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The Good Son: A Complete Parenting Plan

The Good Son: A Complete Parenting Plan

by Michael Gurian
The Good Son is the definitive plan, organized by each year of a boy's life, to building character in our sons as we guide them through the moral and emotional maze that constitutes boyhood today. Bestselling therapist and educator Michael Gurian--widely credited with bringing the "boys' movement" to the public eye--takes readers through a comprehensive parenting


The Good Son is the definitive plan, organized by each year of a boy's life, to building character in our sons as we guide them through the moral and emotional maze that constitutes boyhood today. Bestselling therapist and educator Michael Gurian--widely credited with bringing the "boys' movement" to the public eye--takes readers through a comprehensive parenting program, showing them how to instill virtues in boys at each stage of life.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gurian (A Fine Young Man), one of today's premier writers on the subject of male development, moves beyond the realm of sociological and psychological analysis (offered in Eli Newberger's fine The Men They Will Become, see p. 71) to provide a timely and practical parenting guide. Focusing specifically on the subject of moral development--a matter of hot debate in the wake of such tragedies as the Columbine High School shooting--Gurian writes from his own experience as a family therapist. Citing an "increase in ethical numbness, moral distraction, and spiritual emptiness among boys and young men," he examines the roots of potential problems--such as the abandonment of our children's moral development to "potentially toxic" visual media--and then lays out a well-organized blueprint for ushering boys into adulthood. Gurian discusses such topics as biological and neurological development as well as building spiritual life and dealing with media influence (for example, he notes that a boy of nine or 10 should not "see images he cannot or should not experience with his own body and soul at this time in his life"). Gurian concludes with a list of age-appropriate books and movies that "stimulate moral growth in boys." Parents and caregivers will welcome the direction and reassurance of this outstanding book in their efforts to guide boys "toward loving, wise, and responsible manhood--the compassionate life." (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
This important book for parents drafts a blueprint, spanning birth through young adulthood, for raising boys who are ethical, responsible, decent, and capable of making good choices and decisions. Gurian begins by tackling the challenges parents and other adults face. After discussing the physiology of malesbrain development, hormonal changesGurian looks at the question, "Are we protecting our sons from moral harm?" The author concludes with his "good son parenting principles." Subsequent chapters are organized by ages and stages in a boy's life. Gurian covers developmental issues, and the range of what is normal during a particular stage, and "rules to live by." When discussing preadolescence through preadulthood (defined as seventeen years old and beyond), Gurian stresses the significance of adult men in addition to fathers to serve as mentors. The importance of programs for youthBoy Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothersalso is touched upon. The author emphasizes the spiritual life of boys, whether within an institutional church or not, and rites of passage. Gurian also devotes attention to those boys living either with a single or divorced parent. Helpful appendixes cite books and movies by ages or stages to stimulate moral growth in boys and list additional resources for parents. Although chapters might seem overly prescriptive, there is still latitude for parents to formulate rules that better fit their own values. The author's strong belief in the "nature" side of the "nature versus nurture" argument attributes behavioral differences between girls and boys to differences in brain growth and hormonesgender comparisons that would have been useful throughout the book. Thereismuch food for thought here. Youthserving professionals undoubtedly will profit from the chapters on teens. Public libraries and parent resource centers will want to shelve this title along with others offering differing points of view. Index. Biblio. Source Notes. Further Reading. Appendix. 1999, Tarcher/Putnam, Ages Adult, 392p, $24.95. Reviewer: Sue Rosenzweig
Library Journal
Here are two solid books with practical advice on how to raise well-adjusted, ethical young boys. The Good Son is the culminating third volume of Gurian's best-selling series (The Wonder of Boys, A Fine Young Man) about raising young males to become responsible men. Like many recent scholars, such as Gad Cudner (Small Criminal Among Us), Gurian offers ethical explanations of youth violence: his "good son parenting plan" revolves around morality and discipline. Astutely synthesizing Jean Piaget's cognitive and Lawrence Kohlberg's moral stages of development, he gives detailed guidelines for instilling "good virtues" during each of three stages of moral development: obedience (birth to six), convention (seven to 12), and moral intuition (13 to 18). On the other hand--and in contrast to Donald Black (Bad Boys, Mad Men: Confronting Antisocial Personality Disorder, LJ 3/1/99), who emphasizes genetic attribution--Newberger (pediatrics, Harvard Medical Sch.) thinks that the best explanation for boys' misbehavior is the interplay of biological drives and "character" development. He claims that boys are born with malleable "innate temperaments" that can be transformed into positive "male characteristics" such as self-control, courage, honesty, and sportsmanship. In short, boys can become leaders without resorting to violence. Both Gurian and Newberger use anecdotes to show that raising good sons need not be difficult, and their books are timely, insightful additions to the current debate on youth violence and school shootings. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--Chogollah Maroufi, California State Univ., Los Angeles Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A practical guide for parents in raising sons to become compassionate and responsible men. In calling for a "moral and ethical revival in the raising of boys," therapist Gurian, the author of two prior books about raising boys, speaks to the concern of many that our culture is failing to develop character in its young males. After examining the gender differences in male brains, hormones, and social acculturation that place them at greater risk than females, he argues that boys need more structure, discipline, guidance, and training than is commonly provided. He then spells out the details in a "Good Son Parenting Plan." The plan addresses the values of decency, fairness, empathy, self-sacrifice, respect, loyalty, service, responsibility, honesty, and honor. Each chapter tackles a stage of life: the age of obedience, comprising infancy, the toddler years, ages five and six; the age of convention: ages seven and eight, preadolescence, and prepuberty; and the age of moral intuition: puberty, the middle teens, and preadulthood. Instructive stories from a variety of sources open and close each chapter—fables and myths from India, Hawaii, and East Africa, as well as personal experiences of parents and teachers. In each chapter the author traces the intellectual, emotional, and moral development occurring in that stage, and considers issues most likely to arise. He includes practical advice on dozens of issues from bedtime, television, and bullying to peer pressures, sex, drugs, and alcohol. Two features especially helpful to parents are "The Range of Normal" and "Rules to Live By," in which Gurian sums up what is to be expected in a boy's life at each stage. Appendicesprovide not only reading lists for parents but a selection of age-appropriate books and movies for stimulating moral growth in boys. A well-planned program whose nonsectarian, nonpreachy approach makes it an appropriate guide for all parents concerned about the moral development of their sons.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
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6.34(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.32(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

