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Meet the Experts

Raising Cain: Boys in Focus, features some of the most important experts on boys in America today. We asked them a few questions about working with boys, and here's what they said:


Q: What's special and wonderful about boys?


A: "Little boys and little girls are wonderful in both the same and different ways. I enjoy little boys comfort with rough and tumble play, their fascination with power (like dinosaurs and super heroes), and their attempts to work through what it means to be male and masculine."

Joseph Tobin, Ph.D.
Professor of Early Childhood Education
Arizona State University
Author, Preschool in Three Cultures


A: "Even at age five, boys' energy tends to be focused, constructive, and direct. In the block area of my kindergarten class, ten boys can build an elaborate structure, trading ideas and sharing materials, working cooperatively and respecting one another's projects. Disagreements may blow up quickly but they are also settled easily, without being stored up and made larger. Boys love big projects, big groups, and big ideas. When given a challenge, they want to solve it. When encouraged to be cooperative, rather than competitive, they see that they can solve even bigger and better projects by working together."

Jane Katch, M.S.T.
Kindergarten Teacher,
Touchstone Community School
Grafton, Mass.
Author, Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play


A: "Their sense of humor and parody. At its best, it is the feeling that the entire world of seriousness is open to mockery. One of my favorite books for reluctant (often boy) readers is the Captain Underpants series. Two young misfit boys, who are always in trouble, buy a magic ring that, without their knowing exactly how, turns their mean principle into a superhero with a cape and briefs. He flies off to save the world and the two boys try to bring him back. It makes fun of adults, school, principles, and superheroes. I love this irreverence."

Thomas Newkirk, Ph.D.
Professor of Education, University of New Hampshire
Author, Misreading Masculinity


A: "Boy energy and boy passion. Boys throw themselves into things they love, whether it is outside games or video games, and they often do it with an excitement and recklessness that scares adults, who have sometimes forgotten their own passions. I also appreciate the way boys express themselves: directly and highly efficiently. They get furious, they stonewall, they can be insulting; and sometimes they hurt our feelings, but if you are willing to listen to them, they will tell you their inner reality."

Michael Thompson, Ph.D.
Coauthor of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys


Q: What are the most important challenges facing boys in American society today?


A: "There are enormous contradictions in our society's messages about violence. On one hand, boys are flooded with images from television, videogames, and movies that are much more graphic and frightening than those which occur naturally in their imaginations. At the same time, boys often are not allowed to express their own fantasies, which include both normal, aggressive thoughts as well as images from those explicitly violent scenes they have viewed in the media. Many adults are afraid that if boys think about or play about violence, they are more likely to become violent, yet boys have played games of good guys and bad guys for centuries without becoming violent from them.  

The challenge for these boys is to find ways to deal with the increasing stimulation while living with the expanding prohibition about expressing their fantasies in normal boy play."

Jane Katch, M.S.T.


A: "I think it depends largely on social class and race. Children living in poverty face different challenges than those growing up in affluence. Many African American boys struggle to find reasons to be optimistic about their future. Middle class white boys struggle to feel adequately masculine."

Joseph Tobin, Ph.D.


A: "The lack of fathers and the lack of heroes. 40 % of boys in the United States are not living with their biological fathers. When a boy doesn't have a father at home, he may have to depend on the media or his peers to offer him an image of masculinity."

Michael Thompson, Ph.D.


Q: What advice do you have for parents of boys today?


A: "Limit your young child's exposure to violence in the media. Keep in mind that young children take such images literally. They do not know what actions they see in movies could really happen in their lives and which ones could not really take place.  

Remember that the content of your son's fantasies does not predict his behavior in the future. Boys can have violent fantasies without becoming violent people. Focus on rules that will help him make his play safe but try to avoid making him feel bad about his imagination. He can't stop what he is thinking about but he can control how he treats people."

Jane Katch, M.S.T.


A: "I think a big part of parenting is showing up. It is being there, being steady, and being ready to listen. Particularly as your kids get older, you never know the moment that they will open up. You usually can't achieve intimacy by playing twenty questions, by prodding, by hovering, by insisting. At least that's been my experience. These moments of closeness happen unexpectedly. It takes boys time to be ready to talk, and this shouldn't be rushed."

Joseph Tobin, Ph.D.


Q: What would you say to a parent who is afraid her boy will grow up to be too aggressive or violent?


A: "Aggression and violence are problems to worry about in our society. But that doesn't mean we should be worried about boy's rough and tumble play or their fascination with toy guns and war play. In a society and in a world full of violence, children need a chance to use their play to work through thoughts and feelings about violence. And little boys may be in particular need of incorporating themes of violence and power into their play as part of their struggle with what it means to be male."

Joseph Tobin, Ph.D.  


A: "I would ask the parent to describe how the boy treats his friends, his teachers, and other people in his life. If he cares about the feelings of others, wants to help them when they're hurt or in trouble, and can compromise at times when playing games, then I don't think the parent needs to worry. If he has to completely control every game, can't compromise, is mean to the children he plays with, and has no good friends, then the parent should look for advice, probably beginning with the teacher, who sees the child in relation to other children his age."

Jane Katch, M.S.T.


A: "When you ask boys what they really want in school—and we asked many boys that question when we were filming 'Raising Cain'—they say that the want to feel 'safe.' No boy can learn or thrive in any way when he is living under some kind of threat. The threats can come from bullies who might hurt him, it can come from adults who constantly mistrust and disapprove of boys. We need to make boys feel both safe and understood; only then will we see their best sides."

Michael Thompson, Ph.D.


Q: What would you say to a parent who is afraid her boy is too atypical to make it in the typical boy's world?


A: "It is critical that a boy who is having difficulty has a home base, a place where he is unconditionally loved and accepted. I think boys have a better chance of withstanding outside problems, if their homes are places where they are constantly reassured, and enjoyed. In addition, having a friend that likes him and enjoys the same activities he does will help protect him from the criticism of others who don't understand him because he's different. 'They don't understand us,' can be dealt with more easily than 'No one understands me.' "

Thomas Newkirk, Ph.D.  


A: "There are many different kinds of boys and many ways to be a man. Not all boys are athletic, not all boys are risk-takers; some are very cautious and others boys don't appear conventionally masculine. Boys can see all these differences with their own eyes right from the beginning. What they need is for adults to confirm that for them that they are all valued and respected, and that there is a place in society for all of them."

Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

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When to Watch

Raising Cain premiered on January 12, 2006.
Check your local listings for re-broadcasts.