“Raising Cain, Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” is a must read for parents of boys. Teachers will also find this non-fiction work by Dan Kindlon, Ph.D. and Michael Thompson, Ph.D., insightful. The first hardcover edition was published on April 8, 1999, just 12 days before the tragic shootings at a high school in Columbine, Colorado that rocked the world. The foreword describes the timing in explaining, the “national dialogue turned to anguished questions about angry and violent boys.” Authors Kindlon and Thompson are two male psychologists specializing in treating boys for more than 35 years.
It is important to highlight that Raising Cain is not in any way a book just to be read for learning about the emotions of troubled boys. It is a quintessential look at how, despite the progress that has been made in ensuring equity among the sexes, even of young children, to give boys what they need growing up.
Beyond the story of Columbine High School in 1999, there is an alarming disparity in the suicide rate between females and males. According to the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide, which sources its data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Fatal Injury Report for 2014, “For many years, the suicide rate has been about 4 times higher among men than among women. In 2014, men had a suicide rate of 20.7, and women had a rate of 5.8. Of those who died by suicide in 2014, 77.4% were male and 22.6% were female.”
The book touches on the notion that the differences between boys and girls are not a product of nature and biology alone. Proof of this is that infant boys are just as in touch with their emotions and their needs, as infant girls. In Chapter 2: Thorns Among Roses , The Struggle of Young Boys in Early Education, the authors express some concern about the negative impact on inclusion that, of all things, the increasing single-minded focus on literacy, reading and quieter activities dominating the school day for children between the ages of five and eight is having. Over the past 20 years, it became en vogue to limit recess, in favor of more reading time. Yet this presents an understandable challenge for boys. “The ‘bold energy’ that ‘defiance within reason’ is ‘life affirming’” for a boy. It continues, “It would be a diminished world if everyone skated in precisely the same way around a circle…” Therefore, the authors make the important argument that teachers should be mindful and respectful of the differences between boys’ and girls’ styles of learning.
Much of what the book talks to can be highlighted in two key hypotheses:
- Boys mature more slowly than girls.
- Boys are more active and slower to develop impulse control than girls.
Far from diminishing boys for these differences, the authors encourage readers to embrace these contrasts in approaches that distinguish how a boy’s emotions translate into decisions and behaviors from a girl’s.
In Chapter 12: What Boys Need, the authors list seven “foundations” of “parenting, teaching and creating communities that respect communities that respect and cultivate the inner life of boys.” Considering just these seven practical basics involving the emotions of boys is alone worth adding this book to your library. There is also an outstanding References Section at the end of the book that was valuable for future research.
While there was an excellent chapter devoted to “Mothers and Sons, A Story of Connection and Change,” I would have liked to see mention of the need for mothers to attend to self-care while raising children, not just boys. There is discussion of how much trust a son typically has for his mother, in no small part due to her role in giving birth to him and the bonding that normally occurs as she breast feeds him, changes his diaper and is there when he takes his first steps, reassuring him he is safe when he falls. What was missing was the important notion that a happy mother is a good mother. Happiness is not only an emotion in motherhood because it goes hand-in-hand with adequate rest, a healthy diet, exercise and, of course, laughter, joy and recognition of how much works goes into motherhood.
The book also lacked information I would have liked to have seen and data on culturally competent parenting and the diversity of families in America today. Families come in all shapes and sizes in modern times, yet there was no data about same-sex parenting, diverse ethnicities and cultures or blended families. For example, books on step-parenting have been known to suggest it takes a full year for a step-child to begin to truly trust a step-parent. It would be helpful to know if there are gender considerations in learning how to be an effective step-parent.
Maybe the most salient moment of the book came as the authors described how they cultivated trust with the boys who participated in therapy with the authors. They write, “we have left our offices to make trips across the street to the Store 24 to purchase junk food and returned to the office to eat it, discussing the relative merits of Mountain Dew,” and other soda pops. At first blush, this does not seem to be getting down to the heart of matter immediately but if you have a son, it makes a great deal of sense, as trust is everything and some boys are simply quiet.
Profoundly, the authors state, “As therapists, we know the deeper healing that ‘using words’ can accomplish: even in small inarticulate doses, talking about feelings releases emotional pressure…if you can get a boy talking, it raises his anger to the conscious level, and once it becomes conscious, it loses some of its power.”
The authors talk to the issues of depression, peer pressure, sports, competition, dating and everything in between. This book is a worthwhile read and one every family who is raising a boy should pick up. To access a treasure trove of additional information, visit author Michael Thompson, Ph.D.’s website.
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