What Does
It Mean to
Have a Son?

The sun shined brightly that morning as I left home and walked the distance to my new school. We lived in Laramie, Wyoming, and I was entering seventh grade. We had recently moved to Laramie, so I had few friends yet. As I walked up the steps that day, I was one of a melee of boys and girls who still wanted to be kids but would never admit it, and wanted to be adults already but were scared of adulthood.

    That afternoon, I went to my English class and sat at a desk in the middle of the room—not so far back that I was pegged as a troublemaker or stupid, and not right in front so I got called on a lot. A man of about thirty sat reading at the teacher's desk. He had close-cut black hair and a black beard, and he wore plain brown pants and a white shirt with a button-down collar. I couldn't tell his height yet, though he seemed tall. Behind him on the blackboard was written, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain—Read it." Beneath that, in smaller letters, was the teacher's name: "Mr. Majors."

    When the bell rang, he looked at us and smiled, his eyes lit up, his eyebrows curled like mustaches—big and black and expressive. He started talking about how he and his wife were going to have a baby any day now, and how he might try to take a day or two off (there was no official "family leave" for men in those days). He explained that this was his first child, and he thought it would be a boy. To our giggles, he said, "The reason I know this is because when my wife and I conceived thischild, I was reading Huck Finn. Now, if there's a better story about boys, I don't know what it would be.

    "But you know," he continued, rising from his chair and coming in front of the small desk, "there's nothing certain in life. You think it's certain that the sun will come up tomorrow, but it's not certain. You just believe it will because it always has." Then he pointed to his heart with a long finger. "But sometimes you just know something, and I just know I'm going to have a son, and I'm not sure what it means to have a son. It's a big deal. I'll tell you this—I'm not sure I want my son to have to live through everything Huck did, even though Huck had one heck of an adventure."

