Where the Boys Are*
By Robert Heasley
- Andrew, a first grader at a local school, finds that other boys are ridiculing him because he hugged his best friend.
- Elliot, a second grader at another school, comes home and asks his mom what he should do when two boys in his class cover him at recess and threaten to beat him up.
- Josh, a fifth grader, tells his neighbor Rachel, that he can only play with her when other boys aren’t around, but adds, “I like playing with you more than boys because I can just be me.”
- By seventh grade, William has stopped singing at the religious services he attends with his family; He says singing is “stupid.” His attention to schoolwork has faded while computer play and TV-watching have become nearly obsessive. He doesn’t talk about what’s going on in his life, has little to say about his day, and wants to spend less and less time with his family.
What is happening?
For any of us who are raising a boy, the challenges are complex. We may want to raise sons who are comfortable with hugging, but we don’t want them to be threatened or beaten by other boys for being too kind. Because of our fears, we worry whether our sons are “masculine” enough. We may want our sons to have a range of experiences in learning life skills, but we encourage them to be more involved in sports than in the arts or intellectual endeavors so they’ll fit in with other boys. Boys who are smart or who have pursuits such as music, dance, or writing may be teased or put down by other boys. And boys who play with girls, particularly after second or third grade, risk being the target of intense ridicule by their male peers.
Many parents and teachers will tolerate boys teasing and taunting other boys beyond what we’d accept if they were teasing or taunting girls. We will try to help the “artistic” or intellectual child who has interests that are considered feminine in our culture to learn sports in order to have “balance” in their lives. But we are less likely to encourage boys who are good athletes to pursue voice, dance, or poetry for some similar “balance.” By early elementary school, we virtually lose many of our sons to a very narrow male world that devalues the feminine. As a result, we end up raising only half a boy.
When my son, Nate, was in second grade, his teacher told me he was worried that Nate was “walking on the balls of his feet.” I was puzzled–and concerned that this might indicate a physiological deformity of some sort. When I asked the teacher to explain, he said that unless I taught Nate to walk on the heels of his feet–to walk “strong”–other boys would ridicule him. Nate was a happy-go-lucky child who bounced as he walked. This, I was expected to realize, was a “problem” that deserved urgent parental intervention. Good grief!
In our culture, by about second grade, boys begin to tease other boys and make fun of boys who do anything that is like a girl (including touching, smiling, being polite!). Second grade is a transitional year: boys are in various stages of differentiating themselves from girls, due to pressure from other boys. By third grade and almost always by fourth, the only way boys feel they can avoid threats from other boys is to distance themselves from girls and any “girl-like” behavior.
And “girl-like” behavior is seldom clearly defined, resulting in boys shutting down, withholding any display of emotions, gentleness in front of other boys, and participating with their peers in teasing and taunting other boys who appear vulnerable. “What are you, gay?” and “Josh is a girl!” were taunts college students frequently heard while observing elementary playground activities for a project they did for one of my undergraduate classes on gender.
By middle school, boys are fearful of being perceived as “different” by male peers, and many will only take risks that may gain the favor and attention of other boys. Thus, Josh “hides” his enjoyment of playing with Rachel; William stops singing, and Nate gets the message to stop bouncing.
Boys in Our Culture
From birth on, boys and girls are treated differently. As infants and toddlers, girls are more likely to be held than boys and more likely to be picked up when crying. The female child witnesses the tenderness of her mother and the clear acceptance (although at times over-protective care taking) of her father. The son is more likely to receive his primary emotional and physical support from his mom. His dad, an important model for becoming an adult, is likely to be more distant, less likely to hold the son, to listen to the son’s fears, or to share the mysteries of being human.
What happens in the larger society, outside the family, is equally important. Boys receive confusing and conflicting information about expectations. While they may be told by parents and teachers that boys are not better than girls, the messages from society and the media are very different. Most religions still give male children special privileges or status that females cannot achieve. From Saturday morning cartoons to Monday Night football, including the commercials, 80 percent of TV productions are aimed at males. Ninety percent of Hollywood movies are made to attract a male audience. Producers know that girls and women will watch films appealing to males, but men and boys are less likely to tolerate shows that appeal to women or girls. Males just aren’t raised to appreciate or value the female world. School systems continue to give more attention to boys than girls, especially in athletic programs. Even colleges, now seeing a decline of male applicants, are beginning to re-emphasize such traditional sports as football, as a way to attract more males.
