The Boys Could Be All Right

Rethinking the Corrective to Violent Behavior

In the aftermath of yet another devastating, preventable school shooting in Florida, The New York Times published a widely read opinion piece (February 21, 2018) titled, The Boys Are Not all Right, in which the author Ian Black, an actor, comedian, and father of a school-age son, weighed in on what he believed to be the heart of the problem: boys with a faulty, culturally imposed, hyper-masculine self-image.

While it is heartening to me that Mr. Black’s short essay addressed the “boyness” dimension of the school shooting epidemic, it is just as mistaken to think that by building the kinder, gentler boy we will curtail gun violence as it is to think that we will do so by better treating mental illness. Neither the mentally ill nor developmentally undercooked boys will become mass shooters if they do not have access to lethal firearms.

There are compelling and even urgent reasons to build better boys in this era of #MeToo recriminations, declining male school performance, and diminished male prospects generally. This is a historical moment shot through with images and examples of egregious male behavior, some of it vilified, as in the case of fallen entertainment figures, corporate moguls, and elected officials — some of it celebrated, as in the "he tells it like it is" affirmation of our president by his base.

Where I believe Mr. Black is mistaken, if well intentioned, is in attributing the developmental failings of boys to the tired notion that, as he writes, "too many boys are trapped in the same, suffocating... model of masculinity where there is no way to be vulnerable without being emasculated, where manliness is about having power over others." That stereotype has been in play for a long time, as has been the implied corrective that a kinder, gentler — more feminine — boy will be free at last to realize his better nature.

The fact is that the better boy, while hardly in the ascendant, exists now and can be seen to exist almost anywhere one looks. We have heard and seen something of him in the aftermath of the Florida shooting. The better boy is not necessarily one who has been freed from the confinements of macho stereotypes. The better boy — demonstrably — is one who is held in secure, caring relationships, beginning with parents and other primary nurturers.

Not all boys are so held. Too few boys are so held. Some of them come to school "insecurely attached" as the attachment theorists put it. But those same theorists and legions of committed teachers, coaches, and other mentors to youth have proven that insecurely attached children, including boys, can be re-attached by those in teaching and guidance roles with the inclination and heart to do it.

Boys failing to thrive in school, boys into or approaching delinquency, have reversed course and subsequently thrived in consequence of relational attachment. Niobe Way has observed and documented this in her Harvard University Press study, Deep Secrets: Boys, Friendships, and the Crisis of Connection (2011). My research partner Michael Reichert and I have identified the same relational factors at work internationally in our study of boy-teacher relationships, I Can Learn from You: Boys as Relational Learners (Harvard Education Press, 2014).

Relationship-making is not an intuitive, unevenly distributed gift. Effective relationships are forged as a result of specific adult intentions and gestures. The resulting relationships are dramatically transformative. Boys who are not thriving thrive. Those already thriving exceed themselves. Relationship is not a warmly experienced value-added to the otherwise grueling business of education; relationship is the platform on which children succeed in school and beyond. When boys — children generally — are in scholastic or behavioral trouble, the relationship needs to be addressed first.

For school leadership and teachers to fully address the relational dimension of their work may require the abandonment of the current obsession with performance metrics, a focus which to date has cost billions, while failing utterly to race the nation's children to any putative top, while leaving a shameful number of them behind.

The better boy is not only possible; he is out there. Earlier or later in his life, someone came to know and care for him. There could be more of him. He could be normative.

Richard Hawley
Headmaster Emeritus, University School (United States)
Founding President, International Boys’ Schools Coalition