In this episode of Real Talk, KJK Student Defense Attorneys Susan Stone and Kristina Supler are joined by Professor Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology and the founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity at New York University. They discuss recognizing the need for closeness and intimacy in boys. The conversation includes why boys have been keeping their desire to have close relationships with fellow boys hidden, the true meaning of deep friendships and how society has gradually been distorting it, and what toxic masculinity is and how it can be prevented.
Links Mentioned In the Show:
Professor Niobe Way’s Webpage: https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/people/niobe-way
- (03:10) How Dr. Niobe Way discovered the deep secret that every boy in the world keeps
- (04:20) How culture is urging boys to keep their need for intimate relationships among other boys a secret
- (05:17) What each boy who had not grown out of touch with their feelings, unlike the majority, have in common
- (07:56) Can boys in college form lifelong friendships with other males?
- (09:04) How can you tell if you and your fellow guy friend actually have a deep friendship?
- (10:20) What society and their stereotypes is still getting wrong about boys
- (11:49) What is toxic masculinity?
- (12:24) Redefining society’s concept of what makes boys, boys; aka “boy culture”
- (14:08) Gender identity and fluidity: are pronouns really the problem?
- (16:44) How the definition of friendship has been distorted by today’s day and age
- (19:05) Can close friendships outside of your marriage prevent divorce?
- (19:47) The 2 things every marriage needs in order to last
- (20:50) The best piece of advice for every boy mom and dad
- (21:01) How to get boys to talk openly about their needs instead of engaging in toxic masculinity
- (22:26) Why you should ask questions and let your boys make their own deductions instead of imposing your beliefs of how males should act or feel
Susan Stone: Today’s topic is understanding boys and their need for close connection and intimacy. You know, Kristina, when we started out. Our practice, we were mostly representing young men who were involved in disciplinary situations. And it wasn’t until recently that I would say our statistics have evened out to a more balanced representation, but we’re also the mother of boys.
And I think we can both say that having both boys and girls as children and clients, boys are just as sensitive as girls. Wouldn’t you think that?
Kristina Supler: Oh, absolutely. I know my, my son is, is. In some ways, if we have the gender stereotypes, there’s almost role reversal there. My son versus my daughter. But you know, it’s interesting at today’s topic regarding boys and intimacy, because I think that through the pandemic, if there’s one thing we’ve really honed in on, it’s the fact that all humans really crave connection.
Susan Stone: It’s a really good point. And with that, why don’t you introduce today’s guest who’s gonna really speak about the topic of boys craving close connection.
Kristina Supler: Today we’re pleased to be joined by Professor Niobe Way, who is a professor of developmental psychology and the founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity at New York University.
She’s also the past president of the Society for Research on Adolescence and Co-Director of the Center for Research on Culture Development and Education at nyu. Professor Way’s work focuses on the intersections of culture, context, and human development with a particular focus on social and emotional development, and how cultural ideologies influence developmental trajectories.
Dr. Niobe Way: That was a mouthful. That is a mouthful. ,
Kristina Supler: thank you so much for joining us Professor Way. We’re pleased to have you.
Susan Stone: So let’s kick it off with your book that we read and Deep Secrets. Deep Secrets by Doctor or Professor Niobe Way. The premise of your books is that boys crave close connection and that our culture stymies that development of deep friendships in the teenage years.
Does that accurately summarize your book, Professor?
Dr. Niobe Way: Yeah, absolutely. And first I wanna say thank you for having me on. I love, this is my favorite topic I’ve been wanting to engage this conversation, uh, at this point for decades, so I’m, I’m glad that’s getting more attention right now, which I think we should talk about at some point. Why is it getting more attention right now?
But but yeah, that does summarize my book. And the thing that’s interesting to me is that I have been making these observations and then interviewing boys since the late eighties where they’re telling me the same story. By now, it’s sort of thousands of boys.
I follow them over time. Since I’m a developmental psychologist, I follow the same boys over time. And you get the same story. I got the same story in the early 1980s as I’m, I am getting now. I, I follow boys in different countries, not just the United States.