With all this attention, how could boys go wrong? It’s simple. Adults end up having a narrow, limited sense of what boys need and how boys can be. Boys themselves develop a false sense of consciousness, perceiving the way they see the world as the way the world has to be (and should be), based on how it has been presented to them. I watch popular TV shows, like Friends or Seinfeld, and see an image of men as awkward, desperate and basically stupid in their ability to handle social relationships. At the same time, popular movies for boys, like Terminator and Men in Black, portray men as adversaries in relationship with other men. Following in the tradition of boys’ toys such as GI Joe, the men in these movies solve problems through brute force, conquer before being conquered, and use muscle as the first step in negotiating relationships.
It is the context of our social world that makes raising a son a challenge. As Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson of Harvard University suggest in their recent book, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, we have been blinded from even seeing the problems boys face and the ways we contribute to these problems.
How Are Our Sons Doing?
It’s easy to look around, in our families and communities, and say that boys are doing just fine. They are playing in the snow, sledding, going to hockey practice, taking piano lessons, figuring out yet another computer adventure, and shooting baskets at the local gym. You might ask: “what is this author making such a big fuss about?” But boys, overall, are increasingly at risk.
Boys are more likely than girls to be beaten and physically hurt by other boys and less likely to report it. Boys have higher failure rates in school, are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, more likely to commit suicide, and more likely to become absentee parents. They are more likely to hurt others through physical and sexual assault. Security guards in our high schools are there primarily as a result of male behavior. Dating violence–boys battering their girlfriends and date rape–are increasingly prevalent and cross every social and economic stratum. Shootings on playgrounds and in school hallways throughout the country over the past two years have mostly been the acts of boys angered by the loss of a girl’s attention.
Boys are at risk for experiencing sexual abuse at the bands of other males, with most experts now estimating that one in seven boys will be sexually abused. Homophobia (the fear of being homosexual, of being perceived to be homosexual, or a deep fear of people who are gay or lesbian) is intense among boys in the United States. This fear underlies the destructive ways boys act with each other: the teasing and put-downs, the physical distance, and the lack of safety in showing affection to each other. Homophobia contributes to the higher rates of suicide among gay (particularly male) teens. It also contributes to the urgency boys feel toward having sex with girls as a means to assure their heterosexuality. Boys and men are substantially more likely to die, or harm themselves or others, due to unnecessary risk-taking. This isn’t a good scenario, and it’s not the life any of us would design for our sons.
Learning the Code
William Pollack, clinical psychologist and co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School and author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, says we place boys in a gender straitjacket, one that is ruled by a “boy code”: a set of unwritten expectations that boys learn to follow. It is a code that parents and teachers too often fail to notice or interrupt.
The “boy code” demands that boys learn to be tough and not show emotions outside of anger. It demands that a boy take every possible precaution not to act like a girl. It demands that boys not admit any problem with what boys experience. As adults working with young people, we may buy into the same belief system. Too often male coaches, teachers and fathers fail to see that this “code” is not necessary to raise healthy, intelligent, and physically strong males.
I see the boy code being played out when I notice that boys, by fourth grade, don’t smile as much as girls (for fear of not looking tough). I glimpse it when I see boys in the halls of our middle schools push up against each other, either to show friendship or to intimidate (ironic that the same behavior can have such different intentions). I think about the boy code when I see coaches yell and intimidate their players, and the players taking it because they think it’s just the way older males treat younger ones. I see the boy code operating when I see boys make homophobic and sexist jokes about other boys. Part of the boy code is to intimidate others before they intimidate you, to find someone vulnerable to pick on, and to go along with guys who look like they could hurt you if they weren’t your friends.
The code also dictates that as boys get older (past three!), they can expect to get into fights, and over time they learn to withhold their emotions (except for anger). We were all raised with this code. It’s been around for generations, and regardless of whether we are female or male, we learned that it was a necessary, indeed inherent, aspect of being male. In some ways, it makes “practical” sense in a world where boys are at risk of violence from other boys if they don’t conform. However, it doesn’t make sense if creating a world where boys and girls, males and females, have safe, loving relationships with others, and it doesn’t nurture the qualities that produce adult males who function at their best.
