Documentary Examines Misconceptions About American Boys

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A new riveting documentary, airing Thursday night on PBS, demystifies conventional wisdom about the emotional welfare of boys in America. NPR's Farai Chideya talks to famed child psychologist Michael Thompson, host of the documentary Raising Cain.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Boys are aggressive, tough, violent and impulsive. At least those are the stereotypes. A new documentary titled "Raising Cain" seeks to demystify some common misconceptions regarding the emotional welfare of boys in America. Child psychologist Dr. Michael Thompson hosts the two-hour documentary, and he spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

So you traveled extensively across the country to meet with boys, teachers and parents to explore the emotional life of boys across America, from the suburbs to inner cities. What did you find?

Dr. MICHAEL THOMPSON (Child Psychologist; Host, "Raising Cain"): Well, you know, people are a little jumpy about raising boys in America. Ever since Columbine, the majority of Americans got it that problems with American violence and boy violence weren't just inner-city problems, that they're everywhere, and people want to know what's going on inside boys. Why do they play the games that they play? Are their video games going to make them violent? What do we need to do for them? Why are they doing less well in school than they used to? Why are girls outperforming them? Why don't boys go out for extracurriculars, other than athletics, in the way that they used to? You know, they're not running for class president. I mean, people have a lot of worries about American boys and what's happening for them.

CHIDEYA: Do adults too commonly push boys into becoming aggressive? For example, I thought the footage that you captured from a boys' football practice was interesting. You show young boys, for example, talking about what a man is.

(Soundbite of "Raising Cain")

Unidentified Boy #1: A man is somebody who's not a wuss and doesn't cry all the time.

Unidentified Boy #2: Tough, never cry--doesn't cry a lot.

CHIDEYA: ...so much.

Dr. THOMPSON: Isn't that sweet?

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Dr. THOMPSON: And their faces are so angelic and they're saying, `You can kick butt and you can hurt somebody.' And, you know, they're just little guys. They're just eight and nine years old. Their coach is a good man, I'm sure, but he has this idea that boys are filled with aggression and they have to get their aggression out.

(Soundbite of "Raising Cain")

Unidentified Man: You guys know what pass walking is?

Unidentified Boy #3: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: Yeah. How come nobody did it?

Unidentified Boy #4: I did.

Unidentified Man: Huh? You've got to go in there and you've got to be tough, but you can't be sissying out, all right?

Dr. THOMPSON: And that's what football is about. I think boys go out for football because their friends do and because they want the contact with coaches, who--and they think it's a way to become a man. It's not that they need--they're boiling pots of aggression, the need to get it out. Some boys are more hard-charging than others, but there's a vast variety of boys, and we tend--our notion of masculinity in this country tends to highlight only one kind of boy.

CHIDEYA: Well, you actually go through many different types of boys. I want to talk about Mike. He is 13 years old, overweight, doesn't play sports, considers himself strange, not a regular guy.

Dr. THOMPSON: Right.

CHIDEYA: In Mike's case, bullying from other boys took an emotional toll.

(Soundbite of "Raising Cain")

Dr. THOMPSON: Do you think there is such a thing as a boy who isn't hurt by that kind of stuff?

MIKE: Well, on the outside, yeah, but on the inside, no. Because somebody can call--some boy can call another boy a fag or something like that, and they can just be like, `Hey,' just laugh about it. But then that day, if they get home and like they don't have any friends over or a brother isn't there or a sister isn't there or things like that, they could just go up to their room and cry because it really hurts on the inside.

CHIDEYA: You also show that he was someone who turned from being bullied to bullying another child. Is that common?

Dr. THOMPSON: Well, of course. And actually, Freud explained why people did that. They identified with the aggressor. If they'd been hurt or humiliated, they then, in turn, will hurt and humiliate somebody else. That's the basic sequence that leads boys to violence. Boys in the inner city or boys from families who have been hit around or they've seen their fathers hit their mothers, when boys are hurt and humiliated and afraid, what are you going to do? You're going to say, `Well, I'm going to get some of that power and I'm going to do it myself.'

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about another boy, Rubin(ph). He lives in the Bronx. He's in the sixth grade. He initially had some problems with his grades when he changed schools, and the reason why he had problems are interesting. But first, let's listen to what Rubin and his adoptive grandmother say in the film.

(Soundbite of "Raising Cain")

Unidentified Woman: Rubin literally wanted to get kicked out of that school.

Unidentified Man: Really?

Unidentified Woman: Yes.

Dr. THOMPSON: The result: Something Rubin had never seen before: an F on his first semester report card.

RUBIN: I felt really, really, really, really, really, I mean, you know, bad. I thought, you know, I'm a failure and all that.

Unidentified Woman: He cried.

RUBIN: Grandma, but I never get an F. I never fail at anything.

Unidentified Woman: When he saw that F on the paper, it turned him around.

CHIDEYA: At this point in the film, you suggest some boys fall prey to a narrow idea of what masculinity is. Do intellectual gifts, such as those possessed by Rubin, tend to be feminized?

Dr. THOMPSON: Without a doubt. I mean, the problem Rubin was up against in the South Bronx in a pretty tough public school was that he was a brilliant student, a gifted natural student getting A's, and he started to take a lot of crap for it from boys. And then he had a choice. He's a handsome guy, and he thought, `Well, I'll become a player. You know, I'll become--I'll hang out with the girls. I'm going to forget this good grades stuff,' and that's the fate of many boys who could be good in school but they trade that in to be cool and be a player. He had a public school teacher who said to his adoptive grandmother, `Get Rubin out of here. Get him to an all-boys' school where all the boys want to do well.'

CHIDEYA: What would you like to see change in our culture?

Dr. THOMPSON: Boys are often very directly communicative, and we need to listen to them about their experience in school and about their experience in life, and mainly, we need not to be afraid of them and we need to show them there's many ways to be a man; strong and stoical and tight-lipped and loving football, and loving art and theater. And I'm not just talking about straight or gay here. I'm talking about the whole range of what men do in the world. But boys have to see that.

CHIDEYA: Child psychologist Michael Thompson is the host of "Raising Cain." He's written a book of the same name and he joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Dr. Thompson, thanks for coming on.

Dr. THOMPSON: Thanks for having me.

COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya. "Raising Cain" airs Thursday night on PBS.

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