The Fragile Sex : By All Accounts Boys Are in Trouble. They’re Clogging the Court System and Increasingly, They’ve Been Found to Have Emotional and Learning Problems. But, Researchers Ask, Have Boys Changed or Have Our Standards?
With straight brown hair, blue eyes and a broad smile, Ryan Arnold had always been able to clunk into a room wearing huge sneakers and a floppy T-shirt and charm almost anyone. But last year when he turned 12, his temperament shifted. His grades plummeted, he started smoking and he took long bike trips along the railroad tracks, past the old factories and warehouses in Martinez, a small town near Walnut Creek.
Patricia Arnold, who had chosen to rear him alone, was shocked. “He had always been my little buddy; so good,” she recalls. “I had a 20-year plan in mind for how his life would go and this kind of behavior wasn’t in the blueprint. I was scared of him.”
It didn’t take long for Ryan’s teachers to suggest that he might be emotionally disturbed. His grandfather offered to pay for anything that might straighten the boy out: doctors, medicine, even a psychiatric group home. “We knew there was something seriously wrong with him,” says Arnold. “I wanted an explanation, a diagnosis, and I became passionate about finding one.”
A psychologist found to have mild emotional and learning difficulties. He became one of an increasing number of American boys--more than 1.7 million in all--who have been declared emotionally disturbed or educationally disabled. This is a particularly male problem, and just one aspect of a crisis that frightens parents and anyone else who deals with boys. Emotionally disturbed boys outnumber girls nearly 4 to 1. For learning disabilities, the ratio is more than 2 to 1. Boys clog the court system, fill juvenile detention centers and threaten public safety. Juvenile arrests for violent crimes--which almost always involve males--increased by 50% between 1987 and 1991. The murder rate for teens--victims are almost all male--is up 104% from 20 years ago, and last year, nearly 7,000 boys between ages 15 and 24 were killed. The American boy has become so frightening that many states are moving to lower the age when criminal defendants can be tried as adults.
Experts across the nation are struggling to explain what is happening. In a spate of new books, they offer competing explanations--from absent fathers to the evils of technology--to account for the troubled state of American boys. Altogether, the research suggests that today’s boys--deeply distressed and tragically misunderstood--may be victims of their own biology and society’s confusion about masculinity.
“This is a complex issue because there are several things going on that are all true,” says Dr. Judith Rapoport, chief of the child psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health. Rapoport uses magnetic resonance imaging to map the brains of developing children and hunt for neurological factors that make boys different from girls. The MRIs can show brain damage, differences in the size of parts of the brain and even differences in the neurological connections called synapses. Based on what is known, Rapoport says, “it’s clear that boys’ brains may be more vulnerable, and they do get these (psychiatric) diseases more often.”
Biology’s influence may be significant, but Rapoport also suspects there’s a strong social component to the troubled-boy phenomenon. Sometimes a boy like Ryan Arnold isn’t sick. Sometimes he is just going through a difficult adolescence at a time when society looks askance at all male aggression. “We have to ask if society is more intolerant about males and more ready to label them as medical cases,” says Rapoport. It is possible, she adds, that aggression and other masculine traits--including many that were once admired--have been so “pathologized” that today Tom Sawyer would be labeled as disturbed.
Our changing attitude toward boys can be seen in the way young males are portrayed in the media and discussed in everyday conversation. Bad men and boys are increasingly the staples of television talk shows. And, of course, the news is full of male rapists and murderers. Boys are portrayed as the drug pushers in public service announcements. They are the danger lurking on city streets. Even the simple phrase “boys will be boys” carries a more ominous meaning now since it’s the title of a recent book about male violence. All this evidence suggests that, to some degree, society believes that boys are, by definition, bad. In some cases, when the experts send boys to treatment and special education, they may be acting out of fear and anti-boy prejudice.
“Males are now regarded as ‘The Problem’ and people look at boys as if their masculinity is something to be cured, or overcome,” says David Blankenhorn, author of “Fatherless America,” which will be published next year by Basic Books, and president of the private Institute for American Values of New York, which conducts research and analysis of family issues. He argues that many boys are being victimized by adult standards that are heavily freighted with feminist politics. “This is especially true in schools,” he adds. “Schools are institutions run by women in which women and girls are seen as disadvantaged and boys are seen as a toxic problem. In school, the goal of getting girls to achieve is wonderful. The goal for boys is making them behave.”
