Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys
Dan Kindlon, Ph.D; Michael Thompson, Ph.D.
Every so often, it is not uncommon for my male friends and I to regale each other with horrific tales of awkwardness and inadequacy from our middle school experiences. The stories are frequently similar, not only due to their tragic content, but also because of their humorous delivery. The other commonality the stories all share is the hurt that lurks beneath their perfectly crafted punch lines and superb comic timing. They are painful memoires of alienation and cruelty that have been skillfully crafted into entertaining anecdotes. And while it is an exercise in catharsis to share the stories in an amusing fashion, the experience is one that is uniquely male: Painful memories and experiences are refashioned so that they are more digestible, not only for other men to hear, but for a world at large to hear; a world, which expects it all to be taken in stride. To be taken like a man.
Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson contends that at a very young age, boys are driven away from their emotional lives into a proverbial fortress of solitude and isolation and thus begin their decent into “emotional illiteracy”, a type of emotional miseducation that turns boys away from their inner selves and leaves them ill equipped to successfully navigate the myriad complexities of life; the very complexities that emotions are designed to regulate. The authors suggest that the rigidity with which boys are indoctrinated into the annals of manhood, rob them of their greater potential to cultivate emotional resilience and flexibility. Within this discussion, two primary questions are posed: What is the cost to boys who hide their feelings and silence their fears? And what do boys need to become emotionally flexible and complete men?
The authors use the chapters of the book to differentiate the varying factors that have the most significant impact on the lives of young men. This comprehensive overview includes sections on boys’ experiences within the school system, their lives at home and their lives amongst peers. Several chapters in the book concentrate on more specific issues such as anger and violence, drinking and drugs and intimacy and love. Additionally, there are two particularly touching chapters that explore the connection and conflict between fathers and sons as well as the tenderness and turmoil between boys and their mothers.
Kindlon and Thompson bring a tremendous base of knowledge and authenticity to the book, both due in part to their 35 years of combined clinical experience working with boys and also with their distinctive, yet universal experiences as men. Both authors share their professional experiences, which are illustrated in helpful vignettes, and each are brave and forthcoming with their own experiences growing up amongst all of the various challenges posed within the text. For clinicians who might be working with boys on a regular basis, or for those who might only see one during their entire career, the book is very useful and powerfully normalizing for those frustrating sessions fraught with stoicism and resistance, while reminding therapists, just what it is that boys need, and what it is that their silence and steely demeanor is telling us.
Furthermore, this is a book that could be very powerful and helpful for parents and educators of boys, in addition to adult male clients and their close relations. The authenticity and optimism that Kindlon and Thompson bring to the material allows the authors to challenge and question damaging cultural norms without being dismissive of masculinity as a whole. One of the most skillful elements of the book is that it does not demonize maleness and seek to change it; rather, it celebrates boyish exuberance and masculinity while clearly identifying all the areas in which it could be broadened and made more complete.
In the Eastern Highlands of Papua, New Guinea, there is a native tribe who regard manhood as “the big impossible” due to it’s difficulty, or rather, perceived impossibility to achieve. As both a clinician who works primarily with boys and young men and as a male who is in a never-ending search for his own piece of the big impossible, reading Kindlon and Thompson’s book was both a transformative and affirming experience which has given me deeper insights not only into my own professional work, but deeper insights into both myself and the men in my life. It is a book that created a sense of connection and shared experience deep within a place that will always house the remains of a fortress of solitude.