in: Fatherhood, People, Podcast

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

The Art of Manliness Podcast #22: Raising Cain with Dr. Michael Thompson

Welcome back to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast! Statistics show that American boys are in trouble. They’re more likely to have depression, abuse alcohol and drugs, and perform poorly in school. What can we do to help these troubled boys? To get some answers we talk to Dr. Michael Thompson, author of the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys. Dr. Thompson is a psychologist specializing in boys, and he’s a clinical consultant at The Belmont Hill School, an all boys school in Massachusetts.

Raising cain book cover by Dan Kindlon Michael Thompson.

Dr. Thompson and I discuss the emotional problems boys face, what dads can do to help boys develop a solid emotional toolkit, and what we can do to help boys perform to their potential in school.

Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another episode of The Art of Manliness podcast. Now, statistic show that boys are in trouble. They’re falling further and further behind in school and an alarming number of boys are at a high risk for depression, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and suicide. But what’s cause of these problems and what can we do to help boys. Well, our guest today has written a book about this topic. His name is Dr. Michael Thompson and he is the co-author of the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. The book was later turned into PBS documentary with same title which Dr. Thompson wrote and narrated. And Dr. Thompson is a psychologist specializing in children and families. He is the clinical consultant at Belmont High School and All-Boy School in Massachusetts. And in addition to writing about psychology of boys Dr. Thompson travels the country speaking and educating audiences about the emotional and psychological needs of boys today. Dr. Thompson, welcome to the show.

Dr. Thompson: Thank you very much, Brett.

Brett McKay: Well, Dr. Thompson what are the emotional problems that boys are facing these days?

Dr. Thompson: It’s problems of growing up, it’s problems of feeling good about yourself as a boy and a man in a society which is super focused on school performance where you can’t play outdoors because your parents are so frightened of pedophiles and so you don’t have the kind of practice being a boy that you had when there was neighborhood play. I think that’s the biggest challenge to boys today, is that they don’t get to create their own society in the neighborhood and their own definition of boyhood. They often feel pending by school, but they’re pounded continuously with the idea that school is so important. And finally, there is a problem that boys have always had, which is how to maintain your sensitive inner feelings and look strong on the outside and feel strong to yourself.

Brett McKay: And so you mentioned that school–– the way that are schools set up kind of a detriment to boys, what about the larger culture, are there are any cultural ideas that kind of have a detrimental effect on boys?

Dr. Thompson: Yes. The United States is the most violent society in the industrialized world. Our murder rate is 20 to 60 times higher than Western Europe. Even though our rates of violence have been going down since 1995 after a tremendous 20-year run up, even though they’ve been going down in this country they’re still much higher than anywhere else in the industrialized world and I think it makes people jumpy about boys. I think it makes them not trust boy play, be afraid of boys in the school. And, of course boys who are being raised in high risk neighborhoods are at risk for seeing violence and being pulled into violence themselves. So, that’s really how can you feel strong in this life without actually ending up violent.

Brett McKay: So, what’s the solution to, you know, these emotional inner problems that boys face today?

Dr. Thompson: Well, I mean it’s simple stuff, it’s good parenting. It’s having fathers who model self-control, who model studiousness, who model many different ways to be a man. The problem is 35% of American boys don’t have a biological father at home and they were dependent on the media to shape what they think of is masculinity. I mean I ask suburban boys with hard working busy preoccupied fathers what their image of muscularity is and they say NFL football players. I mean that’s a little weird, isn’t it? Because these football players aren’t absolutely the best models for boys because so few boys have that size and that narrow skill, most of them going to have to make it in the world thinking of themselves as men in some other way.

Brett McKay: And it’s not an athlete, sometimes it is often times now a celebrity or some sort of…

Dr. Thompson: Yes, that’s right, that’s right.

Brett McKay: You talk in your book a lot about developing the emotional literacy in boys, can you explain what emotional literacy is?

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, it’s an ability to identify your feelings and be able to speak about them. Many boys–– look I believe boys have the full range of emotional feeling girls do. But in boy’s society when you’re supposed to look strong you don’t admit to feelings of shame or inadequacy or if you admit to, you admit to only in a humorous way. Boy society is different, it shapes a boy’s emotional reaction. I think of a fifth grade girl walking into the classroom and saying, “Oh, I’m so upset with my stepmother. Last night we fought and fought and I just went to my room and cried.” Okay, the girls are going to gather around her and tend her and be sympathetic. What is that had happened to a boy who fought with his stepmother and gone to his room and cried? Is he is going to come in the school and be able to say that? If he did say that other the boys would back away, oh, oh, you know.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Dr. Thompson: He’s a weakling, like that and I can’t–– I don’t want to catch that. So boys often, they’ll come in and curse the stepmother or look tough or threaten or revenge or something else which allows them to think of themselves as manly but excuse them away from the depths of bad feeling they had and excuse them away from more realistic types of problem solving. They kind of identify how humiliated and helpless they felt and it’s helpful to boys to be able to talk about that but boys society doesn’t allow it.