While some boys are no doubt misunderstood, it is clear that a great number are truly troubled. One measure of this distress is that juvenile suicide, always more common among boys, peaked in 1977, and the rate is still more than three times the rate it was in 1960. Boys are the subject of broad research by social scientists looking at the ways that parents, schools and other institutions may be failing them. In the meantime, hard science has begun to focus on the difference in male and female brains. Once a neglected area, the comparative study of the brain has been energized by new technology and a cadre of scientists willing to say that sex differences are real. Some researchers are so impressed by what they are learning that they suggest it may be biologically impossible for many boys to meet the modern standard of behavior. In such cases, they say, boys may be penalized simply for being boys.
Research scientist Laura Allen begins her study of the brain in autopsy labs at hospitals throughout Southern California. A UCLA neuroanatomist, she collects brain tissue samples from cadavers and returns to her lab to continue her studies on gender differences. During the past decade, Allen has contributed substantially to a growing body of knowledge about brain function. “It used to be accepted that men and women process information the same way. We now know that is not true,” she says. “The entire brain is different at a very subtle level, at least.”
In the 1980s, Allen’s research confirmed that a critical part of the brain responsible for passing information from one hemisphere to the other--the corpus callosum--is larger in females. Two other parts of the brain that perform a similar function, she discovered, are also larger in women. Other researchers have shown that boys’ brains mature more slowly, especially the frontal lobes, which handle many social and cognitive functions. Scientists generally agree that high levels of the male hormone testosterone, which are necessary to transform a fetus into a boy, are causing this difference.
Allen’s colleague, neuroendocrinologist Roger Gorski, has pioneered research showing how hormones affect mammalian brains, especially the parts that control sexual activity. Gorski has used hormone injections to induce female rats to behave like rutting males, and to make males behave like receptive females in heat. In normal rats, natural levels of male and female hormones create substantial structural differences in the part of the brain that controls sexual behavior. “Since sex and aggression are very, very close,” notes Gorski, “these differences may have an impact beyond sex.”
The effect of biology on intellectual functioning has been widely noted. Several studies have shown that scores on certain tests of mental abilities go up and down depending on the levels of hormones in a subject’s body. Likewise, little girls with elevated testosterone levels are more likely to choose the toys that boys prefer: sports cars, trucks and Lincoln Logs. But the differences extend beyond hormones to the actual functioning of the brain. Scientists have discovered, for example, that women use more of their brain in the task of spelling than men.
The research, and her own experience with her son and daughter, have convinced Allen that biology is perhaps the central factor in the problems of boys. “I have a little boy in kindergarten,” she says. “My son is a good little boy, but he cannot be expected to be just like a well-behaved little girl. Boys need parents to be a lot more understanding.”
Allen is not alone in her assessment. Laboratories across the country are uncovering neurological clues to boys’ behavior problems. These discoveries suggest that some boys are not to blame if they cannot meet our rising expectations of civility. “We actually know quite a bit about the brain and these behavioral disturbances,” says neuropsychologist Ruben Gur, who leads a brain study team at the University of Pennsylvania. “Anyone in science who doesn’t know this must be sleeping.”
For example, psychologists and educators have long known that girls excel at communication and social skills. Boys have been observed to be more aggressive and physical. Girls tend to be more cooperative and reflective. Many parents would likely agree with these generalities. Now there’s emerging evidence that the stereotypical behavior is caused by differences in the brain, differences that Gur and others have documented with magnetic resonance imaging.
The MRI pictures and post-mortem studies show some intriguing variations. Females seem to have more gray matter, the active brain cells that perform thinking. The rate of blood flow in the female brain is faster, adds Gur, and the electrical activity in women’s brains also seems to be faster. Also, males tend to activate both sides of their brain for a given type of problem, he says, while females tend to be “lateralized” thinkers, restricting activity to one side or the other. “Stated simply,” says Gur, “women run hotter and are more revved-up.” He theorizes that this extra activity makes it easier for women to score high on tests of communication and social skills. Women, for example, are much better at identifying the emotions a person shows in a photograph. Men, with their ability to concentrate activity in one side of the brain, dominate fields such as mathematics, which require this kind of thinking. “It’s all in the way we are wired,” Gur says.