    And so Mr. Majors went on about Huck, how he was a kind of metaphor, an "everyman," or, more literally, an "everyboy." He told Huck's story in brief, hoping to entice us to actually read the book cover to cover: Huck's running away from a bad lot, saving the Negro Jim, rolling down the river in the raft, the Duke and Dauphin, con men extraordinaire; treasure and Tom Sawyer, having to dress like a girl, another rescue. A happy ending, but not until after a lot of tragedy and pain. Without Mark Twain's humor, Mr. Majors told us, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might have read more like a Greek melodrama.

    I did read the book cover to cover, and have since then a number of times. Not only because it was assigned, nor because it is a wonderful piece of literature, but because Mr. Majors was right: Every boy is in some way a Huck Finn. Boys are loving, good, and hungry for affection, for a pathway toward identity and importance, and for a personal journey through which to discover honor, honesty, empathy, decency, and all the other measures of a man. Like Huck's, each of our sons' "inherent goodness" is fragile: a family trauma, a disability, a rejection, a misconception about how someone feels about him can derail him quickly. Like Huck's, our sons' road to self-discipline and moral life is confusing. With each new generation, it gets even more so. Like Huck's parents, we are often less available than our boy needs. Like Huck, who learns some pretty bad habits from people he meets on his journey, our boys get taught some immoral things by their culture. And like Huck, most of our sons do make the long, hard journey toward self-discovery, self-discipline, and a moral life.

    Huck Finn had a tough go of it, especially when it came to learning right from wrong in a river society that itself wasn't clear about such things. Life was complicated for Huck, as it is for our boys. To whatever extent Huck's parents, extended family, and community did not ask the question "What does it mean to have this boy, Huck?" Huck, like our own sons, was forced to answer it himself. Mr. Majors, who did eventually have a son, didn't want his son to have to suffer a lot of what Huck did—the feelings of being lost, the isolation, and the lack of trustworthy elders. He wanted to protect his son, as we want to protect ours.

    What does it mean to have a son? It is the question we each ask, even if only unconsciously, whether our boy has just been born or he is already moving through his journey toward manhood. It is a crucial question, especially in a culture today that is so confused about what to expect from its boys, so unclear on what they're made of, and how best to nurture them. I have recently heard this issue called the "male question."


Some thirty years after Mr. Majors's impassioned first day of class, I gathered with a number of adult professionals at a conference that explored themes relating to boys, men, and male development. The title of the seminar was "How to Get Males More Involved in Teen Pregnancy Issues." Because this was the keynote session, open to the public, the auditorium included a number of mothers and other parents and community members.

    As I spoke, I brought up Mr. Majors and Huck Finn, and how confusing it can be to be a boy today. As we came to the question-and-answer session, a woman in her fifties raised her hand. She talked about Huck Finn from a woman's perspective, how she had liked the story but didn't get a lot out of it as a growing person. She said she had often wondered why boys like the book so much.

    This statement led to a long discussion about how different boys and girls often are. Then one woman raised her hand and said, "All this is now very interesting, but I came here wanting to answer, for myself, the male question."

    What is the "male question"? we asked her.

    "It's pretty basic, and I hope it will come out right as I ask it. It's about how to make our boys and men fit, how to make them worthwhile, how to make them good people who care about others, and how to give them a purpose in life. I don't want uncontrolled, selfish, or unemotional men. I want useful, loving men. I've raised two sons and a daughter," she continued. "One of my sons really struggled with just not knowing what he was doing here in this life. He's grown now but still doesn't really know what it means to be a man. The way he put it to me was like this: `Mom, as a guy, I don't quite know why I'm here.' This blew my mind, because I come from decades of feminism. I'm tuned to hear women saying they feel undervalued or unclear about their identity. But there was my son saying he didn't really know why he was born."

    "The `male question' is the same as Mr. Majors's question," another woman pointed out: "`What does it mean to have a son?' It's like our culture hasn't really asked this."

    Another mom joined the dialogue: "The way I see it is, the world wanted my boys—they're grown now—to be quiet, kind, vulnerable, and controlled all the time, but it also wanted them to be strong, fearless, and aggressive all the time. We pull these boys in two really different directions and expect them to somehow figure it all out, pretty much all by themselves. I never knew if I did enough to help my sons pull both of these things off, and so I felt constantly guilty as a mother, too."

