'The Empathic Civilization': Boys Are The Key To An Empathic Future

As a child psychologist, it is clear to me that the quickest route to a more empathic civilization is to stop beating, belittling and in other ways psychologically scarring boys when they are young. Boys from traumatized backgrounds with brutal fathers can grow up to be tyrants and murderers--think about Adolf Hitler and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia--while boys who have been raised with emotional support almost certainly will not.

We need to raise loved and loving boys who have the capacity to grow into empathic leaders and partners. Across cultures, if we want to change the world quickly, our best option is to raise emotionally literate boys who value understanding.

Well-meaning parents and teachers often tell me they're trying to raise "sensitive" or "non-violent" men who can acknowledge their "feminine" side and who will grow up to "respect women." Yet, those efforts to raise sensitive boys can be counterproductive. When I asked a second-grade teacher why she banned play-fighting at recess and so-called "violent writing" in the classroom she said, "Because I don't want one of my boys to grow up president and invade Iraq some day." I can appreciate the sentiment, but her view is biased and unscientific. Childhood play does not lead to adult violence. I know that the boys in her class sense that she sees them and their writing as potentially dangerous. That's not good for them. We must understand the way boys learn. They are, on average, more physically restless than girls, more impulsive and competitive, more interested in writing stories of conflict and death, more likely to work hard when surrounded by groups of boys.

Punitive approaches to raising boys do not work. Fathers hitting boys at home only produces obedient boys who come into school ready to use physical aggression against their peers. An American Psychological Association report has shown that enforcing Zero Tolerance policies at schools hasn't changed boys' behavior; it only alienates them. Constantly punishing boys by taking away their recess time or banning their games doesn't work either. Forcing boys to always cooperate, to never compete in the classroom, just makes them feel as if school isn't made for them. If boys feel chronically misunderstood, if they feel their play is constantly interfered with, they simply go their own way, dropping out of school or psychologically separating themselves from the values of the adult world. They look outside of school for meaning, for affirmation of themselves as strong boys and healthy men. For many boys, that means idolizing the local gang leader, the cool but antisocial athlete, the abusive father.

My experience as the psychologist for an all-boys school and a consultant to both all-boys and coed schools has taught me some important lessons about what boys need. Boys are always hungry for responsible male role models and for women who really "get" boys. Boys are always looking for routes to a respectable manhood that both their male and female teachers admire.

In infancy, boys cry more and are more vulnerable to disruptions in their attachments to their mothers than girls. Many of them express their distress through anger and avoidance. We need to understand that little boy anger is often fear and anxiety.

In elementary school, we need to understand that boys are extraordinarily susceptible to shame. The arc of boy development is different--and slower--than the arc of girl development. We need not constantly compare boys unfavorably to girls or make girl behavior the gold standard in schools.

Throughout childhood, we need men to model caretaking behaviors for boys and we need to give boys the chance to care for younger children. Tom Lickona, the author of Educating for Character, has said that all children need to want the good, know the good and practice the good. I believe that giving boys the chance to care for younger children--practicing the good--may be the single most important step in helping them develop empathy. If we view teenage boys as dangerous or as potential molesters, if we only give them competitive outlets, we will never give them the chance to develop their empathic potential.

Finally, in adolescence we must meet the moral and spiritual yearnings of boys. If there is one lesson in the violent, terrorist activities of young men in the world, it is that young men always search for meaning, even in terrible ways. If we traumatize boys, we will produce violent young men. If we do not provide young men with meaningful rituals that take them from boyhood to manhood, they will invent their own cruel initiations. If we just try to control them and do not speak to their souls, they will pay us back with violence. Boys need to experience empathy when they are young, they need to learn to recognize empathic behavior, and they need to practice it.

The anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once expressed admiration for societies that raised their sons to be "good fathers." I agree with her. If we continually keep in mind the goal of raising good fathers, the best instincts of boys would be handed down from generation to generation.