And I get the same story, which is that essentially. They start off in early adolescence when I usually start the interviews, interviewing them about also of parts of their lives, not just their friendships. I interview them about their family relationships and school, et cetera, et cetera, identities. And then we get to a, uh, the section on friendships and investigating friendships, and pretty much the story is same around the world.
Which is boys talk about at 11, 12, 13, 14, sometimes into 15 as well. Um, their desire for close friendships, their desire for what boys call it, deep secret friendships, which is they’re able to tell, share their secrets with other boys, and specifically with other boys.
They, they, some of the boys, we can talk about this. Some of the boys have friendships with girls, of course. That’s normal too. But what’s interesting to me is that boys will also say even if they have friendships that are girls, they’ll talk about wanting friendships, intimate friendships with boys in which they can share their deep secrets. And as they get older, as you mentioned , uh, you know, and we’ll talk about, it’s specifically an American culture, but American culture gets globalized unfortunately in this, in this respect.
That they, it’s perceived now the intimacy is perceived as so-called girly and gay. And even in a culture, and this is interesting to me, even in a culture that’s becoming more open to different sexualities, it still pathologizes being sort of gay in a homophobic way and thus discouraged for boys, especially boys who identify as straight.
And so they struggle to hold onto their friendships as they get older. And many boys, by the time they’re young men, are struggling with issues of isolation and loneliness and frustration to not be able to find the friendships they have.
And one thing I do wanna throw out there, just so it can be part of our conversation, Some boys who are an exception to that. And I wanna talk about why I think they, you do get exceptions to that. It sounds like your son makes,
Kristina Supler: What are the exceptions? Yeah, Yeah. Well, that’s great. Tell us about that.
Dr. Niobe Way: So, what’s interesting to me is, so, so the, the general pattern is that sense of, as the pressures to man up happen over time, through adolescence, boys start to disconnect from their feelings and are sound more, uh, frustrated and angry and sad. Or just disconnected rather than that sort of lovely voice of wanting deep friendships.
The exceptions of the boys that are able to hold onto their friendships. And even through the five, six years of our studies, they, they are able to hold onto these, this close friendship and they sound sort of consistently quite satisfied and happy in their friendships.
And the, the key difference in, and I had a student who did a dissertation on this. Was that they had relationships with at least one member of their family that was very, very close. So, and typically it was their mother and sometimes it was their sister. But it was somebody in the family in which they could really be themselves with.
And that actually, this is what I wanna say to all mothers and all fathers and all family members, that actually nurtures our human capacity to deeply connect to others because you’re learning the skill of it. It’s getting encouraged in you. You know the skills. So when there’s a problem in the friendship, you know how to deal with it.
So it really was having at least one member, and typically it was the mom who actually nurtured that kind of deep connection that allowed the boy to take those skills and use it with their friends.
Susan Stone: Professor way, I wanna challenge you a little bit on this. Yes. Because, Contrary to what I think a lot of people will argue, the dangers of fraternities, the pros, the good things about fraternities, and Kristina and I were just on Fraternity Foodie, the podcast.
Yep. I will say when we work with boys and fraternities, that they feel very intensely connected to their fraternity brothers. What do you think, Kristina?
Kristina Supler: Well, it’s interesting because oftentimes I feel like in those cases, Inevitably things get upside down in, in some respect and relationships. I, I think we regularly see our male students realize that those bonds they thought they had actually weren’t as deep and when, when the going got tough, Yeah.
All of a sudden, you know, the student, our clients, felt on an island and it’s sort of shocking. Like I thought these were my brothers, the deepness. I mean, that’s sort of what I see often.
Susan Stone: But on the other hand, I wanna challenge you. We’ve had, especially in um, certain cases where the boys really did cry over losses together.
Sure. Share their feelings. Yeah. Um, and you do see boys during their college years form friendships that last a lifetime.
