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Books About the ‘Boy Crisis’ Are a Big Business. But Do They Actually Help?

Parents are buying up manuals for raising non-toxic young men, but the message on masculinity is confusing at best

Imagine a box. Inside the box is everything your culture wants from you — attributes, attitudes, actions. Or maybe the box hovers in space, framing your body as you move through the world, restricting your extremities when you flail too wildly toward your desires. I still haven’t figured out how the box is situated. But, to get started, just imagine a box.

The conceit of The Book of Dares: 100 Ways for Boys to Be Kind, Brave and Bold is that boys are trapped in something called The Man Box. The term was coined by Tony Porter, co-founder of the nonprofit A Call to Men. Authors Anna Marie Johnston Teague and Ted Bunch are on staff — Johnson Teague is the Chief Communications Officer, and Bunch is Chief Development Officer and a co-founder. Partly funded by grants from the NFL, Verizon and the Conrad Hilton Foundation, A Call to Men has been hired by the U.S. Army, Justice Department, Uber and the NBA among other corporations and pro sports leagues to teach healthy masculinity. 

The Man Box concept stresses a cause-and-effect between “the collective socialization of men” and homophobia, transphobia, sexual harassment, domestic violence and suicide, from which American men die around four times more than women. The goal is men deciding to re-socialize themselves, “so at the end of the day,” according to Porter, “men might not even know they’re doing domestic and sexual violence prevention, because they are talking about being healthy men, but the two are inextricably linked.” With The Book of Dares, they attempt to mitigate toxic masculinity at large by addressing it in boys from the ages of 8 to 12. (Note: A Call to Men doesn’t use or like the term “toxic masculinity” because they say it’s misleading, but that’s what they’re obviously talking about.)

Their strategy is to pose 100 dares, building off the phenomenon of social media challenges. Dare topics range from breaking with traditional gender expectations (“dare to do something you love even if it’s not something boys are ‘supposed to do’”); to peer relations (“dare to hang out with someone new,” “dare to include someone who is left out”); to demonstrating solidarity with underrepresented groups (“dare to wear a female professional athlete’s jersey,” “dare to understand your privilege”); to emotional awareness (“dare to talk about the thing that worries you most”).

The Book of Dares enters a 20-year conversation about the “boy crisis,” the sense that American boyhood is collapsing under its own weight. Writing on the topic consists largely of panicked treatises on masculinity under attack by a feminized culture — Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boys (2000), Focus on the Family founder James Dobson’s Bringing Up Boys (2001), Meg Meeker’s Boys Should Be Boys (2008), Leonard Sax’s Boys Adrift (2007), and more recently The Boy Crisis (2020), a discussion of “why our boys are struggling and what we can do about it” by mens’ rights figurehead Warren Farrell, a man who calls child support payments slavery, and Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus author John Gray. There are, however, more progressive critiques of restrictive standards of masculinity as well — in particular, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson’s Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (2000), Emma Brown’s To Raise a Boy (2019) and Raising Boys to Be Good Men, a parenting guide written by a journalist who went viral on Twitter in 2018 for letting his son have painted nails (2020). 

The Book of Dares isn’t polemical, and it’s aimed at children, but it’s on the liberal side of a gender debate that includes the current conservative anti-trans hysteria. The result is an uneasy marriage of progressive values and gender essentialism. It’s easy to say what men, at large, do — beat their partners at a certain rate, sexually harass women. It’s less easy — and certainly less progressive — to discourage those behaviors by encouraging a positive essence of maleness without making some wild claims about gender differences. This book walks right up to the edge of doing that, then backs off. The wonderful thing about being a boy, it seems, is growing into a man who doesn’t do bad things. This is the problem with emphasizing a kid’s boyness rather than his person-ness — at some point you’re going to have to explain what boyness is and why it matters. 

For example, we are told that The Man Box pressures boys to be in charge. You can avoid this, somehow, by daring to “embrace leadership” and taking “an important role in student government, on your sports team or in drama class.” We’re told a boy should “be a role model” and “influencer.” The book goes on to clarify that leadership doesn’t necessarily mean being the boss, but rather “listening to other people, encouraging different opinions and challenging old ideas.” If a boy is confused by this contradiction, he has me for company. 

