We’re diving into the complexities of raising boys during a transformative time in history with our special guest, Ruth Whippman. Ruth is an acclaimed author whose latest book, BoyMom, masterfully blends memoir, cultural critique, and reporting.

In this episode, we explore:

Brain Development: The differences in brain development between boys and girls, highlighting why baby boys need more intensive caregiving in their early months and how these differences impact emotional regulation and attachment.

Cultural and Social Influences: Insights into contemporary boyhood, including the evolution of feminism, the #metoo movement, and the nature vs. nurture debate in the development of boys versus girls.

Emotional and Relational Intelligence: The importance of teaching boys emotional intelligence and relational skills to mitigate the report of a loneliness epidemic that teen boys and young adult men are facing.

Early Attachment Relationships: Understanding the importance of early attachment relationships and how they set the blueprint for future interpersonal skills and emotional well-being.

Practical Parenting Strategies: Realistic advice for parents on how to foster empathy, emotional intelligence, and strong moral values in boys, moving beyond traditional gender norms.

Join us for this enlightening and heartfelt episode as we delve into the essential work of redefining masculinity and creating a more emotionally inclusive world for our boys.

Ruth (00:00):

I think the problem is that the same system that kind of gives girls all these stereotypes and boxes them in also gives boys a whole lot of really harmful stereotypes that says that they have to be tough and they have to be strong and they have to squash their emotions and that they’re kind of these heroes in this battle narrative. And as well as telling them what to be, it kind of tells them what they can’t be. It fails to teach them these kind of emotional and relational skills.

Dr. Sarah (00:32):

As a mother of both a boy and a girl, I have witnessed firsthand how gender differences and societal stereotypes have uniquely impacted both of them. And when it comes to raising our boys, this is a complex and often confusing time for parents. Joining me today is Ruth Whippman. Ruth is an author, essayist and cultural critic whose writing has appeared in publications like The New York Times Magazine and The Guardian, her latest book, BoyMom: Reimagining Boyhood in the Age of Impossible Masculinity is an incredible read that I could not put down and cannot recommend enough for any parents raising boys. In this episode, we will discuss the differences in brain development between boys and girls. The societal and emotional pressures on boys today, the importance of nurturing and fostering their emotional intelligence, and really practical parenting strategies that you can implement to help you raise an emotionally healthy son. I cannot wait for you to hear this interview.


Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.


Hello. Today I’m thrilled to invite on Ruth Whippman. She’s here to talk about an amazing book that I cannot put down. I am a boy mom, but you wrote this book, boy, mom, and first of all, just welcome. Thank you for coming.

Ruth (02:26):

Thank you so much for having me on.

Dr. Sarah (02:28):

Yeah, I am really, really grateful that you came on. I have so many questions for you about your experience as a boy mom. We’ve just figured out that your youngest, that might’ve been perhaps part of the impetus for writing this book is actually the same exact, almost exact same age as my oldest. So I was feeling, I was very much relating to a lot of the stuff you were writing about in the book because I was going through at the same time.

Ruth (02:56):

Oh, that’s lovely to hear. Yeah, it was a crazy time to have a boy. It was right in the middle of the Me Too movement that I think both of us were giving birth, and that was quite an intense time to be giving birth to a son, I think.

Dr. Sarah (03:10):

Yeah, it was. And I’m just, first, I’d just love for people who aren’t familiar with the book for you, could you share a little bit about what the book is about and why you felt so compelled to share the story and to write about it?

Ruth (03:30):

So the book is called BoyMom: Reimagining Boyhood in the Age of Impossible Masculinity. And it’s a mix of memoir and kind of cultural critique and reporting. So the memoir piece is I’m a mom of three boys who are now 13, 10, and six, and the memoir piece sort of takes place from the time when my third son was born as the Me Too movement was exploding and the world seemed like a terrible, it just seemed like a kind of rolling horror show of bad news about men and boys. So it starts then when I’m about to give birth and it finishes when my son, my third son, goes off to school at age five. So it’s that five year period and it looks at a really, really challenging time in our own parenting where my two older boys were really acting out and filled with kind of rage and jealousy at this new brother that they had and were very dysregulated. So there’s that whole storyline. And then I do a lot of reporting on just contemporary boyhood, what it’s like to be a boy in this very fraught cultural moment that we’re living through. I talk about mental health, I talk about screens, I talk about some of the more toxic things in what we call the manosphere sort of misogynistic groups like the in cells and masculinity influences. And I talk about sex, I talk about porn, and I talk about early attachment and sort of nature nurture and the kind of differences between boys and girls.

Dr. Sarah (05:01):

Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot packed into this book. It’s incredible. I already told my sister who has two boys, I was like, you must read this book. Thank you.