Dr. Niobe Way: Yeah, I mean, I, I absolutely, I mean that, that’s why I said it was important to talk about sort of boys who were able to, I, I’ll, I’m gonna answer both of your, your comments boys who are able to hang on to their closest and their vulnerability, and it really is in some sense the, the issue you raise about, Thinking they’re close, but they’re not as close as they expected was, is a common thing.
So oftentimes I, I do a lot of interviews. I do a lot of radio interviews. And I will get men calling me and saying you know, I have, I have lots of friendships. I don’t know what you’re talking about. And I’ll say, Okay. So that’s what, first of all, that’s wonderful cuz it’s nice to have lots of friendships.
And then what we’ll get into conversations is there’s somebody you could go to if there’s something that happens between you and your wife? Or something that happens that’s quite vulnerable for you. And he, and then it’ll very quickly turn into, well, no, no, no, I wouldn’t talk about that.
No, I wouldn’t talk about that. And then it turns into often, not all the time, but oftentimes I know conversation. Well, it would be nice to have someone to talk about that stuff with. So the, the friendships that boys are really asking for in early adolescent, is not the sort of bromance, uh, the stereotypical brother, which a lot of boys want also.
But oftentimes the boy or the friendships is they’re really talking about those they can be very, very vulnerable with, reveal their weaknesses, talk about their insecurities with. And I find that fraternity brothers, which I’ve certainly interviewed lots of them often times say there’s a, there’s a sort of a facade of closeness that they have to have as fraternity brothers. But once you scratch the surface, many of them don’t feel like they can re really reveal their insecurities and their sense of that they’re not quite good enough. All those feelings that most people have especially in college context.
So, I think that the desire to have those sort of deep secret friendships where you can truly be vulnerable with that person and not just cry actually, but actually reveal your insecurities with and try to work them through I just think is, uh, is what they’re looking for.
Now I have to say, cuz we’re all moms of sons it doesn’t necessarily mean that they find these friends, even if they want them, . So I’m saying even in early adolescence that the theme is that boys talk about wanting them. And then you get a lot of boys, including my son who didn’t necessarily find those friendships in early adolescents and middle adolescents. And only, I would say really found them in, in, uh, in eventually in college.
Uh, but the idea is that that desire is, is very, very clear. And we don’t think it’s a desire that boys have. And I have to throw out this cuz it’s really important. Even now, even now, 2022, July, 2022, we still have the stereotype that wanting intimacy in your friendship with same sex intimacy where you’re not gay is a girly gay thing.
So you have it in a recent article in The Guardian. You have a illusion to boys being mil, boys and men being evolutionary different. You know, where their evolution doesn’t allow them for that intimacy. I mean, we still have these incredibly misguided false stereotypes about boys and men not wanting that intimacy.
Kristina Supler: So let me ask you and, and then this issue of stereotypes. When Susan and I do a lot of work across the country with college students in the Title IX landscape. And we often represent respondents who are more often than not male. Yes. And so we come across the phrase regularly, toxic masculinity.
Yeah. Do you, do you agree that toxic masculinity I is a thing? Um, is this label justified or not? And can male students really form friendships while still deep friendships, while still trying to be quote unquote masculine?
Susan Stone: Or circling back to that first point that you wanted us to get to? Yeah. Are we in a crisis?
Dr. Niobe Way: Yeah, exactly. Okay, so I have a couple things that you could imagine. I’ve, I’ve spent my life thinking about this, so I, I could go on a couple hours about this, but I’ll keep it short. There’s, of course there’s toxic masculinity. We see it in the media. We see it in our movies, we see it in our social media, which is, which is a kind of hostile aggresive violent form of masculinity that is part of our culture, is part of our war based culture, et cetera. Gun based, we have, we’re the country with the most guns.
So we obviously have toxic masculinity. But I, I am arguing a slightly different argument that, that Oftentimes gets covered over because we get absorbed with toxic masculinity.
I’m actually talking about taking a very, very human quality and capacity and need, which is the need for deep connection and giving it a gender and a sexuality. And that that the way we do that is not toxic masculinity.
