Emma Brown on Raising Emotionally Healthy Boys

After the birth of her son, Washington Post investigative reporter, Emma Brown, made the decision that she wanted to raise her boy to be different than many of the men she reported on in the wake of the #Metoo movement. So, she traveled across America, speaking to boys and men about what it means to be a boy today to learn what she could do differently. Her new book, To Raise a Boy, is a chronicle of her experience. In this episode, she talks to Liz about what she learned and explains that just as we've been failing our young girls, we are also failing our young boys, both physically and mentally.

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Liz Tenety: Well, Emma Brown, welcome to The Motherly Podcast.

Emma Brown: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be with you.

Liz Tenety: So, I'm curious what surprised you most about motherhood, but in particular for you, I am very curious about what most surprised you about becoming the mother of a son.

Emma Brown: What surprised me most about becoming the mother of a son is I think I had spent most of my life figuring boys just had it easier. And what has surprised me, and this is tied to my book, but definitely also related to being the mother of my now three-year-old son, is realizing how much they don't have it easy. You know, how much pressures they face and the responsibility as a mom that, that carries for me in terms of figuring out what life is like for boys, and what I can do as a mom to kind of shield my son from some of the stuff that gets beamed at boys in the same way that stuff gets beamed at girls from the time they're little.

Liz Tenety: I found myself as I was reading your book, not just nodding along, but deeply feeling what you described in the book for me. I found myself as a feminist, right, having a son for the first time, identifying with boys and feeling this deep empathy for boys for the first time. I remember, in the beginning, you know, when I had my first child nine years ago, who was a boy, I would see a teenage boy and I would feel warm towards him for the first time. It was like seeing humanity in a new way. Because, as you described, we grew up knowing all the hard things that girls and women had faced and as girls and women seeing in some ways, the male as the other or the problem. It just woke up an empathy in me.

Emma Brown: You put that so beautifully. Yeah, that's absolutely it. And you know, I grew up with three big brothers. It's not like I wasn't around boys growing up and I had a lot of friends who were boys, but I think what you just said is absolutely true. When I had a son and I could see him from the time he was an infant and started thinking about the world through his eyes, it was literally the first time, I think I'd done that. And so, I was a little embarrassed when I realized I had lacked that empathy before. And I hope in some way that I've been able to learn a lot in those last few years, so that as he starts getting older, I can help him. He asks a lot of questions right now about what it means to be a boy. He's at that age where he's trying to figure out what all that means. And so, I hope I'm a little better equipped than I was a few years ago.

Liz Tenety: All right. I'm going to ask you a question that there's no easy answer to, what does it mean to be a boy in America today?

Emma Brown: I think it depends on where you are and what family you're in and what your community is like. I traveled around to different communities for this book and talked to people all over the country and I was struck by what different kinds of experiences boys had and what different answers they had for that question.

We're so polarized along so many lines, and gender is just one of them. I met one boy, he was 12 in Berkeley, California, who went to an all-boys middle school where the mission was learning to love your boyhood and your masculinity and interrogate it.

And he said to me, "You know that saying, boys will be boys? Well, that means boys can be anything they want. They can be creative. They can be compassionate. And we are not held back by social stereotypes."

I mean, that is one way of growing up as a boy in America. Then I talked to a boy who had grown up in rural Kentucky where, at his church, he was told you may not be gay. You may not do anything that seems gay. Do not be too friendly, right, towards other boys. Just everything he grew up with was a very sort of traditional idea of what it means to be a boy. Do not be girly. Do not be gay. And so, I don't think there's one answer for the question.

Liz Tenety: Okay. It's more complex than that. So, if you could kind of walk us through the science, the biological experience, like what do we know about the tendencies of boys? What does it mean to be born male? Are there certain traits that boys are more likely to have than girls? Is there a common understanding biologically that we can even speak to, so that we can kind of ground this conversation and the way that nature and nurture interplay, in our world?

Emma Brown: I think every parent, especially parents who have children of each sex, look at their kids and sort of try to figure out what is nature and what is nurture? So my kids, for example, my daughter, when she was older, when she was really little, she took such pleasure in taking care of her stuffed animals and tucking them in and pretending she was their mother.

