Andrew Reiner: ...it's important to ask for help
Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: What does it take for boys and men to thrive in America these days? Our guest on this episode, Andrew Reiner, says it's about time for us to change the way we think and talk about males in our society. He says many boys and men are struggling now, worse than ever before, and that affects all of us.
Jan: Andrew has written on men's issues for the New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. He's a professor at Towson University where he offers a seminar on "The Changing Face of Masculinity." He's the author of a great new book called, Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency. Andrew, thank you so much for joining us.
Andrew: Thank you so much for having me.
Jan: You say masculinity is in crisis these days. Tell us more about why you feel that's the case and how it's happened.
Andrew: Sure. I think one of the things I first started realizing, being on the education side of the classroom, I started noticing this a while ago. I actually taught at the middle school level and I didn't notice it so much then. But when I started teaching at the college level, I saw a huge gap, a huge disconnect. When I started talking to other folks who are educators, they weren't really so much paying attention to the same thing.
But when we started talking about it and I started asking them, "Do you see a difference, for instance, in the willingness for the young men to come forth and to ask for help or to take part in classroom conversations?" They would always say, "Yeah, now that you mention it, I do see a difference in the young women and the young men when it comes to asking for help or taking chances and raising their hand during conversations." That really started things off for me and the disconnect that I was seeing.
The deeper I started digging, the more I started seeing that this was something that was happening at younger and younger ages. Of course it had to do with grades, but in addition to grades, it also started applying, as well, to boys dropping out of high school. Even when it came to the college level, there was a huge gap. We saw research on this a while ago about the huge gap between young men and young women at the college level in terms of, not just applying to college, but staying in college because young men are far more likely to drop out as well.
There's just this obsession with making money, of course all of us want to make money. But one of the things I started realizing as I was doing research for my book is that one of the ways that a lot of young men define themselves as burgeoning men is by the amount of money they can make. They were looking at college at kind of like a sucker's ruse. Why pay all this money when the horizons were so much more limited than the young women? They weren't looking at it and saying, "This is an investment. I can't see the payoff now, but it will happen down the road." A lot of young men, with tuition rates being so high, couldn't see beyond the output, the outlay. And so, so many young men were dropping out of college.
What's happening is that a lot of these young men, the ones who get out of high school and don't pursue college, the ones who end up dropping out of college, and even the ones who graduate with degrees, they are not succeeding as well as a lot of young women are. A lot of these guys are not getting the entry level jobs, a lot of the young men with high school educations are staying home and, as cliche as it sounds, a lot of them really are playing a lot of video games. A lot of the young men with degrees aren't as successful as a lot of the young women at getting the degrees.
Of course, there's the epidemics of anxiety, loneliness, suicide, and, of course, depression. Those are things that, although we don't really talk about it a lot in terms of young men and middle-aged men, in the research for my book, what I discovered was that when the diagnostic scales for things like depression, especially, are geared more towards the way it manifests in boys and men, then the gap closes. That gap that we think of has women experiencing depression at rates of two-to-one on average to men, actually start to close when diagnostic scales start to gauge the way the depression looks in boys and men.
Laura: Do you think that right now is a really good time for parents to be able to influence their sons because they're home more, the parents are home more, the kids are home more. We've just heard these alarming rates of one in four young people have thought about committing suicide during the pandemic. To me, it would seem like there could actually be a positive change that there maybe hasn't been since, gosh, way before my generation.
Andrew: Absolutely. There have been, ironically, some silver linings in all of us having to be home more. Despite the fact that there are a lot more tensions with all of us being home with each other more, this really is an opportunity for parents to change the way, hopefully, that they're talking to and with their boys especially.
There's been some research recently coming out about how depression in boys and young men with the pandemic is possibly influencing some of the spikes that we're seeing amongst this age group with suicide. One of the things that often happens is that a lot of parents have this resistance to having these kinds of conversations with their boys. They're much more comfortable and much more likely to have them with their daughters. It's this kind of unspoken understanding that it's uncomfortable for the parents because of the way that the boys react; it's also uncomfortable for the boys. We don't want to make them uncomfortable and make them less likely to come and talk to us.