    The woman who had started this discussion concluded it by saying: "If we don't come together as a culture and answer these questions—`Why is a male here?' `What is a male worth?' `What does it mean to have a son?'—we'll create more and more of the very males we're at this conference talking about—the irresponsible ones, the violent ones, the druggies, the addicted, these guys who impregnate girls and disappear. It's up to us to look deeply into males and masculinity as we have into females and women's issues, don't you think?"

    In this crowd of hundreds of mainly women, there was nearly unanimous agreement, of the type I have seen throughout the country over the last few years. Our culture has created the illusion that it understands its men and boys. But does it?


Merilee was forty-six, a lawyer, a petite woman with gray hair cut close and sparkling blue eyes. She had come to see me, she said, because she loved her three sons and her husband but felt so different from them. One son was having trouble, and it was his case she ostensibly wanted help with. But very quickly she admitted that she didn't think she could help him until she understood him, his brothers, his father, "and just men in general."

    She continued, "Look, you must please help me understand these guys. I try to help Blake and I get stumped. It's like I don't have standards, or measurements, for how he should behave, or what to expect of him. What is he feeling? I don't know. What am I doing wrong with him? I don't know. And it's not like he or the other guys in my life help me understand. They don't tell me much, you know?"

    Haven't we all felt like this? So many of us, whether parents, teachers, or grandparents, sense at some point that we have come to the tail end of what we understand about boys. We all know what it feels like to guess, or to gravitate toward a stereotype. We're all so busy we often don't even have time to sit down with others and ask, "Is what he just did normal?"

    Merilee represents to me what seems to be happening all over the world right now: people admitting that we really don't understand boys and men. We haven't focused on them, despite the contemporary rhetoric that says, "The last three thousand years have been about men—we don't need to hear more about them." In fact, the last three thousand years have featured the accomplishments of a few men, but they have not featured the hidden interpersonal, psychological, and even moral worlds of our males in general.

    Merilee is a parent who had the courage to admit: Guys can be confusing to us. They are well armored and in a shell; when they do talk it is rarely about their inner lives. It is difficult to say, "I know him." Sometimes, the males even talk a lot about inner lives just to make us think they're being revealing when in fact they're just trying to please us. Culturally, adult males remain so inscrutable that we end up labeling them inherently defective, or emotionally stupid, or morally reprehensible, or just not worth the effort.

    I brought up Merilee's predicament on a radio show recently, raising the idea that we now understand our girls better than our boys. The radio host thought I came from the nineteenth century! "It's women who haven't had a voice," she insisted. Agreeing with her, I still pointed out that life now is not the same as it was thirty years ago. For instance, resources available for the understanding of girls and women—from academic studies to popular books to girl-power projects—outnumber resources available for understanding males by about nine to one. She still was incredulous, so I suggested she put this piece of the "male question" out to callers: "Let's ask callers if they feel human beings as a whole right now understand what's going on inside boys and men as well as we understand girls and women."

    The talk-show host did generously put it to callers, and we were overwhelmed with calls, mainly from women, agreeing with Merilee. Since that first audience participation poll, I've raised this question throughout the country. The same results always come in: The majority of people are ready to admit that boys and men are too inscrutable to us right now, and we must change that in order to ensure the emotional and moral development of all our children.

    In the rest of this chapter and in the next, I will be making a very simple argument: that our boys need a specific kind of love and attention, which they are rarely getting. That argument begins in our understanding of their hidden biology and of that biology's effect on their behavior not only as children but as boys.


"My two sons," a mother told me, "seemed to come out of the gate having to figure out how to control themselves. My daughter just sort of knew."

    So often, active, aggressive, and impulsive boys do seem different from girls. In some households, this activity makes for more discipline problems. In most households, when girls lose their sense of direction in life, their confusion does not show up as quickly in dangerous, immoral behavior. Males constitute the vast majority of criminals in any human culture; they engage in most of the violence in any culture; they constitute the vast majority of discipline problems in schools; they take the majority of moral and behavioral risks in any part of the world we study. While we all could argue whether boys or girls are harder to raise, I don't think most people would disagree that boys pose a special challenge when it comes to moral development.