Whereas my son had all the same toys and all the same conditioning and yet was really just not into that and really into trucks and trains and like anything with wheels. And it really did seem like this difference that was just inherent to them. So, what I learned in the research for my book is there are some differences, and you know, it comes as a result of when a baby is in utero. Babies who are going to become male, there's like this wash of testosterone that happens in utero. Researchers have found this is sort of tied to in some ways to their play preferences when they are young. And that's one of the biggest sex differences between children: what they like to play with and how they like to play.

So that was interesting to me, that there are some differences. But I think the overwhelming takeaway from the research that I did was that you don't know when your child is born from looking at their genitals, who they're going to be, what they're going to love, or what they're going to be good at. Because there's so much variation within the sexes that you can't predict who your kid is or what they're going to be like based on their genitals. And I think one of the most important research pieces that I learned about is this "Still Face Study," which is a famous study, first done in the 70s.

The researchers would bring moms and babies into the lab and have the moms and babies cooing at each other and looking at each other in the eye and doing what mothers do when they're with their babies. Then the researchers would tell the mothers to go still faced, like a rock, and not react in any way to their babies, which is, as you know, a very unnatural thing for babies to experience. And you can look at some of these videos on YouTube and they're really disturbing to watch because the babies become increasingly anxious and upset. They are freaked out by the fact that their moms are not reacting to them.

So, I talked to the, the researcher who came up with a study and a woman who's a feminist psychologist at NYU. So, two different perspectives about what this study tells us, because there's really no difference between boys and girls and their reactions. They both have this innate need to connect with their mothers.

They both get really, really upset. Both of these researchers said, this shows our primordial need as humans to connect. So, the stereotypes that we have about boys and girls -- boys not needing to connect as emotionally as girls or girls being sort of more naturally good at connecting or articulating how they're feeling with people – aren't true. At the base, as infants, we just are all the same.

We need to connect emotionally. Different researchers put it this way to me. Like language, our brains are born with the ability to speak and understand any language, but we only develop it if we're exposed to that language. So, for our sons, if we only expose them to the ideas around, boys are supposed to be physical and boys are supposed to be tough and boys are always dominant, or the kind of stereotypes around how we traditionally think of boys, that's what they end up getting proficient in. And so our duty as parents is to make sure that they have exposure to all the different ways of being human so that they can become proficient in all of those skills, especially emotional connection, which is just so important, for our happiness and our health.

Liz Tenety: Well, you have a boy and a girl and as a mother, you did so much research, but I think one of the, one of the cases that you make in the book is that we, as a culture have done so much to expand what we tell girls that they can do. With the feminist movement, which we both grew up in, we learned that all things are possible for us, that we can be strong, we can be capable, we can have careers or maybe not. We can do whatever we want to do. And the case you're making is that we actually need to go back now and have a movement like that for boys.

Because if you look at the evidence, it's boys and men who are now being contained culturally in an even tighter box. And I think that idea that boys and men, that they're struggling, that they need more support, it might sound kind of radical or shocking, right? Can you tell us about the state of boyhood and what you see as the ongoing constraints that we are putting on our sons and men in our culture?

Emma Brown: Well, we have a word in our language for girls who are really strong and outdoorsy, or sporty and act more like boys: tomboys. And it's generally a positive term. We don't have positive terms for boys who act girly. Those tend to be really negative terms and I think that that tells you a lot about boyhood in America, and about how we view girls and femininity. We don't value femininity enough to want to encourage it. And our boys, in fact, get called things like sissy, if they are acting like a girl. It is not acceptable in so many parts of our culture. There's a really interesting set of researchers led by Johns Hopkins and they're studying gender among 10 to 14-year-olds all over the world and they are finding these really consistent scripts for girls and boys. And that those scripts are expanding more quickly for girls, while boys are still stuck.

I think about it whenever I see programs that are meant to, for example, expand opportunities for girls in STEM. Like that's great. I'm totally on board with that, but I don't really see the same kinds of programs to encourage boys, for example, to consider becoming elementary school teachers.

Liz Tenety: That was an example that I was going to bring up because I have three sons. Every single one of my kid's teachers up until now has been a female, and what are they learning or not learning about, not only what it means to be a boy, but also just seeing the modeling of a healthy male nurturing presence in their life?

