Justin Baldoni Releases a Book To Teach Boys About Masculinity, Self-Esteem, and Consent

The actor, producer, and father of two talks about his new kids' book, Boys Will Be Human, what he's tackling in therapy, and how playing with his kids has reinvigorated his work life.

Justin Baldoni on the Kelly Clarkson Show
Photo: NBCUniversal

Five years ago, Justin Baldoni started a conversation about toxic masculinity—and the way it impacts everything—in a Ted Talk that launched his Man Enough roundtable podcast on the subject, and his memoir, Man Enough: Undefining My Masculinity, which was published last year.

But he's still got a lot more to say on the subject. This week, he published Boys Will Be Human, a memoir and sort-of how-to guide for boys on how to deal with all the expectations and traumas that adolescence brings with it, especially in terms of masculinity. The book comes from his own experiences with just that.

"Man Enough was to let you know that I, at the precipice of power and privilege, struggle with tons of things, and I am perfectly imperfect. I have all the flaws and insecurities that you could ever have. And yet I'm OK," he says. "I believe that I'm enough and that's what I'm working towards, and I hope if I share in a deeply personal way, I can help somebody see their story. Boys Will Be Human, however, is really meant to plant the seed early on. This is a book that's really written like an older brother to a younger brother that says, 'Hey, here is everything that I dealt with, so that you don't have to.'"

At home in California, Justin paused to chat with Parents about what he wants boys to know, the critical impact of social-emotional learning, what he's tackling in therapy now, and how the mundane, everyday moments of parenting are the ones he's learning to love the best.

It's been five years since your Ted Talk on masculinity. What was the root of that talk? That feels to me like the root of Boys Will Be Human, in many ways.

Wow, yeah, it's been five years, because it was five days after my son was born—and he was what inspired this book, in a way. I've been thinking about masculinity for years. I had an idea originally to do a show—the show Man Enough was first a roundtable discussion over dinner. But I knew I would do the books, too.

In many ways, both of them originated from me recognizing so many of my shortcomings. I am acting in ways on a daily basis that are counter to how I want to be acting. And I wanted to have conversations with men to demystify that and create this level playing field that shows that it doesn't matter where you're from, we're all dealing with the same stuff. The difference is, we don't talk about it because we've never been given permission to.

What did you think you could do to change that? And how?

It's time we start talking about toxic masculinity because our survival depends on it. Men are killing themselves at extremely high rates. Depression is going up. Anxiety is through the roof. And I don't believe we were doing enough to address it because, as men we have to be these stoic, hard, impenetrable masculine forces that have everything put together. When there's a crack in the armor, and if people see it, it's almost as if we've lost our admission card, the man card, so to speak. I felt like I was alone. I felt like I couldn't talk to anybody. I felt like they were these invisible barriers that were preventing me from connecting with other men, connecting with my own father. People were putting me in a box that told me that if I wasn't this thing that I wasn't enough, and so I just wanted to talk and have conversations.

I'm a truth seeker. I just want to get to the bottom of the truth, because I think the truth sets us free, and I don't know any men that feel truly free. So that was the impetus. It's kind of taken many shapes since then and we're now living in the time where the conversation is, while more polarized, also more accessible.

Your son was born days after that initial Ted Talk did. How did that shift things?

When I found out I was having a son, I got very emotional. It was a different level of responsibility for me. I felt, in many ways, that I could be a girl dad. I'm in touch with many of the sensitive parts of myself. The quote-unquote feminine parts of myself. I felt almost more comfortable with it. When I found out I was having a boy, I felt pressure to not repeat the cycle. I knew that my son was going to emulate me. This is what we do—boys emulate their fathers.

The only way that I could give him the best chance of being the most well-rounded human is for me to become the most well-rounded human I could be, and I felt like I was nowhere near becoming that person. And so I started a deep healing journey, really, when my son was born. Because I want to raise a son who understands that being a man is really about being a human. I went through so much pain as a young boy. I think that's the other part of it.

Because of this work that I've been doing to heal, I just knew that I have to raise a boy who doesn't just respect women, but sees women as equal and as people, and not objects, who embraces the the quote-unquote feminine parts of himself, who feels and is sympathetic and compassionate—all of the things that I have been really learning how to be. Things that I naturally was born with that masculinity and the social order has drowned out of me. The deeper that I got on my journey, and the more research I did, and the more people I talked to, the more I realized this is one of the most important social issues of the day because it intersects with everything.

Justin Baldoni and book Boys Will Be Human
Justin Baldoni | HarperCollins

And that inspired you to write Boys Will Be Human?

A lot of our trauma comes from adolescence, and it was a very hard time for me. It's a time when boys bodies are changing, where testosterone is raging, where sexual drive and focus come into play, and also where we really learn how alone we are. And this is where I believe this patriarchal power dominance system really comes into play, and where boys learn to treat women like pure objects and sexualize them.

We're learning about sex from porn and not from parents, not from people that we trust that are adults, from websites that are profiting off of our attention, that are manipulating our dopamine receptors and carving pathways that are going to live in our brains our entire lives. I look at Man Enough as almost more of a cathartic experience, where I got to write a lot of my shit and my trauma and work through it and share it in hopes that it helped other people recognize they're not alone.

You share a lot in the book, and focus on social-emotional learning. What do you hope the takeaway will be?

I think, arguably, the most important chapter in the book is the chapter on sex. I talk about consent. I talk about my first time and my own sexual assault, what happened to me, because it can happen to boys and I spent my entire life thinking that because I was a boy it doesn't happen to us. It wasn't until I wrote Man Enough that I started to recognize that I have some trauma that I have to uncover.