Different wiring may also explain why boys are far more likely to have learning and behavior problems. It turns out that baby boys are more vulnerable to minor brain damage--during birth or because of later injury--than girls. Scientists guess that this is because higher levels of testosterone make the male brain less resilient. Testosterone may also delay the development of certain spheres of the brain critical to social skills and communication. If these areas are injured, boys are less able to heal or adapt.
It may be these tiny injuries that cause the most common brain disorder found in boys--Attention Deficit Disorder, which can manifest itself in the form of failure at school, aggression and even criminal behavior. “A child like this becomes frustrated, associates learning with failure and becomes aggressive,” Gur says. “They are not simply bad boys. It’s not that easy. They might have ADD and act out in frustration.”
The diagnosis of ADD (formerly called hyperactivity) involves as much art as science. Doctors and therapists tend to look for a variety of behavior problems, among them fidgeting, distraction, impulsiveness and excessive talking. All can get a boy into a lot of trouble at school. But they don’t necessarily mean that he is emotionally disturbed or a social deviant. In fact, the act of labeling a child disturbed or disabled may do more harm than good.
“These kids are identified as problems in most schools often by the second grade,” notes psychiatrist John Ratey, who is also a Harvard assistant professor of psychiatry. “This happens quickly because schools today emphasize cooperative learning and social skills. But these kids can’t do it. They are identified as a problem and then everybody treats them differently. Teachers aren’t the same with the kids who aren’t so nice. Parents with children in these schools try to avoid having their kids placed in the same classroom.” Often, these seemingly unruly children are reprimanded, counseled and punished. Their trouble may be linked to a male tendency toward ADD and other brain-based problems. If it is ADD, the stimulant Ritalin may be enough to quiet a boy down and keep him on track in school. Teachers and school administrators are often the first to recommend Ritalin, and some districts have even gone to court to argue that a child be given the medicine by his parents. Sometimes children are treated with talking therapy, other stimulants, or anti-depressive drugs.
In the past few years, as scientific findings about brain development and gender have reached a wider audience, more and more children are being treated, notes Ratey. He ought to know. As author of “Driven to Distraction,” a widely praised new book on attention deficit, Ratey has helped put ADD in the vernacular. “ADD has become the diagnosis of the decade,” he says. “It’s the Prozac of the ‘90s; everybody’s interested in it.” Ratey and other specialists report a growing number of children and adults coming to them for treatment--drugs and/or psychotherapy--and finding relief after years of struggling with problems apparently caused by undiagnosed ADD. Though Ritalin is not without side effects (those include loss of appetite, sleep disturbances and reports of slowed growth rates when used for long periods), it’s been widely embraced by parents and counselors. One measure of its popularity: the U.S. drug industry’s production of Ritalin has risen 300% since 1990.
Yet Ratey suspects that many cases of ADD are still undiagnosed and many boys misunderstood. “ADD is not the only cause of boys’ problems,” he adds, “but it’s a very important factor, and once it’s diagnosed and treated, the change can be dramatic.”
The diagnosis of a mild attention deficit for Ryan Arnold was not severe enough to merit drug therapy. Instead, he was counseled for one hour each week, and his mother established a more ordered routine at home. A few months later, Ryan’s school performance improved. But he remains aggressive, unpredictable and fidgety.
In Martinez, on a Sunday afternoon when he would rather be outside with his friends, Ryan is more than a little impatient when his mother invites him to sit and chat. He arrives in the room pushing his trail bike and dressed in baggy blue striped shorts and a huge gray T-shirt. He leans the bike against a wall and looks out the window at the street before sitting down and squirming in his chair.
“Excuse me, sir. I don’t mean to be rude. But is this going to take long?”
Ryan struggles through a few minutes of conversation. In one breath he angrily criticizes a therapist he has seen.
“I hate Don,” he says. His mother cuts him off with an urgently whispered “Ryan!”
A moment later, Ryan offers to massage his mother’s sore neck. He recalls enjoying school until fourth grade, when he began to feel bored and restless. “Right now baseball is my life. My teachers say they don’t understand me. I don’t know why they are baffled. I’m just trying to be myself. Can I go now?”