That’s called what I’m calling in my new book. It’s about, it comes out in in the spring is boy culture. And boy culture. Boy culture with quotation is not a real boy. It’s a construction of a boy where basically all things hard are put on top and valued and all things soft are put on the bottom and seen as less important and as kind of lame in many cases.
And in fact, when as humans, as you both alluded to, as humans, we are both hard and soft. we’re a yin and a yang. We’re we’re, I mean, the hard and the soft work together with us. We’re both stoic and vulnerable. We want independence and relationships.
But if you live in a culture that basically privileges one over the other and demeans the, the soft part, everybody gets into trouble. And boys in particular, cuz we don’t even think it’s a boy thing.
Um, and so to me it’s not toxic masculinity. It really is a boy culture that where we value so-called hard things over soft things. And it’s so bizarre to me. I mean, it’s a thinking and feeling. Our human capacities, yet we turn thinking into masculinity and feeling into girliness. Um,
Susan Stone: you know, I just wanna say, and I, I hear what you’re saying, but we are seeing and working with many more gender fluid students.
Yeah. Both on females who identify somewhere on the spectrum and males. And, and actually, I’m just wondering, is it possible that all of this good research is gonna go get outdated as students become more gender fluid?
Dr. Niobe Way: Well, you know, it’s an interesting question. It’s interesting question because I would actually argue that there’s and I, and I say this to my students too, who are about a third of my students identify as they is, uh, in my classrooms at NYU.
Um, is that actually I think what’s happened because we’re not dealing with the root of the problem and the gender binary. It’s not just a pronoun problem. It’s actually a fundamental value problem, uh, where we value the hard over the soft. That by adding another category of a pronoun is, is, I support it because I think you should always disrupt the gender binary. But it’s not allowing us to really dig deeper.
So what’s happening is that the kids who identify as they are actually exploring these gender binaries in a, it seems like in a healthy way. Uh, but what happens is that he and people who identify with he and she, that is those stereotypes, are getting More and more is, solidified and essentialized. So if you’re not, ironically in New York City, at least if you’re not a, they.
And you identify as a she or a he, you become even more of a stereotype of a he or she. That’s interesting.
Kristina Supler: I hadn’t thought about that. The fact that the, they pronoun in some ways is polarizing or further entrenching gender stereotypes for male and female.
Dr. Niobe Way: We have listeners who identify as they. I’m not blaming it on people who identify as they, I’m not doing that.
I’m just saying when, when, as a culture, it’s a cultural problem we have. It’s not an individual problem. It as a culture, when we, when we identify the problem as only a pronoun problem but we don’t go deeper, that we actually only value our hard side and not our soft side. Then we do that, right, Kristina?
I mean, then we create that problem of reifying the stereotypes by adding an alternative pronoun that doesn’t solve the problem. It’s the beginning of a pro. It’s the beginning of solving it, but it’s not, it doesn’t get deep enough. We’re, we’re a very thin culture. We’re a very thin culture. We’re very, we treat things on the surface without going deeper, and we have to go deeper.
Susan Stone: Let’s talk about. Being a thin culture
Kristina Supler: actually that, Yeah. So, yeah. And Professor Way in chapter six, and you talk about the label “friend”. And Susan and I, in our cases, we always have a component of social media and students with their friend networks and their friends from campus
Susan Stone: and how many friends they have.
And at the same time, I mean, I even see this amongst people, everybody’s, Oh, I love them. And I once challenges, actually, my best friend I said, You don’t really love that person. Yeah. I mean, what does mean to, like, what does it mean to love, What does it mean a friend? Yeah.
Kristina Supler: I mean, professor, do you think social mean is diluted the, the term or the label friend?
Dr. Niobe Way: Oh, totally. I mean, I could, Oh, this is another topic I could really go off on. I mean, Absolutely. I mean, every, everything, I mean, you know, we continually stay on the thin of it and the thing that’s, I want to yes friend means nothing at this point. And and what’s interesting is that even in the New York Times, I’m gonna pick on the New York Times cuz it keeps on reifying, these stereotypes.