It’s very, very funny and well written. You have a great voice. Lovely. You can really, I love it. But I also think it is incredibly validating. It’s interesting because you as a true boy mom in the sense that you have three boys and I have a smattering, right? I’ve got a boy and a girl. I straddle too. It’s almost like I remember feeling when I found out my second was going to be a girl, I was almost doubly anxious. I was like, oh my God, I just spent a really good amount of, well, so far all of my parenting at that to that point, trying to figure out how to be a good mother to a boy. And then I was like, oh no. Now I got to learn two different kids.

Ruth (05:54):

And a lot of it obviously is the same, but a huge of it is different. I think we’re working within two different cultural systems, two different sets of pressures, even setting aside the nature pieces and the hardwired pieces, which I believe there are some, just in terms of navigating the culture that these two different genders will enter, I think is it a different experience?

Dr. Sarah (06:20):

It is. And I think you paint a very nice picture of, because I related to this too, of being like, oh, gender is a construct. We can choose. We don’t have, can choose not to choose whatever I’m going to, I have my son and my daughter, they’re only 19 months apart. They’re really close in age. And so I was like, okay, I have two babies basically. So she’s going to wear his clothes and she’s going to play with his toys. And because gender’s a construct and they won’t matter. And so I had this one moment I was with her, she was like, honestly, I think she was two and a half or barely three, and we were in her room and she says something like, where are my princess dresses? Where are my jewelries? And I was like, oh man.

Ruth (07:13):


Dr. Sarah (07:14):

This is coming from inside. You want this stuff. You are drawn to this stuff.

Ruth (07:20):

They have their own ideas and it’s a real dilemma in parenting. I think generally, how much can we sort of mold our kids into what we want them to be or whatever our agenda is or whatever it is that our value system. But they are their own people and they want what they want. And that’s been one of the things that’s really surprised me as a parent, just how strong those forces are for everything but also for gender.

Dr. Sarah (07:46):

And you were saying, I remember in the book you talk about how your mother was very informed by feminist ideology and political stuff, and then that kind of in some ways impacted the way she raised you. And there was this part of you that’s like, but I kind of swung in the opposite direction at times, but ultimately, which made me think about how the pendulum swings really extreme at first until it kind of finds its middle space where, I dunno if you could speak a little bit to this idea of the evolution of how feminism looked at gender roles and how it’s kind of evolved that too.

Ruth (08:31):

Yeah. We’re talking about my own upbringing, my mom was the kind of classic second wave feminist mom back in the late seventies and eighties where she was, it was that kind of quite dogmatic flavor of feminism where it was like I wasn’t allowed to wear pink. I wasn’t allowed to have a Barbie. I had this very short, weird, terrible haircut that looked awful when I looked back in pictures. And at the time I absolutely pushed back and I think I pushed back on the more sort of superficial things. So now I love everything to do with femininity. I love clothes and I love makeup and I love jewelry and all of those things. And I think part of that is a reaction against my mom. But on the more fundamental level, the real kind, important values about my sense of self, who I believe I can be in the world, how important I feel I am in relation to a man, how important my voice is, I feel that my feminist upbringing gave me those really important based qualities.


So I think the superficial things, it didn’t really quite pan out in the way she’d hoped maybe. And she’s softened a lot as she’s gotten older and we’ve both gotten older. But I think on the core values, it really did make a difference. And similarly with my boys, I’m trying to, and I’m sure we’ll come onto this in more detail in a minute, but my sort of value system with them, it’s not so much I want to take things away from them and stop them playing with those battle toys and the Nerf gowns and all of that. I think forbidding them doesn’t really have the impact that I would want it to have. I think it just makes them want them more. But what I’m trying to add in are those core values of emotional intelligence, relational intelligence, understanding other people’s emotions and tracking them, taking on emotional labor. So those sort of bigger, more important, more core values, I think are the things that I’m trying to instill in them.

Dr. Sarah (10:23):

Right. And I think to one of the points you make in the book is in this sort of feminist approach of reorienting everyone’s narrative, rewriting the narrative on what it meant to be a girl and what it meant to be a woman in our society, which was I think super important critical work to be done.

Ruth (10:45):


Dr. Sarah (10:46):

It was in response to a really heavily patriarchal, oppressive society for women. And so there was this big emphasis on helping women take up more space in the narrative and rewriting some of the things that weren’t supportive of girls, but that boys got lost in the shuffle a bit in that overcorrection.

Ruth (11:09):

Yeah, I think that’s exactly what happened. I think we had a whole generation of feminists who did all this great work on cultural change for women and girls, and we did all this really important work sort of unpacking all the harmful messages we give them and all the ways that we limited girls. And we said, your job is to be pretty and submissive and to be rescued by a man and to be thin and to be hot, and all of those things are still there. But I think we have done really great work in addressing them, in looking at them, in naming the problem and in giving girls a voice to express it themselves. So I think most, you see a fifth grade girl now, and they’re pretty savvy about being like, well, that’s sexist. That message is I see myself this way and about girls sort of having access to more power, different roles, different role models.