When Ryan again looks anxiously out the window, his mother dismisses him so that he can join a friend waiting on the sidewalk. After he’s gone, Patricia Arnold says she does not believe that ADD is the real cause of her son’s troubles. One of Ryan’s therapists, Don Elium, has suggested that the boy suffers from a lack of firm guidance and male role models. Boys need to be around men who can show them how to contain and control their naturally aggressive impulses, says Elium. This makes sense to Arnold, who first learned about this theory in Elium’s book, “Raising a Son.” Elium, a marriage, child and family counselor, teaches psychology at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda, near Oakland.
Elium would say it’s not only difficult but also dangerous for a boy to be raised outside the company of men. However, with single-mother households increasing and divorce splitting half of all marriages, legions of boys are coming of age today without a constant male role model. At the same time, boyish behavior that was once considered normal--aggression, defiance, mischievousness, risk-taking--is gradually being redefined as pathological. If boys are in trouble, says Elium, it’s because too many men have abandoned their sons, and adults in general are failing to help boys meet a social standard that requires them to be more cooperative.
“Many women, feminists especially, are afraid that masculinity will run wild and become life-threatening,” adds Jeanne Elium, Elium’s wife and co-author of “Raising a Son.” “Many mothers are afraid of the aggressiveness in boys. Our son began staring me down when he was about 3 years old. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what do I do now?’ I didn’t understand him.”
The Eliums believe that many mothers and teachers don’t understand the natural assertiveness in boys. However, they are often responsible for teaching them to be more sensitive and considerate. This is necessary, so that boys can be successful, but this civilizing process must be done with great care. Too often, they say, boys are made to feel inferior or even disturbed. This notion that males are bad is reinforced by a stream of feminist thought that argues that women are natural peacemakers while male aggression--in the form of patriarchy--is the main source of war, pollution, poverty, virtually every kind of suffering in the world.
“Good feminism helps boys with feelings and relationships, but harsh views about boys being awful creatures and jokes about testosterone poisoning hurt rather than help,” argues Priscilla Vail, a New York educator and author of books on child development. “Bad feminism has eroded our willingness to respect differences in males and females. Boys do need something different than girls. And if we start diagnosing every boy who throws a rock through the window, we’re in trouble.”
“Boys take apart things, they crash around a room, they seem more out of control,” says Don Elium. The Eliums prize the energy of boys who may seem overly rambunctious. They describe that energy as a natural, exciting and potentially creative force. The problem is, “boys are often made to feel ashamed that they can’t act more like girls, ashamed of being boys,” says Don Elium. “But if you try to kill these impulses rather than mold them, you create boys that are either murderous or suicidal.”
He suggests that boys be given more outlets for their impulses. In school this might mean longer recesses, to let boys burn off steam. Teachers must also understand the difficulties boys have with such tasks as reading, sitting still and working cooperatively. Some teachers do try to accommodate boys, for instance, by touching them often to calm them down, or letting a hyperactive boy stand in the back of a classroom when he can no longer sit still. At home, Elium hopes that fathers will play a stronger role in their sons’ lives, showing them that male assertiveness doesn’t have to devolve into brutish behavior. Single mothers can also help their sons with this task. But the key, according to the Eliums, is found in male role models.
The vision of a world in which boys have access to the time and attention of male role models is appealing, yet, say some critics, it’s fraught with real-world complexities that make it practically impossible to realize. “There are not a lot of wonderful men out there,” says New York family therapist Olga Silverstein, “and the fact is, a lot of women have to raise sons alone. They have no choice. To say they must have men to help is ridiculous.”
Silverstein helped bring feminist concepts to the family therapy movement in the ‘70s, and according to the theories she puts forward in her book “The Courage to Raise Good Men,” with the disappearance of men from their lives, boys need more attention from their mothers. “Mothers have abandoned their sons because they think they can’t raise them well, or they will turn them into sissies if they maintain a close relationship. But if mothers pull away, then who is the boy left with? No one. He raises himself, and we are seeing the results.”
Boys get into trouble mainly because they don’t know how to relate to other people, argues Silverstein. Mothers who want to create strong and self-sufficient sons fail to become attached to them in an emotional relationship that teaches them empathy for other human beings. Without empathy, says Silverstein, “we wind up with boys who are shooting each other.”