The reality is, I found this out time and time again in my book research and talking to boys and young men, is that a lot of them do want to talk. A lot of them do want to have these conversations, but they feel like they need permission to have them. That's got to come from us. We've got to be the ones who's got to get beyond our own discomfort and say, "You know what, maybe this isn't the way that we've done business with boys in the past, but for the sake of them, and in turn everybody else, we really do need to start having these conversations. We need to learn how to have these kinds of conversations with boys."
Jan: How do you start the conversation? How do you open it up if you sense that your younger boy, or your teenager, or your son in his 20's is struggling?
Andrew: One of the things that I think is really important to do is to normalize conversations about the deeper emotional lives for boys. One of the things I think that we really can and should do is, first of all, we should have these conversations. A lot of times, if boys aren't used to having these conversations with us, a way to normalize that is to start off with baby steps. They're not going to respond if we suddenly break out of character and want to start having these conversations because it's good. They're going to smell it a mile away, they're going to shut down, and they're not going to want to have the conversation.
A way to normalize these kinds of conversations are to use it in the context of things that you're doing together. For instance, if you're watching TV or movies with boys, having conversations afterwards about the kinds of things that were maybe emotional triggers from the story and asking them how they think the character must have responded, how they would respond in a situation like that, or even something as simple as, "There were some really kind of dramatic moments in there that were kind of sad. Were you left feeling that way too? If you were, what were some of the parts that really felt sad to you?"
Something as simple and as small as that, is a way to start normalizing these kinds of emotions for boys so that they don't hold them in and feel like it's some big, ugly, hairy beast that is just too big for me to deal with and it's not acceptable for me to deal with. It's just taking these really, really small steps.
Laura: I know that, at least with me and the way I've reacted with my mom as a girl, that when she's tried to give advice to me, I often will get defensive and say, "Hey, you didn't grow up in this time. You don't know what it's like with social media and the impact that technology has had." I think in many ways, social media has had a horrible effect in how men treat women. I'm curious to know what your insights are on that.
Andrew: It has. I think social media has contributed to that. But I think that, more than even social media, boys will spend time on social media, but they don't lean into it the way that girls do. It's not a primary forum for them of communication and connecting. Boys will spend a lot more time watching influencers on YouTube. There is a lot of misogynist behavior from a lot of the guys that these boys will turn into and these men on YouTube.
Another place that a lot of boys will find they're connecting with each other is through gaming, video gaming where they'll have their headsets on. In really small ways, guys will bond to connect that way. I think more than social media, I think that watching YouTube and watching the messages of the boys and men that get a lot of hits, there is a lot of misogyny in those.
I think that there's even more misogyny in a lot of the violent video games, the way that women are being represented and the way that the girls who come on. There are a lot of qualitative instances of girls experiencing misogyny when they try to enter into the realm of video gaming with other guys. To be honest, I think those influences are a lot stronger for boys.
Laura: I would just say to argue with that, I have known a lot of guys who are not interested in video games and have been on dating apps. I know from my experience and from my friends' experience. It seems to me, they are on these apps and social media more than you would think. But they have started to treat women differently because they know there are more options than, maybe, they did in my mom's generation. They really don't feel like they need to put quite as much into the relationship. That's just been what I've seen. Maybe that's not the case.
Andrew: No, no. Of course, there are going to be guys out there who are going to spend a lot more time in social media. There are a lot of young men who are doing that more than, say, five, six, seven years ago, of course there are. But I think that when you're talking about trends, there's always going to be exceptions. I have no doubt that these guys are telling you the truth. I think that, by and large, there are a lot of adolescent boys and young men out there who are still leaning heavily into gaming and do watch a lot of YouTube. Yes, of course there are going to be exceptions. But in my own research, that was really what I observed.
Jan: What do you think is the toughest age for a boy or a man in this day and age?
