“A Place To Be Myself”
The Critical Role of Schools in Boys’ Emotional Development
Center for the Study of Boys’ & Girls’ Lives
Center for the Study of Boy’s & Girls’ Lives
The Haverford School
Restriction on boys’ capacities to process and to show emotion, however detrimental for their
development, constitutes a key lesson of the masculinity curriculum learned in schools. To
explore what schools can do to offer support for boys’ resistance to this curriculum, a series of
studies has been conducted at a suburban independent school outside Philadelphia, PA. The
present study uses a mixed-method design, including teachers, university-based researchers and
students on the research team, to examine how boys’ participation in a peer-counseling program
influenced their sense of self and self-expression. A survey, focus groups, interviews and
observations supported the usefulness of the intervention for boys. The following qualitative
themes emerged: (1) The constraining effect of the school’s masculinity culture on boys’
emotional development; (2) The value of a “safe space” in overcoming this culture and in
promoting boys’ learning and connection; (3) Boys’ ready development of new skills, especially
in relation to emotional experiences, when invited to do so; (4) The deepening and broadening of
boys’ friendships resulting from their self-disclosure and mutual support.
Keywords: Boys’ emotional development, masculinity, relationships
Inquiries can be addressed to: Michael Reichert, Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives,
2311 W. 16th Street, Wilmington, DE 19806, firstname.lastname@example.org. The authors would like to
express appreciation for the helpful feedback on earlier versions of this paper offered by
Professors Niobe Way of New York University and Peter Kuriloff of the University of
Masculinity, Restrictive Emotionality and Relationships
It is noteworthy that the initial fieldwork leading to the concept of “hegemonic
masculinity” was conducted in a school (Kessler, et al., 1982). The research team observed that
boys in the school tended to group themselves hierarchically, each group representing competing
masculine identities, theorized that masculine identities were produced within institutions and
were ordered according to dominant, complicit, subordinate and marginalized forms (Carrigan, et
al., 1985), and concluded that this scheme is inescapable: "It confronts them as a social fact,
which they have to come to terms with somehow" (Kessler et al., 1985, p. 42).
Since that seminal study, numerous others have described the lived consequences of
society’s man-making curricula (eg. Reichert, 2001; Reichert and Kuriloff, 2003; Stoudt, 2006;
Martino, 1999; 2000; Martino & Meyenn, 2001; Kehler, et al., 2005; Kehler and Martino, 2007).
The production of boys’ identities involves all levels of social life: “Gender is made in schools
and neighborhoods through peer group structure, control of school space, dating patterns,
homophobic speech, and harassment” (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 839). Boys enter
institutions designed for them, encounter the embedded masculinizing curricula, and must make
choices – from limited options – about how to position themselves relative to different identity
pathways. Which identity they “take up” (Connell, 1989; 1996) will dramatically affect their
relationships with other students and shape the opportunities, rewards and recognition they
enjoy. Underlying boys’ development is the threat of punishing sanctions for straying from the
prescribed path. In this sense, masculine identity formation can be “exclusive, anxiety-
provoking, internally and hierarchically differentiated, brutal, and violent” (Donaldson, 1993, p.
Restrictions on boys’ capacities to process and to show emotion is one of the key
components of this prescribed masculinity. Kimmel’s cultural history of American manhood
(1996) argued that boys growing up in the U.S. have been confronted with exceptional pressures
to prove themselves and do so, publicly at least, by limiting emotional expression. What makes a
man in America, Kimmel asserts, is that he behave in ways that distinguish him from women and
things feminine, especially in the expression of “softer” emotions. Boys develop to such
injunctions as: “No sissy stuff! Be a big wheel! Be a sturdy oak! Give ‘em hell!” (Brannon &
David, 1976, p. 5).
Of course, restrictive emotionality has been found to create a host of difficulties. Social
scientists have established that emotional inhibition can be physically, psychologically and
socially harmful (James, 1890; Freud, 1915/1957; Jourard, 1971; Wegner, 1992; Smyth &
Pennebaker, 2000; Jansz, 2000). Researchers have consistently found strong correlations
between emotional restrictiveness and various negative outcomes, including self-esteem,
problems with intimacy, depression, anxiety, personal strain and stress (O’Neil, Good & Holmes,
1995). Studies investigating the impact of male inexpressiveness on intimacy and partner
relationships have invariably pointed to the unhappiness of these relationships (eg. Osherson,
1992; Real, 1997; Bergman, 1995). Males in general, these and other studies find, are less likely
than females to be emotionally present or connected, to be good listeners, or to build emotionally
intimate relationships - with both other males as well as with females (Nardi, 1992; Fischer,
2000; Shields, 2002).
New research on boys’ friendships underscores the “unnaturalness” of such detachment
and emotional isolation. Way (2011), studying a large, cross-cultural sample over many years,
discovered that boys were surprisingly open, connected and intimate with each other – until they
reached mid-adolescence, at which time the pressures of cultural prescriptions cause boys to
retreat from their close friendships in favor of heterosexual pairing and a focus on work and
career. Before they made these sacrifices, boys in her sample were remarkably clear about the
importance of their friendships. As one boy put it, “If you don’t have friends, you got no one to
tell your secrets to. Then it’s like, I always like think bad stuff in my brain ‘cause like no one’s
helping me and I just need to keep all the secrets to myself.” (Way, 2010, p. 11).