Silverstein’s book describes how parents, especially mothers, have trained their sons to be highly competitive and self-absorbed. These mothers, eager to prevent their sons from becoming “Mama’s boys,” push them away at an early age. “Why would we be surprised, then, that boys turn out to be more violent and that men have abandoned the family? We train them to do that, and it works.”
Instead of leaving a boy alone, or handing him off to a macho-man father figure, Silverstein advises mothers to bond with their sons and maintain a respectful but close relationship into adulthood.
Patti Kubasek and her son Chris discovered the value of this kind of relationship last year. At the time, 14-year-old Chris was sliding into truancy and gang activity in the months that followed his father’s death from cancer. His grades fell, he got into fights at school and he was caught with a knife. He also began hanging around with suburban gangbangers in Martinez.
“My mom and I would fight twice a day. Everything she did drove me nuts,” recalls Chris, a blond-haired boy who is so tall that an easy chair barely contains his arms and legs. “I wasn’t exactly nice to anyone.”
After her husband died, she and Chris had “talked a lot about his father,” Kubasek says. “He took me from one room of the house to another, stopping to talk about him in each room.” But in her grief, she had thrown herself into work and the pursuit of a college degree, abandoning her relationship with her son. Trying to renew it, she read books about mothers and sons and brought Chris to a therapist. They started to talk and she realized how sad her son had been.
As Chris began to see that his mother was serious about trying to restore their relationship, he gradually calmed down. Over time, and with the intervention of his mother and counselors, he left his gang friends. Now he’s thriving again at school.
Chris says his mother’s openness was all-important in his decision to restore his life. “When she showed me how much she really cared,” he says, “it really made a difference.”
A close mother-son relationship will produce a man who understands others, controls his aggressive impulses and communicates successfully, says Silverstein. This kind of boy will be as different in his outlook on life as today’s girls are different from their grandmothers. “We have broken the gender barrier when it comes to girls and careers. They feel comfortable at work and at home. Now we have to let boys back into the family emotionally. That’s what they need. To say that they can’t be helped because of their nature is a great rationalization. I refuse to accept it, because if you do, there is no hope for the future.”
The help of at least one parent is vital when all of society is conspiring to turn boys into brutes, adds Angela Phillips, who fears that men are in danger of becoming the “rogue elephants” of the human race, admitted to family life for the purpose of mating only. Phillips, who specializes in writing about children and family relationships, agrees with Silverstein when it comes to boys who have been emotionally abandoned and have no secure attachment to their families. But she goes one step further. “Lessons in violence, indifference and separation are provided every day for every male child,” Phillips argues in “The Trouble With Boys.” “Learning them is part of learning to survive as a boy.”
Indeed, a boy who is not deemed sufficiently aggressive, who likes beautiful, soft or cuddly toys, may be considered effeminate and referred for counseling by his parents. In contrast, the femininity of a female child is rarely questioned. “A girl can dress up as a fairy princess or wears sneakers and jeans and no one will worry about her femininity.”
It should be no wonder that boys are troubled when their natural aggression runs up against modern standards of behavior. Surviving as a boy may get more difficult as the post-industrial world becomes more complex and brawn becomes a devalued asset. Where once a man who had trouble communicating could make a good wage in a steel mill, writes Phillips, he is now frustrated because the steel mills are closed and he has no aptitude for high-tech work. Some boys look at these men and, rightly or wrongly, conclude that the world no longer holds a place for them. Phillips argues that poor males who lack communication skills naturally seek an identity in the culture of street violence, where strength is still valued.
The sense of failure “is reinforced by the level of information they need to process and the high stress levels in modern life,” observes Charlotte Tomaino, who runs a group practice in New York called Neuropsychological Services of Westchester. Tomaino, who has treated hundreds of patients with brain-related disorders, says society’s rules about acceptable behavior and the skills required to succeed are changing too fast for some boys to keep up.
“It’s like survival of the fittest, only the fittest will be the people who have good impulse control, can orchestrate events, organize things and focus their attention,” says Tomaino. All these skills appear to be located in the frontal lobe of the brain, which develops much more slowly in boys, according to some researchers. This could mean that boys are being judged by a standard that is harder and harder for them to reach, she says. “Twenty years ago, no one had to do many of the things we must now do with technology and communication,” she says. “Our institutions are more complex and difficult. I’m concerned that we’re going to have many more of these boys in the future.”
