- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2000

Susan Shaffer and Linda Gordon are both mothers of 17-year-old boys and the co-authors of the new book, "Why Boys Don't Talk and Why We Care: A Mother's Guide to Connection." Mrs. Shaffer is the deputy director of the Mid-Atlantic Equity Center in Chevy Chase, Md., and Mrs. Gordon runs a private family-therapy practice in the District. The following is excerpted from an interview by Lisa Ing of the Washington Times:

Q: How is raising boys different from raising girls?
MRS. GORDON: There's a lot of psychological theory that tells us we need to have our sons separate from us in order to become men. But what we've found is that it's very important for boys to know they can stay connected.
When we talk to boys, we use fewer words to describe vulnerable emotions like fear and sadness. So, anger is like a giant umbrella where a lot of feelings are put. The nuance is gone. Understanding the difference between frustration, sadness and anger; that nuance gives them mastery of their feelings.
I just read an article in the New York Times about male depression, which said that some men might not report depression, but might express it through anger and drinking too much.
Q: What problems do boys face growing up?
MRS. SHAFFER: When you're talking about statistics, boys are more likely than girls to have discipline problems, to be diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, to be placed in special education and to be involved in violent crimes. Boys constitute 71 percent of all school suspensions.
MRS. GORDON: The suicide rate is higher amongst teen-age boys than teen-age girls.
MRS. SHAFFER: We're particularly concerned with how some groups of boys are treated, with the expectation they won't do well in school. The expectation that they're going to cause problems becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that's something that we have to stop.
Q: Why don't boys talk?
MRS. GORDON: Boys don't talk because they're not comfortable with intimacy. Boys don't talk because we've actually taught them not to know the language of emotions.
Males talk in the workplace and they talk when they're seeking a relationship, like dating, because they've got an objective. But the other compelling objective is to appear like an authentic boy, so it's safer not to talk.
MRS. SHAFFER: Sometimes our culture says, "Don't share your feelings. It's not a manly thing to do." The media and the kinds of expectations that boys have and the kind of rigid masculine stereotypes they have to adhere to say that talking and communicating is effeminate.
Q: You've talked about how standards of masculinity have become more rigid and narrower. Is that really different from standards in the past?
MRS. GORDON: Well, physically, the standards have absolutely changed. Jackson Katz has a video where he displays the action figures from "Star Wars." He shows the ones from the '70s next to the ones from "The Phantom Menace," and they're very different. You actually see that the physical standard of male beauty is larger and more muscular now. So culturally, boys have much more pressure to have an ideal body, which girls still feel.
Q: Your book has a section about boys teasing their peers. The worst name they can call another boy is "homosexual," implying that if a boy is effeminate, then he's weak. Does that represent a devaluation of feminine qualities and a narrowing of gender stereotypes?
MRS. SHAFFER: I think it's a continuation of the devaluation of feminine characteristics. We've seen times where if a boy is not doing well on the field, or if he gets upset, one of the expressions that a coach will use is: "Stop acting like a girl."
I think that characteristics associated with women are valuable. On the other hand, we haven't come far enough to allow feminine characteristics to be used by men in a way they can feel comfortable with.
Q: What can parents do to open connections between themselves and their sons?
MRS. GORDON: They can be available.
MRS. SHAFFER: Linda and I talk about touchstones, or teachable moments. And that's really what you look for with your sons. We want to get rid of the myth that you're involved with your kids in elementary school, and as they get older, you disengage.
Participating in their activities in school and going to see their drama presentations and their sports events is important, but the most important thing is being accessible. It's beginning to look for subtle cues, and not feeling personally rejected when you make an overture and he doesn't respond.
Q: Your book deals with the mother-son relationship. What are the roles of fathers in raising children?
MRS. SHAFFER: To stay involved. We did this from a mother's perspective, but if you have two parents, it's a coordinated effort. It's important to be a role model so boys see their fathers are available and emotionally accessible.
Q: There's been a recent explosion of books on raising boys, notably Dr. William Pollack's book "Real Boys" and Christina Hoff Sommers' book "The War Against Boys," which have very different approaches to the same subject.
MRS. GORDON: I'm happy that we're looking at boys, and I have a different reaction depending on the author's point of view. I support Michael Kinlan's book "Raising Cain," and I feel very supportive of William Pollack.
MRS. SHAFFER: We don't align ourselves with Christina Hoff Sommers. We feel that she is setting up a win-lose situation, which we're trying to get boys away from. What she's saying is that there are limited resources, that all of the work that we've done for girls hasn't really been needed, and boys are really in need.
This is about working together to do the best for all boys and girls, regardless of their socioeconomic status or culture, and working with children to celebrate their richness. There are probably more differences within each gender than there are between them.
We have to stop doing what she's doing, which is putting this banner up where boys are in need and girls don't need help any longer. There are still areas where girls are in need.
MRS. GORDON: We do not believe that boys lost because girls had their options widened. We believe that it's now time to widen it for boys. We want both to be winners.
Q: What can boys do?
MRS. SHAFFER: We're hoping that boys will feel more comfortable asking for what they want, being able to feel sad vs. only sad by exhibiting anger and get their needs met in school. There are lots of adults talking about boys, but we need to listen more to what boys are saying.
MRS. GORDON: Something I thought of when you asked that question was the "wilding" episode in Central Park. One of the girls talked about a guy who lifted her out of the group. We have to reinforce that bravery. We have to reinforce the fact that acting away from mob mentality is really brave.
MRS. SHAFFER: We want to make this a national conversation, so we have fewer [school shootings] and fewer kids that are killed. We don't want to lose one more young person.

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