Andrew: To be honest with you, I don't think it ends. I think that it's tough for different developmental stages for different reasons. In terms of the pressure, I think the pressure is felt differently at different stages. To give an example of what I mean, I think that even though a lot of middle-aged men aren't feeling the need to constantly prove themselves as much, for instance, day in and day out around the clock with every single word they say and every single little act they do in terms of whether or not they're performing in an acceptable way to get their man card stamped. A lot of middle-aged men feel a lot of internal pressure in terms of dealing with a lot of life's challenges and struggles. They're old enough to deal with loss, with all different kinds of loss. And yet, on a deep level, they also struggle with feeling like they’ve got permission to talk about it and to seek the help that they really need. That's a way that it looks different for men in middle age.
When you dial it back a little bit, I think the pressures are just a lot more overt for guys. Really, it becomes really pronounced in middle and high school, it's when it really starts really hitting guys in the face, literally and figuratively, unfortunately. But I've also noticed that boys start beyond kindergarten. A lot of boys when they're very young, as early as elementary school-age, I see this with my son who's now in third grade. I started seeing with him, as early as first grade, and a lot of research bears this out for a lot of boys, is they'll start seeing body dysmorphia, the same way that girls see it, and young women. Boys now see it a lot more than they used to. They're seeing these representations of these "successful" guys, these superheroes with these overly inflated upper torsos, a lot of boys aspire to that. A lot of boys are seeing this message that 'this is the way that a successful man should look.' It starts really early with that.
And then, of course, there's always the message, "Don't cry. Don't be a baby." It's not as common as it used to be, but I think sometimes boys will still hear things like, "Don't be a girl." Mostly it's, "Don't be a baby. Don't cry." Boys at a very young age are seeing that. The stakes get a lot higher as boys age and they get into more complex social situations. I think that at every step at every level, boys are constantly faced, and even with men, with challenges to their identity as a male, if they identify as male.
Laura: What can we do as a society to try and change this and make guys more open with their emotions?
Andrew: It's got to feel safe and they've got to have permission. One of the ways that can really start is not by shaming. There was a young man I interviewed when I was giving some talks in Australia at some schools, I was doing some work over there on this topic. There was this great line from one of the young men, he was a high school senior, he was talking about how, with a girl's school, they were having a talk about the #MeToo Movement. He said he asked a question, it was apparently taken the wrong way, and there was a lot of shaming going on. He said, "Who's going to change their mind just because they're being shamed?" I thought that was actually very profound. Shaming boys and men into thinking a different way is not going to change it.
What's going to really change is that it's got to start with coming from other men that they respect. The way in to get boys and men to start feeling okay with this, is to get boys and men that they respect to give them permission. One of the things that I've become convinced of, from the research that I did on my book, I really am convinced that having the equivalent of men's groups in schools, there are some programs like Becoming a Man, which is based out of Chicago that does this extremely well. It's a class that boys take, it's optional, but a lot of the boys and young men sign up for it. They take it only once a week for about, maybe an hour, an hour and a half at the most. They do the equivalent of what a lot of men do in men's groups, where they're sitting in a circle, and it's facilitated by somebody who usually is a professional and knows how to run these things. They've had huge success with getting boys to learn to sit there and talk with each other and open up in ways that feel very safe. This is not something that most boys and men have in their lives.
When guys are getting together with circles of friends, that is not a safe space for them to talk. Competition underpins so much of the dynamic of male interactions and the competition is usually in the form of one-upmanship. That doesn't encourage safe spaces for boys and men to learn how to open up with each other, they have to be taught how to do it. When they can learn how to do that, it's really a profound thing, because it creates something that is lacking in so many boys' relationships, which is a sense of trust with other boys.
Jan: What message would you have for females, for mothers, wives. What message would you have for all of us who are female who maybe don't understand what is different about masculinity for guys these days.
Andrew: One of the things I think a lot of extremely well-meaning mothers, and even fathers, don't do is they don't meet boys where they are. I think a really great thing that a lot of moms could do, although I think dads really could benefit from doing this too, is finding ways to talk with their sons to find out what are the things that make them really happy in their lives? What are the things that make them really scared in their lives? What are the things that make them sad? I think learning how to meet boys where they are is a really important way to let them lead.