The partisans in the struggle to understand boys can each point to children who have been helped by one approach or another. Psychotherapists can offer up patients who improve with a variety of interventions, from better fathering to behavior modification therapy. At the same time, neuroscientists note that many boys with ADD improve when their brains are dosed with chemicals, though they’ve not yet found chemical solutions for the wide range of disorders facing children and young men.
While they may disagree about the cause and treatment, none of the various schools of research would argue with the notion that boys are in a kind of crisis, and that their emotional and educational disabilities burden families and communities. Many of those who research and treat boys’ problems are beginning to see the appeal of an approach that takes into consideration both the nature of the boy child and the way we nurture them.
Even an ardent “hard” scientist, such as Laura Allen, acknowledges that the way a boy is raised can overcome certain genetic tendencies. “In a study at Berkeley they followed boys who were given lots of attention in the first 18 months and those who were not,” she notes. Years later, the boys who were given more affection scored higher on IQ tests. These findings seem to refute those who look at IQ and other measures of cognition and declare that biology is destiny.
“Boys seem to benefit from more one-on-one attention,” says Allen. “I think the affection may change the sex hormone level in the brain, which then affects brain development.” On the other hand, boys also seem to be more damaged by problems within a family, especially divorce, at least in the short run. Allen even wonders if boys may be more vulnerable to the loss of parental attention inherent with day care. “I worry about day care because infants need a lot of cuddling to develop and I’m not sure you can get that kind of nurturing by paying for it,” she says.
Despite the scientific advances, the complexity of human behavior makes the diagnosis of and treatment of emotional problems difficult. “You can’t just treat all these kids with Ritalin and then, because they slow down, declare that that was the problem all along,” says Paul McHugh, chairman of the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore. “Ritalin will slow almost any kid down. And a lot of kids who supposedly have neurologically based ADD can’t sit still in school but they can watch TV for two hours. That tells me that we’re too impressed by our biological discoveries and using them to explain things without taking into account other factors.”
McHugh insists that how boys are treated has a much greater effect on their behavior than brain structure. “Boys have a genetic influence to be aggressive. But if you raise them a certain way, that will assert itself as leadership or entrepreneurial skill. If he is raised in another environment that is not as nurturing, he may become violent. That is why broken families have more of these problems. It’s harder for them to provide the right environment.”
A parent who is aware of a boy’s special needs can help him from an early age. Steve Brooks, a single father of a boy named Brandon, recognized that his son needed help when he seemed unable to conform to the rules of the preschool he attended in the San Francisco Bay Area. “I got constant phone calls from school saying he was unruly and he couldn’t concentrate.”
Brandon was dramatically different from his sister, Tarren, who had experienced little trouble adjusting to school and excelled at working cooperatively. “Tarren was eager to please and knew how to do it,” recalls Brooks. “Brandon didn’t have a clue.”
Although he wasn’t found to have ADD, Brandon exhibited many of the traits and behaviors typical of boys who are. He dismantled anything that came apart, including his own toys. He spoke out of turn, fought with other children and raced around. “He sometimes would have rages and literally throw things around,” Brooks says. “It was hard for anyone, teachers included, to have enough patience to deal with him.”
During the past year, at the suggestion of his school principal, Brandon received special education classes. He got extra attention from his father. Both have helped him learn how to focus on specific tasks, such as schoolwork, and taught him how to interact with other children. Now 7, Brandon seems to be thriving. But he is still a bundle of aggressive energy.
On a recent Sunday morning he scampered in and out of his home half a dozen times in 15 minutes. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he was a blur of activity, just like the Tasmanian devil on his shirt. “We’re building a house out there,” he said to his dad, his voice filled with excitement. “You should see it.” The house, made of cardboard, was one of the many projects Brandon would tackle that weekend. None would exhaust his energy.
“People expect a level of behavior from kids that is more civilized, more gentle,” says Brooks. “I’m trying to give Brandon outlets for his energy while teaching him what’s expected.” He takes his son on long hikes and extended camping trips. He’ll do almost anything to help his son learn the modern survival skills of self-control. Along the way, says Brooks, he has come to admire the depth of his son’s energy.
“I have to say I appreciate him, and I appreciate male power more in general,” he concludes. “But Brandon has to live in the modern world, and he was running the risk of being stigmatized by his behavior. I had to save him from a lot of problems in the future.”