Way’s conclusion that boys are intimate and emotionally open until being overwhelmed
by the pressures of normative masculinity raises important issues about the losses males
experience as a result of their experience. Drawing on the convergent research of child
development scholars, neuroscientists and anthropologists, Brooks (2011) recently asserted that
emotions and social connections, far from incidental, are fundamental to human nature. In fact,
as Siegel (1999) explains, “The communication of emotion may be the primary means by which
attachment experiences shape the developing mind.” In their research on the development of
emotional awareness, Lane and Schwartz (1987) found that such awareness is the result of
practice – opportunities to put feelings into words, to distinguish different types of feelings, to
communicate what one feels. Implicit in this developmental model is the converse, that a lack of
practice and opportunity can lead to impoverished emotional skills.
Thus, we can say that children – boys as well as girls – learn to “do gender” by learning
to “do emotion” and, as a result, “what is at stake, then, is not only gender boundaries but who
has claims to selfhood” (Shields, 2002, p. 170). A claim to selfhood – or to the “full development
or exercise of capacities” (Young, 1990, p. 39), certainly seems fundamental to notions of
justice. Permitting generations of male children to be diminished in their capacity to connect and
to feel certainly constitutes, according to the sociologist Caroline New, a form of “systematic
mistreatment” (New, 2001).
Against this backdrop of normative casualty, what can be said about prospects for change
and improvement in boys’ experience? There are some reasons for hope. Alternative masculine
possibilities are ever-present, springing up as each new generation of boys creatively fashions
lives from the offers and opportunities afforded them (Reichert & Ravitch, 2010a; 2010b).
Overall, the dominance of the present form of masculinity is “historically open,” vulnerable to its
internal as well as to external contradictions (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005, p. 853). This is
where schools might come in. Typically institutions play a collusive role in perpetuating the
centrality of the dominant ideals, inscribing boys’ reward and recognitional practices at every
level of school life (Reichert & Kuriloff, 2003); under such circumstances, boys who are a poor
fit with cultural ideals – and that can include most all boys - find little support for imagined
alternatives. In setting a stage for the next generation’s imagination for its possibilities, then, lies
a key to the counter-cultural potential of schools’ advocacy on behalf of healthier lives for boys.
Peer Counseling in a Boys’ School
To explore what schools can pull off to help boys with these pressures, we have
conducted a series of studies at The Haverford School, a junior kindergarten through 12th grade
day school for boys founded in 1884 and located in the affluent Western suburbs of Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania. The school strives to be nothing less than “…the premier independent school for
boys…” while fostering “...high achievement in academics, athletics and the arts.”
(www.haverford.org, 8.21.10). Like all schools, Haverford is not a neutral space; it consciously
and unconsciously promotes particular values and, in doing so, reinforces the naturalness of a
particular brand of masculinity. The taken-for-granted competitiveness of the student culture and
attendant peer hazing and policing, for example, represent endemic features of the school’s
historic masculinity curriculum (Stoudt, 2006).
Alongside this historic curriculum, however, there have been other impulses. Inspired by
new national and international stirrings – the nascent “boy movement” - in 1994 the school made
a strategic decision to become "both a laboratory for providing the best practices for the
education of boys and a beacon whose leadership in teaching them will be a model for other
schools (The Haverford School, 1994).” Over the next decade and a half, the school has been at
the forefront of efforts both to discover a richer, more grounded theory of boys’ education (e.g.
Reichert and Hawley, 2010) and to implement strategies for softening and broadening boys’
experience (Reichert, 2001).
One such strategy is a peer counseling program designed to counteract normative
emotional constriction. Boys self-select into the program in their junior and senior high school
years and meet about every two weeks for 90 minutes. They establish norms for confidentiality
that are central to their abilities to trust each other. During class meetings, they are presented
with brief lessons on topics like listening, emotional expression and social pressures, take turns
listening to each other and observe counseling demonstrations that are often can quite moving. In
addition to providing opportunities for boys to express themselves in authentic ways to each
other and to develop effective relational skills, “Behind the program’s creation was also an
unspoken hope for a sanctuary within the larger school masculinity regime in which safety and
connection could be promoted (Reichert, 2001, p. 17). The program employs a model of mutual
support and self-expression that emphasizes several purposes: (1) The mutual self-help structure
empowers self-direction, builds safety in groups and creates new norms of trust and
interdependence among participants; (2) Emotional as well as verbal expression, representing an
integrative approach, invites boys to transgress cultural taboo; and (3) Peer sharing encourages
students to naturalize the new skills and practices in other relationships of their lives and the life
of the school. (Kauffman & New, 2004; Jackins, 1994; Somers, 1972; Scheff, 1972).
Over the years, there have been several generations of research to assess the impact of the
program on both participants as well as on the school culture, the most recent of which was made
during the years 2002-4 (Heed, et al, 2004). In this study, a team of faculty, students and
university-based researchers associated with the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives
(www.csbgl.org) administered a questionnaire to 150 students from the upper school and
conducted both focus group and one-on-one interviews. The team administered the youth version
of the Bar-On Emotional Intelligence Inventory (EQI-YV) at two time points, measuring
emotional intelligence in four areas: (1) Intrapersonal; (2) Interpersonal; (3) Adaptability; (4)
Stress Management (Bar-On & Parker, 2000, p.19). Findings from the survey portion of their
study showed that while as a group students scored at the national average in emotional
intelligence, those “who have already taken Peer Leadership Counseling scored …above average
compared to first year counterparts whose scores were closer to the national average” (Heed, et
al., 2004, p. 7). In addition, the team found that participants in the program were distinguished
from other students in the school in terms of the quality of relationships they reported with both
teachers and other boys, as well as by their self-awareness, stress management and perceived
In the present study, the authors wanted to take another look at how this program affected
boys’ experience. In particular, we were taken by the overlap between the theoretical notion,
Presence in Relationships (Chu and Way, 2009), and what participants reported of their
experience in the program. We hoped to discover whether the school program might actually
help boys assert themselves more authentically and fully with classmates, friends and family.
