Why “Boy Culture” Is Hurting Boys and Everyone Else (2024)

People are more disconnected from each other than ever. We have a loneliness crisis, not only here in the United States but around the world, fueling discontent, stress, and poor health.

Why “Boy Culture” Is Hurting Boys and Everyone Else (1)

Perhaps no one is lonelier or more alienated than men. In recent years, men are saying they have fewer friends and sources of intimacy than ever before, with only 27% of men in 2021 with at least six close friends compared to 55% in 1990. And that’s a problem for all of us, because the lonelier men are, the more their well-being and relationships suffer. In some cases, loneliness can lead to suicide or even violence.

According to developmental psychologist and researcher Niobe Way, it doesn’t need to be like this. Way, who directs the Science of Human Connection Lab at New York University, has been studying the social-emotional development of boys and young men (and other people) for decades, interviewing and researching thousands of kids in the U.S. and China, following their relationship trajectories and well-being over time. In doing so, she’s gleaned important insights into their world, helping uncover how our cultural beliefs around boys and men affect their emotional needs and their ability to connect with others. Her new book, Rebels With a Cause, is an impassioned plea for us all to change our cultural values and views around masculinity and support boys and men in reaching their full humanity.


Greater Good spoke with Way about her book and its message. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Jill Suttie: In your book, you use the term “‘boy’ culture” to describe cultural values that undermine male relationships. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Why “Boy Culture” Is Hurting Boys and Everyone Else (3) Niobe Way, Ed.D.

Niobe Way: Just to be clear, everything I state in this interview comes from listening to young people [in my role] as a researcher since 1987. The phrase “boy” culture comes from what young boys and young men have taught me about our culture and how it promotes a caricature of [masculinity] that has nothing to do with real boys, men, or people who identify as a male, yet dominates their lives.

“Boy” culture is very simply privileging what we’ve stereotyped as “hard” over “soft” or “masculine” over “feminine.” Why I emphasize stereotyped is because we’ve deemed that thinking is “hard” and “masculine,” and feeling is “soft” and “feminine,” when they’re not. Everybody thinks and feels, but we’ve created a world in which men think only women and gay boys feel, and straight men shouldn’t feel. So, “boy” culture is the privileging of thinking over feeling, as well as stoicism over vulnerability, self over other, me over we, and independence over interdependence.

The evidence for this comes not only from the boys’ narratives, but from developmental psychologists who define maturity as “self-sufficiency” rather than the capacity to have mutually supportive relationships. As a grownup, you need to be able to have mutual relationships, but we emphasize self-sufficiency, autonomy, living on your own, financial independence, etc. So, “boy” culture is in our definitions of maturity and manhood.

We also privilege the so-called “hard” capacities and qualities over the “soft” ones. The whole field of developmental psychology has been obsessed with cognition for most of the 20th and 21st century, with some movement towards social neuroscience. We focus on emotional regulation over emotional sensitivity—we don’t even have programs to foster emotional sensitivity. That is classic “boy” culture, where we’re focused more on the regulation of emotions than being sensitive to each other around our emotions.

Another thing about “boy” culture is the focus on STEM fields versus the humanities, arts, poetry, helping professions. We value kids going into STEM fields and don’t value them going into the helping professions. We value money over people. “Boy” culture is integrated with capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity; they’re intersectional ideologies. This isn’t coming from me, though. It’s coming from boys and young men who remind us of the culture we live in.

JS: How does this “boy” culture lead to loneliness and disconnection?

NW: Humans are born social beings. We are born needing each other. We also have the relational capacities from very early in life; we’re able to read each other’s emotions. Five year olds can speak to contradictions: “Mommy, why do you smile when you’re feeling sad?” The amazing questions that five year olds ask about the human world, the emotional world, reveal our natural relational intelligence.

As children, we also have the capacity to be independent-minded, stoic. We can think; we have a theory of mind by the time we’re three to four years old. We’re remarkably intelligent, cognitively and emotionally, as children. But, if you grow up in a culture that only values that hard side—cognition, stoicism, independence—and don’t value the other half of your humanity, it creates a disconnected person. You have to cover over your [feeling side] and not be so sensitive, not care, focus on yourself.

Ultimately, this creates loneliness. You don’t understand why you can’t make the connections you’re trying to make. You don’t understand why you don’t have any friends, why nobody wants to spend time with you, or why you’re with a lot of people all of the time but not meaningfully connected. It’s not your fault; it’s that you’re in a culture that doesn’t nourish your full humanity.

We’re all feeling somewhat alienated and isolated—obviously, to different degrees, but we’re all struggling. If we make this an individual problem, a problem of poor mental health [alone], we hurt ourselves, because the problem isn’t just individual, it’s cultural. I’m not against medication and therapy. But it can’t be the only solution. The solution has to be to change our culture, which we can do, to better align with our nature—which is to value both our hard and our soft sides.

JS: Your book is full of the stories of boys you’ve interviewed and followed for years. What are some of the lessons learned from doing that?

NW: First of all, it’s not that “boys cry, too”; that’s a simplification of my findings that drives me crazy. It’s that boys are remarkably emotionally and relationally intelligent. Part of the reason I have all those quotes from boys [in the book] is because I want you to see for yourself that boys say things that blow your mind—the way they see the human world, the nuances, the contradictions.

