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Making boys less mystifying

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Should I worry because my 14-year-old son doesn't have a best friend?

Why would a boy lie to his teacher about behavior he already admitted to the principal?

Why is it so hard to get boys into therapy?

These are but a few of the questions parents and teachers asked psychologist Michael Thompson during the past few years as the gender expert traveled about the United States.

Thompson answers about 100 of the more interesting questions in his new book, "Speaking of Boys." The book, published by Ballentine ($14, in paperback), seems likely to be a best seller.

Question: Why is "Speaking of Boys" likely to be popular?

Answer: Because Thompson knows his stuff. Because this book is sensible, forthright and compassionate. Because Thompson's first book, "Raising Cain," was a best seller. Because ever since the shootings at Columbine High, parents and teachers have not stopped worrying about the mental health of boys.

Thompson will come to Salt Lake City next week on a press tour arranged by his publisher. His tour is a bit unusual in that he won't go to any bookstores. He'll be on television and radio, and then he'll move on to another city. In an interview with the Deseret News from his home in Massachusetts, Thompson explained why he doesn't do bookstores: He prefers to visit schools.

He likes talking to parents, Thompson says, but he especially likes talking to teachers. They can reach so many children. In fact, he loves teachers, he says. He was one, himself. (However, several years into his teaching career, fascinated by the troubled students, he went back to school for his doctorate in psychology.)

Teaching might seem an unlikely occupation for a boy who was raised in a wealthy home, prep schools and then Harvard. Yet even though he was "at the top of the heap" he had his struggles. And he knew other boys must be having an even harder time. Through it all, male teachers were his role models, Thompson says.

In spite of the recent attention given to the mental health of boys, in spite of the fact that so many parents and teachers try so hard, Thompson doesn't see society changing. He says, "We still tell boys that their physical achievements are what counts." Boys whose best times were in high school sports are set for a lonely, empty manhood. Thompson says we need to teach boys to value themselves as human beings, not as achievers.

And "Speaking of Boys," here's a summary of Thompson's answers to the above-asked questions.

On friendship: The thing to find out is if your son is happy with his social life, Thompson says. You do this by observing. He won't respond to direct questions. Notice how excited he is if he does get a call from a guy from school. If he loves it when others reach out to him, that's your cue to help.

Enroll him in a community service group. Or take him to a family summer camp. Or have your husband invite a neighbor and his son to go for a hike. Says Thompson, "There are ways to support your son socially without treating him as defective socially."

Now about that lie: "Girls and women believe in a cycle of transgression-confession-redemption and closeness," Thompson says. Women can feel better every time they confess. From a boy's point of view that's crazy. "Boys get teased incessantly by other boys and are made to feel small and ashamed for every little thing they do that is not cool. . . . The secret to the psychology of men and boys is to understand the shame they feel for anything — large or small —- that they do wrong.

"Boys want to tell the truth. They just fear the shame more than they fear losing their relationships with adults."

Finally, why is it so difficult to get boys to go to therapy? Thompson says a boy is four times more likely to be referred to a school psychologist than is a girl. But girls are more likely to refer themselves. Boys resist therapy because they are angry about having psychological symptoms; they are upset when talking doesn't change things immediately; they worry that people will find out they are in counseling; they are impatient to get out of therapy before they get dependent on the therapist.

Thompson says he's grateful when school requires a boy to see him for a certain number of visits. "I could not work without that force propelling him my way."

He also tries to get parents to come in with their sons. Parents may say their sons won't talk, but boys do talk in family therapy, says Thompson. Boys like to set the record straight. In fact, he says, that's a way for parents to get their sons into counseling. Just say, "We are going to make decisions about your life — how much you use the car, etc. — so you might want to give your opinion."

E-MAIL: susan@desnews.com