    A lot of moral development is, of course, the same for boys and girls. A lot of what you read in this book will work for girls. On the other hand, the difference is pretty significant. In my previous books, The Wonder of Boys and A Fine Young Man, I suggested that at the core of our emotional and social neglect of boys is the fact that a male experiences emotional and personal fragility in biologically recognizable ways, which we have neglected as a culture. In The Good Son, I will argue that we morally neglect our sons because we neglect male neurology and biochemistry. The deepening of our cultural understanding of our boys starts right here, in our biological and neurological inheritance and in its blending with culture.

    Because I've covered a great deal about male biology and culture in The Wonder of Boys and A Fine Young Man, I won't repeat that material in The Good Son—I'll summarize and apply biocultural research to specific moral and discipline issues. And let's always remember that these are scientific and cultural generalizations and there are exceptions to everything presented here. The research into these biological and neurological clues is being done with brain scans—PET and MRI—by scientists, like Ruben Gur at the University of Pennsylvania. These scans show neurological differences between the ways a young female and a young male process the world and respond to its challenges. Scientists at the University of Iowa have now studied more than a million children and found profound brain-development differences between males and females. In research centers in England, Norway, Canada, and elsewhere, scientists have discovered differences in parts of the brain, like the hypothalamus, that create hormone flows in males and females. For people who work in neuroscience, these revelations are the most exciting stuff in life. In the references section for this chapter, I've listed a number of book and videotape resources you can access to increase your knowledge of this research. To some extent, this research helps us relearn what our great-great-grandparents probably always knew; but there are startling new developments as well.

    Here are some key biological factors we must understand about the hidden nature of males and masculinity if we are to fully parent and raise good sons. Some of these factors may even frighten you—yet I hope you'll come to agree that their presence calls for us to modify the cultural influences on our boys that hurt their moral development. And at the outset, this very powerful biological material will also explain certain things about your sons and help you understand them, in ways that perhaps you have not experienced before.

    Aggression and the Brain

    The male amygdala, a primary aggression center of the brain, is larger than that of the female, and creates more active aggression in males. When this fact is applied to male hormonal and cultural life, we find a deep and basic clue as to why a boy gets involved, so much more than the female, in morally at-risk behavior—more aggressive or violent behavior, for instance. He is more likely than a girl to hit, more likely to curse or otherwise compete with or one-up another person as a way of relating.

    It is important to remember that aggression and violence are not the same thing. Boys all over the world have larger amygdalas and show more daily physical aggression than girls, but males in Japan, for instance, are far less violent than males in America. Japanese culture focuses more heavily on making sure children are raised to be nonviolent. Tightness of living quarters in Japan necessitates more antiviolence training of males. Japan is just one of the cultures that does more than we do to recognize that male biology needs close attention, training, and certain kinds of healthy love. Innovations from other cultures will help us direct our sons' lives in the parenting plan.


    Progesterone is the human bonding hormone. It exists biologically to bond its host body with the infant (and with others), to whom the host is required to give care. Driven by this hormone, females are more likely to seek "bonding outcomes" in the intricacies of relationship.

    The dominant male hormone, testosterone, exists in large part to compel its host body toward increased sexual copulation and aggression. Driven by testosterone, males are more likely to seek a physically or intellectually competitive experience, wherein bonds are less direct. Testosterone levels have been studied in both prison populations and CEOs of companies. In other words, the higher the testosterone level, the higher the likelihood the host will climb the corporate ladder quickly, but also the more likely he will turn violent and hurt others and the community. Testosterone leads to both triumph and trouble. The "testosterone host" needs great care in his socialization if he is to channel his aggression into socially helpful tracks.

    The increased testosterone—males have up to twenty times more than females—and limited amounts of progesterone and estrogen also make it more difficult for males to feel empathy as an initial response to an external stimulus. Males spend more time filtering through early aggression responses; females spend more time providing immediate and thorough early empathy responses.

    The consequences for moral development are compelling. If families and a culture do not train males constantly and directly toward empathic responses, the male stands a chance of not developing them to the level of functionality his culture ultimately requires. Again, we'll look at this situation in greater depth in the parenting plan.