To garner multiple perspectives, the research team was again comprised of both insiders
and outsiders to The Haverford School community: a psychologist who heads the program; a
university researcher; a teacher/counselor who has long assisted with the program; and a number
of students participating in the program. Together, this team developed research questions,
designed instruments, considered ethical issues, identified data sources, collected data and
collaborated on analysis and writing. Research team meetings were held once a month at the
school with the goal of orchestrating and monitoring the research process as well as train
research team members on various aspects of social science research (i.e. Interviewing,
qualitative data analysis, etc.).
This study employed a mixed-method research design to examine the influence of a peer-
counseling program on adolescent boys’ sense of self (authenticity) and self-expression. A
survey, focus groups, interviews, and observations were analyzed to address the following
research questions: (1). How does the school program influence boys’ connection to self? (2).
How does the program influence boys’ relationships with others? (3). And, how does the
program cultivate boys’ resistance to norms of masculinity?
Twenty-one (N=21) adolescent boys were participants in the peer-counseling program during the
2009-10 academic year, ranging in age from 16 (14%), 17 (43%) to 18 (43%). Evenly split
between boys who participated in the peer-counseling program for two years (48%) and boys in
their first year (52%). Sixth Formers (12th Grade) were mostly in their second year of
participation (95%), while Fifth Formers (11th Grade) were mostly in their first year of
Boys were informed of the research study during the first session of the academic year
(September 2009) and were asked to participate. All twenty-one boys signed a student assent
form indicating their willingness to complete a survey, participate in a focus group, be observed
during peer-counseling sessions, and potentially interviewed.
The survey portion of the study consisted of twenty five  Likert-scale items from the
Presence in Relationship Scale (PIRS) (Chu & Way, 2009; see Appendix A). The construct is
rooted in relational psychology and emerged through qualitative research conducted with
adolescent boys (Chu, 2000, 2004; Spencer, 2007; Way, 1997) exploring their abilities to be
“genuinely engaged in their relationships” (Chu & Way, 2009, p. 55). The survey was
administered with boys at two time points: Time 1 (N=21) (September 2009; the first peer-
counseling session) and Time 2 (N=13) (May 2010; the second-to-last peer-counseling session).
Focus Groups, Interviews and Observations
Focus groups, interviews and observations were conducted following the initial survey
administration in order to follow up on themes observed in the survey responses and generally to
explore boys’ experiences in the program. Two 60-minute focus groups with students were
conducted in 2009 (N=21): “1st-Years” (N=9) and “2nd-Years” (N=12). Eight 60-minute
interviews were held during March/April 2010. Each research team member interviewed two
participants. For the individual interviews, a purposive sampling technique was used to select
interviewees, following these criteria: (1) Length of program participation; (2) Academic
standing (Junior/Senior); (3) Socioeconomic-status; and (4) Race/Ethnicity.
In addition to the focus group and individual interviews, over the 10-months of the
program, twelve  50-minute participant observations of the peer-counseling meetings were
completed by a member of the research team, whose fieldnotes became an additional data source.
Student survey data were uploaded and exported to SPSS 15.0 for statistical analysis. Due to
small sample sizes, only frequencies for 1st Years and 2nd Years were run and included average
scores and standard deviations for each survey item. These two groups were compared across the
particular experiential (connection to self and others) and behavioral (genuine self-expression)
domains of the survey.
Focus Group and Individual Interviews
Focus groups and individual interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. To
analyze data collected from these sources, the research team used two approaches: (1) Grounded
Theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1998), and; (2) Thematic Analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994).
Within these approaches, the research team used “open coding” (Strauss & Glaser, 1990) to
“break down, examine, compare, conceptualize, and categorize” (p. 61) the focus group data into
coherent themes. Each member of the research team was initially responsible for coding several
interviews; the group met together and discussed the coding framework and illustrative
examples, reaching agreement on a set of themes.
Four of the twelve peer-counseling sessions observed were audio-recorded; field notes were kept
during the remaining eight. Observational data were analyzed deductively in order to further
understand the emergent themes from previous data sources consulted.
Our analyses of focus group, interview and observation data shed light on the school’s
cultural context and the challenges it poses for boys’ emotional development and for their
relationships. Qualitative analysis highlighted four key themes in boys’ reported experience: (1)
The powerful and overarching influence of the school’s norms for masculinity; (2) The value of
the group’s “safe space” for learning and connection; (3) The development of new skills,
especially in relation to emotional experiences; (4) The deepening and broadening of friendships
School Norms for Masculinity
In our interviews, boys drew attention to the ways in which their lives and relationships
were constrained by the school’s restrictive norms for masculinity. They described the peer
counseling program as an oasis of opportunity amidst a threatening and even punishing social
world, including but not limited to the school community. At the outset, boys characterized the
school culture in straight-forward terms: “Regular school life is all about, you know, machismo
and I guess that would be a negative aspect of the school. There’s definitely a sense of having to
prove your masculinity at any point in time” (Peter, 6th Former). They stated that competition
underlies just about every relationship in the life of the school, forcing boys to prove themselves
and casting their relationships into a callous and sometimes even hurtful vein:
I guess progressively as we’ve gotten older everyone’s gotten more and more
competitive in more of, like, a macho way. It ever more occurs to me that things are
becoming more and more manly - and be the best at, at least, one thing. So,
everyone like finds their niche, finds something they’re really good at and is
competitive about it. Everyone’s also gotten progressively, I would say, meaner to
each other. But, I don’t think that it’s necessarily being mean or hurtful that’s the
cause of it, I guess people are just hard on each other. (Conor, 6th Former)
The strains of competition affected even relationships in which boys hoped for more supportive
connections. This young man, a senior, talked about his relationship with a brother one year
older; a recent graduate of the school:
I wish I were a little closer to my older brother. He’s in college now, so we don’t get to
talk too much. We’ve always been really competitive. I don’t know why, but we never
really developed a relationship where we open up to each other, and talk about stuff that
matters. So we’re kind of on this path where we feel uncomfortable with one another.