At its most basic level, after all, the boy code demands that boys (and everyone involved with boys) deny that they have a problem. “Everything is just fine” is a theme of boys’ lives which we reinforce when we fail to name the hurts, confusion, fears and shame that accompany being raised male in our culture. We strengthen it when we don’t question how coaches are coaching, how fathers are relating to their sons, or why mothers fear that they may be making their sons into “sissies” if they don’t separate from them emotionally.
If we think about what constitutes a “healthy” boy, we come up with a picture that isn’t much different from one for a girl. Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, provides a valuable description of the qualities of people who do well over the course of their lives in a broad range of areas. Goleman maintains, and rightly so, that we’ve become obsessed with raising children who can “beat” other children at whatever they’re doing–tennis, math, football, or even violin–while ignoring the need to raise emotionally, and not just intellectually and physically, healthy children. This is particularly true for boys.
Goleman has identified the qualities of emotionally intelligent people, male or female. Among them are: the ability to work well with others, to have loving relationships with family members, to be expressive, to be assertive without controlling, to identify their emotional needs, seek help when necessary, to do no harm, and to be adaptable in a changing world.
In my work with boys and men, I’ve found that boys who are raised with support for emotional awareness tend to do better than boys who aren’t. What does “do better” mean? It means that they are at lower risk for addiction and for taking unnecessary risks to “prove” themselves. They are more likely to be supportive partners in marriage and close relationships more involved and committed to parenting and more open to new information, to touch, to communication. They are less likely to be homophobic, to express anger through physical violence, and more likely to seek help when needed.
Fathers in our culture are likely themselves to have been raised by fathers who were emotionally withholding, uncomfortable with being close to their children and not involved deeply in their children’s lives. I don’t say this as a way to blame fathers or men. Rather, the physical and emotional distance is the product of a system where fathers continue to be the parents who are more likely to work outside the home and who worked longer hours even when both parents work.
At home, fathers are also more likely to be watching TV, or pursuing projects in part as a way to keep from interacting intimately with family members. Fixing the car, repairing the roof, writing a research article, or watching football–all are reasonable activities, but for some men, these can also be ways to escape intimacy.
My own father devoted hours to fixing cars. He would come home from his job at the factory, eat dinner, and go to the garage to fix cars (to earn extra money). As an adult, I vowed never to be so distant from my children. One day, I told my children about how I remember my dad as frequently being absent, always distracted, it seemed, by his work, and how I’d wished that he had noticed me and been more involved in my life.
My daughter, then six, looked at me with surprise. “But that’s the way you are with your research, isn’t it?” she said. The truth was, the research had become my primary relationship, but since I usually worked on it at home, and since it was of “great social importance” I hadn’t equated it with what I saw in my own father. My daughter taught me a lesson.
Fathers are also more likely to be the absent parent in divorced or separated households, and less likely to feel comfortable about primary parenting roles. Boys learn early on that men don’t speak the truth of their emotional lives. Many fathers don’t share the intimate details of their lives and are uncomfortable listening when others do. Too much of a boy’s life is spent trying to read between the lines.
The challenge facing parents and others involved in raising sons is to figure out how to do it in a way that enhances a boys’ life chances and experiences while at the same time limiting the negative effects that result from not going along with the crowd. Putting aside the misconceptions that form the basis for the “boy code,” what we know about male children is that boys’ needs are no different from girls’. The needs for touch, attention, nurturing, kindness, and being well listened to by any adult involved in parenting are all important, regardless of the gender or age of the child.
Mothers are important to raising sons throughout the boy’s life. Pollack suggests that we make a serious mistake when we encourage mothers to pull away from their sons at an early age. If anything, we can all benefit from bringing the positive qualities that have been identified as feminine, as well as those defined as masculine, into the way we are as males and females.
The artificial separation from mothers, Pollack argues, leaves the son confused and feeling emotionally abandoned. Where does he turn for emotional support? His girlfriend? If his peers call him a “girl,” why does he fail to see this as a compliment, realizing he has many of the same qualities as his mother? And that these qualities are often similar to those his own father has?
Again, men and women are more alike than different. The key to raising a son seems to be having healthy, caring, emotionally engaged parents, in whatever gender or combination they may be.
Some Tips on Raising Real Boys
There in no formula for raising boys, but a few areas deserve our attention as a result of the problems boys are likely to experience growing up.