    Hormones and Stress

    The male-female differences in behavior, moral outcome, and show of empathy increase when stress is imposed. As the female stress level increases, her female hormones (like progesterone) guide her toward more direct bonding responses with friends, family, and other potential emotional allies. When she is under the stress of depression, for instance, she is more likely to attempt suicide as a plea for help than to succeed at it, and she is more likely to verbalize her depression to a friend or caregiver than is a male. A male is more likely to succeed at suicide, and less likely to call or approach a friend for emotional help.

    As the male stress level increases, testosterone guides him toward less direct, immediate bonding responses and more aggressive or, at worst, antisocial or isolative responses. She tries to pull close to others; he tends to pull away. Furthermore, when he is under heavy stress, his natural hormonal inclination is to directly increase his aggression and thus the environmental stress he puts on others. He is ten times more likely than a female to become violent. He is more likely to use his body destructively, employing the power of his muscle mass. His response to being abused or attacked or to other emotional stress—whether it is to punch a wall or yell at another person—is more often and more likely morally frightening to his community than is a girl's.

    External Behavior and the Male Brain

    Males take longer, on average, to process feelings through the brain system than females do. The male brain—the corpus callosum, the limbic system, the prefrontal lobes—is not set up as well for internalized responses as for externalized responses. We see the externalizing impulse of the male brain when we watch kids at play. Male play involves more rough-and-tumble, more physical action, more climbing on objects, etc. We see it also in learning environments—boys are more physically impulsive in classrooms, and in the playroom are more likely to grab blocks or other physical objects with which to play and create externalized games. Girls are more likely to pick dolls and other objects by which to develop an internal dialogue, or even monologue.

    Perhaps the primary reason for this difference is that the male brain system is more spatially oriented than the female. It is more of a "hunting" brain, one that for millions of years oriented itself in the universe by somewhat lonely journeys through external space—the savannah or forest or desert—in which it pursued objects of prey. In every significant test available, boys on average score better on spatial problems— depth perception, three-dimensionality, direction—than girls. This spatial brain system compels boys to act out, in external space, their feelings and to externalize much more of their human experience.

    This brain difference becomes even clearer in a boy's prepubescence and is enhanced in adolescence, requiring middle school and then high school teachers to spend a great deal of time trying to train boys in personal discipline. As puberty hits, athletic activity becomes immensely important for many boys, as they themselves try to regulate their own personal energy and compulsion toward spatial physical activity.

    This "externalization of experience" has profound moral consequences. "Use your words," we tell our girls and boys. It is often easier for girls. The male brain relies on less complex responses—many of which are aggression responses, like punches, that scare others in the environment. The female's more complex verbal responses are less scary to the community, and less likely to be labeled immoral and undisciplined. Our ancestors observed these male activities and responded to them with intense moral and discipline development, something we must do now, in ways that fit our times.

Brain Flexibility

    The male brain system is less neurologically "flexible" and "adaptable" than the female. It "lateralizes" its activity more. In other words, the female brain does its tasking in more places in the brain at once than the male. For instance, when a girl is producing words, there is blood flowing and more neural firing in more parts of the brain than when a boy is producing words. Similarly, when she is taking in sounds, more of her brain lights up. She is thus more flexible and adaptable and full-brained in her responses to the world around her. He is more narrowly focused, takes in less data into less of his brain, and ends up with a narrower emotional, behavioral, and therefore moral range of response.

    We see this activity manifest in male problem solving. He often tries to problem solve quickly rather than fully delve into the problem. He often compels himself toward a singular task response, which may take the situation to an even more tragic end, rather than patiently and adaptably following a multitask response: "That man is hurting you," he might say, "so I will go hurt him for you." The more "moral" response is often the more multitasked response. The more disciplined response is, again, often the more multitasked response—one that involves patience, impulse control, even walking away from the aggression. To a great extent, males more than females must be trained by parents and communities in multitasking their responses.

    The Brain at Rest

    Blood flow in the male brain, when the brain is at rest, tends to settle in the brainstem, or what is called the reptilian brain, increasing male proclivities to aggression responses. The human brain is generally divided into three parts—the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the cerebral cortex. The reptilian brain handles things like fear responses; the limbic system handles a lot of what makes up complex emotional life; and the cortex handles much of our intellectual development. When a male is at rest—e.g., "zoning out" in front of the TV or sleeping—a large amount of blood rests in the part of the brain that manages fight-or-flight responses. The female brain, on the other hand, idles in the cingulate gyrus, a part of the limbic system related to emotional life and expression. When at rest, the female brain is oriented more toward complex emotional response. Even in resting mode, the male brain is already set up for more dangerous and impulsive responses.

