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From the Trade Paperback edition.
Barnes & Noble.com: How does your new book, Speaking of Boys, relate to your 1999 bestseller, Raising Cain?
Michael Thompson: Raising Cain is a book that came out of human concerns and theoretical concerns; it is a book based on research and our work with boys in psychotherapy. Speaking of Boys is simply answers to questions from parents. The energy in Raising Cain came out of Dan Kindlon's and my concerns and our wish to make a case that boys need protection. The energy in Speaking of Boys -- and I mean the energy -- comes from parents grappling with tough situations. And I tried to respond to that energy in an effective way. Speaking of Boys is also a different kind of book in that it can easily be dipped into. You can read several questions and answers and then put it away for later. People can turn to any section of the book at any time to read the parts that are relevant to their boy's life at the moment.
I had a blast writing this book. It was an enormous amount of fun because it tapped into what I think I'm good at, which is answering people's questions. I've been a child psychologist and a school consultant for more than 25 years. I'm used to having parents with questions or teachers with problems come to me. When you work in schools, folks stop you in the hall to consult you. You have to be quick; you can't say, "Gee, I'll get back to you in a couple of days." Because of that, I've developed what seems to be a very crisp way of answering questions. The fun of writing this book was that it just came off the tip of my tongue. It's up to the reader to decide whether it's useful, but from my point of view, it was a much easier book to write than Raising Cain. In writing it, I really came to appreciate the question-and-answer format. I can see why "Ann Landers" and "Dear Abby" have so many readers -- you have to get right to the point, and each question and answer is a mini-drama!
B&N.com: Can you tell us more about where the questions came from?
MT: Teresa Barker, a journalist and writer, generated the questions by interviewing parents. This was necessary because although I've answered literally thousands of questions about boys, I never kept them on 3x5 cards. She asked parents, "If you had an expert to talk to about your son, what question would you most like to ask?" And then she would write up the questions in a succinct way. She sent me about 115 questions, of which only two or three were totally new to me. There were some that I'd answered hundreds of times -- ones about small boy activity levels, ADHD, and about boy anger. There were some funny questions; for example, a woman asked why her husband and her son think everything about body parts and body functions is so funny. I had a great time answering that one. That's not the kind of question a psychologist gets asked because it's not serious. I mean, people don't come to my office and ask, "Why do my husband and son fall on the floor laughing when they hear jokes about body parts?" But in general, there weren't a lot of surprises, and I think the questions covered the waterfront with respect to parents' concerns about boys.
B&N.com: Which works of fiction or nonfiction do you recommend to boys? In interviews you've mentioned Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life, and Geoffrey Wolff's Duke of Deception. Do you have more favorites?
MT: Yes, I am distressed when I ask audiences whether they have read This Boy's Life or The Duke of Deception and very few people have. Those are superb books about boys' lives. Happily, everyone knows Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. That said, this is not my area of expertise. I refer to a wonderful book called Great Books for Boys by Kathleen Odean, and there is another one, Great Books for Girls. That's what I recommend to people. It's been fun reading a lot of books with my son, and I look forward to reading him books that my father read to me. I still have the copy of Robinson Crusoe my father read to me -- it's one of those old editions with the N. C. Wyeth drawings. I've saved all of those for my son. But we're reading Harry Potter right now, of course!
B&N.com: Do you think there are subcultures in the United States that are healthier for boys than the dominant culture?
MT: That question touches on an issue that came up repeatedly in the book: the uselessness of boys in our society.
This is going to make me sound like a romantic for farm life, which I'm not. But, because of the higher activity levels of boys, I do think that boys who are raised in communities where they can be outdoors and work outdoors, and where they can be useful outdoors, makes for an excellent boyhood. You know, in 1940 about 60 percent of people either lived on a farm or worked on a farm. We've had a radical change in the last few decades. I think I say in the book that when you talk to a man who was raised on a farm, his eyes light up, and he'll tell you that he drove a car at 11, he drove a tractor at 12, he could do this, he could do that. You get a sense of his early competence doing things that his father and mother could see he was doing and that contributed to the life of the family and the farm. Can you imagine a farm family having a layabout son who did nothing? It would be impossible.
