The Secret Lives of Boys: A Conversation with Malina Saval

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What is it really like being a male teen? How do today’s boys see themselves and the world around them? What do boys dream about? What makes boys cry? These are the questions journalist Malina Saval set out to answer in a three year research study where she crisscrossed the country speaking to boys from diverse religious affiliations, socioeconomic backgrounds and cultures. In The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens she shares a rare and, at times, uncensored look into the complexities of male adolescents. Here, the former educator shares her thoughts on bringing up boys, ‘the boy crisis’ and what she learned on her journey into the inner sanctum of American boyhood culture.

First what is your take on The Boy Crisis? Is it real or overblown?

This question has been asked of me so many times by journalists and readers that I finally decided to look up the word ‘crisis’ to clarify its literal definition.

Crisis: an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending; especially: one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome <a financial crisis> b : a situation that has reached a critical phase

If the above holds true, perhaps we need to revaluate what we mean when we say the word ‘crisis’ in its connection to teenage boys. Did I meet boys for whom a decisive change was impending? (Yes, college, starting their freshman year of high school, trying to secure a job post-graduation.) Did I meet boys whose life situations had reached a critical stage? Not unless you consider their reflections back on moments in their lives when they felt as though they might hit the breaking point and have since worked diligently to create solutions to such life challenges. To label boys ‘in crisis’ is a grave insult to the various nuanced ways in which today’s teenage boys are reacting and responding to the world around them in an effort to overcome their fears, problems and obstacles.

Are teenage boys in crisis? Short, answer—no!

That we can lump together boys into an amorphous collective globule and issue the statement that an entire gender of a particular age group is in crisis is more a comment on adult society than on boys. One might ask, why are adults so quick to condemn an entire segment of the population when there is amply evidence that teenage boys are, in fact, struggling and striving to make their lives and the world better?

Clearly, one cannot speak for all boys—which is exactly my point—but throughout the course of my research I met several boys, dozens of them, who were passionate and compassionate and motivated in their desire to succeed. I interviewed boys who organized animal rights PETA rallies and others who belonged to anti-bullying school groups. I spent time with boys who, despite financial set backs, were hopeful to attend college or start up a small business. I spoke to a teenage father who was doing anything and everything to support his toddler child and become the best father that he could be despite the less-than-ideal circumstances.

Are some boys in crisis mode? Of course. Are some girls in crisis? Certainly. Are some adults in crisis? Yes, and I know several. Are teenage boys as a collective whole in crisis? An emphatic no, absolutely not!

Describe the landscape in which boys are growing up in. What does the social map of today’s boys look like? How are boys coping?

Today’s social map of boys is ever expanding, and is dramatically different from the Breakfast Club-y categories of Nerd, Jock, Druggie and Prom Queen of yesteryear. For example, it’s nothing to be a Harvard-bound valedictorian who also smokes pot. You can be a star d-tackle on the football team and still get straight A’s. You can be in the drama club and not be presumed gay. Certainly, ethnic divisions still exist in our culture and among boys in high school, but the segregation is more self-motivated, with boys making more choices where and with which clique to belong. Today, many students are erecting their own cultural boundaries. More than ever there is also a cornucopia of groups in which a teenage boy can belong and the pecking order in terms of popularity is becoming more and more unpredictable. Labels like “Wigger” and “Hardore Kid” and “Scenester” are replacing the old school Nerd, Jock and Burnout.

What are some best-practices that parents can use to get boys to open up?

Across the board, these teens resented their parents attempts to convince them that “We were young once, too.”  True, agreed these teens, their parents were young. But they weren’t young now. Adults today never had to deal with the Internet, or cyber-bullying, or other kids slamming their reputations on Facebook, or posting half-naked pictures of them puking on their social media pages. Via the Internet, society has become one big emotional free-for-all, where kids are blogging about everything form losing their virginity to their parents’ divorce to feelings of suicide. This can be a lot for a teenage boy to handle.

The first mistake parents make is assuming they understand what their sons are going through. Boys hate when parents guess wrong. A better approach would be for parents to admit that they don’t know all the answers, they don’t have all the facts, they don’t share the same experiences as their kids, but they are ready and willing to learn. It should be more of a learning process for adults. Teenage boys today are not looking for someone to talk to them—they are looking for someone to talk with.