But I think the problem is that the same system that kind of gives girls all these stereotypes and boxes them in also gives boys a whole lot of really harmful stereotypes that says that they have to be tough and they have to be strong and they have to squash their emotions and that they’re kind of these heroes in this battle narrative. And it also sort of fail as well as telling them what to be. It kind of tells them what they can’t be. It fails to teach them these kind of emotional and relational skills. And so I think that we’ve had a blind spot when it’s come to boys. We’ve focused on giving girls access to what boys have, but we’ve sort of missed out on giving boys access to what girls have, which are those intimacy, connection, emotionality, those sorts of things. So I think now in the book, I call it a half finished revolution. I mean, I don’t believe the girls side of it is finished, obviously, but I think that we really also need to do some real work, expanding possibilities for boys.

Dr. Sarah (12:58):

And what are some of the consequences that you’ve uncovered and identified? Because your book is full of research, you do an incredible job compiling and distilling research on this, and there are things that we’re really measuring that boys are hurting.

Ruth (13:19):

Yeah. Well, I mean, I think the top line thing that I would say about that in terms of the consequences of the way that we socialize boys and the way that we’re failing to teach them certain skills and putting impossible pressures on them, the absolute biggest downstream effect I would say at the moment is loneliness. Male loneliness in our culture is an epidemic. It’s terribly sad. You see it from teenage boyhood on that boys aren’t given the social permission or the skills to really engage deeply with their peers. And you see that now around one in four young men say they have no close friends and many, many more. I interviewed lots and lots of teenage boys and young men, and so many of them were saying that they felt lonely. Even the ones that did have friends were saying that those friendships were kind of superficial, that they didn’t get that kind of emotional support from their friends.


They couldn’t really tell them their real problems. It was all about either video games, sports or banter, comic kind of banter back and forth. But they didn’t feel that they had that real emotional nurture. And I was surprised. I thought that they wouldn’t care. I thought they’d be like, well, male friendships are just different. We don’t want that stuff. But they really wanted it. They craved those deeper emotional connections and they weren’t getting them, and they felt that it was really hard to break through what was expected of them. They felt like they had to perform this kind of masculine way of being with their friends. They could never let their guard down. That was something that a lot of them said. And I think that these are really serious consequences. And there’s this real under-reported epidemic of male loneliness and male depression at the moment with young men and boys. And I think now is the time that we have to tackle that. And I think we need to teach those skills from the beginning. This is work that needs to start in babyhood really, or as early as possible.

Dr. Sarah (15:19):

Yeah, I mean that’s a huge reason why I’m so focused in my clinical work and in my sort of with this podcast on getting information out to parents at the beginning right from the start. Because the attachment, and you speak about this in the book too, and you actually cite Allan Schore‘s work when he does a lot of research on attachment. And I think this idea that the attachment relationship from the beginning creates this blueprint. And also the way I usually explain attachment with the parent child is it’s the first blueprint, but then as our kid gets older, they get new layers. It’s the most Mylar transparency sheets that they would use in math class on the overhead projector, and you could layer them on top and it could get more and more complex. It’s kind of like that, that early blueprint with the parent child attachment relationship is that the data that’s getting put on the blueprint is what do I expect the world is going to?


What can I expect from the world in response to me? Are people going to meet my needs? Am I going to feel safe? Are people going to feel like they’re going to be interested in knowing me and seeing me? Can I show up authentically? And if how we kind of expect the world to receive us is what’s going to go on that blueprint. And then as kids get older and they interact with their first big set of peers, usually in early elementary school and especially the 7, 8, 9 age, I think there’s a lot of edits to the blueprint, new layers going on that blueprint, those early friendship relationships. But then in adolescent, there’s a whole new pile of blueprint edits that happen. And I think for boys, you’ve got this initial attachment relationship and then they’ve got to go and interact with other male peers. And so the influence of those blueprints are going to be really informed by the collective male behaviors, the collective male skillset, the collective male relatedness and interpersonal skills and all that stuff. So it’s like you can do so much as a parent and then your kid’s going to go out into the world and have their blueprint edited. But if you can get them a really solid foundation to begin with, they have so much more resilience when they’re dealing with the future edits to the blueprint.

Ruth (17:54):

Yeah, I mean, I love the way you’ve described that. I think absolutely it’s a combination of nurture and nature, and I think with boys, both of those things are actually working against them in terms of connection and loneliness. So what I found from looking at the work of Alan Shaw, other experts in the field is that baby boys start off already at a disadvantage. So a baby boy at birth is about a month to six weeks behind a baby girl in terms of right brain development. So the right brain development, as you know, is the right brain rather is the area of the brain that deals with emotion, emotional self-regulation and attachment. So it’s the part of the brain that’s making that first early attachment bond with the mother or with the caregiver, but usually usually the mother. And because a baby boy’s brain is more immature, it comes out, it’s more vulnerable to disruption in those early weeks and months.


