pushing back against it, increasingly as I got older, in really small ways. It became my own kind of little pitch battle.
Andrew: Then the second big reckoning comes many decades later when my son is born. It’s hard to know yet at that point, of course, what your child is going to become in terms of gender identity.
Andrew: But I did know that if he was going to identify as male, that there was just a whole damn can of worms that was being open again. It was like my past was catching up to me again because—it’s one thing, Andy, when you go through your life and you come to terms with your own personal fight. But when you’ve got somebody else coming in completely vulnerable and completely dependent on you and you’ve got to start all over again, it suddenly brings up, not just the shit of your own past, which I had really, to a large extent worked through, but more importantly, it raises all these questions of, “Well, I don’t want to impose my past on what could potentially be somebody who identifies my child as a boy. And yet I don’t want him to be picked on and I don’t want him to be bullied. On the other hand, I also don’t want him to have to live with this script that in some ways is even more rigid than when I was a kid.”
Andrew: There’s all these big questions, and that was a really, really big struggle. It’s something that, as a parent, you can’t easily just work through when your child’s very young, because clearly you’ve got to be, figuratively speaking, marching alongside your child and seeing where he is going. Because my son does identify as male and seeing where he is going and what the needs are and kind of trying to meet him where he is. It’s a balancing act, for any parent of a child of any gender orientation. It’s always a balancing act when it comes to gender identity.
Andrew: But because I was so acutely aware of all these things from my own past and my own path, it became more of a balancing act of, and it still and will continue to be, not imposing my own strong feelings, trying to separate those, meet him where he is, and support him as much as I can with a healthy masculine identity that gives him far more access to the depth and breadth of his deeper emotional life. That’s really where the book came from.
Andrew: It really began with a piece, an essay I had in the New York Times, in 2016, because all these things were in the front of my mind. I should add, I had started teaching at the university where I teach in, in Maryland, in Baltimore, a course called The Changing Face of Masculinity. Then I wrote this piece for the New York Times, which was about teaching this course, the point being about this piece in the Times is that it just explodes. It takes off, becomes viral. I start getting literally agents contacting me saying, “Have you ever thought about doing a book on this topic?” That’s really the genesis of the book.
Andy: You mentioned that the script in some ways is more rigid today than it was when you were a kid. What do you mean by that?
Andrew: I was so hoping you were going to pick up on that. Yeah, I think this is a really important topic because this is what I mean by that. In some ways we definitely have made a lot of progress with masculinity.
Andy: Yeah. Aren’t things better now? We’re living in the future and men can be anything and…
Andrew: We are, we are. There are a lot more young men now, ascending men and boys who want to talk about their deeper, emotional lives and want to embrace their sensitivity. Yet there are also these expectations that are in some ways even more hyper masculine than say when I was growing up. What I mean by that is that there is an expectation of body appearance, for instance, that is far more rigid than it was when I was growing up. When I was growing up, of course there were guys who worked out, of course there were guys who were buffed and ripped.
Andrew: But it wasn’t nearly as extreme, it wasn’t as cartoonish really. It wasn’t the norm. If you did it great, but you weren’t being looked down upon and you weren’t considered less quote “manly,” if you didn’t have that the big pecs, the big biceps, if you weren’t busting out of your shirt, nobody cared.
Andrew: All body sizes were far more acceptable. The limitation, not surprisingly, of course, was for was for girls and women. But we are at a place now where all of the messages and images that boys and ascending men, see in what they consume, whether it’s on social media, whether it’s in the movies with superheroes, action heroes, they are seeing one body shape and size. It is always these guys who are extremely buff, like I said, busting out of their shirts. That sends the message that you are falling short as an ascending man, if you don’t have this. There is far more body dysmorphia and eating issues with boys and men than there ever were in previous decades and that is much more of an interest today.
Andrew: That is hyper masculinity of feeling like, “This is my armor. I am impenetrable.” There’s that, but it also is psychological. It’s the idea that, “I am more invulnerable if I am building my body up to be armored like this,” and that whole idea conflicts with the idea or makes it harder, the more attention that to think to yourself, “I want to embrace my, my sensitivity,” which speaks to the idea of vulnerability. That’s really what you’re talking about, Andy. When you talk about embracing your deeper emotional life, it’s embracing the idea that you are a vulnerable human being. That makes it a lot harder and there’s an inter tension when the rest of your body, you are trying to make it as armored and as invulnerable as you possibly can appear and you’re trying to have that badass look.