(Gregory, 6th Former)
Vying with and testing each other, teasing – usually good-natured and spirited, even if
not always taken that way – played a big part in relationships at school. Under these
circumstances where they were likely to be teased or worse and where what seemed to matter
most is coming out on top, when it came to the expression of emotions, our focus groups
revealed that each boy had absorbed and internalized a sense of caution: As this boy offered:
“Opening emotions and things, doesn’t really happen all that often. [Regular school life] kind of,
it keeps people very much reserved” (Jimmy, 5th Former). When students were asked to describe
the school environment, they reinforced the picture of a community that silenced boys’ real
feelings and personal struggles. As one student recounted:
Here in regular school, like, we have those things that we can talk about and be open
about and things that we can’t talk about. We just don’t feel that would be accepted if we
talk about… And, you know, when it comes to those kinds of things, you don’t hear
anything about it. (Daniel, 5th Former)
What are “those things that we can talk about” and those “we can't talk about”? Another
participant shared that public emotions, in particular, were unwelcomed and that boys adopt an
inauthentic pose in the school world:
I really wouldn’t get very emotional about many things except for like sports when I’m in
the like heat of the game. That kind of thing. Other than that, nothing really affects me -
but that’s not really true, I just show that nothing really affects me. (Alan, 6th Former)
These boys’ awareness that they were expected to “show” themselves to be unaffected by
their lives and to silence themselves if they do have emotional reactions was reinforced by the
school’s normative emotional practice, itself a reflection (or reproduction) of the dominant
masculine paradigm. Beyond a few carefully prescribed contexts, such as sports, sharing feelings
was off limits.
By contrast, referring to one peer counseling meeting in which a boy had used the
opportunity of being listened to by his classmates to express deep feelings about a life-changing
family experience, a participant remarked on the difference:
Like, he was in tears up there! And I don’t think being out there [regular school], if
someone were to see him in tears or, hearing about the situation or seeing him
crying, I don’t think they would be as friendly or understanding as they are here
[peer counseling]. Or, they might look at him and see him crying and be like, say
he’s like a sissy or something. Just cause he’s crying out there. (Daniel, 5th Former)
This boy and the others essentially marked the boundary between legitimate public
display and what students had to censor and hide. The norms were so strong that, even if a
student attempted to speak from his heart, he would likely be unable to find welcoming ears for
his thoughts – and more likely, might encounter meanness or more severe peer policing. This
understanding – that boys may neither express their upsets or emotional struggles nor publicly
make themselves available to accept other's confidences – also reveals how boys themselves,
even as they complained about the personal impact, contributed to a school culture that stifled
But, provided with an opportunity at the school, participants shared how readily they
would move to a very different way of relating to themselves and each other. The space of the
peer counseling program, created by the adult leaders working closely with students, represented
a compelling alternative to the dominant masculine paradigm, enabling boys to adopt very
different emotional and relational practices, ones that contravened the main thrust of the school’s
What distinguished the space created by the program were new values promoted within
it, keenly upheld by participants as group norms. In focus group and individual interviews,
participants almost always described the safety they experienced in the program for meaningful
and confidential conversations with other participants as a rare thing. They describe the peer
counseling room itself – though the room is indistinct from all of the other classrooms in the
upper school building - as a physical space where they could let down their guard and be
themselves, where they could express their feelings without fear of being judged. The safety they
reported stood in sharp contrast to their reports of the hallways and other school spaces of the
The safety seemed to be built upon a few key rules or values. Among these, the most
significant was an agreement to uphold the confidentiality of any personal disclosure made in the
context of the program. Over and over, that boys could expect their disclosures to be protected
from the routine teasing, hazing and ridicule of the broader school culture was seen as a key to
participants’ sense of safety:
Like, they actually don’t put anything there to prevent me from telling someone else if I
want to, but no one wants to. No one wants to risk what we have, say by telling
someone what happened in a demonstration, cause as soon as one kid does it, and people
find out that one person told, then no one is going to feel entirely comfortable opening up
because they know that it’s not staying in the room. (Gregory, 6th Former)
A second value, perhaps equally fundamental, validated the essential naturalness of boys
feeling and expressing emotions. Participants’ language as they described what it meant to
express themselves was instructive. They identified the supportive nature of the program as
giving them license to “be vulnerable,” to “speak out:”
I feel vulnerable sometimes and here I feel like I can actually speak. I’ve been able to
open up like everyone else has. I feel like I’m among friends and can speak out. And talk
about what issues I have. So, I can be vulnerable now, I can do that too. (Dexter, 5th
In effect, these two features – protection from public humiliation and normalized
emotionality - were unique to the program in the boys’ estimation, unlikely to be found in other
contexts of their lives. This participant describes how the safety of the peer counseling space
The fact that you can talk about anything that you need to in the confines of that, with
that confidentiality, I think makes it a safe place. Like this is not the place to judge
somebody else. Kind of like, put yourself in their shoes. And I think that’s especially
something that makes it a safe environment, like there’s no reaction like ‘Oh my God, I
can’t believe you did that!’ Or, you know, ‘I can’t believe you feel this way!’ It’s just
like, you know, ‘I understand what you’re going through.’ And maybe like, words of
encouragement. And I think that’s something you don’t find everywhere. And, for me,
that makes me feel like it’s a safe place. (Conor, 6th Former)
Another boy enthused about what he found himself able to do within the group, even with other