    Impulse Control

    The female brain produces more serotonin than the male. Serotonin is an immensely powerful brain chemical that pacifies and calms its host system. In large part, because of their decreased levels of serotonin, boys have less natural impulse control than girls. Even in utero, male fetuses are already more physically impulsive than female, kicking Mom more from inside. This lack of impulse control continues throughout the life span of the male and female—males in boyhood, adolescence, and well into adulthood are more likely to be more physically impulsive more of the time, a neurological fact that has moral consequences. The less impulse control a child has, the more chance he has of getting in trouble. Thus, clear limits and discipline become even more essential for males, as does a certain forgiveness for boisterousness.

    Mental Disease

    Of particular interest to neurologists has been the fact that males suffer the majority of brain disorders and diseases that result in immoral, amoral, or undisciplined behavior. Both girls and boys get mental diseases, but males get more of them (the majority of both juvenile and adult mental patients are male); and the male brain tends more toward diseases and neurological conditions that directly affect self-control. Tourette's syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, psychopathology, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, drug and alcohol addiction—all of these tendencies ranging from violence to overaggression are statistically dominated by males. In 1991, a team of researchers in the U.S. discovered the "dopamine receptor" (the D2 receptor), a genetic component found in higher quantities among victims of brain and thought disorders—most of whom are male. Research involving this receptor provides some potential information on a very distinct kind of male brain fragility—one that directly affects a male's conduct and thus challenges us to pay close attention to it.

I've outlined these biological differences in a necessarily general way. Yet they do show, I hope, how important it is for a people and a culture to more thoroughly address the discipline and moral development of boys. Our boys are nothing if not morally fragile, from the inside out. And there are ways in which our boys are simply more vulnerable than girls to moral instability. To neglect this fact is to neglect our boys.


When people spoke at the teen pregnancy conference about how confused their sons were regarding their worth as males, they were talking, without realizing it, about a biological component of male-female life that perhaps we now can understand better. Here are two mothers talking about their sons.

Alex is into computers right now—he's learning everything like a sponge. He's like a thirteen-year-old who's trying to be Bill Gates. He's got a poster of Bill Gates up in his room, bigger than anything else in there. I showed him in the newspaper about some of the things that Gates may have done, the business practices, the lawsuits. Alex shocked me. He said, "Hey, Mom, whatever it takes to make it."


He always has to be the best. When he loses at soccer, he can be depressed for days. I try to explain to him that it doesn't matter, but he doesn't buy it. I think he's desperate to make something of himself and make me proud. I think he will go to any lengths to be the best.


    At a biological and hormonal level, boys and girls do not experience the search for self-worth in exactly the same way. While there are many similarities, there is a profound difference.

    The human female is geared internally toward the ultimate possibility of creating and caring for her own new self—her child. Her hormones and brain system gear her toward emotional inwardness and relational closeness. Even with girls as young as six months old, we notice them tending more toward eye contact, more toward physical touch, and, in toddler years, more toward hands-on caregiving activities with siblings and dolls. Throughout childhood, girls naturally and by socialization practice the expression of inherent worth as they develop caregiving qualities. At puberty, the female hormonal cycle begins to present the female with the inherent potential to accomplish the most concretely worthwhile act in all of life—birthing and caring for one's offspring. Every month the female is reminded of her potential to conceive, carry, and birth a child.

    Males undoubtedly enjoy certain advantages in our culture. But they do not have the advantage of being born with an inherent path to self-worth. Their early brain development pushes their lives more outward into the surrounding world than inward into their emotional development. They push and prod and hit and miss their way through obstacles and challenges. They know even from the first truck they hold that they must earn their place in the world. They compete and strive and can often appear to lack basic compassion as they try to do better, gain respect, and prove their worth.

    Certainly some of this behavior comes from dads, moms, and others who push boys early toward competition. But so much of it comes from within human nature. Male importance in our human species is amorphous—it exists if there is someone to protect and a danger to protect that someone from. It exists if there is meaningful work or family life to focus on. It does not exist simply because the male exists. Simply impregnating a female does not give him worth—he has to receive status from the quality of their child. If he as a male has a weakness, an infirmity, an imperfection, a disability, his path to worth is even more desperate. A male born into a human society starts out with a longer biological road toward respect than a female.