- Stay attached. Pollack sees this as something often missing from boys’ lives, particularly with their fathers. Show your son that you are there, not as judge and jury, but as supporter, mentor and provider of physical as well as well as emotional needs. Avoid “telling” him what is good for him, but rather, share your feelings and ask about his.
- Staying attached is equally important for mothers. Too often mothers feel that because they are not male, they shouldn’t try to be close with their sons, for fear they may do something wrong, or raise him to be a “sissy.” Studies show that boys raised by healthy, involved, single mothers do very well when compared to boys raised in two-parent, male/female households, where the mother becomes disengaged from the son. Again, it is the engaged parent, of whatever gender, who is critical to raising healthy, balanced boys.
- Provide information. Accept that a boy’s world is confusing and that his life is often without explanation and assistance from those who have his best interests at heart. Early on, our sons are exposed to excessive violence and encouraged to sexualize females. Boys are also exposed to messages that any close relationship with other boys, sharing of feelings, being openly gentle and supportive, is unacceptable. Help your son notice that cartoons and the video games he plays display male behavior as aggressive and combative, putting males in competition with each other, seldom displaying males talking about their real feelings and their real lives. At the same time, female characters are shown as sexualized and seductive (even when the female character is portrayed as being aggressive!). Don’t criticize, but do share your thinking and feelings about what is going on, and ask him what he notices.
- Talk about sex and sexuality early on, and throughout, his developing life. A boy’s exposure to sexual information from peers begins in early childhood. By late elementary school and certainly by middle school, he is exposed through music, television, and pornography to a preponderance of distorted sexual images. He is often left without any background against which to assess the messages he gets from his peers and the media. Mothers may begin talking with daughters about sexuality early, or at least by the time they menstruate, but boys are often left out. It is important that mothers as well as fathers be part of the on-going discussion about sexuality with boys. Boys need to hear from women about women’s sexuality, and they need to hear from men about men’s sexuality. If the responsible adults don’t talk, the only talking boys will hear is through media, which is too often hyped and distorted.
- Interrupt sexism and homophobia–not just because sexist remarks against girls hurt girls, or homophobic remarks and attacks hurt the target of those attacks, but because such attitudes and behaviors hurt all boys. They lead to fears of being like a girl and fear of being perceived as gay. They lead to shutting down emotionally in relationships with parents, as well as both male and female friends. Support your son’s friendships with both sexes, boys and girls. Don’t tease him for having a “girlfriend” because he has a female playmate. Support him in building close, meaningful relationships with other boys with whom he can share his feelings.
- Affirm boys and help boys and girls affirm each other. It’s easy to criticize men in our culture. The incidence of sexism, rape, and violence has been and is overwhelming. But this doesn’t mean that males are “bad” nor is there any basis for saying that males and females are from different planets–with one being better than the other. Boys need to hear about the goodness of males, without denying the harm bullies and other males do, and boys need to be around adults who clearly affirm girls as powerful and equal to boys.
Finally, we can become aware of our own assumptions about how we should parent. We may unwittingly collude with the boy code by thinking that our job is only to prepare boys for the “real world” rather than working with our sons, and other men and women, to change the world they inherit. Perhaps our goal can be to raise “real boys”–boys who are real–even if we do live in a world that doesn’t yet do what it could to support their full humanity, and that of girls. If we are committed to doing our best with our sons and daughters, the rest of the world will catch up.
By the way, about my son Nate. I didn’t take the teacher’s advice about his bouncing, and so I let it go. I even enrolled him in ballet classes, drove him to soccer, read to him at night into his early teens, and as he’s grown older, I continue to give him backrubs while having long philosophical discussions late into the night when he is visiting. At 30, he is still a bright, happy guy, full of smiles and great hugs, even as he pursues law school and investigates crime in New York City. I haven’t noticed recently whether he walks on the balls of his feet. It doesn’t seem to matter.
Copyright © 2001 Robert Heasley
Robert Heasley, Ph.D. CMFT, is Professor of Sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and is on the adjunct faculty in the Department of Psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University as well as Widener University’s Graduate Program in Human Sexuality. He teaches courses in sexuality and gender including the study of men and masculinity, and leads workshops and counseling groups for men. He is a marriage and family therapist in private practice and a father/stepfather of two sons and a daughter.
*This article first appeared in the following source:
Heasley, Robert. (1999). “Where the Boys Are: And Where They Can Be If We Help.” Ithaca Child, Vol. IX, No. 2. Spring, 1999.