The introduction explains, “There are so many good things about being a boy — more than we can mention — and you should be able to name them if someone asks you to. … A boy’s strength isn’t measured by his muscles or the outdated ideas that his dad’s and granddad’s generations followed. Strength and masculinity can be conveyed in countless ways — intelligence, vulnerability, sensitivity, empathy, the bravery to ask for help and to seek forgiveness and to challenge problematic notions.” 

Sounds great! But none of these qualities are unique to boys or men, so you’re left to wonder: What are the good things about being a boy? Is positive boy- and manhood just the absence of negative qualities? Perhaps if the authors listed what healthy manhood is, it would become a new Man Box. A truly progressive book — one seeking a world where gay and trans people are treated with complete fairness — can’t be gendered like this. It would have to be 100 Dares for Kids, but then you’ve lost your marketing niche. 

For all its claims to building better citizens, mentions of duty to one’s community are undercut by reminders that good behavior is transactional. Many of the dares end with an encouraging message to the reader that reduces to who knows, maybe you’ll get something out of this. On trying something new: “You might just discover that you are a natural at the least-expected thing.” On doing chores: “Bonus points if it’s something that’ll not only benefit you, but also benefit others.” Even giving a compliment is a way to make yourself look better: “When we shine a light on someone, that light is bound to shine back on us.”

A Call to Men specializes in corporate trainings, so it’s not so much surprising as unsettling that the book feels so Business, Jr. The authors encourage experimentation but end up telling kids to always be optimizing, always be producing. One’s child, on this plan, will become Highly Effective. Even “dare to be uncomfortable,” which seems like it’s about working hard even if you’re not great at something, ends with the promise that if a boy is persistent at a difficult task he will “level up.” And, ever high on its own supply, self-help cannot resist citing its own misinformation. “Dare to replace a bad habit” contains the claim that “experts say that, on average, it takes 21 days of doing something to form a new habit.” No citation is provided, but it seems to be a misinterpretation of data from Psycho-Cybernetics, a 1960 book on positive visualization written by a plastic surgeon.

This go get ‘em approach is reminiscent of social psychology fads embraced by 21st century educators. There are shades of Carol Dweck’s fixed and growth mindsets and Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, a book about achievement that cites CEOs and pro football coaches as examples of top performers one might emulate. We find other hallmarks of the self-help/motivational genre when boys are challenged to make a vision board and do confusingly mature self-improvement: “Dare to start an exercise routine” suggests boys between the ages of 8 and 12 “go to the gym and work out on your own.”

That this feels like a self-help manual is perhaps part of the design, because it’s clearly intended to appeal to adults — indeed, adults might be the primary audience. As a parent, I’ve come to recognize when children’s books were created with me in mind, and The Book of Dares joins a long list of recent books not just for parents, but liberal parents. Antiracist Baby, a baffling combination of board book illustrations and grad school language a toddler couldn’t possibly understand, is for adults. “Parody books” like Go the F**k To Sleep and Goodnight iPad are for adults. If you have hand-drawn Ruth Bader Ginsburgs and Frida Kahlos, you might have Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, which is for adults. I’m not sure who P is for Pterodactyl is for, but the person who gave it to my kids clearly thinks the answer is me. 

A friend whose daughter was approaching puberty once told me that several other moms had fervently recommended to her The Care and Keeping of You, the enormously popular puberty guide by American Girl. She remarked that we look at our difficult, mysterious children and say, “Oh crap… What can I buy?” The answer for liberal parents of pre-adolescent boys is The Book of Dares, a vaccine against anti-LGBT intolerance, racism and the fear that, like so many mom blog posts have warned, we might be raising little Brock Turners or locker-room-talking Trumps or #MeToo villains. 

The notion driving A Call to Men is that if we can get people to empathize with others, change will inevitably follow. Their curriculum is an attempt to reform society through individual action — call it trickle-down emotional intelligence. Widening the range of feelings boys are allowed to exhibit could make a significant difference in any one family, but this book is an explicit attempt to change national statistics. Domestic violence and suicide are serious problems. We need gun control and a higher minimum wage and to make it easier for people to leave abusive partners. The politics here are based on a conservative non-materialist conception of progress — that social change starts with and is largely composed of individual attitude shifts. Nowhere is it suggested that systems are culpable or responsible. This is social incrementalism, geologic change punctuated by corporate seminars, and there’s nothing daring about that.