And so that any kind of adverse things that happen in those early weeks to a boy will have more of an impact down the line than they will to a girl on average. These are averages, but this is the neuroscience. And so you see that anything like the mother having postpartum depression or neglect or poverty or trauma or all of those things you see in the statistics that they show up having more serious consequences for boys than for girls. And girls’ brains are more resilient and more independent, which is not, I do not want anyone to take this as Don’t nurture your girls. Of course, of course. Course, both genders of babies need a huge amount of attachment and nurture in those early weeks, but a baby boy is more vulnerable, so he needs more help with building that attachment bond. He needs more sort of intensive caregiving on average than a baby girl in order to not disrupt that attachment thing.


But the problem is that the way we socialize boys and the kind of qualities we project onto boys and what we think about who boys should be in the world, actually we end up giving them the opposite. So they need more of that emotional nurture and they tend to get less. So the research shows that people project these kind of masculine qualities onto boys from the beginning, so they see them as tougher and sturdier and angrier. There’s research that shows that when a boy cries, his parents will often see him as angry, whereas when a baby girl cries, they see her as distressed or sad. They kind of handle boys more roughly. They do a lot more jiggling. And there’s studies that show that they do all this kind of leg bicycling and jiggling, and there’s nothing wrong with that stuff, but it’s less of that caretaking touch that we tend to give baby girls.


And we use less language with boys from the beginning. Mothers are less likely to chat back to their newborn baby boys sounds than they are to their newborn baby girls. And all the way through childhood, parents have more kind of emotional conversations with girls. They respond more positively to their sort of emotional displays and all of that, and they kind of try to toughen boys up. They push them out, and I think they do it often out of love. It’s like, oh, the boy needs to be strong and masculine in order to survive in the world, and that’s what he needs us to teach him. But actually boys miss out. So the combination of needing more nurture and getting less has lots of downstream consequences for boys.

Dr. Sarah (21:30):

And I think obviously, I think parents think they’re helping. I also imagine parents may be doing this completely outside of their own conscious awareness. It’s really true. Biases are so deeply ingrained.

Ruth (21:42):

So ingrained, and I was thinking about it for myself. I didn’t start to read this research until I had my third boy and I was thinking about it. It’s really hard for parents to know what they’re doing, and obviously you don’t have a control child of the opposite gender to know exactly what, so you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. But that’s so true. I mean, there’s so much research on unconscious bias in general in terms of race, in terms of gender, in terms of all kinds of assumptions we make. But I think that we absolutely do this without realizing. Most parents I think would be would say now almost progressive parents would probably say, I treat my baby boy and my girl exactly the same. I raise them the same. And the likelihood is that they probably don’t. It’s quite subtle, but it’s real.

Dr. Sarah (22:34):

And again, it’s, I think you do a really nice job in the book of being like, this is not to add more blame or shame, right? Absolutely. On built on parents, it’s totally normal to have our biases. In fact, in reading this book, I became aware of like, oh, I probably do have a tremendous amount of biases around gender that I’m not even thinking about because…

Ruth (22:57):

Same, I mean, we all do. We live in the world. We live in the regular human world where people, these things, and we’re all influenced by our own upbringing. We’re influenced by culture. But absolutely the last thing, I’m somebody who’s often completely overwhelmed by guilt. As a parent, I read parenting books and they often make me feel terrible about myself. And that’s the last thing I want to do. The absolute last thing, I was just trying to highlight some of the things that we might not realize that we were doing and we’re probably doing out of love and for all the best reasons, but just to try and bring it to our conscious awareness.

Dr. Sarah (23:35):

And I think that that was another thing I loved why I think you’re a very funny writer, is when you were talking about how, I don’t think it was the very beginning of the book maybe, where you were like, I’ve read all the parenting books and it’s like this one made me feel like I wasn’t being stern enough and this one made me feel like I was being two. And this one I was like, this is so the thing that I feel like especially parents, you sort of put it in the context of parenting boys, but I also really what I heard in the description of your children and the sort of impetus for feeling like you weren’t parenting well enough was that they were dysregulated. They had a lot of, what’s the word I’m looking for? They felt really like they were out of control, and that made you feel like there’s got to be something wrong with the way I’m parenting them.

Ruth (24:30):

A hundred percent. Yeah. I think especially my kids have always been quite wild. I think a piece of that is to do with gender for sure. But it really went crazy after my third son was born, the other two, they were jealous. They had less attention and they went very, very wild. And I was in this state of despair. I was reading about two books a week on my Kindle being like, this one’s positive parenting. This one’s negative parent. Give them timeouts. But if you give them timeouts, then you’re abusive. But if you don’t, then you are raising this entitled toxic man. And all of this was happening in the context of this wider cultural conversation about toxic masculinity and that boys that we allowed all this bad behavior and we were enabling boys and men to be so terrible. And meanwhile, my kids are going completely wild.