Andrew: That creates an inner dissonance, the real cognitive dissonance, in terms of, “On the one hand I want to appear this way, but on the other hand, I want to make myself really vulnerable.” That is a really hard tightrope to walk for a lot of younger guys who haven’t really figured their shit out yet. That’s the kind of thing that I’m talking about.
Andrew: There’s also are still vestige … There also are still a lot of vestiges that are very hyper masculine, not just about guys feeling like it’s okay to ask for help, which is a huge one—but the idea of feeling shame. If they are feeling anxiety or depression and they can’t get themselves out of that, because again, that speaks to the idea of, “I’ve got to be able to handle everything on my own.”
Andrew: Those are two things that regardless of age, so many boys and men are still struggling with today. It’s why we are seeing so many spikes in anxiety and depression in boys and men and clearly these suicide rates that are public health threats from boys and men that are only going up. They’re not stabilizing it going down. What these things I’ll speak to are still these vestiges of a hyper masculine expectation that you’ve got to be able to handle everything on your own, which also means that there is something verboten about having to need to ask or seek for help.
Andy: Mm, yeah. Right. To not just have it all figured out.
Andrew: Exactly. Because there still is an expectation that you really are competent as a man if you can figure it out yourself.
Andy: It seems like conflated also with our archetypes about leaders or competent leaders to me because I hear people talking a lot about wow, how someone’s a really good leader because they’re just so calm under pressure and stoic or something.This idea that we can’t display any emotion if we want to be kind of perceived as competent or masculine.
Andrew: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That’s why, for instance, when Barack Obama would give a talk and maybe once in a while he might tear up or when Joe Biden is giving this talk the day before his inauguration and it’s at the Delaware National Guard that’s named after his son and Joe Biden, of course is getting very emotional. Whenever you see these kind of things, they blow up on social media, and even they blow up not just on social media, but even in the mainstream media and it becomes this really big deal.
Andrew: The subtext beneath that—
Andy: “Someone got emotional!?”
Andrew: I know, right?
Andy: “Oh my God!”
Andrew: “This is news, man! We have blast this out!”
Andy: “Cancel whatever you got, this is better.”
Andrew: I know, right. Exactly. Exactly. The subtext there is exactly that. It’s that, “Stop the press, look at what we’ve got here.” What the subtext beneath that really is, we’re basically saying, “Does this compromise his integrity as a leader?”
Andy: Ah, right.
Andrew: Of course you’re going to, you’re going to have people pretty much as is the case with our politics, a lot of the conversation about contemporary masculinity is very polarized. It very much is, and there’s not a lot in between, at least in the public discourse. That’s really what happens when you see these guys crying because it really becomes publicly, “Well, this just shows that he’s in touch with his humanity and that’s what we want in a leader. Somebody who is in touch with his feelings and isn’t going to be some stoic jerk.”
Andrew: Then of course, you’ve got people on the other side saying, “No, it shows vulnerability, it shows weakness,” as if this is really furthering the conversation, and it’s not. It’s not that in the past that if a leader teared up that a male leader would get a free pass, that wasn’t the case, but the fact that we’re still getting stuck on a biological process, and of course that’s what crying is. It’s a biological process, it’s a response that’s tied to our emotions often. The fact that we’re still getting stuck on this show is that we’re really not as far ahead sometimes as we’d like to think that we are. That sends a message to a lot of thoughtful, insightful boys and young men.
Andrew: Which is, “Well, my God, if these guys who have all the status and cache and power in the world, if they’re getting vilified, why would I want to do when I can see other guys at school getting ragged on, even sometimes even harassed for showing a little bit of sensitivity?”
Andy: Right, yeah, yeah. That’s the big question. As a parent then, so shouldn’t I be teaching my son how to really keep those emotions in check and not let anybody see those, because we don’t want him to get picked on and we want him to be a good leader and be able to be the captain of the team and stuff like that and be popular. Don’t we want to just stuff those emotions down?