Emma Brown: Totally. And as other sectors, I'm talking about economic sectors, that are more male dominated, perhaps like manufacturing, for example, as jobs become harder to find there, I don't see a commensurate sort of switching over to say nursing, which is a really fast-growing field.

And that's not because men can't do those jobs perfectly. It is that they don't see that modeling. They don't get the messaging that this is a great opportunity for them and a great field for them.

Liz Tenety: You are by experience and background training, an investigative journalist. And so, for our listeners who just might not be as aware of all of the evidence, what are the signs that you have gathered about how much boys are struggling? Because I think not everyone knows how bad it is when it comes to mental health, physical health, and even economic well-being of boys and men in this 21st century.

Emma Brown: This is a statistic that is out there and gets repeated, but I had never tuned into it and really thought about what it meant that men in America are nearly four times as likely to die by suicide as women. I mean, it was just an astonishing figure that kind of sums up the mental health outcomes for men, right? That when we teach boys that it's weak to ask for help or to be vulnerable, there is a really damaging outcome for that. I mean, we talk about, I don't use the term "toxic masculinity" in the book, and I can explain why later, but the traditional ideas about what we tell men and boys about what it means to be a man and boy can really keep them from getting the help they need. Especially with mental health.

In physical health, too, there's research that shows that men and boys who adhere to that really restrictive and traditional idea of what it means to be a male, have more physical problems too, as they get older. And then when we talk about emotional wellbeing and connection with other people, we're not helping boys sort of see that they are capable of connecting emotionally and that's something that's just so important for life.

We're leaving them apt to become lonely as they get older. There's a researcher who followed adolescent boys, groups of them, as they sort of age through their teenage years, and found that boys just like girls, need emotionally intimate friendships.

And they really have those until they reach mid-adolescence, when they tend to lose them. And that is right around the time when the suicide rate spikes for boys over girls. The idea of boys grasping for emotional connection in a world that hasn't sort of nurtured that in them is one that I worry about when I think about my son growing older.

Liz Tenety: You brought up the term toxic masculinity and, in the book, you acknowledge what was meant by it. But after having spoken to experts and boys all over the country, being a mother yourself, you declare that that term toxic masculinity is one that you're not going to use. Why is that?

Emma Brown: A high school senior in St. Louis told me that if you use that term, nobody's going to listen to the next thing you say. And what he was saying to me was boys who hear that term, not all boys, of course, but many, shut down because they now understand what you believe about boys or men.

You don't like boys or men. That's how they hear it. They hear it as an attack. I just feel like it's such an important conversation to be having with boys and men about how we make this world a better place for you and that when we start off by talking about toxic masculinity, if it shuts them down. It's not a useful term.

Liz Tenety: But the term toxic masculinity is intended to describe sort of the very thing that you want to help boys and men break out of. But you're saying that they hear it as "masculinity is toxic."

Emma Brown: Yeah, absolutely. It just carries with it weight. It's not the same thing as what the boy on the other end of the conversation is hearing. What I talk about instead are the pressures that boys face, which I think they are very happy to talk about, or this term that I use in the book that's been used for a long time among feminist men, "the man box," that refers to the sort of walls that constrain boys, in terms of who they're allowed to be.

Liz Tenety: I think another thing that comes up around language is the term feminist, because that was such a useful and meaningful term for me growing up, in describing women in a positive sense. But it has struck me that we don't have a word like that to be able to break out of that man box.

What is the term that you use? Is it healthy masculinity? We need to be able to talk about it and have a shorthand for it in order to popularize it and rally people around it. What do you think about that?

Emma Brown: You've really the nail on the head, Liz. There is no word. There are people who described themselves as pro-feminist men and they're kind of in this zone of trying to rethink masculinity. I think healthy masculinity is a helpful term. But I don't think we have yet a shared language around rethinking masculinity or broadening our ideas of manhood or boyhood. And we need, we need it. We absolutely do.

Liz Tenety: All right. So, you talked to boys all over the country, what did you hear in this, this upcoming generation of boys? I know so many of our listeners are raising young kids and trying to raise healthy and whole sons.