And it was just this feeling of so much pressure, it’s all on me to fix this. I dunno what to do, nothing’s working. And so I absolutely do not want to land any more of that sense of guilt. I think it’s just bringing these kinds of things to conscious awareness and also just taking the pressure off. Some of this is nature. We’re all doing our best. We’re trying to make things work. We’re trying to do it within the context of what we’ve been given. And here’s some research that may or may not be useful.

Dr. Sarah (25:59):

But I think there was even just painting that picture of the chaos, of raising three really young kids, going through huge transitions in their life, navigating the family roles in a completely new way. And that takes a toll. And how I think so many parents know that feeling of being like, oh my God, is it just who they are? Is it something I’m doing? Is it society?


And then there was something that Allan Schore actually said to you in the book that was like when you were talking to him about attachment and about, there was two things that you write about him saying that I thought were really important, which was one was him where you were like, does it mean that in order for us to have secure attachments with our boys, we have to basically wear them every single day from the minute that they’re born and is this attachment parenting? And he was like, no, attachment parenting is not the only way to create a secure attachment. Secure attachment is formed by safety and trust and attunement.

Ruth (27:10):

Yes. And that was so validating for me because I actually parented my two oldest sons quite differently in that way. My oldest one was born when we were in England and the received wisdom there was routines and in your own room, and right from the beginning, lights off, no wearing. That was what we were told to do, and that was how I parented him. And then when we moved here, we were in Berkeley, California. It was all the baby wearing. So I did that with the second boy, and honestly, I can’t see too much difference in the way that they’re attached actually. I mean, maybe it’s something subtle, but it really was validating. Alan Shaw was like, no, this is about responding to your child’s needs and forming a relationship between that particular child and that particular mother. It’s not a set of techniques that you have to do these certain things.

Dr. Sarah (28:02):

Which I think is one of the biggest misconceptions about attachment. I think people, a lot of times when I tell them that I have a podcast about attachment, they’re like, oh, attachment parenting. And I’m like, well, we talk about attachment parenting, but really we’re talking about the theory of attachment, which is a much bigger concept, and attachment parenting is one way of interpreting it. But it was so important, I think as a parent to be told by someone who really knows their stuff, like Allan Schore, be like, okay, there are so many paths to attachment to secure attachment, and it’s really about you and your child and to your, as evidenced by your different approaches with different kids and still both of them finding their way to a secure attachment relationship with you, even within a single family. There’s multiple ways to attachment. I just think that takes a lot of the pressure. It’s not so fragile because I think parents end up thinking like, oh my God, if I make one wrong move, I’m going to destroy my attachment with my child.

Ruth (29:05):

And sometimes that can almost get in the way of the attachment. I feel like with my first son, I was so anxious all the time about doing the right thing and getting the exact thing and reading the exact book and getting the exact amount of ounces of milk and just obsessing that it really got in the way of just enjoying him and bonding and forming. I mean, obviously we did form a beautiful bond and a beautiful attachment, but I felt like almost the over guilt and the overthinking, it got in the way of it more than it trying to do it perfectly got in the way more than it helped.

Dr. Sarah (29:40):

It is hard. And I think there was another thing that you mentioned Alan Schwar saying too, which was where you were worried. You’re like, did I mess this up with my kids? They’re really dysregulated, right? Yes. And he’s like, do they have a moral compass?

Ruth (29:56):


Dr. Sarah (29:57):

And that to me was like, what a fantastic question to ask an anxious mother where we can get really bogged down with all the behaviors. Yes, they’re doing these things. You have all these really funny stories of all those ridiculously outrageous stuff that your sons are doing. And it’s like, okay, but also, yes. And every mom is probably nodding being like, yes, my kid too. And we can look at those behaviors and we can get very distracted by them and say, well, because these behaviors exist, is my child going to be a sociopath? Are they going to have all of these problems? And that question of, does your child have a moral compass when they’re regulated, do they show you signs that they get what they’re trying to do? Do they get it? And that I think is a much better window into prognostically what the future will hold for them.

Ruth (30:53):

Yeah. I actually cried when I came out of that interview with Allan Schore. It was so much, such a profound sense of relief and just feeling seen and cared for because yeah, he did say that. He was like, do they have a moral compass? And I was thinking about it and I was like, yes, they really do. And I could think of several lovely examples of times when they’d done kind things or they’d been thoughtful about something, and yes, the regulation piece was serious and they were very dysregulated and they were hitting and they were doing, I have a whole section in the book where I kind of making them write these apology letters to each other, and our whole fridge at one point was covered in apology letters where they were like, sorry, I hit you with my shovel. And I was like, oh, but underneath they really did have a moral sense, and they still do, and it was so validating to be able to see that as important. There’s something cool going on.

Dr. Sarah (31:53):

I think that, and I think this does happen much more with boys than with girls, partly because as you talk about in the book, the research bears this out that boys tend to get more dysregulated than girls. It doesn’t mean that girls don’t, right.

Ruth (32:08):

Of course.

