Book Reviews: Advice for Anxious Fathers of 21st-Century Sons

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), June 21, 2020 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews: Advice for Anxious Fathers of 21st-Century Sons


Byline: Mark Athitakis The Washington Post

"Boys & Sex" by Peggy Orenstein (Harper)

"Gay Like Me" by Richie Jackson (Harper)

"Raising Boys to Be Good Men" by Aaron Gouveia (Skyhorse)

Books about how to raise sons come packaged with a few assumptions. Chief among them is that dads are, at best, semi-prepared for the job. The presumed father isn't neglectful -- he's just fearful, even terrified, of the kinds of conversations the books demand. Responsible fatherhood in 2020 means open discussions about porn, relationships and toxic masculinity. Some of those discussions need to happen distressingly early. I'd be lying if I said these assumptions were misplaced. I grew up in an old-world immigrant household where the closest thing I got to The Talk was my father saying, "They learn that in school." (True, in a way.) I check in on my 9-year-old son's browser history with the same trepidation I've felt before entering a crawl space.

This concern puts authors of books on how to be a good dad in a bind. They want to deliver meaningful information to a tentative reader without coming off as condescending. In "Raising Boys to Be Good Men," Aaron Gouveia attempts to square this circle by presenting himself as a relatable bro who's acquired some high-profile good-dad bona fides. His sensitivity to matters of consent and misogyny are hard-earned after a youth of macho preening and homophobic slurs. He recalls with shame the brickbats he received after writing an essay defending old-fashioned chivalric gestures such as holding doors open for women. He was briefly in the national spotlight last year for a tweetstorm defending his kindergarten-age son after he was bullied at school for his colorfully polished nails.

Gouveia possesses no professional pediatric credentials, but he's an engaging guide whose writing is informed by honest mistakes, solid research and social media flare-ups. Still, he sometimes delivers his advice with an intensity so earnest it borders on self-parody. At one point, he recalls the time his wife came home with a onesie reading "Mommy's Little Stud," which sets off a tirade about how girls' garments celebrate cupcakes and shopping while boys' highlight physicality and unchecked libido. "Sure, it's a onesie," he writes, "but small things add up, and every time we buy into this gendered b.s., we perpetuate the problem and further set ourselves up for failure." (Gouveia's book is larded with vulgar language, as if Quentin Tarantino had adapted a Dr. Spock manual. One chapter is titled "The B.S. Starts Before the Birth.")

But for all of his posturing, and the occasional moment when he seems determined to browbeat you into raising the wokest boy in creation, Gouveia approaches his subject with honesty and concern for the dad as much as the son. Fatherhood, he notes, doesn't just involve teaching sons about the tripwires of misogynistic language and behavior. It also demands that dads do some work on themselves -- to think about how they approach matters of platonic touching, about taking parental leave and about how they cooperate with moms to set expectations and split up parental duties around the house. And do that work constantly: "Actively combating toxic masculinity is a daily practice, not a single one-time event that happened in your past," he writes.

Though not as directly prescriptive as Gouveia's book, Peggy Orenstein's best-selling "Boys & Sex" operates from a similar sense that shortcomings in the way boys are being raised today have troubling consequences. …

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