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050: How to raise emotionally healthy boys
5th November 2017 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 00:56:20

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“Be a man.”  “Boys don’t cry.”  “Don’t be a sissy.”

Boys hear these things all the time – from parents, from teachers, from friends and peers.  What does it do to their emotional lives when they crave close relationships but society tells them to keep emotional distance from others?

Join my guest Alan Turkus and me as we quiz Dr. Judy Chu, who lectures on this topic at Stanford and was featured in the (awesome!) documentary The Mask You Live In.

This episode is a must-listen if you’re the parent of a boy, and may even help those of you with girls to understand more about why boys and men treat girls and women the way they do.

Don’t have a boy?  Check out How To Raise A Girl With A Healthy Body Image.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Chu, J. When boys become boys: Development, relationships, and masculinity.  New York, NY: NYU Press. (Affiliate link)

Maccoby, E.E. (1990). Gender and relationships: A developmental account. American Psychologist 45(4), 513-520.

Miedzian, M. (1991). Boys will be boys: Breaking the link between masculinity and violence. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Pollack, W. (1998). Real boys: Rescuing our sons from the myths of boyhood. New York, NY: Random House.


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Jen:                                      [00:40]                   Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Regular listeners may remember that a few weeks ago, I interviewed Dr Renee Engeln who wrote the book Beauty Sick on the topic of raising girls with a healthy body image. Even though I don’t have a son, I know a lot of you do, so in today’s episode we’re going to talk about some of the challenges associated with raising sons and how we can be better parents to sons, and specifically how fathers can be better parents to sons. So since I am not a father and don’t have a son, I figured I’d better find someone who is both of those things. So today I welcome a co-interviewer, Alan. Alan grew up in New Jersey with a comfortable middle class family whose father was physically present and not physically abusive, but who had what Alan calls embarrassing spasms of anger that came with yelling and throwing things and when he wasn’t angry, he was pretty emotionally absent, so Alan feels as though he didn’t really have a great model for this whole fathering thing, but he wants to parent his own son differently and it started to take some steps in that direction, but he isn’t really sure if it’s enough or what else he should be doing. Welcome Alan.

Alan:                                   [01:42]                   Thank you.

Jen:                                      [01:44]                   And to help Alan and I figure all this out. I’m so excited that we’re joined today by Dr Judy Chu. I first learned of her work on the documentary called The Mask You Live In, which you can rent on Amazon or on Netflix and I would highly encourage you to do that even if you’re the parent of a girl because it really helped me to understand some of the reasons why boys and men treat girls and women the way they do. Dr Chu is featured in that film and when I looked her up, I saw she’d written a book called When Boys Become Boys, which I devoured as soon as I got it, and I knew she was the right person for us to talk with. She also teaches a course on boys psychosocial development at Stanford University. Her work aims to support boys healthy resistance against societal constraints that undermine their connections to themselves and others. Welcome Dr. Chu.

Dr. Chu:                              [02:28]                   Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Jen:                                      [02:31]                   So Dr. Chu. I wonder if we could just start sort of in the weeds a little bit here about your research because a lot of the studies that we cover on this show are experimental in nature and that means that some researchers take some children to the lab and maybe they do something to make them uncomfortable and then they give the children a difficult task and see how they respond and then we try and generalize that behavior out to the real world and I’m familiar with the quote from the great psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner who called this the science of behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time, but your research takes such a different approach from that. Can you just tell us a little bit about how you go about studying boys?

Dr. Chu:                              [03:11]                   Sure. Well, I guess the best way to describe my research is exploratory studies because like you at the time I hadn’t grown up as a boy and I didn’t have a son. And so in a way it was very much like anthropological research where I was going to learn from boys about what it was like for them to grow up as boys amidst, you know, a culture that has specific messages about what it means to be a real boy, quote unquote, or a real man. And I wanted to learn from the boys themselves, you know, what they’re capable of knowing and doing and relationships. So a lot of my methods really involved kind of like ethnographic observations. Just really trying to approach the boys as… I even told them that they’re my teachers because I don’t know what it’s like to be them. And so really looking to them as key informants and then kind of participating in their everyday lives at school as a participant observer.

Dr. Chu:                              [04:01]                   So watching what they were doing, but also asking them about it and kind of really centering everything around developing kind of trusting and comfortable relationships so that they would talk to me as I was, you know, obviously different. I was an adult, I was a woman and kind of letting them get to know me so that they could feel that they could tell me things or share with me or also tell me if they didn’t feel like sharing things with me, which was also a part of the process. So I really wanted to respect and honor their wishes and their levels of comfort and then following up those observations later in the year once we had established relationships with interviews that I did – conducted either one on one with the boys or the boys in groups and that just depended on their preference. I would ask them, do you want to meet with me on your own or do you want to meet with me with some of your buddies?

Dr. Chu:                              [04:45]                   And they would let me know what they preferred because I brought toys to my meeting and because they were some times more desirable character that each boy wanted to play with. That became a way of getting to meet with them one on one because they didn’t want to have to kind of negotiate who got to be which characters and whatnot. So, um, but it was really very much based on what’s called the relational approach to psychological inquiry, which really kind of tries to account for the fact that the stories people tell us or the things that they share with us about their lives really depends on how they see us and how they see our motives and really starts from a place of, you know, placing at the center of the relationship between the researcher and the participant.

Jen:                                      [05:24]                   And so how many times did you meet with the boys roughly?