Emma Brown: Well, one of the things that I think is really important for all of us parents, no matter how old our kids are, is just the incredible desire boys have for guidance around sex and relationships. And the lack of guidance so many of them are getting. So, I covered education before I joined our investigative team at the Post. And before that I was a middle school teacher. And yet, I did not know, until I sort of dug into this obscure data from the CDC for this book, that sex education is evaporating from our public schools and has been since 2000.

It is not just a thing that you think about as, perhaps, a hot button issue, but schools are just not teaching stuff that I was taught in public school as I was growing up. So, there's sort of this evaporation in the school side. A lot of parents don't talk to their kids about consent, about what it means to have a respectful relationship about sexuality. So, surveys tell us that boys are sort of left in the dark. They really understand that there's new accountability around sexual violence around sexual harassment. They are very aware and the boys I spoke with want to do right. And yet, they feel like they don't have the guidance to do.

And so I think that that's a huge issue that we need to think about and grapple with so that we're not setting our sons up to overstep people's boundaries or to mess up in ways that are going to be really harmful to other people and to themselves.

Liz Tenety: Do you have any guidance from your research about how parents can begin that conversation early or just start having it because it's still not too late, regardless of how old your son is?

Emma Brown: I have. Sex education experts I spoke with say it is definitely not one talk. It's an ongoing conversation. And you find opportunities wherever you can to bring up related topics. So, for me, my son is three. My daughter is six. We talk a lot about personal boundaries, and not in terms of sexuality, of course, but in terms of when they're messing with each other's bodies in ways that are annoying. Also, sort of arming them with the information they need to know that their body is their own – that their body is sacred and nobody should touch their body without their permission and things like that.

Parents of young kids can start that conversation super early, before you are talking about sex at all. And then, as our kids get older, our world gives us so many opportunities to talk about respect and sexuality, whether it's the news or pop culture, not just sex, but also gender norms. I mean, everything that's embedded in our news and in our pop culture is an opportunity to discuss and to challenge and to see what questions come up from your kids.

Liz Tenety: An alarming statistic that you bring up in the book and it grounds the book in how serious these issues around gender are is that one in six boys is sexually abused in childhood. That number is so much higher than many people realize or believe. What's going on there?

Emma Brown: This was one of the most shocking and transformative things I learned about in my research for this book, because it forced me to realize that I was carrying around assumptions about boys. Like as enlightened as I thought I was, I was carrying around these assumptions that boys were more protected from sexual violence. As many as one in six boys before they're 18 and then one in four men throughout their lifetime. So it is not as prevalent for men and boys as for girls and women, but there are still a lot of boys and men who are experiencing this. And as you say, part of it is that we don't give boys a language to even understand that what's happened to them is a sexual violation.

And sometimes that's because we call it horseplay or just boys messing around with one another. So, for example, I wrote about this boy in Oklahoma in sixth grade, he went to a new middle school and he was sexually assaulted in front of his entire music class by a couple of football teammates of his. One of them pushed his thumb into this boy's anus in front of everybody and it was totally mortifying and humiliating and this boy was really upset. And so, he went and told his principal. It later came out because there was a lawsuit and a criminal investigation and the principal said, oh, well, if the same thing had happened to a girl, I would have called that sexual assault. But because it was a boy, I called it horseplay. And why does it matter what we call it? Well, it matters what kind of support the boy gets afterwards. So, there's cases like that where we don't teach boys that a violation of them is a sexual violation.

And then there's cases where boys are in sexual situations, perhaps with a girl and they don't feel like they can say no, because boys are never supposed to say no. And then they end up having some kind of encounter that they didn't really want. So, there's all different kinds of ways that this can happen.

But I think the common denominator is that we allow these scripts around how gender works, even when it comes to sexual assault. So, we have to undo those scripts. We have to make sure our boys know it's okay to say no, it's absolutely okay for them to say no, it's okay for them not to want sex because that's normal.

And we have to make sure our kids know the anatomical names for their body parts so that if something does happen to them, they know how to talk about it. And they're comfortable because they've been able to have conversations with their parents about what's what and how things work.

