Q&A with Sean Kullman from In His Words
A conversation on how current society standards are failing boys and men and how we can bring them back while revigorating the notion of masculinity.
What I am most fond of in this platform is the amazing writers I’ve discovered here, which I probably would not have come across otherwise - such is the case with Sean Kullman, whose writing I strongly recommend you follow at In His Words. Sean’s publication brings awareness to issues facing men and boys, while backing possible solutions with compelling data and evidence.
I am grateful for his time in answering my questions so thoughtfully and shinning a light on the issues so many boys and men are regularly up against.
Your substack is about the well-being of boys and men. What circumstances drew you to care about this issue and to start writing about it?
I think it really hit me when I was teaching high school English and listening to the way teachers talked about boys. I think teachers cared; however, they seemed less tolerant of boys and struggled with them more. There were big pushes for girls in school and lots of talk about getting girls into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). This is tremendous. However, I cannot remember hearing conversations regarding the encouragement of boys or pushes for getting boys into predominantly female professions, such as nursing and elementary education.
In 2015, I wrote two pieces in the New York Times, Invitation to a Dialogue: Helping Boys Succeed and How to Educate Boys. After that, I started connecting with writers, and practitioners in the field. My first connection was with Mark Sherman Ph.D., so I need to give a big shout-out to him. It was Mark’s friendship that led me to others like Michal Gurian, Warren Farrell, Peg Tyre, and Christina Hoff-Sommer. Another man who has played a meaningful role in my life is Phil Cook, author of Abused Men: The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence.
There are those who say we are living in an age of "toxic masculinity" and those who claim we are undergoing a "crisis of lack of masculinity". The problem may just be that neither side agrees on what masculinity means. What are your thoughts on this?
I want you to imagine you have a daughter who is 5’4”, 130 pounds and she’s unconscious in a burning building. You have a choice regarding which person will run into the burning house to rescue her, a 5’10” 185-pound male or a 5’4” 130-pound female.
Boys are generally more aggressive and risk-taking. That is not toxic; that is instinctual and essential. Masculinity and Femininity have essential biological differences. The denial of male and female differences is incredibly harmful. Not just in physical attributes but in cognitive processing as well. It’s time for schools to look at the way boys and girls learn differently much more seriously, even as our institutions attempt to move away from gender binaries and dangerously toward gender fluidity and toxicity, which are not rooted in science.
The toxic term is harmful. It is linked to ideological rhetoric designed to see the worst in inherent male behavior and presence. We also see it in the term patriarchy. These terms are used to divide people and undermine the social good. The ideals of equality feminism were not meant to marginalize masculinity. But feminism has morphed into a new type of ideology that wants to promote its cause over everything else. (People like Christina Hoff Sommers and Heather MacDonald have spoken out about the ways 3rd and 4th wave feminism have become more divisive and less rooted in equality). We’ve seen the history of oppressor narratives before, and it’s truly ugly. There are women and men who pollute the waters of life but so many more who provide the type of spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and other forms of nourishment our children and society desperately needs. Those people need to speak up much more, and they also need far more airtime and representation in higher education.
Would you then agree that the modern-day interpretation of feminism is detrimental to men and boys? Seeing that it already served its original purpose of equality of opportunity?
The original purpose of equality feminism is still important and men and women overwhelmingly support that mission. The 3rd and 4th wave feminist, ideological narrative has created oppressor classes instead of ensuring equal protections and opportunities. The new, ideological narrative is threatening equality feminism. For instance, Title IX grew out of equality feminism and transformed women's sports. Title IX is also being used to ensure males are not treated differently because of their sex, particularly on college campuses across the country that want to forgo practices like due process and equality of opportunity. (Mark Perry, Ph.D. has filed hundreds of Title IX and Title VI complaints and is finding great success in ensuring equal protections for women and men.) 3rd and 4th wave feminism are now abusing and upending the gender binary and policies like Title IX. Kara Dansky, a feminist attorney, has written on this topic in her book, The Abolition of Sex. Dansky still has a bent toward ignoring the ways this impacts males, but this is neither her purpose nor her crowd. She is correct to say that redefining the word sex to include gender identity is anti-woman, anti-gay, and anti-lesbian. But it also harms boys, fathers, and other males. That part is often left out.
What role can mothers and wives play in supporting their sons and husbands?
On a practical level, mothers need to protect their sons and ensure they are surrounded by positive male role models. They also need to support the men in their lives.
The author Kimberly Ells put it this way: “The story of every person’s life begins at the same place: mother, baby, and a cord connecting the two. And somewhere – often right there looking on—is a father.” Mothers bring life. They are the ones who have the first connection to children because they are the only ones who can bring life forward. Mothers play an integral role in the lives of boys and men. The symbiotic relationship between mother and child never goes away. And the umbilical cord goes beyond children. It secures men to their families.
Mothers and wives can do more for our boys and men, but it’s not just mothers and wives. Sisters, grandmothers, and all women can do more to ensure we protect our boys and men equally. We need to push our political leaders much harder. A perfect example is the way our policymakers do not even consider the well-being of boys and men. There is a U.S. Office of Women’s Health. But did you know there is no Office of Men’s Health? That’s more than odd, it’s political.
Increasing divorce rates and single-mother households play their part in the poor example they set for boys, but they are probably not the sole culprit. What other factors are responsible for the increasingly hostile way society sees boys and men?