I am also talking about porn, and what it does to the brain. Boys are finding porn and our brains aren't ready for it. We know that the part of the brain that lights up when we look at a computer screen or when we watch porn is a part of the brain that recognizes objects and not people. So what are we teaching our boys when we're teaching our boys to objectify people? We're also teaching them terrible sex ed or none.

Then we expect them to just go out into the world, understanding that the majority of these young people have never had a conversation with their parents, because their parents are too ashamed to, because their parents never had conversations with them.

I just went and spoke at a university two weeks ago. I asked everybody to raise their hands if their parents had the sex talk with them. About 20% raised their hands. So then I asked them, "Well, where do you learn about sex?" It was quiet, and I said, "Raise your hand if you learned about sex through porn." All the boys raise their hands, and a lot of the girls raised their hands.

So, what is that telling us? Everyone's performing. And I feel like the antidote to this is to talk about it from a truthful place. You don't have to know all the answers. Sometimes the best thing you can do is ask questions. The book is filled with all the things that I wish that somebody had told me so that I could have grown up to become a more well-rounded and empathetic, compassionate, kind, gentle, nurturing man. That's what I'm trying to be now, and working against all of my years of socialization.

Justin Baldoni

I love the creativity that comes up when I'm playing with my kids. That child-like wonder that they see the world with. That's what I'm trying to bring back into my life. And it affects my work, and everything I do, really. It makes me think about what I'm putting out into the world.

— Justin Baldoni

There's a lot of talk about the idea that boys don't read. Do you worry about reaching them?

I wrote Man Enough knowing that more women would get men to read the book. Because women care more about this issue than men, because women have to. They have more at stake. And I wrote this book knowing that more moms probably would get this book and ask their kids to read it. So, I wrote it in a way that once they do start reading it, hopefully they'll feel comfortable and they won't be, like "Oh, this is just something that my mom wants me to read." If five boys read this book and those five boys grow up to respect women and to not commit sexual assault, and to ask for consent and to be kind humans, well, the number of people that those five boys will interact with over the course of their lives can potentially change the world. That's what it is. It's planting seeds that will hopefully grow into beautiful trees that will bear fruit.

What my dream is is that every single parent that buys this book reads it with their child. There's going to be parts that are going to make adults highly uncomfortable. They can talk about it. Great! Use it as a communication tool to get to know your child. Use the tools from the book. Do it with your kids. And be honest: "Oh, this makes me really uncomfortable to talk to you about sex." And if you get that chance, what greater gift is there as a mother or a father, to help shape the way they think about things? So often, we're not prepared to have those conversations because we haven't done that work ourselves and it's nobody's fault. I'm gonna struggle myself, and I wrote a book about it. I put all my yucky stuff in there, the stuff that's hard for me, and hopefully that will trigger something that's hard for a parent, and then they can talk about it and it can be a jumping off point.

Speaking of parenting, you're at an interesting age and stage with your little ones.

Maiya just turned 7 and Maxwell's 5. Parenting is constantly evolving. You know, I'm working through a lot of guilt. I wish I would have been more prepared. I struggle a lot with how much I have worked over the first seven years of their lives. I'm actually in therapy, really learning to let a lot of that go and be more gentle with myself about it. I could have done a lot of things differently, but the second best time to start is today.

I just took Maxwell on our first trip together. [My wife] Emily took Maiya to Sweden to go be with her family, and so we separated for the first time. I realized I had never been alone with my son for more than a day. It was that realization that was like, "Wait a second. How can I be the father I want to be if I've never been alone with my own son?"

So, we decided to try it this year, and it was beautiful, and it was challenging, and so much came up for me that I had to work through—feeling like I'm not enough and so much deep appreciation for my wife and gratitude for all of the things that she's had to take care of while I was working. And just learning how to be with a 5-year-old alone. To figure out what he likes and doesn't like, and seeing all the amazing things about him that I didn't know and the adventurous spirit and having tough moments and fights. We spent nine days together in Maui, stayed with some friends, and he went surfing for the first time, saw lava fields, and played in the ocean. It was really sweet. Just being there was so fulfilling and I'm excited to now do that with my daughter. Spending one-on-one time with your kids, you really learn who they are as people. It's so fascinating, and it changes so fast.

You've been home more in the past few years. What have you learned?

As a father, I'm learning that so much of parenting is healing the issues, the traumas, that happened to us when we were children. When it comes to parenting, I'll always be figuring it out. Look, I might not be able to be the kind of parent that spends three hours a day undivided with my kids, but I can find a way to be with each of them alone, give them my full presence, with no phones, and really connect with them.

That's something that I'm personally working on, finding that child-like play. Generally, if you don't know how to play it's because someone didn't play with you, and so you have a resistance to it; it's because you were never taught how. So I'm learning how. At 38. And I love the creativity that comes up when I'm playing with my kids. That child-like wonder that they see the world with. That's what I'm trying to bring back into my life. And it affects my work, and everything I do, really. It makes me think about what I'm putting out into the world.

We moved to the country. And we did that so that we could kind of be secluded. And when I'm home, the mundane moments are everything. Like giving them a bath, taking them to school, playing, helping my wife make food. Taking my daughter to gymnastics and watching her. She knows I'm there. Those are the things that I'm striving for, and that we block out in my schedule.

Those are things they're gonna remember. What I tell my assistant now is, "I am first and foremost, dad, and then second, chairman." I'm the boss and I can do that. Not everyone has that privilege. But there are ways that we can just give our kids our undivided attention, which I haven't been the best at. That's what I'm really working on now.

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