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Excerpt: 'The Secret Lives Of Boys'

Introduction: Madolescence

There is a general consensus that American culture has failed our boys, and they have failed us. We hear that they are falling behind in grammar school, in high school, in college. In numerous articles and books they are portrayed as being limp-as-spaghetti, verbally challenged creatures lacking the emotional resolve or innate intellectual wherewithal to react and respond to society's demands on them. They are repressed, they are troubled and sad, society has somehow sucked away boys' ability to emote (glaring examples of this attitude rest in such annals as William Pollack's Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood; and Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by psychologists Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson). So now we're instructed that we must teach them how to be emotional before it's too late. It's not just that boys don't cry, we are now told — it's that they don't know how.

My goal, as I set out to write this book, was to find a well-balanced cross-section of teenage boys from all walks of life — rich, poor, white, black, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, agnostic — so that each parent opening this book could find his or her son on one of its pages. In the end, each boy's personality, and not his race, religion, or socioeconomic condition, was what prevailed during my interviews as the most crucial and telling characteristic. I chose to focus on a handful of boys who seemed the most enthusiastic in telling their stories. Ultimately, it wasn't about what his last name was or whether he attended church or synagogue or mosque or whether he lived in the country or in the city that made each of these boys relatable. Because boys, like all of us, are far more alike than different.

Yet most available books about boys, the odd cover story in Newsweek, and featured segments on 20/20 focus on our young men as a homogeneous whole, a collective entity with no discernibly varying characteristics. Boys are often thought of as unknowable enigmas who all seem to need help. Boys are in crisis. Boys have ADD. Boys are unemotional. Boys don't talk. Boys are on the verge of apocalyptic self-destruction. Over the course of the past decade, boys have been reduced to an anxiety-inducing headline.

Having tracked the lives of boys over the past several years as both an educator and a journalist writing articles about teens, I've found that many of our views of boys are nowhere close to reality. Boys cry. Boys emote. Some don't, of course, but some girls don't either. Some boys talk more than girls. Many of the boys I spoke with gabbed nonstop for hours.

As a teacher, I have a perspective on boys that most parents don't attain. For the most part, in the classes I have taught at the high school, junior high, and elementary levels, boys have always been among the most articulate, thoughtful, and enthusiastic students.

Boys, if they are in crisis, are in as much a state of crisis as the rest of us.

Clinicians and researchers have provided valuable learning tools that help us understand adolescent behavior. Many scholars have established theories and arguments about boys' fledgling standardized scores, plunging grades, rates of depression, and use of drugs. There are some figures that understandably spur alarm — such as the spike in boys' suicide rates — which in turn raise the right kind of awareness.

Beyond the studies — the bar graphs, pie charts, and percentages — I wondered what it would be like to experience life with teenage boys on their own home turf, to crouch down in the proverbial foxhole with them as they study for tests, watch their favorite movies, woo girlfriends, face rejection, fill their prescriptions, shop for clothes, do or choose not to do their homework.

As I started researching this book, I began an eye-opening, patience-flexing, awe-inspiring, and sometimes disconcerting journey into the inner sanctum of American boyhood culture. I interviewed people who work in high school education, contacted graduate school professors, and cold-called student and youth religious organizations in cities and states across the nation. I contacted the parents of former students. I talked to the younger siblings of colleagues and friends. I sought out boys through every outlet that would allow me to spend time with them not confined to a classroom or clinical setting.

My mission was to secure a small group of boys and focus on each one over a period of months. I selected the ten boys you will meet in this book on the basis of their insight and their courage to speak candidly about topics ranging from depression to sex to drugs to parental resentment. In getting to know these boys, I drafted an initial list of inter view questions. I asked many of the boys the same questions, which changed as our conversations changed, as did the scope of the questions. I wound up spending anywhere from four months to two years observing, interviewing, and chatting with the boys as they went about everyday life.

Boys today face situations and problems that are vastly different from issues earlier generations have faced. Teenage boys twenty years ago didn't have to worry about cyber sex or cyber bullies. They didn't have to deal with international terrorism. They didn't have to deal with other kids slamming their reputation on Facebook. The constant stimulation of mass media and in-your-face popular culture means that boys have to adapt to a veritable maelstrom of influences — some good, others detrimental — and learn new ways of dealing with the overwhelming opportunities available to them in the way of sex, drugs, and mental stimulation.

Despite the various media outlets available to teens to air their feelings, many of the boys I spoke with felt steeped in loneliness. When the boys expressed how lonely they felt at times, it was because they didn't believe there was anybody out there who understood them. They felt "different" from everyone else and lacked soul mate figures with whom they could share their innermost thoughts. They didn't always feel like they had close friends to talk to, and their parents, they told me, didn't always want to know the truth — about their children or about themselves. They weren't intentionally elusive when it came to what they told their parents; rather, their parents just weren't ready to hear what they had to say.

The boys told me straight out that they were not just looking for someone to talk to, but someone to talk with. They want you to hear what they have to say, and they are inviting responsive conversation. As one mother of a teenage boy I spoke with put it after reading a draft of her child's chapter, "I feel like I just met my kid."

From the book The Secret Lives of Boys by Malina Saval. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

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Malina Saval