Out-of-wedlock births now comprise around 40% of all U.S. births. This is a problem for children, mothers, and fathers. On so many levels, we have abandoned the nuclear family. When was the last time we heard a recognized politician speak openly about the significance of the nuclear family and the important role fathers play in the lives of their children and their children’s mothers? (Our boys and men need to hear this message from our leaders). Our educational system, media, and politicians need to speak on the significance of the nuclear family far more than it does even as social conventions and institutions have moved toward alienating healthy masculinity and families from all sorts of spaces.
Studies show that boys and girls do better when their mothers and fathers are involved in their lives, yet we continue to work against that union. In instances of separation or divorce, we need to do more. States need to move toward joint physical custody and completely change the family court system, which is a multi-billion-dollar industry. (I strongly recommend Ginger Gentile’s documentary, Erasing Family.)
The school system is also much harder on boys, who make up the majority of the suspended, expelled, and students on mood-altering medications such as Adderall and Ritalin. (Boys make up at least 70% of those diagnosed with ADHD). Boys are less likely to read at grade level and graduate from high school with the same skills as their female peers. Boys and men are more likely to die of suicide, drug overdoses, and alcohol by significant margins.
This burden needs to fall on the media, academia, and public policymakers who seem to work against healthy families and healthy masculinity.
On a personal level, I would like to see a more robust PAL (Police Athletic League) in communities to provide activities, positive male role modeling, and healthy relationships between law enforcement and the community. After all, it is fatherless boys who are the ones most likely to have trouble with law enforcement.
Could you also speak to the issue that while some fathers are physically present in the house or family, they are emotionally absent in the sense that they don't display much interest in their kids’ interests and don't actively try to be a good role model. Perhaps they also did not have a good male role model growing up.
Most men are overwhelmingly good fathers and present in the home. I've worked with hundreds of fathers who have coached their sons and daughters in sports and supported all sorts of activities for their children. But you raise an interesting point regarding fathers who are not actively engaged in the home and with their children. (We also need to recognize there are some fathers and mothers who are not good parents.)
Data around the diseases of despair (suicide, drugs, and alcohol) would suggest that millions of men and boys are seriously depressed. Over-medicated boys and the alienation of boys in schools and culture are creating a generation of apathetic men who are marginalized and purposeless, what Warren Farrell called the purpose void. There is not enough being done to show boys and men they are necessary and essential to the family and the social good. The family court system, as mentioned earlier, is contributing to the problem as well. Fathers who have been alienated from their biological children end up moving into new relationships where the new spouse or partner wants the man to take on parental duties with her children. Sometimes men start new families and focus on that family and distance themselves from their other children because they've been alienated by the mother and the courts. It's really quite a complicated mess. These are not meant as excuses, they are objective realities. Fatherless boys are wayward boys who will struggle to be present fathers.
What books, podcasts or newsletters would you recommend to someone who wants to dive deeper into the subject of boys and mens well-being?
I’ll be a bit biased here. It would be great if people followed the In His Words column at InHisWords.us. I do, however, think it’s important to read widely in diverse areas. Although I’ll recommend some books on boys and men, it goes beyond that for me. Some of the books I’ll recommend are not speaking directly about boys and men, but they are identifying cultural realities that impact all of us.
I’m big on data, and it’s the reason I’ve worked with Global Initiative for Boys and Men to create the BAM Index (Boys and Men’s Well-Being Index), the first open-source resource dedicated to data on boys and men, bamindex.org. I also encourage people to look for writers on Substack as a way to break away from the more repetitive mainstream narratives and see different ideas. After all, it was Substack that led me to you and Bravely Barefoot.
Some of the books I would encourage others to read:
· Boys and Girls Learn Differently by Michael Gurian
This book is great for parents, educators, and those interested in learning more about the ways brain-biology and learning are linked. Actually, it would be nice to see policymakers and school board leaders read it too.
· The War on Boys by Christina Hoff-Sommer
The book discusses the misguided policies that continue to marginalize boys in school. (Currently, nearly 60% of all college attendees are female and boys are far less likely to read at grade level).
· The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre
Peg Tyre is so aware and informed regarding the outcomes of boys. She truly sees how the educational system punishes boys and young men.
· The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
The title and subheading really do say it all: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Lukianoff and Haidt are actually challenging our institutions and parents robustly and sensibly.
· Knowledge and Decisions as well as Discrimination and Disparities by Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell is one of the greatest economists of our time. Yet few people have ever heard of him. High school and college students have read obscure controversial writers, which is fine, but at the peril of not reading a person like Thomas Sowell. It’s truly weird.
· The Myth of Male Power by Warren Farrell
The book argues that men do not have all sorts of social power and that there are systematic disadvantages for them. It really is the first book of its kind to take on this concept. Warren, who I consider a friend, is an interesting man. He is the only man to serve three consecutive terms as the Chair of the National Organization of Women in New York. He truly cares about the lives of males and females. I might not always agree with Warren, but I never doubt his sincerity and scholarship.
· The Boy Crisis by Warren Farrell and John Gray
This book is the tome of data on boys and men. If you want the numbers and the sources, this is the place to go.
· The Wonder of Parenting: A Brain-Science Approach to Parenting with Michael Gurian and Tim Wright
I could probably recommend quite a few, but we’re all so busy. But the Wonder of Parenting podcast is perfect. They are 30-minute episodes that I usually listen to while waiting to pick up my kids from practice or when I’m working out.
Besides his substack publication, you can also find Sean on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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This is an interesting interview. Sean presents a peek into a world we rarely if ever hear about, the mistreatment of boys and men by well intentioned if not misguided public policy makers and the general public narrative about men.
Excellent questions that lead to a very well articulated set of explanations we can all learn a bit from.