Liz Tenety: It's such a heavy topic, but so important to at least start those conversations. There's other challenges with raising boys that I've experienced. So, for example, if my daughter pushed someone on the playground, I'd be like, "Oh, don't, don't do that." But when your son does it, it carries a weight of, what kind of boy is this? There's a sense of responsibility right now to raising a boy that feels heavy to navigate and I think appropriately. But what would you want parents, especially mothers raising sons to know about, what it takes to raise healthy sons, especially in those challenging times where it doesn't just feel like, "oh, I'm struggling with a parenting issue with my kid."

You know, it feels like what does this say about us? What does this say about society? It feels, you know, larger than just the situation because of the context around boys and men today.

Emma Brown: Yeah, totally. I wrote this book as a reporter kind of out to understand what is this world that my son's going to be growing up in and are there models for how we can be doing a better job?

And I think one really important thing is with parenting it can feel like everything's on your shoulders, all the time, especially in the last year when it really has been on parents' shoulders.

But we need help and we need help from the institutions that are helping to raise our boys to do the work with us of challenging gender norms and helping educate, not just boys, but girls about broader ideas about masculinity. Because girls can do just as much reinforcing of these restrictive masculinity ideals as boys can. So, I guess that's one thing I'd say is like, I really hope that one of the things that comes not just of my book, but out of the growing conversation around what it means to be a boy and how we do better by boys and raise boys who know how to have healthy relationships, is that we get more help from coaches.

For example, coaches are so powerful. They were powerful in my life growing up because I was really into soccer and they're powerful in so many boys' lives. And there's research that shows that they can do a really important job in helping to create a culture where what is expected of boys is respect among boys and respect by boys of girls and women.

I hope we get help from schools, where boys learn so much about what they're supposed to be and who they're supposed to be, and what's cool and what's not. And then faith communities. And every other sort of person who has a hand in raising boys. This book is for parents, but it's also for all those other folks who are creating a world that our kids grow up in.

Liz Tenety: As you've done the research on the state of boyhood. How has it changed how you've mothered your own son?

Emma Brown: I definitely find myself examining how I'm reacting to things and am I reacting to him differently than I am to my daughter? I find myself questioning myself, but I also feel like I learned a lot about how important it is to talk to my son about feelings. There's research showing that parents talk to their daughters more about feelings and use more words to sort of articulate emotions. And so, we give our girls the practice to build those skills that we don't always give boys.

So, I am intentional about talking with my three-year-old about feelings about, and looking at books and wondering what that character feels? How do you know? Because that's the stage he's in right now. And I'm intentional about the body stuff and the personal space as he gets older. It's not super easy for me to talk about sex and sexuality. I'm sure that that's not going to be something that comes naturally to me, but it is something I know from my research that I need to do. And I need to talk to him about pornography, which is the default sex ed for so many boys, right? Make sure he knows that pornography is not real sex. I need to be willing and ready and able to sort of stumble through those conversations rather than shy away from them.

Liz Tenety: How has your book and your research reshaped, if it has at all, how you parent your daughter as well?

Emma Brown: I'm so glad you asked that. I wrote in the book about when she was two, we were at the playground and she was really nervous about going over this rope netting bridge and my way of sort of pushing her through that was to tell her she was strong and fearless. And whenever she was feeling worried or scared, she could tell herself she was strong and fearless.

And I think throughout the course of doing this book, I realized that I've been telling her in so many ways that she should be more like a boy, more like what we traditionally think of as masculine. Those were the messages I got growing up, for me, as well. I wanted to be more like a boy. I wanted to be strong and not cry in front of people and all those things. And I think what I've realized is that what we need to be telling both our boys and our girls is that it is also perfectly fine to also be girly, and there are so many awesome qualities about being a girl. And so now I try to tell both my kids, be strong and gentle. You can pick the best qualities from what we've traditionally called feminine and the best qualities from what we've traditionally called masculine and people who do that, who can sort of draw from the full spectrum, are people who tend to be successful and creative and fulfilled in their lives.

Liz Tenety: So Emma, thank you so much for your work and thank you for joining us on The Motherly Podcast.

Emma Brown: Oh, thanks for having me, Liz. It's been great to talk with you.

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Hosted by Liz Tenety

Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.

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