Dr. Sarah (32:09):

I have a very sensitive daughter and she’s actually far more fiery than my son. My son temperamentally is a cooler body and she is a hot body. And so it’s funny, actually the boy mom experience has been not so much my experience, just because right to the point you make in the book, when you group all these statistics together, you could see these bigger patterns and these bigger patterns are very much shown in the research over and over and over again that there are these differences among boys as a aggregate, and if you pull a single person out of that group, you’re not really going to be able to make a whole lot of predictions.

Ruth (32:55):

So I see many, exactly. People will be like, well, my boy’s not like that. And absolutely there are many boys who are not like that at all, and there are many girls who are like that, and absolutely there’s a lot of overlap. But yes, at a group level, boys tend to be more physically active and more dysregulated.

Dr. Sarah (33:11):

And so I think though that parents of boys who tend to fit that typical middle of the bell curve of boys that are more externalizing behaviors, more reactive, more aggressive when they’re dysregulated, have lower impulse control, hit the brakes, have a harder time hitting the brakes, that they start to reinforce this narrative. This is what boys do, this is because they’re a boy. And in part, yes, there is some biological stuff, but when we tell that story over and over again, that’s where some of the trouble comes in, I think, because we can create a very self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ruth (33:53):

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it’s such a complicated thing, and I really dig into it in the book because this whole sort of boys will be boys story, and in a lot of ways that’s quite enabling. It’s like, oh, boys will be boys and that let’s just let them get away with whatever, because there’s nothing we can do. It’s nature that we don’t have an influence on it. But actually when you see the boys will be boys, the nature piece actually is an innate vulnerability rather than an innate destructiveness or something. Then I think what you realize is that actually because boys will be boys and because there is a nature piece we need to do more to help boys, we need to do more to coach them with these kind of relational, social, emotional skills, not less, we’ve used it as this kind of rationale to do less parenting, but actually it should be kind of the opposite. They need more of that nurture. They need more engagement with relational stuff and role models and more coaching and that sort of thing.

Dr. Sarah (34:47):

So if parents have boys and whether they’re babies and we’re trying to get from the start, really build that sort of secure attachment relationship, give them that extra dose of nurturing that extra dose of emotional relationship building skills, but also really more for parents of older boys who are just getting this information. Now, what do you think are some of the things that parents can do to kind of buffer against some of the more toxic messages coming into boys’ psyches from the world?

Ruth (35:22):

I think there’s a few things. I think one is just, it’s not really a set of techniques, but it’s more just a different orientation towards your relationship with your boy, which is to just approach him with empathy rather than harsher discipline. I think the thing is that we see all this kind of emotional dysregulation that looks like behavioral problems, and then we’re like, okay, we’ve got to crack down and be harsher. But actually, I think listening to a boy, working with him on his feelings, empathizing with his feelings is huge. And talking about feelings, naming feelings, people, there’s all this research that shows that people do that a lot more with girls. It’s another one of these unconscious things. So we have more emotional conversations with girls and we’re much more willing to accept girls as girls’ emotions ourselves. And so I think it’s just trying to correct for that and to engage in more emotional conversations.


I think one thing that I always hear as a mom of boys is, and I often hear it from men, it’s like what boys need is more wrestling and more physical play. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with those things at all, but boys get a lot of that already. There’s a lot of research to show that people just when they see a boy, they want to wrestle with him and they want to slap him on their back and call him buddy. And what they really need is the opposite. They need that more quiet reflection and emotional engagement. I think that’s one piece of it. Another piece is the role models thing. I write a lot in the book about the kind of stories that we tell to boys versus girls, and I always remember that going into the bookshop with my three boys and seeing this magazine that was obviously aimed at tween girls, it had this pink sparkly cover and this friendship bracelet giveaway on the front, and so it was obviously sort of coded towards girls.


And I looked in it and there was a story. The first thing was a story which was about this girl. She’d been invited to these two birthday parties that were happening at the same time, and she didn’t want to disappoint either one of the friends. So she was running between the two parties running around the block and going to the other house and then secretly running out and going back to the first house. And it was this tale of emotional labor, basically. She was tracking the friend’s feelings. She didn’t want to disappoint anyone. She was kind of exhausting herself. And I was thinking, my boys will never organically see a story like that with a boy as the main character. They won’t see that kind of story where a boy has to take on other people’s emotions and respond to them in that way occasionally in the kind of stories that they read or watch.


There’s a little tiny friendship narrative, but it’s always this little subplot before they go off to fight the battle or have the adventure. And mainly their stories are about battles and competition and fighting, and there’s always a hero. There’s always a villain. Somebody wins, somebody loses, and so they don’t get those very relational stories given to them. And so I think another thing is trying to expose boys to more of that and ideally more of those with boys as the main character. I think it’s very easy to find them with girls as the main character, but it’s harder and you have to seek them out. But I think that’s another thing that we can do for our boys.

Dr. Sarah (38:35):

You listed a few in the book. Are there ones that you recommend or you’ve come across that kind of hit the nail on the head?