I found when I was answering questions for Speaking of Boys that I returned again and again to how useless boys are in our society. It's hard to feel useless. It makes you angry. I think that the socialization of girls gives them an edge in the usefulness department -- they can babysit, they can do these sorts of things. One of the reasons boys throw themselves into athletics is that that seems to be the only useful role that they can have. People think of boys and men, perhaps, as being addicted to games, but think about it from the point of view of a boy. Athletics may be the only thing he does that an adult -- particularly his father -- really values! It has entertainment value. Heck, in a small Texas town, the football team plays on Friday night and the entire town turns out for it. Those boys have a job, but nonathletic boys are left out and devalued. So, I like situations where boys' physicality can make a contribution to the family, to the society.
B&N.com: In the July 10, 2000, issue of The New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann wrote an article in which he divides the leaders of the current discussions about boys into two categories: the Red Team and the Blue Team. In his words: "The Red Team sees boys as being oppressed by traditional notions of masculinity, and yearning to break free. The Blue Team thinks those traditional notions are just fine but need to be shored up because of the damage done by a generation of feminist attack." What do you think of this?
MT: One thing I loved about Nicholas Lemann's review was that he pinpointed the beginning of a separation that I have experienced myself. In splitting the boy-book authors into the Red Team and the Blue Team he pointed out that there is starting to be no middle ground in this debate about boys. I regret that. If you ask me, I'm slightly on the Red Team, in his terms. But to many women I'm definitely not, because I work at an all-boys school and say nice things about boys' schools, which puts me on the Blue Team. But it's funny to be seen this way. I've experienced it as frustrating and annoying and odd for people to want to view me as being in one camp or another. That's not my career. I've worked with boys as a high school counselor and teacher and psychologist since the age of 25 and I'm 53, and it seemed to me all the time that I was just trying to help boys. Somehow being on one ideological team or another doesn't describe me. I think readers will find that Speaking of Boys is really quite neutral with respect to these ideological battles.
B&N.com: Can you situate Speaking of Boys and Raising Cain for us with respect to other books on the topic?
MT: Some people put enormous emphasis on the biology and neurology of boys and say that that's what it's all about -- boys are wired differently and we've just got to love them the way they are. For example, Michael Gurian's book The Wonder of Boys is based largely on his reading of boy biology.
There are other people who take the view that our society has put boys into crisis by oppressing them with a masculine code. William Pollack's book Real Boys is one of those. Raising Cain has more in common with William Pollack's point of view than it does with Michael Gurian's. We drew on a lot of the same primary sources that Bill did in making our case that many boys are emotionally illiterate.
Speaking of Boys, in comparison to all of those books, is a very practical, hands-on type of book because it responds directly to particular situations brought to me by parents. Parents don't have time for theory. They don't care whether the culture is oppressing their sons; they want to know what to do! I think if you talk about positioning it with relation to all the other books, there's advice in the other books, but it's advice that comes out of theory. The advice in Speaking of Boys arises from the things that worry parents and teachers. There's even a section of questions generated solely by teachers, about the things they see in their classrooms. Why are boys so cruel to one another? and other questions of great concern to them.
Speaking of Boys couldn't be more unlike The War Against Boys by Christina Hoff Sommers. The War Against Boys is really a ferocious argument by an empirical social scientist against other people who she feels have gotten attention to which they are not entitled because their research is not sufficiently scientific. It's an academic and political debate dressed up as protection for boys. I just don't believe that the biggest problems boys face in this culture are Carol Gilligan's or Bill Pollack's research methods. I respect empirical research, I rely on it, but I also understand that Gilligan [author of In a Different Voice], the social scientist she rails against, captured something about the lives of girls with which literally million of women resonated.
In Raising Cain, Dan Kindlon and I combined research and clinical experience in order to make our observations. In Speaking of Boys, I talk about aspects of boy life that are not addressed in empirical research studies. I consider that to be very valuable, but I took courses with Erik Erikson and Bruno Bettelheim, who were not empiricists. That's the tradition out of which I come.
B&N.com: Are you working on another book?
MT: The book I'm working on right is called Best Friends/Worst Enemies. It is on a subject very close to my heart, and it is nearly finished. It is about children's friendships, how friends as well as groups of children interact and behave with each other, sometimes with great cruelty and at other times with great care. I'm writing it with a woman, Catherine O'Neill Grace, and we're having a great time drawing on our different experiences with friends and cliques -- our different gender scripts -- in our writing.
Posted March 3, 2012
No text was provided for this review.
Posted November 27, 2011
No text was provided for this review.