boys he did not know well:
And then, when you get there you kind of find out it’s a place where a bunch of guys in
an all-guys school can kind of shed off that stereotype that we’re supposed to be tough,
we’re supposed to be unemotional, we’re not supposed to be sensitive. And it can be two
random people from the school who never met each other before, and if it’s in peer
counseling they can just open up 100% to each other and that, in itself, is one of the
coolest things at the school. (Alan, 6th Former)
Boys referenced the rare nature of the opportunity afforded by the program, without
which – “as 18 year old males” - they would likely have no chance to express themselves:
I came into the program expecting for it to be a safe place and a place to really, you
know, express the things you can’t really express too often. And it’s definitely fulfilled
my expectations in every way. I mean, there aren’t a lot of people you can talk to when
you are an 18-year-old male. I just know that you can discuss them here. (Earl, 5 th
The safety created in the program was particularly precious in light of the many
emotional burdens participants carried – and that, until they found opportunity to share in the
context of peer counseling, they carried alone. Even among our relatively small sample, we were
struck by the weight of the stresses boys had endured. For example, one young man, whose
mother passed away a year an a half earlier, confiding that he had never previously spoken to
anyone about his loss described the relief he felt in finding an outlet for his experience:
I was raised with my Mom…and when she passed away, I had so much emotion. And I
didn’t want to talk about it, I don’t know why. It was just this thing that I thought people
didn’t need to know about my problems. There’s like so many things that I think about
that nobody knows, like people I see walking through the hallways won’t be able to tell
that I was upset about something. (Jimmy, 5th Former)
In peer counseling he could broach this highly personal subject, even discovering that his peer
counseling partner had also lost a parent. This other boy shared from his perspective:
I had a discussion yesterday with a kid who went through something similar to me where
my Dad died freshman year, and his Mom died his freshman year. And I’ve always
wanted to have a conversation about it, but yesterday we had a co-counseling session,
and we finally got to talk about it. It was extremely helpful both to him and to me.
(Gregory, 6th Former)
Boys spoke not just of their losses but also about other struggles, for example within their
families. In the following story, this young man described how sharing with others about his
struggles to deal with his family break-up was a skill that he had tested and practiced first within
the safety of the program, before he was able to take up the issue directly with his family:
It’s been a year since I left my Dad’s and he and I have a lot of stuff that we’re working
through, and it’s all getting better, but I think that in a large part because of peer
counseling I’ve been able to get better at talking with not only him but friends and my
Mom and siblings about the situation. Cause there are a lot of feelings and emotions
involved in the situation that I haven’t really felt before of this magnitude and really
didn’t know how to cope with. I would just get really upset and block everyone out. But
then it started progressing and I started to get more comfortable talking with people and
opening myself up to them. (Peter, 6th Former)
An additional theme shared among many boys and echoed in both qualitative and
quantitative dimensions of our research emphasized how free boys felt within the program to
invest themselves in their own relational skill development and emotional growth. Generally we
heard that participants used the safety, encouragement and relationships of the program to
transcend the emotional restrictions of the more general masculine culture and to try out new
approaches and skills, both in and out of school. And we heard how motivated boys were to
improve their skills in their emotional lives – often because doing so left them feeling and
When asked in interviews how they might have “changed” as a result of their
involvement in peer counseling, students replied along the lines of: “More emotionally
articulate and able to say how I feel and just ‘feel it’” (Alan, 6th Former). They clarified the
conditions necessary to allow an emotion to register and, similarly, for being “more open” to
express those emotions with other individuals in their lives. Boys believed that after being in the
program they were better able to identify an emotion, put it into language and communicate with
others about it, as well as to “feel it” themselves. By contrast with the all too common state of
male inexperience and emotional illiteracy, they explained that the practice they had with
emotional communication helped them to develop greater facility with speaking of their
emotions and identifying their feelings. They knew better what emotion they were feeling (e.g.
sadness, anger, joy, etc.) and were able to resist suppressing their awareness of it.
Before peer counseling, as this boy indicates, participants professed a general
disinclination to acknowledge and express emotions:
Before, I couldn’t really explain my emotions or ideas or identify what they were when I
was feeling them. So by coming to peer counseling I think it really helped me be able to
embrace my emotions and use them to my advantage when trying to solve a problem I
was experiencing. (Jimmy, 5th Former)
Actually, it was not that they did not feel – many could recognize when they were feeling badly,
but had developed coping strategies that did not involve sharing or communicating with others.
Basically, before peer counseling when I would get angry or sad or something I would
just isolate myself in my room and not want to talk to anyone. But since I came to peer
counseling it showed that when you talk to someone it helps you feel a lot better. I
remember I was talking to my friend when I broke up with my girlfriend and, like,
normally in that situation I would just shut myself up in my room, but thinking back to
peer counseling I realized that as you talk about it things will get better. So I decided to
speak to my friend about it. And it really helped me recover emotionally and just made
me feel better. (Peter, 6th Former)
Once they experienced the encouragement of peer counseling, students typically agreed
with statements like this boy’s: “I’m able to talk more and be more open. And more free about
things. So, I think that peer counseling has helped me out in that aspect” (Earl, 5th Former). Or
this student’s: “You know, it’s kind of a relief. As opposed to, before that, it was kind of me
against the world” (Conor, 6th Former).