Parents should work on their own issues. An overwhelming number of the boys I met felt that not until their parents dealt with their own personal demons and challenges in life could they be effective role models for them. How can you tell your son not to drink alcohol if you’re an alcoholic? How can you tell your son not to do drugs when you smoke pot yourself? How can you expect your son to make healthy choices in life if you’re not doing the same? Adults need to dig deep and remember that their kids will pick up on inconsistencies. They are privy to the mistakes that you are making and will not listen to your advice if that advice comes from a place of blatant hypocrisy. Work on yourself, and then you and your son can work through his problems together.

Speak to any surprises you found in your time traveling and speaking with young men across the country.

It wasn’t really a surprise because I felt that I had an understanding of this going in, but what I experienced in talking to these boys was how much we had in common, and how much in general adults and boys have in common. I think overall adult society undersells just how much insight and knowledge a teenage boy has. Granted, physically and neurologically, they are still not fully formed, but when it comes to their emotional intelligence, boys are very much on the same level as adults—surpassing them in several instances. I met a teenage dad, foe example, whose struggles with parenthood were similar to the issues faced by adult parents. I met boys who had anxiety over things that adults tend to worry about as well. I met boys who resented their parents (resentment of parents, I discovered, is not limited by age). I met boys who were culturally aware of music, film and art from decades prior. I met teenage boys who knew much more about politics than many of adults I’ve met. Overall, I essentially experienced boys as highly intelligent, emotional evolving human beings. Boys are romantic. Boys have feelings. Boys are not perfect, nor are they all doomed to destruction. Boys talk. A lot. And yes, boys cry—but I guess I already knew that.

Studies in recent years report that this is the first generation where there will be more young women in college and graduating with college degrees than men. What is happening here? What will be the impact on this new generation of better prepared girls?

In my experience as a journalist and writer, I have come to discover that for whatever fact or figure a journalist seeks to prove there is a fact or figure out there to prove it. There have been published studies concluding that more young women are attending four-year colleges and universities than young men, and there are studies published that conclude that it is becoming easier for men to be accepted to colleges and universities. But if you’re looking at dry statistics, then you’re missing the point entirely. And if you’re looking for dry statistics, then my book is of probably little use. The very thrust of my book is that statistics about boys tell only a very small part of the story. When studying these statistics one must understand what elements are involved: What is the socio-economic background of each boy? What is his race or religious background? Does he want to go to college or is he forgoing the traditional academic route to for an alternate education in a career—say, one in the arts or music—that doesn’t necessarily require a college degree. Does he have plans to travel abroad and volunteer for a year before entering school? Do his parents have the funds to send him to school?

These and other factors must be determined before one can accurately assess why more girls are going to college than boys. You have to look at the whole picture. The high cost of colleges has kept many young men and women from attending and graduating. This is not a matter of gender, but of socio-economics. And it’s a sad, sad, reality for all young people in America. A more telling statistic might be one reflecting the relationship between socio-economics and rates of college graduation. When it comes to teenagers—and all people for that matter—wealth is the great divide. Not gender.

In this same regard, American culture is obsessed with drawing comparisons. And for what? Of what use does it service society? It’s like comparing punk rock to country music. They share chords in common and different lyrics and possibly beats and yet they are quite different listening experiences. Or look at Hip Hop music where rap artists often filch samples from disco or R&B classics. There’s a reason that there are the Country Music Awards and the Grammys. Each celebrates different genres of music.

Why then do we need to position male and female gender as a contest to see who wins? I never set out to pen a book that compares girls and boys. That was never my intention and if you read my book you’ll find there is very little discussion of the differences between teenage girls and boys. There are some chapters where boys proclaim girls are becoming more violent in our society and they are tired of being pigeonholed as the fighting ones at school. There’s a very brief mention of how the curriculum in high school is tailored more toward a girl’s natural learning abilities than a boy’s. But for the most part, The Secret Lives of Boys focuses on the boys and their commentary and discussion of the world in which they live. The book is not a treatise on girls versus boys.

That said, I think it’s wonderful that an increasing number of young women are attending college. It’s an accomplishment to celebrate and we should, as a collective culture, issue high marks of praise. But why must this achievement be turned into a competition where now boys are suddenly on the losing side? If you look back historically at a time when women were not allowed at most colleges, was there mention that young women were in crisis? No, because our culture had very low expectations of them in the classroom and in the workplace. Now that women are making great strides both academically and professionally, this should have no bearing on how well men are doing in various academic and professional areas.

 Evangelia Biddy is the editor-in-chief of Junior, an academic journal devoted to improving the educational outcomes of boys.


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