It’s hard to be a boy these days. A boy today goes to schools run mostly by women, who are under intense pressure to get test scores up. His recess is reduced or taken away because there is so much to learn. His need to move, express, and rough house—perfectly natural activities for a young male mammal—is contained so he can learn. The videos games he escapes to as a secondary outlet are shunned. Sports need to be “fair” where there are no losers and everyone is a winner.
I didn’t grow up in that world. I would much rather have gone to school when I did than now—and I was mercilessly picked on because of what would now be labeled Asperger’s Syndrome and dyslexia. The unfairness of my school was obvious and I learned to do something about it. I learned to stand up for myself.
The schools our boys are in today are controlled so well, they don’t consciously know that it’s not natural or fair. If one of these boys was to object, he is labeled a trouble-maker, and punished. Or worse, drugged to control his “hyperactivity.”
Did we ever think that maybe many of our hyperactive boys are simply boys who actually maintained some of their boyness? Just like in family systems where the person who acts out the most is often the healthiest, these active boys are perhaps more linked to the instinctual nature of maleness.
A boy is different than a girl, just as a man is different than a woman. In our desire to right past wrongs against women, we suppressed many of the primordial necessities of masculinity. I would be the first to admit that how many of those qualities expressed themselves were not serving anyone—little boys pulling girls’ hair, beating each other to a pulp, etc. But I question if the solution is an androgynous society.
If we don’t watch it we will be creating a culture of neutered men. It’s bad enough to disparage masculinity, but to take away a boy’s chance to be a boy is cruel. A man has some power to get what he needs; a boy doesn’t.
What are we afraid of? What’s so bad about boys roughhousing, or even occasionally fighting? As a victim of childhood bullying, I’m not advocating bullying. But we need to look at what it is to be a boy, and what he needs. Not what we need him to be or do. As adults, our role is to guide a child’s development and not confine it. A boy, in particular, learns from action, challenge and failing. He learns what not to do from his failures. He also learns how to recover from them. He can’t do that sitting at a desk six hours a day.
Young men are graduating less than women from college and graduate school. It’s great that women are stepping up… but many of the young men are stepping down from education as the traditional male jobs are declining.
These same men are losing the social skills of preceding generations. They and their female peers speak about how group dating and texting are how these men intact with women. When one of these men is alone with a woman, he’s lost. Not because there is anything wrong with him, because he didn’t have the opportunity to discover his masculinity through modeling older men or trial and error. Nor did he have a chance in school to start his relating to girls in a young boy’s way of showing that he notices there is a difference by rejecting girls. A boy and a man often first steps back before he steps up to relate. Not giving him room to do that represses his instinctual behaviors.
Feminization of the masculine role model
Starting with the loss of male elementary school teachers, to fathers who are away at work for 8 to 12 hours a day, and the predominance of female caregivers, boys are looking to the feminine to learn about the masculine. At the risk of not being politically incorrect, women can’t teach boys all that is needed to be men. Many single mothers do an amazing job raising boys. In some cases I’m sure they’re better than the boys’ fathers might have been. Yet there is something that happens to a boy when he’s around a mature man. He settles down – he gives his respect to the man. Just that is a unique male quality.
It was only about 100 years ago that school became a requirement in the Industrialized World. I’m not sure we yet perceive the full impact of how we educate our boys. It’s great that women teach boys how to be emotional. I’m all for that. Yet the void of masculinity is filled with the feminine. With the best of intentions, boys are taught how to be boys primarily by women.
We need to be aware that a man’s empathetic skills differ from a woman’s. That difference is part of the set up for the polarity between the sexes. That polarity keeps the dynamics of a relationship vital. Without that polarity, a couple sometimes melds to be one, which is at least boring and often stifling. A boy who is raised to be like a girl never gets to embody that polarity. He never gets to feel the inherent tension between the sexes. He never gets to struggle through the matrix of ever changing energies. He learns to meld with the woman, not complement her.
Ali Carr-Chellman is an instructional designer at Penn State and author who studies the most effective ways to teach kids. In this TED video she tells us that we are preventing boys from being boys. Our “zero tolerance” policy for toys that could be construed as weapons are one of the many ways boys can’t be boys. She passionately speaks to how well- meaning women are suppressing budding masculinity.
