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Boys Are Lonelier Than They’ve Ever Been. What Can We Do About It?

“There’s a failure to give boys the message they are fully connected, emotional, relational beings.”

When, covered in bodily fluids in a hospital bed, I discovered that my first child was male, I was relieved. I knew from personal experience that it could be pretty sh*tty to be a female in our culture. I thought about all I wouldn’t have to correct for with him: He would probably have an inherent sense of self-worth, he would naturally discover his sexuality, and he would automatically think of himself as intelligent and capable.

But as we moved into the world together, this relief was replaced by a sense of foreboding and, at times, even panic. Why did the toddler version of him communicate with hits and kicks? Why couldn’t he spend 30 minutes at a restaurant with me without wreaking havoc or lying down on the floor and taking a long sh*t in his diaper? He grew, I gave birth to a daughter, and I continued to side-eye him — this beautiful, complex child of mine who nonetheless was equally possessed by some gendered force I didn’t recognize. Whether nature or nurture, I could not begin to tell. He and his friends played “World War II” and spoke to each other in a kind of violent, absurdist gibberish (“I hope your banana brain gets filled with TNT and explodes and then you ride 10,000 kittens”), while my daughter knew the names of all 75 kids at her preschool and could tell me which one of Agnes’ moms was called “mama” and which was “mommy.” My son, meanwhile, came back from weeks of camp reporting that “Yeah, I made a friend. I think his name was Tom?”

Over the years, I’ve filled my bookshelf with texts about kids and gender. But, I have to confess, I haven’t read a single one. The idea of adding prescriptions or hard-lined absolutes to the already swirling conversation going on in my head about my son and how I can support him to be himself but, also be better wasn’t appealing. On a friend’s recommendation, I took the leap and opened BoyMom, a new book by the journalist (and mother to three boys) Ruth Whippman, and proceeded to suck it right up into my banana brain.

Like my son, this book is not one thing. Part memoir, part investigative-journalism project, it takes you to the spaces boys are — dorm rooms, support groups, positive masculinity programs, incel forums — and tries to capture their experiences. The result is a nuanced and engrossing exploration, equal parts touching, humorous, and, yes, at times, a bit horrifying. I sat down with Whippman to ask her about how she came to write such an extraordinary book, and how she makes sense of being a mother to boys.

Why did you need to write this book?

I was pregnant with my third son a year into the Trump administration. The entire news cycle was just this horror show of male bad behavior. There was sort of this ambient feeling that having a boy was kind of disappointing. It felt like it was almost like this object of pity, and people would say, “I hope this one’s a girl.” Nobody wants to raise a predator, but somehow it felt deeply ingrained in our cultural life that this behavior is kind of normal. And so I wanted to look into: “What are we doing wrong? Where can we go? Where can we do things differently?”

But I also had quite a lot of conflicted feelings at that time because there was a part of me that, as a feminist, was really, like, “Yes, smash the patriarchy; men shut up; time for everyone else to have a turn.” But as a mom, I was also thinking, “Well, what does this mean for my boys?”

I’d seen lots of parenting books about raising boys that had moral certainty. But what I was feeling was the opposite of certainty, and I just wanted to look into it in a very honest way. We do have this huge swell of conflicted messages about gender and parenting. I didn’t want to be like “I have all the answers, and these are the steps.” I wanted to write through the messiness of it.

You begin the book by laying out the claim that in some ways, boys are actually more vulnerable than girls in our current society. Can you speak to that?

The way we tend to think about boys is they’re sort of hardwired to be aggressive or physical or badly behaved, all these masculine tropes. You know, that whole “boys will be boys” sort of thing. But when I started looking into it, I felt that actually the main hardwired gender differences were actually more about sensitivity and vulnerability.

For example, according to research by Allan Shcore, Ph.D., at the University of California, Los Angeles, a newborn baby boy is 4 to 6 weeks behind a newborn baby girl in the development of the right-brain, which is the emotional center. Those of us that have had kids, you know, that the difference between a brand-new newborn and a 6-week-old baby is quite a lot. And so what happens is it then becomes this compounding thing that because while boys are more vulnerable, they also actually get less nurturing and positive attention from parents, who tend to project all these masculine qualities onto them. So if a baby boy is crying, parents tend to see him as angry, whereas if the girl’s crying, they tend to see her as sad and in need of nurture, and this pattern carries on all the way throughout childhood.

We perceive boys and men as not being in need of care, and once you start noticing it, you just notice it everywhere. One sort of ridiculously small example was when my son went to kindergarten, there was this male volunteer at the gate, and two girls walked in in front of my son, and the volunteer said “Hi, sweetheart. Hi, sweetheart.” And then he saw my son and his voice dropped like three registers, and he’s like, “Hey, buddy!” and high-fives him. He’s 5 years old. He is a sweetheart by any definition, but suddenly he's trapped into this system of masculinity. It was such a well-meaning moment, but it’s really cumulative. There’s just hundreds and hundreds of these moments. And so I think boys don’t get the nurture that they need. They need more, and they get less.

You talk in the book about how girls have “girl power” and boys have… consent training?

I think we’ve done so much work focusing on what girls miss out on, and the many damaging cultural messages girls receive, but what boys miss out on in this whole gender system is so invisible. We think that we need to make girls more like boys, but actually there’s this huge missing piece for boys in terms of intimacy, vulnerability, and emotional connection.

We do so much speculating about youth on a population level without actually asking them about their experiences. I loved how many real-life boys were featured in your book. Can you share some of the themes you saw when talking with them?