Susan Stone: And I’m a Times reader every morning.
Dr. Niobe Way: No, I know. So am I. So I. So even in the nine times, they had a piece on how many friends are necessary for good mental health. Oh my goodness. If we’re now talking about that quantity matters over quality, that’s another, that’s another hierarchy we have. Really, you’re, as an adult, you’re asking how many friends are necessary for mental health?
How about the quality of your friendships? I mean, you know, the whole point is how many friends is irrelevant. I just wanna tell your listeners. A quantity does not matter. Qual,
Susan Stone: you know what? Professor Way, my father told me growing up, let’s do a shout out to Dick Stone , that if you had one or two good friends, you were really lucky.
Dr. Niobe Way: Yeah, it’s true. It’s true. Yeah, it’s true. And that, and that’s basically what the research shows. I mean, it basically shows if you have at least one person in your life that you can really rely on and really talk to and really be open with, that’s you’re lucky, as your dad said. But also that that’s the key to mental health, that you have to have at least one person in your life that does that.
And it could be your grandmother, it could be your younger brother. It doesn’t have to be,
Kristina Supler: can it be your spouse or no?
Dr. Niobe Way: It can be your spouse. What’s interesting though Kristina that you raised that is that I get that question a lot. The issue is, is that, and I say this to a lot of wives and girlfriends because they know exactly what I’m talking about.
If you only have your spouse to talk about your spouse it’s not gonna lead very good places. So you really do need somebody besides your spouse. Because the whole idea and, and Women always laugh when I say that and I say, No, no, I’m, I’m being serious.
Susan Stone: No. You know what?
Most, instead of a 50% divorce rate, if every person shared every thought they had in a marriage, I assure you there w we
Kristina Supler: it would be much higher.
Susan Stone: It would be a lot higher. I agree. Oh, absolutely. We cannot, as everybody needs a bud that’s completely independent
Kristina Supler: outside the home, outside the.
Dr. Niobe Way: Yeah, and in fact, I wanna go push even further in marriage counseling. I’m divorced, by the way, so I I I know about marriage counseling. So in marriage counseling, the, the advice rather than simply being date night, it should be you go, you guys go, both go out and have friendship night with another friend outside of the marriage. Once a week you do that.
Susan Stone: I do that. Wow. That’s what you do. I
am regularly, I I have always done that. I need my girl time.
Yeah. You know. Yeah, I agree. Yeah.
Dr. Niobe Way: And, and I think we, we tend to think, especially, unfortunately, I think women tend to think this more than men, but we tend to think that if you don’t wanna always be with us that somehow there’s something wrong in the relationship.
And the reality is, is that marriages, marriages that seem to last longer are the marriages where you have autonomy and connection, right? You have autonomy to have your own friendships. And then you have connection within the marriage. And with other people, obviously. But the idea is that even your husbands though, even your boyfriends, even your partners need to have that too.
And oftentimes what happens is they don’t. And then it becomes a problem in the marriage. Because ultimately they don’t have, you know, they don’t have a nurturing outside of the marriage relationship, which they really need to have for the he for the sake of the marriage. You know, I mean, that’s the key part.
Susan Stone: Let’s circle back to the book. Yeah. I love that advice by the way. I live it. You’re, you’re, Yeah. But you know, Kristina and I do this podcast and it’s really for parents. Mm-hmm. . So based on your book, Deep Secrets and your other book coming out. Yeah. What advice do you have for parents of boys?
Dr. Niobe Way: So ba basically the basic advice is to normalize this desire.
That’s the basic advice. And it sounds really simple and it sounds like do that. Yeah. But I’ll tell you how to do it. So I’m gonna give you a story, uh, that will tell you how easy it is to do it.
So I’m in a classroom, It’s ara, it’s a boys all boys class. One all boys school. 25 boys was sitting there. They’re reading that first opening paragraph in Deep Secrets where Justin the boy in the book says, I love him so much. I can’t live without him. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s something I can’t explain, et cetera.