    Daughters have a choice sons don't have. As females, they can decide to have a child, and upon having that child, they will find many of the forces of culture marshaled toward the care and protection of them and that child. My daughters will be generally respected as mothers, and they will be told, with good reason, that they are doing "the most important job on earth."

    For the boys in my care, I see a different future. Even when they become fathers, they must continue to prove that they are successful, that they are worthy of respect, that they can "make it." They will generally need external proof, even beyond their children. This is their fate as males. It is not better or worse than a female's fate—it just is.

    One of the most moving three hours I've ever spent was watching, with my wife, Gall, the film Saving Private Ryan. I don't think any film in the last five years has brought so many tears to my eyes. Its plot is simple—Private Ryan's three brothers have been killed in battle in the last year of World War II. Military headquarters learns of their deaths and decides the fourth son must be saved. Captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks, sets out with a few others on orders to find Ryan in France and bring him to safety. They find Ryan but are not sure he's worth saving. Toward the end of the movie, nearly everyone in Miller's group is killed in a battle. As Captain Miller himself is dying, he manages to let young Ryan know that he must now earn his life by living it as proof that he was worth saving. In the final scene, when Ryan is now in his seventies and standing over Miller's grave, he says to his wife, "Tell me I've led a good life. Tell me I'm a good man." As she replies to him that he has and he is, her face belies that she is missing how crucial this statement is to him. An elderly man, Ryan knows that if he has not been good and proven his worth, then his own life and the lives of all the men who saved him have been meaningless.

    And so it is to be a boy and to be a man. Nature does not provide him with a blueprint for worth. The boy and the man must be raised to see the possibility of self-worth, then meet a few others who provide the vision of a road toward it, and then spend a lifetime pursuing that worth through action and relationship. One of the greatest tragedies in human life is to be born a male and not be guided toward the value of a man.


Understanding male-female differences provides an answer to a question that I once heard my own mother ask a counselor when I was a teen. In Durango, Colorado, the town we lived in during my first three years of high school, I saw a counselor who captured my attention during each session by playing chess with me. While we played chess, we talked. After one such session, I went back into the lobby while he spoke with my mom. My mother was a loud talker, so even through the closed door I could hear her ask, "Do you think boys just need more discipline and moral training than girls?" I could not hear his answer. Now, after years of life and research, I've found my answer.

    Boys depend on it.

    My mother was asking the "male question" in her way in that time of her life. She was discovering the challenge that is before every one of us: Once we truly look inside the male mind, we discover that we must, as individual family members and as a caregiving culture, spend a lot more time providing love, discipline, and moral training to our boys. Despite the fact that boys can display wonderful moral sense, they live as males at a potential moral disadvantage of biological proportions we now can summarize.

· They often don't control impulses as well as girls, thus they are, generally, not as naturally calm as girls.

· They tend toward more severe psychiatric disorders than girls, especially disorders involving physical anger and aggression.

· They tend toward more violence-causing disorders than girls.

· They tend toward disorders that cut them off from the kind of attention span that compassion and empathy require.

· Their hormones drive them toward greater physical, mental, and moral risk taking.

· When they are traumatized or depressed, boys tend more toward angry and aggressive ways of showing it.

· They have less natural sense of their own personal worth than females do, which compels them toward higher-risk behavior as they strive to prove themselves.

    In this chapter, I hope I have shown you that our boys face some major challenges, especially where moral development is concerned. In the next chapter, we'll explore how boys live out their biology in a culture that often misunderstands them, and thus misdirects or even poisons them in the same way that many forces nearly poisoned Huck Finn on his life-journey.

Meet the Author

Michael Gurian is a psychotherapist and bestselling author whose books include The Wonder of Boys and The Good Son. His work reflects the diverse cultures (European, Asian, Middle Eastern, and American) in which he lived, worked, and studied. He has taught psychology, religion, mythology, and literature at three American universities and at Ankara University in Turkey. He lives with his wife and two children in Spokane, Washington.

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