Andrew: Here’s the thing. This contributes to things like depression and self-numbing. When we swallow back certain kinds of feelings or certain kinds of emotions, everything else gets kind of swept under there too because humans cannot compartmentalize certain kinds of feelings and then still have access to the other ones. Unfortunately that’s not the way it works.
Andrew: What happens is that we end up starting to numb the other ones without realizing it as well. You can see the writing on the wall with something like that because when boys and young men are to start to swallow back some of the feelings that make them appear vulnerable, i.e. weak, then other things are going to go along with that.
Andrew: One of the emotions that we don’t talk a lot about, but that we really don’t necessarily encourage in boys and men is joy. Think about it. Outside of sporting events where you see unbridled joy when an individual or a team wins, especially a really big moment.
Andrew: You see where this is going, you see the joy and in their faces and we applaud that.
Andrew: But outside of that, how often do you see guys walking down the street or guys in some store or guys in some other public setting who are not professional athletes or college athletes, how often do you see them just showing unbridled joy? It’s a rhetorical question, we don’t. If we do see a guy doing that, a lot of other guys, especially going to look at them like, “Dude, what are you doing? Dial it back, man.”
Andy: “Chill out, man.”
Andrew: Because we do not even encourage joy. The things that we really still don’t encourage in boys and men are integral to their humanity. It’s integral. The more that we learn to suppress and swallow back those emotions, the more that we are self numbing and that is taking us on the path to depression. That is a big part of the reason why it becomes so hard as guys get more and more used to doing that, it gets so hard to help them reengage with and tap into their deeper emotional lives. It’s why when a lot of guys go into therapy, if they do, a lot of therapists who work with men know that for a lot of guys who have taught themselves to really push down and suppress a lot of their emotional lives beyond anger, they know that they’ve got to start with them by helping them understand when you have a feeling other than anger, where is that registering in your body? Because that is a lot easier for guys to help them to learn what is the feeling in your body and then they can learn to attach an emotion to that.
Andy: Ah, yeah. Start paying attention to it without the judgment of knowing what emotion it is.
Andrew: Well, yeah, it’s because a lot of guys, and this is gets to be true especially of men as they get older, as they’ve had a lifetime of really swallowing back much of their emotional life, they can more easily explain to somebody, “Okay, now that you’re explaining to me that there are these physical sensations, I can say, ‘Okay, it’s in my left arm.’ I can say, ‘There’s a tightness in my gut.’ I can say, ‘I’m feeling this twinge or this tightening in my shoulders.'”
Andrew: Okay. Let’s try how to talk about what is the feeling, what is it now that you feel when you have that physical sensation? You have to work backwards and you’ve got to start off with something that these guys can more easily identify, not the feelings, but what is the physical sensation first? Then we can start to say, “Okay, what is the feeling you have when you get that sensation?” For a lot of guys, a lot of therapists who work with men know this is a place that is easier for them to start with.
Andy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Right.
Andrew: It feels safer and for a lot of men, that’s an important thing. They’ve got to feel that they’ve got permission. It’s got to feel safe that they can go there.
Andy: You talk a little bit about perfectionism, and you have some interesting research in here looking at some changes in perfectionism. This study is showing that when it came to a need to appear perfect in their social contemporary college students’ scores rose by 33% compared to the late eighties—that’s a pretty big difference.
Andrew: It is. It’s huge. It’s huge. What we’re really talking about with social perfection and even though it can sometimes look a little bit different between those who identify as male and those who identify as female, there still is a lot of pressure with social perfection. Of course, what we’re talking about there is beneath that really social anxiety and it’s the idea of feeling that you can’t say or do things that are going to make you seem that you are not conforming with the expected norms. You can’t take a step or utter a word that is going to make you look like you’re a bit of an outlier. Those parameters have just gotten a lot smaller over time, you know? There’s an egregious conformity to that because most kids growing up today learn what those norms are and the cool kids who are really dictating them and perpetuating them. Then everyone else is expected to kind of fall in line. You know that there’s certain ways you’ve got to talk and lots of things you can’t say and how you say them, and then you’ve got to be really careful about the way you’re coming off.