Ruth (38:43):

Yeah. One that I really loved and my boys love too was Wonder, the book Wonder. It’s about, and I’m trying to remember the name of the author, but it’s about a boy who has quite a serious facial disfigurement and he has this rich interior life, which I think in general, books for boys just really don’t have. They’re always about action and adventure and fighting, and he’s in relationship with lots of different friends and lots of different people. So that’s one that I love. There’s an author called Gordon Korman. He wrote a book called The Fort, which is all about male boys friendships. It’s about a group of boys, and he’s very good at that sort of thing. And there are others, there’s some TV shows that one that’s I loved with my middle son got really into Rubik’s Cubes. He does speed cubing, and there’s this lovely documentary on Netflix called Speed Cubers, which Cubing is quite a dry subject and it’s very, very male dominated, and there’s a lot of boys just saying these algorithms to each other and not really engaging on emotions.


And in the documentary, it’s a female director and she does this lovely job of turning it into a story about friendship between the two world champion, the rivals for the World Championship in Cubing, and one of them is this guy called Feliks Zemdegs, and the other one is Max Park who’s autistic, and they have this very sweet and lovely friendship and she frames it as a human interest story. So I love that Steven Universe is a show that has some great relational themes, so there are good examples, but you have to seek them out if you just let them watch whatever they watch. You end up with battle after battle after battle.

Dr. Sarah (40:28):

Battle Royals. Yeah, and it’s interesting because because my son is older, he sets a lot of the tone for the content of the television watching in our home. And so it’s interesting too because his sister, who’s five will watch what I mean. She has some things that she’s organically interested and drawn to that are outside of what he’s interested in, but she’s really still very much interested in what he…

Ruth (40:59):

What he wants, yeah.

Dr. Sarah (41:00):

He grabs the remote. And so it is interesting too, just having both how much she’s influenced by what he’s influenced and he’s influenced by what is being marketed to boys.

Ruth (41:14):

Absolutely. I mean, it’s a really interesting point you raised because I think siblings also raise kids as well. It’s not just parents. I think siblings have a huge influence, and you see, when I was talking to boys and interviewing them, boys who had older sisters were often exposed to that kind of more relationship type content, and they actually liked it. I think there’s this idea that boys don’t like that kind of stuff. They’re not interested, but actually when they’re exposed to it, they would really enjoy it and often they felt embarrassed to it. They’d be like, oh, I’m only watching this my sister’s show, or I’m only reading this because my sister left it lying around. But actually I think they liked it, and it speaks to the fact that we can influence kids, that we can introduce them to a bit wider possibilities.

Dr. Sarah (42:00):

Yeah. Something you were saying earlier in this episode, this kind of makes me think of that, which was when you were doing a lot of these interviews, we teens and older young men, and they’re communicating to you in the interview that they feel really lonely. They have friends, they understand what’s going on. They have this rich inner world. They have this desire for deeper, more meaningful and more emotionally intimate relationships. They can articulate that to you when asked, and they don’t believe that they can say that out loud to their friends to receive it, which ironically, I bet you that they are all feeling that shared thing. And if they were given permission to or modeled how to or someone was able to break that silence within that group that there was, it’s like they all want it and they don’t know how to say they want it, a grownup asks them, they’re really able to, it’s like the desire for this intimacy and this depth to their relational experience. It’s not atrophied, and it’s not like they don’t have a vocabulary for it. I just don’t think anyone’s asking them.

Ruth (43:20):

It was so true. This is one of the biggest surprises to me because when I set out on this project, I thought, oh, I’m going to be interviewing all these teenage boys and young adult boys or men and it’s going to be kind of a nightmare. I thought, oh God, these interviews are going to be pulling teeth. It just, they’re going to be more syllabic and all these stereotypes about teenage boys. But it was really the absolute opposite. I got on a Zoom with these guys and one by one and we would schedule 45 minutes and we would talk for hours and hours and hours. It was pouring out of them because I got the impression that nobody else is really listening. Nobody’s really engaging with them like that. They were so articulate, they were so thoughtful, they were so reflective and in a way that gave me so much hope. It was really sad. They felt that they couldn’t access this stuff in their real lives, but also it felt like, oh yeah, all the raw materials are here. You are fully human. It’s just that something’s preventing you from being that way. But it made me hopeful that we can actually change things. That culture change is a real thing that can happen, and we’ve seen that happen.

Dr. Sarah (44:28):

And clearly they have the capacity. It’s not lack of their capacity, which clearly says we’re failing them on some level. They have the capacity, they have the interest, they have the longing, they’re feeling the impact of not having this closeness, and yet they don’t know how to bridge that gap. And that’s kind of like we need to do better.