Participants were often quite explicit about their motives for coming into the program –
they wanted the personal development they sensed might be possible within the program. It
seemed that even where they had had little opportunity to explore their emotional lives, many
recognized these skills as important and wished for a chance to develop them: “I thought that it
would help me understand myself and like, help with problems I have. Or sometimes I just feel
frustrated.” (Daniel, 5th Former). Many boys simply wanted the relief that follows getting “stuff
off your chests:” “I was told it was a place where you can just like get stuff off your chest that’s
bothering you. And I have definitely been feeling like more relieved and relaxed.” (Dexter, 5th
Former). Over and over, participants who had invested time in the program reported that they felt
that it helped them to feel better: “Yeah, afterwards I leave feeling much better, much happier”
(Peter, 6th Former). Or, as this boy put it: “Afterwards, I guess, I feel better about myself. And
when you get stuff off your chest it makes me feel a lot better” (Daniel, 5th Former). For some,
the benefit was not just feeling better but also having greater self-control:
But I definitely think the most important thing is not like having everything so bottled up.
You get everything off your chest like once every two weeks instead of having things
kind of build up over a couple of months and then all of a sudden just totally snap at
something small. (Alan, 6th Former)
Even boys who were wedded to a more traditional view of masculinity and emotions seem to
develop a more nuanced view of their emotional lives:
Before peer counseling I saw people opening up to each other as whining, sort of, and
like, ‘You don’t need to tell me this.’ But now, I’m like, after doing it myself I feel like
people opening up, they really have to do it. They really have to. It’s not just whining, it’s
really helped me. (Alan, 6th Former)
What they were learning to do for themselves and with each other found application in
other relationship contexts as well. Many reported that sharing “real things” within close
connections helped to deepen relationships across the board – with brothers and sisters, parents,
friends. Speaking of his close female friend, this young man could see practical benefits to a
greater emotional capacity:
We’re really close and we share a lot of things. But I just [want to be] able to
actually tell her something ‘real’ for once. She’s told me quite a few things.
Sharing back with her, I think that’s something that peer counseling has taught me.
(Conor, 6th Former)
In this case, “real” seems to refer to an honest identification and communication of vulnerable
In addition to their new openness to emotions and relative comfort with emotional topics,
interviewees reported that listening was an important skill that they developed, one that they
found useful both in and outside of the group. The boys practiced a receptive presence with
others in the program and put this skill into play well beyond. In doing so, many discovered that
their sense of connection deepened:
I think a lot of it is just hearing from other people, what they are going through, and
realizing that we are all going through very similar things. We all have friends who are
having problems. We are all having problems too. And that, I think it’s just good to hear
other people share things like that sometimes. (Jimmy, 5th Former)
As they listened, students discovered commonalities with others. The realization that “we are all
having problems too” reinforced their sense of interdependence:
Sometimes, I just need to sit back, I just need to give that person their space to talk and I
need to, you know, show them that, I do care. And that, I understand that this is about
them and this is something that they need. And that’s not something that I would
necessarily do before. So, that to me, yeah, that definitely has changed. (Alan, 6th Former)
Boys reported that they developed a greater capacity to listen even when what people were
sharing made them uncomfortable. This student, for example, noticed how much better he could
treat his younger sister, reflecting on his usual dismissal of her concerns as “a teenage girl
A little while ago my sister was talking about, she was having a teenage girl thing.
Talking about guys and that kind of thing. And, I didn’t necessarily want to hear
everything that I heard, but it [peer counseling] helped me listen a lot better. I would’ve
been like, alright that’s not really what, let’s stop talking about this, but I guess since I’ve
been in peer counseling I kind of learned to be quiet and let her say her thing. (Peter, 6 th
Another participant registered the same self-improvement, reflected also in better interactions
within his family:
It’s better to listen rather than put your input in, so I’m doing that a little more with my
family, especially with my Dad. Because when he used to talk, I would just ignore him or
I used to talk back or do things like that. But now, when he talks I just listen. Like, I don’t
really say much. It kind of helps. And now, I’m getting a better relationship with him -
able to talk and joke around and do certain things now that I wasn’t able to do. (Earl, 5 th
Where most all participants agreed that the skills and perspectives they cultivated in the
program improved relationships across the board, in a more particular way they described the
impact on relationships with other males in their lives, deepening their friendships and their
intimacy. This boy explained how he had been attracted to the program by a wrestling team
captain, who described how his school friendships had improved:
My sophomore year I was actually asked by one of the senior captains from wrestling to
come join and he said it really helped him. Like on a friendship basis, because a lot of his
friends were in it. And it gave them a different level, like a deeper, I guess, type of
friendship. (Peter, 6th Former)
This young man shared a similar perspective, offering his sense of how relationships within the
group were strengthened: “When I open up with friends inside the group and when they open up
to me, I feel like we are better friends because of it and it makes me more comfortable with
them” (Gregory, 6th Former).
Sharing with each other, boys experience greater “companionship,” transcending a more
normative male “isolation:”
It definitely helped with feelings of isolation. When you think or look at your friends and
you don’t think that any of them has this issue and when some one opens up to you…you
do feel this sense of companionship, you feel like there’s someone there with you. And
yeah, it really just helps make you feel like you’re not alone, you have someone there.
(Daniel, 5th Former)
Boys discover deeper “bonds” between themselves and others in the group, as they learned to
trust and to open up to each other.
It’s kind of helped me to realize…that there’s a group of guys willing to talk to you about
anything. And I think that that’s like a great tool, to basically feel like I opened up more
to different people that I thought I never would…It kind of forms this, it’s weird, it kind
of forms this, like, bond. That you never had before. (Conor, 6th Former)
Some boys used the safety of the group to stretch themselves with other participants,
deliberately practicing the skill of making new friends:
Now every week when I come back, it’s become my expectation to be able to talk to new
people I never really thought I would be friends with or talk to or share my feelings with.