How to revive boys
Realizing there is a problem is the first step. Then accepting that boys and girls are different, and that it’s a good thing, is the second step. From there we can look at how boys mature. When you give boys space to be, you start noticing these distinctions. Yes, you risk that boys will hurt themselves and others. I contend that repercussions from those injuries are less than from repressing their nature. A boy learns to respect his body’s limits when he is left to discover its limits. I’m not advocating that coaches push their bodies beyond their capacities – that is not only dangerous, it is cruel.
Rather than fight what boys today want let’s find a way to use what they want to guide their development. Alison Armstrong talks about this, as I do in my upcoming book, Grow Up, Guys: 9 Steps to Releasing the Remarkable Man Inside You. Let’s create video games that teach them the skills they need to learn to be successful men such as empathy and cooperation.
One way you will know a boy is exploring his boyness is when you see him being active, perhaps aggressive, irrational, challenged, competitive, making mistakes, learning, and possibly being irreverent or even disrespectful. As adults and the authority we may not like these behaviors. That’s ok. We just need to give boys a healthy way to express. Sports are the traditional way. They can work. For some boys it may be video games, and for others intellectual endeavors may be their venue of expression.
Add masculinity to their diet. Give them more male mentors. Encourage more male teachers. Ask boys what they want to do. Take them to places where there are other boys being boys and men hanging out. When we do community events and there are boys around, I can feel the awkwardness the boys feel around men. They aren’t used to us. They don’t know how to relate to us – we are a foreign energy.
Think about our ancestors: for 200,000 years, boys hunted with the men of tribe, until the onset of agriculture 10,000 years ago. In hunter-gather cultures, everything is shared, including childrearing. Both boys and girls always have someone to be with and learn from. The boys have a safe place to be challenged where they can compete, experiment, fail and be mentored.
Building on our tribal ancestors’ experience, let’s give these boys the benefits of micro-communities where they get to experience a full array of personal interaction. We don’t need to go live in huts; we can create small communities where childrearing can be a little more shared. In my small town, I see that all the time. People have moved here to build careers that are flexible, so both parents participate fully in child-rearing with the help of their neighbors. The parents as well as the kids benefit. Organizations like Boys Clubs and Boys Scouts are great as are the more organic communities that develop around our lives. Let boys participate; they want to learn how to be with adults. They are much less fragile than we believe. Their robustness comes from their ability to recover from adversity, even the adversity of our families.
For both boys and girls, tell the truth more often. Tell them what they feel in their guts is true. Tell them that you are upset when you are upset… then tell them that it will be ok. When you tell anyone a lie, they don’t hear what you say after it.
A call to action
If we want to transform our culture, we need to change how we view, treat and teach our boys. That will also mean expanding the frame we hold men in. Let’s make it cool to be a boy or a man. Then let’s give our boys and men the tools they need to build the life they want.
We all want to do the right thing. When a boy misbehaves, don’t just see it as misbehaving or acting out. Expand your view to see that maybe there’s a deeper urge needing to express itself. Co-create with that boy a place for that urge to express itself, possibly a way for it to contribute.
That masculine box men and boys are in don’t serve us. Just because men were in power didn’t mean it benefitted everyman. As we break out of these limiting boxes, we can design a new model for what it is to be a boy. When we create a bigger frame for how we view boys, I suspect we will see boys show up in a different way.
For women, we aren’t the enemy. We want to support and honor you. Here’s a secret: show a boy or a man appreciation and he will melt. He so much wants to serve and be loved. Give that boy a task and honor him for it. Let him contribute.
Set us free. Let men and boys learn from each other. We need to be around that male energy. It’s an essential nutrient. When we get it we are stronger, more loving and more present. Let men and boys struggle with learning masculine emotional intelligence. We will get it.
For the men, stand up. Risk that you may upset others as you model your masculine energy for boys. Boys need to not only see men succeed; they need to see us fail. In the failure they see it’s ok to mess up. Start modeling for your sons what you want them to be as men. That might be the biggest gift you could give them.
Also, help other men. We need the collective to teach us what our father and their fathers didn’t teach. Join a men’s group, have some real conversations with men, and get honest with the boys in your life. Tell them that being a man is not what the TV shows them.
For all of us, it’s not our fault. Our culture and its stress took over. We can take back our ancestral masculinity. But now we know, and now we have a choice. Buried in our genome are the roots to being a boy and a man.