Brett McKay: So, one part of emotional literacy is recognizing the feelings that a boy might have. You also talk about empathy a lot in the book.

Dr. Thompson: Yeah.

Brett McKay: Why is it that boys have a hard time empathizing with other people?

Dr. Thompson: I don’t we give them practice, I think they want to. The Japanese have you know five and six-year-old boys go down and work with two-year-old children every day in the school and they say it so that the boys can develop omeati which is Japanese for empathy. They think kids need to look after other children in order to develop these feelings. As I say if you’re taking American boys and you’re putting them on competitive talent on soccer teams of five and six, they never have it–– you’re racing them to be ferocious and competitive but not empathic.

Brett McKay: Dr. Thompson, a lot of people will hear this and think okay that’s fine and you know it’s great, we should teach emotional literacy to boys but it sounds like we’re just turning them into little girls, how did you respond to that? I mean is it possible to teach emotional literacy while encouraging masculine strength in boys, kind of innate boyish characteristics?

Dr. Thompson: You know I had a friend who was born and raised in Germany and teaches in Boston University, has for years and teaches of this old university in Germany and he said many American boys would be stunned by how emotionally open German boys are, which is now on the most pacific countries in the world. I mean Germans after World War II made a huge, huge effort to redefine what was masculine and they raised German boys differently so they didn’t turn out to be so warlike. And he said you know German boys are so emotionally open that American boys would read them as gay. They’re not gay. They’re sleeping girls but they’re talking to them a lot and that a culture of openness and talking is–– comes from the notions we’ve muscularity. You know, the masculinity varies from culture to culture. What we regard as manly changes in culture to culture. There is a lot about the American definition of masculinity which I like the independence, the entrepreneurial, kind of do it on your own attitude and there are lots of things which I think are very helpful to American men. But the tough silent definition of masculinity is, of course, for psychologists worrisome because it means boys put down and don’t express the actual feeling and then they go out touched with their feelings and we’re getting a lot of young male depression in later adolescence and early adulthood and that’s worrisome to me. So, I try and teach boys that emotional courage is correct, showing your feelings requires some guts, you know.

Brett McKay: Is that why you mentioned about how German men are emotionally open, it seems like there was a time in America that men used to be like that. I mean if we go back to 19th century, even before World War II, you’ll read men you know they’re were affection with each other, you look at photos of men and they would have their arm around each other and…

Dr. Thompson: Yeah, that’s right…

Brett McKay: You know I was reading his diary and he writes you know, you can tell he was very in touch with his inner self and kind of emotions. What change, I mean what happened, where we got away from that and until where this manliness and masculinity kind of stoic silent type, was it World War II that caused this?

Dr. Thompson: I must say I don’t know, I don’t know the answer to that. I think it will take a social historian, a social critic to know. But I do think that the definition of masculinity changed from when ––I’m 62 years old, when I was a child there were TV shows with you know ‘Warm-Hearted Fathers and including the show called–– which I used to watch regularly called Father Knows Best and somebody–– the study of TV sitcoms some years ago and found that of 112 fathers on TV shows, they’re only about seven of them who were competent. The rest were a boys, adolescent, irresponsible, nit-wit irresponsible fathers. I mean which father–– if you’re a boy and you’re watching to Two and a Half Men, which of those two men is the man you can admire as a father figure.

Brett McKay: Yeah, well, I don’t think either one of them was that great, but…

Dr. Thompson: Right, I mean there’s a mini, the real for father of the boy and then there’s Charlie Shane right, excuse me, you know, he is a permanent 17 for life.

Brett McKay: And what do you think –– let me just on that tangent there, I mean why do you think we put fatherhood out there just kind of you know mean a dad means kind of being the dumb, overgrown child and just another kid in the family, why do you we love that so much in our society?

Dr. Thompson: I don’t know, it’s very painful to me.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Dr. Thompson: And why do we–– you know why did the media grab hold of this attenuated adolescent father? It’s on all of their commercials. You know the women were responsible and the men are nit-wit.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and something I think that is frustrating a lot of men these days. And speaking of dads and fathers, what is a father’s role in teaching emotional literacy to their sons and what can dads do?