Dr. Chu:                              [05:27]                   Let’s see. I studied them throughout their pre kindergarten year and then followed up in their kindergarten year. I went at least once a week for two to three hours a week. And let’s see. I probably had about 48 days that I was there. And of those 48 I probably did interviews on 36 to 38 of those days. And so I met with them quite frequently and it was kind of eventually became on-demand, so I’d show up and the boys would kind of, you know, this was much later once they felt comfortable with me, but I’d show up and they’d come and request like, can you meet with me today, can you take me today? And then I’d try to make sure I met with everyone who had asked to be met with. And then also some of the boys who are a little more shy or hesitant, I also would ask them and when they didn’t feel comfortable, I’d let them pass and then if they wanted to then we eventually met in that way. So I tried to kind of, you know, more or less meet with at least everyone who wanted to. And eventually all of the boys did meet with me several times, so, you know, a handful but some more than others.

Jen:                                      [06:24]                   So this is very different from pulling a kid into a lab and get spending them in a five minute experiment and generating a result at the end. And I know that with an experiment you can potentially reach a larger number of people. You studied a relatively smaller number of people and I’m curious about the generalizability of your results. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Chu:                              [06:43]                   Oh no, that’s a great question. Yeah, of course. I’m happy to talk about that. One of the things that kind of drove my research was that at the time, and this was in the late nineties, nineteen nineties, a lot of the literature on boys was not really talking about their relationships and the centrality of relationships in their development because relationships were kind of deemed feminine. And so it’s like, Oh, if you’re going to study relationships then you should be looking at girls because that’s what girls do. And so the boys relational capabilities and kind of their styles and all those things were very much overlooked or underestimated or just kind of neglected. Like, you know, some of the books that had been written with just say, oh well boys don’t really hardwired to talk about emotions and relationships. And so there was really this missing discourse in the literature on boys.

Dr. Chu:                              [07:29]                   So what I really wanted to do is go in and focus on the boys perspectives to learn about their experiences and the relational approach that I adopted was very much based in studies that had emerged out of questioning traditional psychological methods which kind of approached experiments or studies as kind of what they call the black box approach where you think, okay, this person is this mysterious black thoughts. And like you said earlier, you know, we can manipulate situations and kind of see how they respond and try to guess at what they think about it. But my mentor at the time at Harvard, her name is Carol Gilligan. And one of the things that came out of her work in addition to the research on girls’ relationships and girls’ development that came out of the Harvard project on girls’ development and women’s psychology was this method that really said, you know, you can ask people about their experiences.

Dr. Chu:                              [08:14]                   And if you create a context or a situation that is comfortable and familiar and trusting and inviting, people can tell you what they’re thinking, and you can trust that. And so the approach was really that the boys know something about their experience and they can tell me about it if I can create a situation that makes them able to be open and honest with me. And so yeah, in a way it’s probably seen as a little bit more of a radical approach to psychological inquiry. But in terms of the kinds of questions that I wanted to examine, it was really the most appropriate method as opposed to coming in and, you know, because one of the things that I document in my book is just how long it took, you know, several visits, maybe 10 to 15 visits before the boys started to feel comfortable with me because I was a stranger to them.

Dr. Chu:                              [09:00]                   And understandably what they wouldn’t know if they could trust me or if they even wanted to talk to me. And so really giving them time to feel like, okay, who is this person? What does she want to know is safe for me to talk to her, do I even want to talk to her? And then finally kind of realizing that, you know, because I was genuinely interested in what they had to say really coming out and sharing with me things that, you know, sometimes they would say, oh, you know, don’t tell the teachers that I told you this or, you know, don’t let the other boys know that this is happening. Because a lot of them often felt that they were the only ones kind of struggling with some of the messages and pressures that were coming into their lives. Even at the young age of four.

Jen:                                      [09:37]                   Yeah. So you answered another of my questions, which is why did you get interested in this if you didn’t even have a son yet?

Dr. Chu:                              [09:46]                   That was a really wonderful question and if I could just, I’ll try to speak very briefly about it, but I was actually brought to this study by boys themselves and it actually started with work with adolescent boys because my first year at Harvard, after I went home. I was driving around my brother and his friends, they were all 13 years old so they couldn’t drive and one of his friends kind of said to me, Oh, Harvard, you know, tell us what you’re learning there, you know, basically sarcastically like “impress us.” And I said, well, one of the things I learned about was when you know, these studies of girls and how to support girls, and he, this 13 year old boy says to me, oh, everyone’s so obsessed with girls, they’re talking about girls and how to support them and that we need to support them.

Dr. Chu:                              [10:24]                   He goes, and that’s fine with me, but nobody’s talking to boys and we have something to say too. And he goes, “I know you should study boys; you should start with me.” And so I went back to Harvard that fall, told my advisor Carol about this, and she said, you should go back and study him. Clearly he has something to say. And so when I went home for winter break, that’s what I did. I started with an interview with this 13 year old. He talked for two hours about, you know, just kind of things that were, what was going on with him, what was hard, what was easy, what was on his mind. And I actually spent the first year of my studies studying adolescent boys, but what I found was that by adolescents they had already started to kind of reconcile the discrepancy between this is the way people think boys are and this is the way I experienced myself to be and the fact that there’s a gap between those things is just the way things are and you have to accept that gap as a part of growing up.

Dr. Chu:                              [11:22]                   So that was kind of what I was seeing and hearing from adolescent boys. And so...