The boys all read it. They start laughing, they start cracking up. These are 12 year old boys.
Uh, they start cracking up. I know why they’re laughing. But I want them to articulate it. I say, Why are you laughing? They finally, one boy says, The dude sounds gay. And I said, Well, I, I don’t know about the kid’s sexuality, but the reality is, is that all teenage boys sound like this at some point in their adolescence.
All teenage, most teenage boys, I didn’t say all I said, Most teenage boys. They’re 12. And the boys all were completely silent. And I said, Yeah, that’s what teenage boys sound like. Uh, at some point in their adolescents when they’re given a safe space to talk openly. And finally, one boy said, For real? And I said, Oh yeah, for real.
And then what happened is the entire classroom started wanting to talk about their own friendships. Two boys wanting to share their breakup story with each other, how they broke up, cause they each hurt each other’s feelings. All I did, Kristina and Susan, the only thing I did is I literally just said it’s normal.
Right. They went from, It’s not normal. This dude must be gay to, I said, It’s normal, all teenage.
Susan Stone: You open the door Doctor Way. You open that door.
Dr. Niobe Way: I open the door. So the the thing I would say, and this sounds like I’m promoting my work and I’m actually not I’m actually promoting a way to parent. Start the conversation by talking about this podcast.
Talk, start the conversation about having them listen to a part of the cod Pass or, Or look at a passage in a book or look at a, I like that. Yeah. Right. And then And then saying, and then basically saying, What do you think? Don’t, don’t lecture to your son. Just say, What do you think? What do you think? What do you think?
Do you think that this is, you know, do you connect to this? Do you not connect to this? Have a family conversation. Don’t just include your sons. If you have other kids, your husband, et cetera, your partner, whoever. .
And the idea is that you gotta implicitly and explicitly normalize it. That says, This is the feelings I have. This is the feelings your dad has. Or your, someone male in your life, your grandfather, et cetera.
And that, how do you feel about it? But normalize it by showing all the boys that talk like that, you know what I mean? I mean, we had it in a book party and when Deep Secrets came out, we had a really cool looking, uh, very handsome kid, 17 year old kid, get in front of the about 200 people and it included a soccer team.
And he talked about how Deep Secrets was his story. And you could see this whole team of soccer players with their mouths open. They could not believe that some cool guy would talk about his desire for closeness and how much his friends have hurt his feelings and how hard it is when his friends hurt his feelings.
And they all looked at my son and they said, Is this, the same kind of question? Is this real? And my son said, Yeah, this is, my mom’s been doing this forever. This is what boys, you know, always say to her and her team. And then it opened up a conversation on, on the soccer team. I give talks to soccer coaches and soccer coaches figure out ways to have these conversations with their, with their teams.
You just gotta normalize it. And again, normalize also friendships, the importance of friendships. I know all you parents who are listening, you’re focused more on the, the grades and the test scores and all those things that we worry about in terms of getting our kids into college. The reality is, is that if our kids are healthy social or emotionally, if they’re having nurturing relationships, they will do beautifully in life.
And it’s much more predictive of all sorts of wonderful things, long term outcomes, than it is what college you went to or what SAT score you got, or what grades you got. So the, the idea is to really think about valuing your kids, and I’m saying this to parents, valuing your kids’ academic performance and, you know, they’re sort of doing the right thing to get into the right places, uh, in their life as much as you do their relationships and their friendships particularly. And really helping them nurture those, those relationships.
Kristina Supler: It sounds like at the heart of, of your messaging Professor Way is, is the idea that so much starts at home. I mean, what parents do to welcome their children into feelings and conversations and having opinions and nurturing that. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. It was such a pleasure having you.
We appreciate it. I think that you really offered a lot of food for thought in your book, Deep Secrets. Um, I encourage parents to check out the book and think about how to welcome and invite their own children into these conversations to form more meaningful relations relationships. Uh, thank you so much for joining us Professor way.
Dr. Niobe Way: Okay. Thank you. You too. Thank you. Wonderful. Kristina and Susan. Bye.