Ruth (44:52):

The one time, it was very striking across the board, but I remember one of the times that was most striking to me was that I went to this teen therapy group in LA. It was the teen therapy center, and they have this weekly group called Guys Group, which is boys between 16 and 18. And I sat in on the group first, and then I interviewed them all individually later in the group. It was just impossible. No one was saying anything. It was like they were trying to do group therapy, and it was just all this boring and banter and insults and hurling insults at each other and just deflecting, deflecting, deflecting. And they’ve managed to sort of open up towards the end, but it was so hard for them to get there. But when I talked to them all individually, they were so open and they were so articulate and they were so reflective, just one-on-one that it was like, oh, there’s something about being in the presence of all these other boys that makes them feel that they just can’t do this.

Dr. Sarah (45:49):

Did you reflect that back to any of them and do they have any insight into why?

Ruth (45:55):

Yeah, they were saying that it’s just like they feel they can’t change the story. They’re embarrassed that with when they’re with other boys, that the one expression that so many boys use with me, I was really surprised and really different kinds of boys that I interviewed. They said, you can never let your guard down. And I heard it from this black kid in East Oakland. I heard it from this very privileged white boy who’d been to a boarding school in Southern California. I heard it from all different kinds of kids. It’s this idea that masculinity is this kind of mask that they have to wear, they have to perform. And if they let go for just a second, then they’ll be ridiculed or they feel they will be.

Dr. Sarah (46:40):

And I wonder, because obviously this was a group of kids that were already in therapy, so perhaps that also potentially could have informed their ability or improved their ability to reflect on this and articulate it to you. Maybe. I don’t know though. It’s clearly not showing up in the group sessions, right?

Ruth (46:59):

Yeah, right. I mean eventually we get that, but in the group, but it was really hard. It was like 45 minutes of just this sort of bro-ing and then 10 minutes of like…

Dr. Sarah (47:08):

I’ve done enough therapy that I can imagine that I can see that exactly happening.

Ruth (47:13):

And the guy who ran the center, he also runs groups for teenage girls and he says it’s the complete opposite. They’re just sharing and they’re crying and they’re open and the group just goes on, runs on much later because they all want to keep sharing and they have the social permission to talk to each other that way.

Dr. Sarah (47:30):

Yeah. The social permission I think is the really important piece. And it’s hard because adults can give these kids permission in these one-on-one ways, but the peers need to give each other permission. And everyone’s kind of scared to, they all want it, but it scared be the first one.

Ruth (47:49):

That is the piece that comes with slow cultural change. So I think all of us doing bits of this work everywhere with our own kids, with our partners, with our husbands, with men, with boys, writing articles, doing podcasts, all these little acts of trying to change the conversation, contribute to that. And I think, and that’s what happened with girls and women. I look back at my childhood and all of these things that were so sexist that used to just be completely standard and normal, that would just happen at school, in the workplace, wherever have really changed and would no longer be acceptable now. And so change does happen. It just takes time and it takes lots of conversations and it takes lots of work from lots of different people.

Dr. Sarah (48:30):

And I think too, what we were talking about earlier that really going to the beginning, starting young is probably our best bet Not to say that these older kids are cooked and we can’t help them. Obviously we can and we need to, but most of the people, a lot of the people listening to this podcast have young kids. The window is open and these little kids, actually you mentioned in the book too, they’re actually male young boys are actually show great emotional intelligence. And then we deconditioned it out of them.

Ruth (49:05):

We shut them down. And the work of Niobi Way, who’s a professor at NYU who’s studied boys friendships for many, many years and has written about it, and she has a book coming out in July about it as well. She says, this is her big thing that boys start off with great emotional and relational intelligence, and we knock it out of them. And I believe that that is correct, but I feel hopeful that we can change that.

Dr. Sarah (49:32):

Yeah, no, I think your book is very hopeful. There’s moments that are very funny. There are moments that are really deeply sad, and there are moments that are enraging, and I think ultimately it’s very hopeful. So first of all, thank you for writing it. I love it. Thank you.

Ruth (49:50):

I appreciate that so much.

Dr. Sarah (49:52):

And if people want to read it or they want to follow your work, where we’ll put a link obviously to your book in the show notes, in the show description. But how can people connect with you?

Ruth (50:05):

So the book is called BoyMom: Reimagining Boyhood in the Age of Impossible Masculinity. And that is available wherever you buy books. I write a substack where I write about these issues. It’s called I Blame Society, and you can find it, Ruth Whippman with two Ps on substack. And my website is ruthwhippman.com.

Dr. Sarah (50:26):

Amazing. You so much. This was delightful speaking with you. I’m so glad. Thank

Ruth (50:31):

You. It was such a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Dr. Sarah (50:39):If you enjoyed listening to this conversation, I want to hear from you, share your thoughts and your feedback with me by scrolling down to the ratings and review section on your Apple Podcasts app or whatever app you’re listening on. And let me know what you think of this episode or the show in general. Your support means the absolute world to me, and just a simple tap of five stars can make a real impact in how this show gets reached by parents everywhere. So thank you so much for listening and don’t be a stranger.

214. Raising emotionally intelligent sons: Parenting boys to combat “toxic masculinity” with Ruth Whippman