Dr. Thompson: I think as a father you take your son–– you know I was scared in the middle school sometimes, I was worried about police, I wanted to be stronger, but didn’t turn out that way you know. I turned out to be a writer, an actor and something we didn’t know perhaps to be a football player and many of us found their deepest connections with our friends who are boys, meaningful connections. I think father should absolutely demonstrate to their sons the power of male friendship, the power of male loves for woman and respect for woman. I mean just you have to show boy what a real man is, not the two dimensional kinds of characters you see in sports.

Brett McKay: And one thing that kind of struck me in your book that was interesting was that, you know one thing you can do to teach your sons about emotional literacy and is to show you vulnerability sometimes.

Dr. Thompson: Right. And you’re terrified if your son is weak and you’re terrified if your son is going to be picked on but it’s better to say what you faced and how you met it with resilience so your son knows that the most important thing is not to be just strong to everything, but in fact to be resilient and have some balance.

Brett McKay: So, Dr. Thompson you work with boys in All-Boys School, what are some things that parents or dads can do to help their sons in schools? It just it seems like boys are falling further and further behind and there is, you can go every month you read in article or see something on the television about how test scores amongst boys are falling down, graduation rates are going down for boys.

Dr. Thompson: Right.

Brett McKay: So…

Dr. Thompson: Well, you know it’s dads who want to send their sons upstairs to do their homework and they sit downstairs watching you know basketball or ice hockey that won’t work. We know that fathers who do their homework with their sons have sons who get higher grades. We know that fathers who attend school PTA meetings and come to things other than dumb sports, have sons who gets higher grades. We know that sons whose fathers read to them at night do better academically. So, I think when you’ve a little boy, you shouldn’t always let the mom read to them, you should go up and read to your sons so they know being a man is being a reader.

Brett McKay: And one thing you talked about in your book too is how––and we talked a little bit in the beginning of the interview about how schools are not really designed the way they are––in most public schools aren’t designed with boys in mind and that is one of other reasons why boys are struggling and teachers struggle with behavioral problems with boys. I mean what we can do to kind of guide our schools in making them more boy-friendly.

Dr. Thompson: Well, in every school I visit and that’s my work as a school consultant, there are schools that are gifted––excuse me, there are teachers that are gifted with boys and there are teachers who are not so good with boys. And I want the secrets of teachers who are good with boys to be advertised, that is highlighted, you know, this is what works with boys in the classroom. Now, there is a Philadelphia Psychologist, Michael Reichert who is coming out with a book called ‘Reaching Boys, Teaching Boys’ and it’s based on the best kind of lessons from 600 teachers in boys schools around the world and you can actually teach people what are the best kinds of lessons for boys, what really works for them and that’s what I want because constantly disciplined, constantly telling them they’re in trouble, just makes them pissed off withdrawn from school.

Brett McKay: Yeah. One thing I did or I’ve heard around by people particularly with regard to boys in the schools is actually to enroll boys in the school later than you would girls, is there are any truth to that?

Dr. Thompson: Well, because in language acquisition boys––the average boy is behind the average girl in language acquisition and the average boy is much more physically restless at age five than the average girl is. So, the average boy is–– he is up against in the school which involves a lot of sitting and listening.

Brett McKay: So holding them back would kind of put them, I guess, on uneven plane filled with girls?

Dr. Thompson: Yeah.

Brett McKay: And Dr. Thompson, as I read your book I was struck that many adult men have the same emotional problems that the teenage boys you write about in your book. What can these men do to overcome these problems that they have?

Dr. Thompson: Yes, well, you know many, many men find that they got a course in their emotional life by falling in love with a young woman in their 20s and, and that’s great. I think that young men has to go back to their fathers rather than just stay angry and away from them. Go back and ask them the questions you wish you’d the answers to when you’re 14 and 15. I mean men have to talk with each other. You know, then I’m a member of a men’s group for nine years, that’s kind of thing a psychologist is likely to do, but is not all mental health professionals, it is mostly educators actually, and you know men can train themselves to be open. The men in this group were all in their 50s and we started this and we’re–– a lot of these have various problem and problematic, but we trained each other to be open to each other and that’s what I like to see.

Brett McKay: And this book Raising Cain, your book was written a few years ago, have you seen any progress since the publication of the book?

Dr. Thompson: Well, I’ve to believe that I’m on––talking about the emotional lives of boys, I’ve to hope that it’s having an impact but I sure don’t see in the media.

Brett McKay: Well, Dr. Thompson thank you for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Dr. Thompson: Nice talking with you Brett, thanks.

Brett McKay: Our guest today was Dr. Michael Thompson. Dr. Thompson is the author of the book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys and you can pickup Dr. Thompson’s book at or any other major book-seller.

Brett McKay: Well, that wraps up another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast for more manly tips and advice make sure to check out The Art of Manliness website at and until next time stay manly.

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