Andrew: An example would be you don’t appear out in public, either not being engaged with somebody or not on your phone. You always need to seem like you’re connected.
Andrew: Because if you’re not, if you’re not engaged at least on your phone, then you look like a loser, you look like you’re disconnected and you’re not in the loop. Of course that just perpetuates FOMO, the whole fear of missing out. It’s that idea that you’ve always got to look like you are connected to others because God forbid you should be sitting there eating alone.
Andrew: One of the things I used to do with one of the courses I used to teach was, in a lot of the courses I teach, especially these seminars, I have students doing these little out of class experiments. I would say to students, “Go eat in the dining hall, sit by yourself, sit there without your books or your laptop, and sit there without your phone and just sit there and have your meal.” That’s the kind of thing that we’re talking about. It’s this idea that something so small and subtle is part of this idea of what perfection looks like. You always should be connected.
Andrew: Another example of that is always playing music, either having the headphones on or the earbuds in, because that is another way of feeling like you are socially connected in some way. To be spending time by yourself, number one, and then to be doing that in a way that you’re not engaging, that’s more atypical than it is typical and that’s a form of social perfection.
Andy: Isn’t a lot of the masculinity related to biology because the testosterone you get, some guys kind of just are more high testosterone and they’re more into all that masculinity, playing football and competing and stuff, and others are more just kind of low testosterone and not so alpha.
Andrew: Well, it’s funny. I have an entire chapter in my book about the wiring of masculinity. I talk about the wiring in the brain and how male and Fu brains are 98% structurally similar actually, as it turns out in more recent studies.
Andy: More similar.
Andrew: Yeah. Most human brains, from thousands of imagings that imaging studies have been done, most human brains are what researchers are now calling a mosaic, where structurally are similar structural kind of components in both what we consider in the male and the female brain, and that 98% of most human brains are really interchangeable and that they’re very similar. When you talk about testosterone, as I talk about in the book, yes, there are some guys that might have a little bit higher testosterone, but what studies show is that even guys who seem like they’re betas, their testosterone levels can be far higher than even the alpha guys in situations where they feel that their status as men or as ascending men is challenged or threatened.
Andrew: There’s a guy named Robert Sapolsky at Stanford. So much of his career has been on studies like this with testosterone. I mention him a lot in that chapter and he’s done some great studies and he pulls on some really amazing studies that have been done among primates. I bring in other research that has been done with humans that mirrors this. What they found was that even though the alpha males in certain primate groups might be imposing their will so that they can be the top dog, so to speak, and have the most status in their primary group, when these other male primates far lower down on the pecking order, when they feel like their status is being threatened by other guys who are of the similar statuses them or lower, their testosterone levels can shoot up easily way higher than the top alpha male.
Andrew: What they have found is that testosterone levels typically are dependent on the context of the situation in which a male feels that his masculine status in the group is threatened.
Andrew: What that means is that even a guy who can appear to be really wimpy, his testosterone levels can shoot through the ceiling if and when he is with other guys, for instance, and he feels like he’s being disrespected and he feels that his status is being threatened in the group. His testosterone levels can easily be that of one of these ‘roid raging football players, he can go there. He can go to the same place with his testosterone levels.
Andrew: Even with some football players. You bring up the idea of some of these kind of football players. Some of them do have hired testosterone levels, but research has also shown they don’t all have these off the chart testosterone. What happens is that when they get onto the field and when they’re gaming up, that is when they feel that their status as men and as football playing men is potentially under siege, that is when their testosterone levels start shooting up.
Andrew: That really changes this conversation about testosterone.
About Andrew Reiner
Andrew Reiner is the author of Better Boys, Better Men. He is a writer and full-time lecturer at Towson University, where he teaches writing, men’s studies and cultural studies. His work as a cultural critic has led to regularly published pieces in the New York Times, NBC News, and the Washington Post, among others. He has also been a speaker to audiences of educators, administrators, and parents in the States and Australia.
Andrew lives in Maryland where he spends free time with his wife Elizabeth and his ten-year-old son, stomping around the grounds of their home, together searching for Civil War relics and wearing out their neurotic Australian-shepherd dog.