by Malina Saval
Basic Books, 2009
Review by Gerda Wever, Ph.D. on May 11th 2010
As a parent of two teenage boys I was keen to read Malina Saval's study, The Secret Lives of Boys. Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens (2009, published by Basic Books). The title intrigued me, as it suggested that boys have a mysterious but private inner life that I don't, but should, have a clue about. This is Saval's point of departure: that we misunderstand boys, as being challenged, plagued by ADHD, unable to express emotions, and as academic failures. Saval does not only want to depict the "boy crisis" as a myth, she also wants to poke a hole in our stereotypical understanding of boys and paint a picture of what boys are "really" like, which is, as she presents it, quite unlike the boys we think we know.
The way she goes about painting this picture is the strength of The Secret Lives of Boys. She follows ten teenage boys for almost three years, and talks with them over tea, online, has dinners with them and their friends, she talks with their parents and teachers, and sometimes other people who are involved in these boys' lives. A chapter is dedicated to each boy, and the boys themselves have chosen the title for these chapters. She lets the boys speak for themselves, and their stories are poignant and moving; they are about the importance of trust and loyalty in relationships, about the boys themselves, their friends and peers, about girls, and about hopes and dreams for the future. These stories are real and raw. Indeed, boys, the once I know and the way I know 'm, tell it like it is, and in this book it's no different.
This is, in my view, a shortcoming of The Secret Lives of Boys: there is nothing secret about their stories. My neighbor's boy is just like Apollo. An old friend's boy is just like Maxwell. My own boys and their friends have things in common with most boys in the book; they swear like sailors, they are loud, they wear their pants half-way down their behinds, they care greatly about clothes and use their own unique style to mark their identity, they deeply care for and are incredibly loyal to their friends (one of my boy's friends once ate my son's unflattering drawing of a teacher--yep that's right, ate; crumpled it up and down the hatch it went--to keep him out of trouble). They are sensitive and they cry at times. They don't have ADD. They argue with their teachers, and sometimes with me. They are very funny, and they are very judgmental. They share their challenges and their victories. While the stories Saval presents are great, they reveal no secrets to me, and I'm guessing that they don't hold any secrets either for teachers or other parents of male teens who talk to their boys and who make an effort to connect with them. Further, Saval risks confirming rather than breaking through boy related stereotypes. Take the chapter tiles: "The Troublemaker," "The Teenage Dad," "The Indie Fuck." Maxwell the mini-adult is the goody-two shoes, a boy who is only satisfied with a 4.0 grade point average, and who helps his parents with chores because he wants to, and Apollo is the drop-out druggie.
Having said that, I think this book could make for a great acquisition in schools, where males continue to struggle; while drop-out rates are improving, they are championed by young men, who are also less likely than their female counterparts to return to school. Male teens have a poorer attitude towards school and are less likely to enroll in college or university. My own boys argue with their teachers on a regular basis and simply refuse to write poetry. They challenge their teachers at every opportunity, and spend significant time in the administrational parts of the school building. In school, my boys are like Saval's Nicholas the Troublemaker: difficult, bordering on rudeness, full of attitude, and trying. Luckily, most of the teachers who work with them are caring enough to want to know about them beyond their troublemaker persona. Saval's work won't reveal any secrets for them, yet they may, as I did, enjoy the stories. Parents and teachers who stop at the moniker, or who don't know how to connect with male teens, should read The Secret Lives of Males because for them, it will reveal not only secrets--that troublemakers too want relationships that are based on trust and loyalty, not on superficial values, that they are vulnerable, and that they think more about their future more than they are given credit for--the stories in it may indeed show them that boys are not defined by that one, self or other defined, persona.
© 2010 Gerda Wever
Gerda Wever, PhD; Founder and CEO of The Write Room and The Write Room Press