That’s actually one of the things I like most. (Jimmy, 5th Former)
This boy explained how the relationships within the group helped him to extend his friendships
outside of the group:
I think it has helped me with my relationships because when I come to peer counseling I
realize I can trust one of my peers that I’m not really friends with and I can tell them
problems that have been bothering me for months. It makes me see the amount of trust I
have within my close friendships and my family and girlfriend and it makes me take
advantage of that and realize that it was there the whole time. (Peter, 6th Former)
In moving stories, some boys applied the skills and perspectives to their most sensitive
relationships. This boy, who had experienced a rupture in the relationship with his father,
illustrated how some participants were newly empowered to address relationships that might
previously have been “never really close:”
My Dad moved away a month ago for his job and it’s been really hard on my family
because we haven’t been away from him that long. I’ve never been really close to my
dad, in the sense that I can’t talk to him on an emotional level. But the first night he was
away, we were video chatting, he just spontaneously started crying and just started saying
how much he missed us and how much he wanted to be back home. And, it was sort of
really hard on me and my family. Instead of taking some time to let him settle himself…
we sort of stayed together and talked it out. And, he explained to me how missing us
made him feel, how he felt guilty taking the job. He felt that he was taking a job over his
family. But, I explained to him that that wasn’t the case. If I hadn’t known that listening
could have such a great affect on it. I would’ve jumped in and said, ‘It’s ok, don’t worry,
I miss you too, You’ll be back home sooner than you think.’ I [just] really let him talk it
out. And, that helped a lot. (Alan, 6th Former)
Another participant, asked in a focus group interview how peer counseling might have affected
his relationships, told the following story about his brother:
I guess, well really one of the biggest things would be, I’ve been talking more with my
brother recently. Cause, we didn’t really ever talk that much. We’re never at schools at
the same time. We’ve always gone to the same schools, but always switched right as the
other one got there. Or something like that. I think, now that he’s moving off into the real
world and graduating college, and I’m about to go off to college hopefully, but I guess,
building up a bridge between us before it could’ve been lost for good, long time.
(Gregory, 6th Former)
When asked how he was building that bridge with his brother, he replied:
Just giving him a phone call out of the blue every once in awhile, and just talking, I
guess about, talking about my parents, talking about different ways of getting around,
getting in trouble, and stuff like that, how to deal with different moods, that kind of
advice, given to each other. I guess he’s on me for certain things and I yell back at him
for doing the same things that’s he’s telling me not to do. But, I think it’s really, It’s been
a good experience. (Gregory, 6th Former)
Survey results built upon focus group, interview and observation data and showed growth
in “presence in relationships” (Chu & Way, 2009) among most program participants from the
start to the end of the school year. Although not significant at the p.05 level, this positive trend
provides additional evidence of a beneficial relationship between “length in program” and
overall “presence in relationships.” Survey findings also showed differences between 1 st and 2nd
Year participants across key factors on the PIRS, offering additional evidence for a positive
relationship between participation and the development of Presence (See Table I):
Table I: Examples of Results for 1st and 2nd year Participants
Connection to Self
Q7. I have a very hard time figuring out how I feel.
Year in Program Fall (Time 1) Spring (Time 2)
1st Years Mean: 3.00 (Disagree) SD: .613 Mean: 4.00 (Strongly Disagree) SD: .603
2nd Years Mean: 4.00 (Strongly Disagree) SD: .516 Mean: 4.00 (Strongly Disagree) SD: .503
Q13. I have a very hard time figuring out what I think.
Year in Program Fall (Time 1) Spring (Time 2)
1st Years Mean: 3.00 (Disagree) SD: .632 Mean: 3.50* (Strongly Disagree) SD: .611
2nd Years Mean: 4.00 (Strongly Disagree) SD: .521 Mean: 4.00 (Strongly Disagree) SD: .483
Connection to Others
Q10. My friends know what I’m really like.
Year in Program Fall (Time 1) Spring (Time 2)
1st Years Mean: 2.00 (Agree) SD: .516 Mean: 1.50* (Strongly Agree) SD: .467
2nd Years Mean: 1.50* (Strongly Agree) SD: .518 Mean: 1.00 (Strongly Agree) SD: .501
Q18. My friends like me for who I am.
Year in Program Fall (Time 1) Spring (Time 2)
1st Years Mean: 1.50* (Strongly Agree) SD: .522 Mean: 1.00 (Strongly Agree) SD: .436
2nd Years Mean: 1.50* (Strongly Agree) SD: .527 Mean: 1.50* (Strongly Disagree) SD: .516
Resistant to Norms of Masculinity
Q9. I try very hard to be like my friends.
Year in Program Fall (Time 1) Spring (Time 2)
1st Years Mean: 3.00 (Disagree) SD: .539 Mean: 3.50* (Strongly Disagree) SD: .522
2nd Years Mean: 3.00 (Disagree) SD: .577 Mean: 4.00 (Strongly Disagree) SD: .568
Q15. I am very careful not to say or do anything around my friends that might make them tease me.
Year in Program Fall (Time 1) Spring (Time 2)
1st Years Mean: 3.00 (Disagree) SD: .701 Mean: 3.50* (Strongly Disagree) SD: .532
2nd Years Mean: 3.00 (Disagree) SD: .471 Mean: 3.50* (Strongly Disagree) SD: .412
Q29. I worry that my friends will not like me if I don’t act like them.
Year in Program Fall (Time 1) Spring (Time 2)
1st Years Mean: 3.00 (Disagree) SD: .522 Mean: 3.50* (Strongly Disagree) SD: .501
2nd Years Mean: 4.00 (Strongly Disagree) SD: .516 Mean: 4.00 (Strongly Disagree) SD: .512
*Average scores (Mean) between response items were assigned the proceeding response.