Loneliness was a really big one. Both feeling real isolation and also that their friendships were kind of superficial, even though they wanted this deeper connection. Another big thing was a real fear around being seen as a predator, like approaching a girl and doing something wrong. There’s this little microgeneration of guys that were hitting puberty right as #MeToo was getting off the ground, and their entire sexual development has been in the shadow of the wider conversation our culture, for good reason, was having about the harms of male sexuality. To have your own sexuality framed as inherently harmful is an unusual way to grow up, and I think they were avoiding relationships because of it.

I also sort of expected some of them to be monosyllabic, but they were so emotionally articulate and so sweet and so thoughtful, and they just wanted to talk for hours and hours and hours. I think most of them never had the chance to talk like this. And so when they had someone who wanted to listen, they loved it.

What do you think is making these boys so lonely?

It’s sort of both what we don’t teach boys and what we do teach them. I think there’s this absence of socialization, or failure to give boys the message they are fully connected, emotional, relational beings. And I think we’ve gone too far the other way with girls. We’re putting way too much pressure on them to meet other people’s needs.

And then we also have all these masculinity messages where it’s like “Be tough, be strong; you know, you’re the main character in your own story; it’s adventure, and it’s action, and battles.” One person is crowned a hero and the other one is killed. There’s no emotional complexity or interiority.

This all makes it really hard for boys to connect with other boys. And there’s all this sort of like slightly misogynistic, homophobic messaging pushing boys away from intimacy and connectedness, and they’re already feeling anxious and avoidant. And then along come the screens and the video games and Discord and all of these platforms that give them the option to just bypass it all together.

There’s this whole conversation at the moment about screens and teenagers and depression, and the absolute last thing that any parent needs is more guilt about screen time. I don’t want to frame the conversation in that way. But I think the piece missing in that whole conversation, the piece that shows up for boys, is this whole phenomenon of displacement, where you replace time that you would spend doing other things with screen time. That is a significantly worse problem for boys than it is for girls.

I keep repeating the research finding that I read in your book, that one study found that, aside from organized sports, teenaged boys spend an average of 40 minutes a week socializing in person.

Right. Whereas girls spend something like nearly six hours. So that is a huge difference. Male social life is kind of migrating online. There’re big multiplayer video games, and it’s not really social. It feels like it’s meeting a social need, but actually, it’s not about true, intimate connection.

Most boys spend quite a significant amount of time gaming. I’m not anti gaming, but it starts taking away time from real life socializing. They talk over headsets and everything, but the talk is very, very superficial, researchers have analyzed it and maybe there’s occasional conversations about their lives, but generally, as one boy described it to me, there’s “no his, no byes, no hellos.”

How is that different from when my brother and his friends played Super Nintendo every day after school in the’ 90s?

It’s not that I think that in 1992, boys were sitting around and talking about their emotions, but I think there are two problems bumping up against each other here. We already socialize boys to be quite avoidant of intimacy. And then we throw in this massive, shiny way that they can avoid it all together. It’s complex because obviously you can both build intimacy and avoid it online.

I don’t see this as a quest to limit screen time. I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is just to value in-person connection.

A lot of the boys that I was talking to, they actually want to do other things in real life — they want to go to parties, or they want to hang out with their friends, but nobody else is hanging out because they’re all on video games, and then everybody becomes more sort of avoidant and then the screens just become this like social crutch. When boys do hang out in real life, they always have a screen, so they don’t have to do this face-to-face interaction that they might have done in previous generations. It’s becoming easier and easier to avoid the real world, and you see it with sex as well. Because porn is so easily available, it’s easier for boys to avoid real-world sex, which, you know, everyone’s going to have different values around whether that’s good or bad.

That reminds me of when you are researching the online communities of men and boys who identify as ‘incels’ (involuntarily celibate) and you make the offhand comment to your husband that you “need a grosser incel” to interview. And your husband says you need to get some new hobbies. What was that like?

Gross doesn't even begin to touch on how awful these spaces are in terms of misogyny, racism, every horrible form of hate speech you can imagine. But also there’s a lot of tenderness and feelings of belonging and brotherhood. And that was interesting because it was almost like these guys were like, “I'm never going to win in this system of masculinity, so actually, I'm free to just be vulnerable.” It was a weird paradox.

Speaking of paradoxes, you worry in the book that increasing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism diagnoses, which your boys have in varying configurations, might be another extension of pathologizing boyhood. Say more.

This book is, in part, a memoir about the period of time from when my third son was born until he went to kindergarten. And during that time, it was the pandemic, we were extremely overwhelmed, but my boys were wild. They were three absolutely wild boys. They were hyperactive; they were fighting constantly. And I think I just had this sense of “Is there something wrong with them? Or is this just normal boy behavior?”

On one hand, there’s, like, the boomer voice saying “They just need to know discipline, and you just need to be a better parent.” And then there’s this soft millennial, Gen Z voice saying “Get them diagnosed; get them on meds; get them some help.” And we did end up having them assessed, and they did end up diagnosed: The older two with ADHD, and all three of them with mild autism. Since then, actually the autism diagnoses are under question, and they’ve been doing some reassessment.

The narratives of ADHD and autism really overlap with the narratives of just general boyhood. I would see them with their friends, and all their friends were exactly the same. I grew up as one of two sisters, and we were very quiet and well-behaved and people-pleasing and bookish and all of the stereotypes. And so you know, I was just kind of blindsided by the kids that I had.

Whippman’s book Boymom: Reimagining Boyhood in the Age of Impossible Masculinity is available now.