When I get interviewed by young people, which is part of our training for the Listening Project [a project of the Science of Human Connection Lab], they ask [deep] questions, like “Do you love your ex-husband? How does he know that you love him? Do your children know? What do you do that expresses that love?” Those are the kinds of questions that 12-year-old boys ask when given an opportunity. They are thick, brilliant questions that get at the heart of things.

So, the very first thing I learned is the remarkable [socioemotional] intelligence of boys and young men. The reason why that’s a message at all is because we don’t think they have that. We think girls are more intelligent emotionally and relationally. We don’t value that intelligence, but we think girls are better at it. But, when we listen to young kids, we hear remarkable intelligence across identities.

The second thing you learn is that boys know what’s going on—the hierarchy of humans that gets in the way of their thriving. They see it, and they see the contradictions. Some humans are seen as better than others, and they don’t want to be on the bottom. A lot of mass shooters are white privileged male kids, by the way, who feel like they’re being put on the bottom. You can see it in their manifestos, some of which are in my book.

Boys get that, being a guy, you’re not supposed to have emotions. They say things like, “Girls will only like you when you show your hard side, but the minute you show the soft side, they don’t like you anymore, because they think you’re gay.” Or “It might be nice to be a girl, because then I wouldn’t have to be emotionless.” They get it.

We just assume the “boy” culture notion of boys is true, and we have all sorts of books that say it’s biological. I want to say to people saying gender differences are biological, “Have you ever listened to kids? Because if you ever listened to kids, you would see that it’s just not true.”

JS: Let’s suppose you’re talking to a parent who has a boy suffering from loneliness or isolation but won’t talk about his feelings. What advice might you give?

NW: I’ve been working with parents for decades, and I talk to parents and kids often. The most basic thing I tell parents is to normalize what their kids are going through. It’s normal for boys to want friendships, and it’s normal to struggle to find friendships in a culture that doesn’t value them. Having soft feelings doesn’t reflect one’s sexuality; it’s just a part of being human. So, communicating that to your sons, daughters, partner, family is important.

All boys—even college students—struggle. Oftentimes, though, they think they’re weird or pathetic for struggling. They don’t know that over 80% of my students are struggling with loneliness. When you start with this—that it’s a [common problem]—it changes everything.

Here’s an example: I was in a classroom with about 22 12-year-old boys, and I had them read the first page of Deep Secrets, my previous book. There’s a very emotional quote in that book from a boy talking about his friendship, saying, “I love him so much, I can’t live without him.” The boys all started cracking up; so, I asked, “Why are you laughing? What’s so funny?” (even though I knew). And they wouldn’t tell me at first, but finally one kid says, “The dude sounds gay.”

So, I told them that I don’t study sexuality, but 80% of teenage boys I’ve talked to sound like this at some point in adolescence. And within five seconds, they were sharing that they had those feelings, too. Two boys in the classroom even talked about how they had broken up because one of the boys had hurt his feelings. We had a 45-minute conversation about how hard it is to find good friends in middle school—all with the simple intervention of normalizing their feelings.

Another thing I would say to parents is that just because your son doesn’t talk to you doesn’t mean he doesn’t talk. Don’t pressure your sons to talk to you; don’t assume they need to talk to you, specifically. For some boys, talking to their mom about their feelings can be embarrassing.

I would also tell parents to foster curiosity in your kid—about other people, themselves, their dad, mom, sibling. Model curiosity, too. Curiosity builds connection, to oneself and others.

JS: How can we change things if the culture is so strong?

NW: Through our research, we’ve developed a curriculum called “transformative interviewing.” It’s premised on nurturing our basic relational intelligence, which is the capacity to ask questions of each other. Rather than asking, “What’s wrong with you?,” it focuses on “What can I learn from you?”

We’ve developed nine practices that I lay out in the book, which we’ve been doing for almost a decade at this point. [These practices teach you to ask questions and follow-up questions, listen closely, and get curious about another person.] We’re now turning it into a digital app and trying to figure out how to co-design it with kids.

We find transformative interviewing is linked to all sorts of improved social-emotional outcomes—[increased] connection, common humanity, learning, academic engagement. When you turn on someone’s curiosity about what they can learn about [another person’s] values, trust, love, friendship, whatever, that listening and being listened to brings a sense of belongingness. People start to see each other outside of a set of stereotypes.

Most people, to some degree, feel stereotyped. With this intervention, people start to feel like another person sees them as they see themselves. And when it’s a mutual thing, a relationship is formed. By taking the perspective of another person, following their logic, and asking follow-up questions, it can be transformative.

This kind of mutual support should be our definition of maturity—the give and take of asking questions and answering them, allowing someone to go down the rabbit hole to make sense of something.

What I’m proposing is not just a sweeping “let’s change the culture.” I’m actually proposing a very specific reimagining of the way we engage with each other using our natural intelligence. Right now, that involves un-learning some things. That’s what I’m hoping the book will help to foster: unlearning stereotypes and practices that are getting in our way. I have total optimism this will happen—this cultural change—because we already have the skills to do it. 

Over the past 10 years, we’ve already seen radical changes. We’re valuing friendships more, in part because of COVID. I’m being interviewed pretty much every week about men friendships. We’re starting to see what men need—we’re having movies like Close, encouraging this conversation. We’re on the right path; we just need to continue to do this in schools, homes, workplaces.

Why “Boy Culture” Is Hurting Boys and Everyone Else (2024)
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