How would you describe boys, in general? I asked several people and they described boys as hyperactive, “heathens”, accident prone, ill-behaved, and boisterous. The typical boy craves adventure and action, longs to feel powerful, and these cravings and urges often get them in trouble. Growing up isn’t easy for boys (or girls). While all children face many of the same challenges to successful development, there are several problems that are gender-specific. This month’s column will highlight some issues for boys in particular, and give some helpful advice to parents of boys. In my counseling practice, I often recommend two books to parents of boys; “Raising Cain” by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson, and “Bringing up Boys” by James Dobson. Much of the information I discuss today comes from these books.
In many ways, our society has created quite a dilemma for boys. Social forces, such as the feminist movement and increased cultural awareness, have influenced norms and expectations for both males and females. The current result of these social changes is a great deal of gender-role confusion that seems to affect boys worse than it does girls. Boys are faced with a catch-22 on what’s acceptable for them in society. James Dobson explains that if boys adhere to traditional male roles and attitudes, they will be branded as “too macho” or chauvinist. If boys instead adopt the egalitarian modern man’s role, they risk being not “manly” enough. Girls can adopt masculine roles and behaviors and are often applauded for doing so, but any boy that shows an inkling of femininity is targeted for humiliation and harassment by his peers. This is one powerful reason boys are having a harder time all around.
In Christina Hoff Sommers’ book, “The War Against Boys,” Sommers reports that boys are trailing behind in education. More girls are going on to college than boys. Boys have higher drop-out rates, get in trouble more than girls, more likely to end up in prison than girls, more likely to become drug addicts, have more emotional and learning disorders, commit more murder, and commit suicide more than girls. These statistics show serious concerns about boys well-being these days.
Kindlon and Thompson assert that boys are experiencing such difficulties because the path to manhood requires that boys cut themselves off from their own emotions. Boys get the message that the only acceptable emotions they can express are “happy” and “mad.” Anything else is a sign of weakness and femininity. This of course runs counter to what many mothers want and expect from their sons. When little boys turn about 10 years old, mothers are alarmed as they watch their once vibrant and expressive sons start closing down emotionally. Many of the mothers I see in counseling express helplessness in trying to rescue their sons from the fate of becoming an emotionally impaired man.
When boys’ emotional development is stunted, they become ignorant of their own emotional experience. Hence, “I don’t know” is often an honest response from boys when they are asked how they feel. Unless its anger, aggression, or isolation, boys often don’t know how to safely express their emotions. Another consequence of this stunted emotional growth is ignorance of other people’s feelings and experience. This is why boys, more than girls, tend to act like they have no remorse or regard for pain they inflict on others. Boys lack the socialization to process that kind of experience when they are learning that “real boys” are to be tough, aggressive, and overly competitive. Dobson states that in middle childhood, “raw power and audacity in boys are the characteristics kids tend to admire.”
How can parents save their sons from such powerful negative forces? First and foremost, healthy male role models must be provided for boys. Fathers and father figures need to model healthy emotional attachments where boys can safely express wide varieties of emotions. Fathers need to be involved in nurturing their sons’ emotional development. Dobson states that fathers are crucial in helping boys learn to manage their emotions, especially through shared activities and competitive play. If the males in a boys’ life are distant or unavailable, they will often look to males in the media as role models. Professional wrestlers, self-absorbed millionaire athletes, gangster rappers, and superhuman videogame characters are poor substitutes for a real, caring man in a boy’s life.
Because of boys’ need to feel powerful, strong, and “good enough” especially with their peers, it is important to help boys find real, healthy ways in which they can believe they are strong. Talents need to be identified, encouraged and developed; otherwise boys will begin a desperate search for ways to feel powerful that are often harmful to themselves or others. Extreme examples of this truth can be found in all the boys who have become “School Shooters” in the past several years. Most of them expressed bitterness about social harassment and feeling powerless.
Both mothers and fathers can encourage boys’ “emotional literacy.” While they are still young, help them identify and express a wide range of emotions. Talk to them about how they feel about various events and experiences. Listen to their thoughts and feelings and allow them to feel whatever they feel. Hold them accountable to their behavior towards themselves and others (i.e., “How do you think that affected you? How do you think that affected the other person?”). Don’t take “I don’t know” for an answer. Show acceptance of boys when they are upset. Accompany them through emotional pain and resist the urge to tell them to “buck up.” This actually helps them develop courage, which Mark Twain defines as “resistance to fear, mastery of fear – not the absence of fear.”
This is what it takes to raise boys – courage. Courage to stand with them against fears they aren’t good enough, powerful enough, or strong enough instead of confirming these fears for them. Courage in promoting their boyish enthusiasm, high activity level, and need for adventure instead of limiting these needs. Courage to be real, and show your boy that emotions can be felt and expressed instead of feared and repressed.