I'm really convinced from the research that I've done, just my own research in the book and other books as well, I really do think if we meet boys where they are and let them lead in the conversation to see what really matters to them, I think boys will be happy to tell us those things. If we give them the microphone and if they know we're not going to judge them, we're just going to let them talk, and we're going to just follow their lead. I think something as simple as that as a starting place, if boys know that we really mean it, we're not going to cut them off, we're not going to correct them, and we're not going to judge them. I think if we do that for boys, that is a way to create trust and interest. Boys want to know that we're willing to listen to them and to understand them. I think that's a really important place to find out what it is they want when they think about themselves as burgeoning men.
Laura: It seems to me like one of the biggest things that would be helpful, would be if we can maybe change how they view success. I think, like you said at the beginning of the show, it's been so crazy for guys to think about making money, making money, making money, and that's how they judge success. Whereas, I think guys in past times, and hopefully going ahead, will think that contributing to somebody else is success and you can't measure your success against somebody else.
Andrew: Absolutely. I think you're right, Laura. I think that in previous generations, that idea of getting beyond yourself and what can you contribute is something that is really missing from the core traditional masculine norms that a lot of boys and young men are really following today.
Laura: I was going to just interrupt there and say, you know what I was thinking is guys in my millennial generation, when you think of somebody like Bill Gates, or guys like that, who donate their fortunes to other causes, I think that they don't understand that. You know what I mean? They think, "Why wouldn't you want to spend this on a Ferrari or something like that?"
Andrew: I know, I know, I know. To go back to it, there's this misconception amongst so many boys and young men when they look at the athletes they really admire. Again, when they watch a lot of these YouTube influencer guys, they have this misconception that everything should come easy, you should do it without looking like you're breaking a sweat. That is a huge problem for a lot of guys. It's one of many reasons why they don't lean into and have that grit factor that a lot of girls and young women do in the classroom. They think if it doesn't come easily and I can't bring home the big grades and the big moments, why put out the effort because everybody else that they admire and respect makes it look so easy. This is the way it should be. That whole notion is this idea about process is not really important. It's about making the big play in the big game, getting the big grade on the big test. It's about making the big coin and finding ways to cut the corners.
Really, you've got to work backwards from that because that really is a prevailing ethos today, it really is. It's about saying, how can we, looking at where they are, we can't just say to them, "Previous men in previous generations got beyond themselves and they gave back to society. You should be doing the same thing." That's not going to make a dent in terms of them at all. As you know Laura, millennials and Gen Z, very much generations that are very much peer-driven. You've got to find ways that there are peers that they respect that can start to break down this message.
We've got to find ways to get a lot of boys and young men to buy into this idea, first of all, of that the importance of process and the importance of work. I really do think that that's a really important lesson, as boring as that is, that is really something that they have to buy into. One of the things that happens as a byproduct when people buy into this idea of process and of putting it front-loading with the hard work and the grit factor, is that it shifts the values. I think a lot of the young women that I've worked with for years at the university level, I really don't think it's a coincidence that they can see the bigger picture. I think there's something about learning the values of hard work and learning the importance of process. I think that there's something about that, where you're not constantly focused on the money, the money, the money, and how that's going to reaffirm your value as a man. That's something that just opens their eyes, beyond themselves.
Jan: I’m wondering what message you would have for guys who feel like they're struggling, especially right now given the pandemic. That maybe they've lost their job, or their education opportunities have been interrupted, or their athletic opportunities have been interrupted and they somehow are just feeling sort of lost, and bewildered, and angry. What's the message?
Laura: Or with younger boys too. I'm thinking about guys who wish that they could be with their friends and feel like they don't have control. I mean, you see suicide at such a young age now.
Andrew: That's right. That's exactly right. You guys are absolutely right on both counts. There is a sense of hopelessness and a sense of feeling lost. I really think an important place to start is finding ways to get boys and young men talking and connected. Sometimes there really do have to be interventions. It doesn't have to be some big dramatic thing, but there have to be ways to get boys and young men talking, talking about the things that are making them hurt.