Emotional Development Programs for Boys
Our data suggest that a school-based program to provide boys with opportunities to
practice skills of emotional literacy and expressiveness can have positive effects. What the
construct of “presence” in relationships connotes - “to be self-aware, sensitive and responsive to
others, and genuinely engaged within their relationships” (Chu & Way, 2009, p. 55) - is reflected
both in our survey results and in participants’ comments about skills and perspectives they
developed from their participation in the peer counseling program. More than this, boys
suggested that the combination of peer and school support, safety, practice and skill development
enabled them to resist cultural norms for male competition and emotional inexpressiveness, to
claim very different identities for themselves. With deeper friendships, greater self-awareness
and more confident relational skills, they claimed the freedom to be vulnerable, to grow and to
care differently for others.
What does it matter that boys enjoy the sort of friendships with other males – even at 17-
18 years old – in which they can “be themselves”? Research from a variety of sources indicates
that opportunities for connection and intimacy are key to boys’ overall resilience. In a study of
adolescent boys in a school, Judy Chu spent a year following and interviewing her subjects.
Among her findings was the observation that some boys were better able to resist over-
conformity to prescriptive norms than others and that “one’s potential to resist other people’s
views and thereby sustain, or even strengthen, one’s own sense of self” was “crucially
influenced” by access to relationships in which they can be “truly seen and known” and can “feel
supported as they resist “pressures to conform” (Chu, 2004, p. 100-101).
Other researchers have found that “being yourself” can be highly motivating for many
different kinds of boys (Kehler & Martino, 2007). In a series of interesting studies of boys in
schools, Martino (2000), Martino & Meyenn (2001), Kehler & Martino (2007) and Kehler, et al.
(2005) described boys’ expressed hope for lives less constricted by masculine norms. For
example, in their ethnographic study of “footballers” and other popular boys in Canada, Kehler
and Martino (2007) found that those boys who separated themselves from masculine conventions
were motivated by a desire for “less domination of their hearts.” As the authors wrote: “Their
willingness to critique the norms…needs to be understood as driven by a desire to search for
better alternatives of self-expression which, they believed, would lead to enhancing their lives
and relationships with other people (p. 107).”
The developmental psychologist, Niobe Way, has done longitudinal work on this subject,
recently completing a 15-year study of adolescent males (2010; 2011). In an article based upon
this work, she shared the finding that boys from all backgrounds actually yearn for intimacy in
their male relationships:
Boys who had been portrayed in popular culture as more interested in shooting each other
than in sharing their thoughts and feelings spoke to us about male friendships that ‘you
feel lost without’, about ‘deep depth’ friendships, and about wanting friends with whom
you ‘share your secrets’, ‘tell everything’, and ‘get inside’ (2004, p. 182).
Moreover, she found that in their friendships boys, sharing feelings and emotions defined their
experience of trust and intimacy with each other. Subjects in her studies were quite clear that
they needed the opportunities afforded by these relationships - to ‘be themselves’, to seek
understanding and to disclose their hearts – to the point that conventional thinking about boys
and emotions was effectively challenged:
When one listens closely, one hears the ways in which boys offer empirical proof for the
recent paradigm shift occurring among natural and social scientists who argue…that what
makes us human is our empathic, intersubjective and deeply social capacities – our
capacity, in other words, to have emotionally intimate relationships. The boys in my
studies…reveal that empathy and having and wanting intimate relationships is not simply
a female or gay story but a deeply human story (2011, p. 36).
In our research at this single school, the reports of the boys in the peer counseling
program were quite clear on the fact that, absent a school context offering some alternative to the
punishing norms of normative masculinity, they were unlikely to have found their way to
themselves and to each other as fully. Other research, including a study of a program that also
used a peer counseling approach with urban boys (Reichert, et al., 2006), suggests how critical
contexts for boys’ development can be for encouraging their imaginative resistance to masculine
norms: “As boys construct selves from social experience, the ideas and ideals circulating in the
culture, the possibilities afforded by this experience significantly influence the selves they can
imagine and construct (Reichert & Ravitch, 2009, p. 35). Way also emphasized that cultural
context mediated the degree to which boys could find room to express themselves and to resist
restrictive conventions: “Communities that emphasize interdependency may produce adolescent
boys who are able to freely discuss their ways of relying on each other (2004, p. 188).”
Many school programs, created with equally good intentions, commonly fail to mobilize
the sort of enthusiasm and buy-in this program achieved, suggesting some limitations in this sort
of piecemeal, reformist approach. What perhaps best explains the positive results for this
particular program is the fortuitous alignment of its goals with boys’ fundamental fight for their
own humanity. Like Chu, Way, Martino and Kehler, we found that helping boys to create “a
place to be myself” engaged their willingness to contest, take risks and build something new
reflecting their human desires. In this sense, the program supported boys resistance – both
individually but also collectively. But did the program really upend or otherwise undermine the
dominance of the traditional masculine identity in the school?
Certainly among participants, a new discourse became possible – about caring for each
other, sharing personal struggles with each other, and so forth. And we did hear of ripples
spreading out from the group to other students and student groups. Perhaps it is most fair to say
that in claiming public space for alternative masculinities, the school created openings,
challenging the completeness of traditional masculine norms’ hold on boys’ imaginations and
their overall hegemony within the community. Certainly it must also be acknowledged that this
historic curriculum is well-embedded in the practice and discourses of this and every other
school community. However the particular boys in the program may have been permitted a
glimpse of an alternative way of being male and may even have extended this view to others in
their lives, the program still represented more an emotional ghetto than a sweeping reform of the
school itself. There is much more we must do to interrupt the intergenerational transmission of
man-making, to help boys be boys: young, male human beings.
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