Remember how we used to spend so much time fixing cars? Remember all the car shows we went to? The funny thing is, what I remember most is how much we used to talk together. I told you all about Angela, that girl I had it bad for in my junior year. You told me about your problems at work. I talked to you about my fights with my friends. You always saw my point of view, even if you didn't agree with me. You always knew when I was not being honest with you. I loved those conversations. I used to brag to my friends that I was really close to my dad, that I was able to tell him my deepest secrets. I really miss those conversations. Why don't we have them anymore? I wish we could. It might make me feel less alone sometimes. Happy Father's Day!
This letter, drawn from interviews with an 18-year-old boy, reveals the desires of the hundreds of teenage boys who have participated in my longitudinal studies of boys' social and emotional development over the past 20 years.
George and the other White, Black, Latino, and Asian American boys in these studies told my research team that they share, or want to share, their "deep secrets" with others, including their fathers. Like George, they believe that sharing these secrets prevents them from feeling "all alone" and from going "wacko." Yet these boys also spoke about the pressures at home and in school to "man up," be independent and keep their problems to themselves.
As they reached late adolescence, boys described how their close relationships with parents and friends were fading, "like a DJ used his cross fader to start fading it slowly and slowly and now I'm like halfway though the cross fade," as one 17-year-old described it to me. At the ages of 16 and 17 years old, when the suicide rate among boys in the United States increases to five times the rate of girls, boys spoke of losing their close relationships and feeling increasingly isolated.
For decades, research has found that close relationships with family and friends contribute to better mental and physical health, academic achievement, life satisfaction and longer life spans. Yet American culture continues to define maturity and manhood as a process of separating from those with whom we share, or want to share, our deepest secrets.
Boys know that there is a problem. They tell us directly, and they show it with their bad behavior. They also, however, offer a solution. As George said, we need to spend time connecting with boys, asking them about their friendships and talking to them about our own lives so that they can learn to make good choices and avoid our mistakes. We need to allow them to express their vulnerabilities and not make these vulnerabilities a matter of manliness, maturity or sexuality.
Boys know that they live in a culture where having emotions and even wanting relationships are considered girly and gay. As one teenage boy said, "it would be nice to be a girl because then you wouldn't have to be emotionless." Yet boys also know that being emotional and wanting close relationships is simply part of being human. Data from a wide range of experts -- stretching from neuroscientists and developmental psychologists to primatologists and evolutionary anthropologists -- confirm boys' experiences and show that caring about others and the desire for close relationships are not only human capacities and needs, but they are essential for survival. What we have called girly and gay is simply human, in other words, and overwhelmingly important. Researchers such as neuroscientist Lise Eliot find, in fact, that gender differences in cognition and emotion have been greatly exaggerated. Boys are more emotional in the first year of life than girls -- they cry more easily. It is only with age that we see significant gender differences in these areas.
Boys challenge us to treat them as human beings with the same emotional and social needs as girls. They also tell us that doing so will make them feel less alone, and we will undoubtedly feel more connected to them as well. Happy Father's Day! Now go talk to your son.