There's a piece that I just did for the New York Times, that's supposed to be coming out this week. It completely leans into this idea of how and why young men, and even older men, really need something they don't have, which is emotional safety nets, these support networks that women, girls and young women are so great at creating. It's the idea that you've got to find ways to connect and to open up, and to ask questions. One of the things that I mention in this piece that I think is so important, is that now there are all these apps that you can go on to anonymously and you can find ways of connecting with other guys. The power of commiseration is a really important thing.
It's the whole thing about bearing witness that the Quakers understand so well, there's something really powerful in that. Even going on to an app as anonymously, and just letting people know that you're really in a bad place. Suddenly what happens is that there's just this wave of people coming back and supporting you. What happens is that, when a lot of guys, young men who go on to these apps especially, will then come back and they'll start sharing a little bit more and then they'll feel safe asking questions like, "What are you guys doing? Where are you going to get help?" This kind of dynamic, going onto something with the anonymity of an app can be really helpful and really powerful. There's some early research showing that some of these online apps are great gateways to get boys and young men talking about the things that they're suffering with, but they can do it anonymously and privately.
Laura: I love that answer. They can also get a lot of help with counseling too, anonymously, by using a, I don't know, a service like Better Help, or one of those where they have access to telemedicine and they don't need to say to their parents, "Hey, can you take me to this place?" Or, I don't know, lots of resources like that.
Andrew: Again, they're a good gateway. A lot of these apps are not at the point where they can take the place of real therapy. But they are such an important gateway for so many boys and young men out there who do want help but they don't know where to go and they don't know how to do it. These are such simple, easy ways to start that process and to get it rolling.
Laura: Yeah, so many lessons there. Andrew, at the end of each show we ask our guests, "What is your nobody told me lesson?" I want to know, what do you wish that somebody had told you about masculinity when you were a kid trying to figure out what it meant to be a man?
Andrew: This is a really good one, I really am not being hyperbolic here at all. I think it speaks to all boys and men. It's not just okay to ask for help, it's important to ask for help.
Laura: Love that answer.
Jan: Yeah. Definitely.
Laura: It's so simple, but that's exactly what they need to do.
Andrew: Oh my God, that's everything. That is everything for so many boys and men.
Laura: That is everything.
Jan: How did that play into your own life?
Andrew: So many levels. I was interviewing somebody earlier today. We were talking about how there's just so many gaps in life sometimes, that things that are just such a mystery. For a lot of boys growing up, you understand implicitly, because it's so ingrained in us, that there's a lot of expectations about not asking for help when it comes to your emotional needs. That still is true. We're getting better, but it's unfortunately, it's still a lot more pervasive than we like to believe.
My house, growing up, without getting into a lot of boring details, I did not grow up in an environment where this idea of emotional honesty was really talked about, or it was something that I could ever go to one of my parents and say, "I'm really sad, can we talk about it?" Even if I would have known to do that, there wasn't a conversation that would have taken place, even in my school life. I just went through just so many years, so many formative years of schooling, just being in the classroom and just being completely confused and shocked at how many kids were just understanding how to learn. I just would sit there stupefied thinking, "How are they getting this? Why am I not getting it?" It never occurred to me to go to somebody and just say, "I'm not getting it, can you help me be like everybody else?"
Laura: Yeah. Had you done that, so many things would have been easier because you think it just compounds and compounds over the years.
Jan: And you feel more lonely.
Laura: Yeah, exactly.
Andrew. It's isolation. It's just, it's a lot of isolation.
Jan: Yeah. Andrew, how can people connect with you on social media and the internet?
Andrew: www.andrewreinerauthor.com. And on Instagram, andrew.reiner.author.
Laura: Awesome. We want to thank you so much for coming on and we know this is going to help a lot of people, especially now. We really appreciate the opportunity.
Andrew: I'm honored. Thank you so much for having me on, it's been great.
Laura: Our thanks to Professor Andrew Reiner, whose book is called, Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency. Again, his website is andrewreinerauthor.com. It's published by HarperOne. I'm Laura Owens.
Jan: And I'm Jan Black.
Laura: You've been listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.