I believe most parents want their kids to do well at school, to have at least one or several good friends, to “fit in”, and to be on the right track to succeed in a career and life-path. Parents want their kids to be physically healthy and to have the resources they need to do well at school.
All kids start school with excitement and anticipation. They will be learning and growing academically and socially. But what about the emotional lives of boys and girls? I’d like you to do a guided imagery for a few moments. Close your eyes, and imagine you are on a school playground. A small girl, age 5 or so has fallen across the playground. You can see she’s crying and distressed, on her hands and knees on the ground. Imagine yourself approaching the child. What would you do and say? How would you interact with her? Now open your eyes. If I had told you the young child in distress was a boy, would you have reacted differently or treated him differently than if it was a girl?
In American society, boys have traditionally been raised to be tougher and less emotional than girls. According to Dr. William Pollack, author of “Real Boys Voices”, today’s society imposes a limiting set of expectations called “The Boy Code”, which is also called the harmful “mask of masculinity.” Boys are expected to be and act a certain way within a narrow, destructive definition of masculinity, which limits their potential and individuality. You’ve heard the negative Boy Code messages:
- Be a Man
- Boys don’t cry
- Boys will be boys
- Too much testosterone
The Boy Code is failing our boys:
- Boys are 2 times more likely than girls to be expelled
- Boys are 30% more likely to fail out of school
- Boys are 4 times more likely than girls to be prescribed a stimulant medication for a behavior disorder
- Depression in males is often masked by anger
- 4 or more U.S. boys commit suicide every day
(There are four male suicides for every female suicide, but three times as many females as males attempt suicide.)
So when boys get these messages: “Act like a man”, “Don’t be a sissy””, Boys Don’t cry”, “You throw like a girl”, what’s happening here?
Boys are being told to “be in charge”, “act tough”, “never show fear or pain”, “only girls cry and can be vulnerable”, boys are strong, girls are weak. Boys can’t cry, girls can.
And then when they get older, girls criticize them for not sharing their emotions, but if they do they may be told to “act like a man.” It’s a double-bind.
In the New York Times article, “How To Raise a Feminist Son” (which I prefer to be titled “How To Raise Emotionally Healthy Boys), it begins with,
“We’re now more likely to tell our daughters they can be anything they want to be—an astronaut and a mother, a tomboy and a girlie girl. But we don’t do the same for our sons.” (I grew up a tomboy and loved it. I never felt excluded or less than. When I got older I realized American society allows girls to be Tomboys, but not boys to be what I call Tinagirls. We don’t even have a name for it!)
“Even as we’ve given girls more choices for the roles they play, boys’ worlds are still confined, social scientists say. They’re discouraged from having interests that are considered feminine. They’re told to be tough at all costs, or else to tamp down their so-called boy energy.
If we want to create an equitable society, one in which everyone can thrive, we need to also give boys more choices. As Gloria Steinem says, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons, but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”
That’s because women’s roles can’t expand if men’s don’t too. But it’s not just about women. Men are falling behind in school and work because we are not raising boys to succeed in the new Pink Economy. Skills like cooperation, empathy and diligence—often considered to be feminine—are increasingly valued in modern day work and school, and jobs that require these skills are the fastest growing.”
So these are some disturbing trends. In addition to the “Boy Code”, there are other barriers for boys. According to Leonard Sax, author of “Boys Adrift”,
“The problem is that academics have been pushed into children’s lives earlier. Kindergarten is what first grade used to be. Girls are often ready to read at this age. Boys? Not so much. Girls also mature earlier than boys. So from his very first school experience, a boy senses school isn’t for him, a feeling that worsens as the years drag on. Schools, which once left girls falling behind in Math and Science, have been revamped to be more verbal. This has helped girls. But boys aren’t as verbal and tend to tune out when there’s too much talking. Homework is another problem. In general, girls do it. Boys don’t.
Most teachers don’t want boys to fail: they just don’t know how to reach them. Most teachers are female; they don’t “get” boys, and that’s not really their fault. But a boy looks around and sees most of his teachers are females, and girls are being rewarded more than boys, and the boy goes “this is not for me.”
So why do we treat baby boys differently than baby girls? Why are we less sensitive, less affectionate?
Think back to the exercise about the child on the playground. As a parent, were you afraid your son would be labeled:
Were you afraid he may be bullied if he is too sensitive? Think about that. Wouldn’t you rather your son feel “whole” in being able to express all his emotions? Wouldn’t you like him to feel confident in who he is, rather than trying to be someone else’s definition of masculinity? Ask yourself, “what kind of man do you want your son to grow up to be?” Do you want him to be strong and successful as well as kind and loving? Do you want him to pursue his passions, be that building things or baking things, playing football or dancing ballet? Maybe he likes to do all those things!
I’d like to share with you an excerpt from “Real Boys Voices” that helped a Dad rethink his representation of masculinity:
“Many men who are fathering today, struggling to do the best job they know how, grew up in an environment in which the Boy Code was strongly enforced, a world in which male affection, especially among boys and their primary male caretakers, was frowned upon and rarely demonstrated. Too few role models of the “new dad” were extant. Therefore, many men have had to reinvent themselves as fathers. Some succeed superbly. Others, according to our boys, fail to meet their sons’ needs adequately.
Once, during one of my speaking engagements, “How to Parent Boys,” one brave man raised his hand. His was not so much a question as a somewhat self-condemning plea.
“Hearing you speak, I begin to feel I’m not such a good dad” he said. It happens when we’re on the street together Roger explained. “My son Harlan wants me to hold his hand, and I shy away or whisper to him that real men and ‘big boys’ don’t do that. I tell him people might get the wrong idea.”
It became clear that this shame about the public expression of affection came from Roger’s own upbringing. He had a father “who loved me” but didn’t like to show it much. I thanked Roger for his openness and courage, and put the following proposition before him: “You very much want Harlan to grow up to be both healthy and masculine, don’t you?”
In response, Roger nodded his head enthusiastically.
“And you see yourself as a reservoir of some of that masculinity,” I continued. “So how does a reservoir deliver its contents to its thirsty users?”
“You mean like through a connection, a pipeline?” A broad smile began to play across his face. “So, if I hold out my hand and grab on to his, I’m connecting our masculinity, letting it flow between us!:
As I nodded in assent, I couldn’t help but notice the tears forming in Roger’s eyes. I had a clear suspicion that two generations—or more—of fathering and being loved as a boy by a male role model were changing before me.”
So, let your boys be a “Mama’s Boy” (and a “Papa’s Boy”) Dr. Pollack says. He has found that boys who are nurtured and loved are more successful in life—professionally, personally and in their health.
The worst case scenario that has been in the news all too often recently are school shootings. These are usually white teen boys, many who come from tough home environments. They tend to have poor social skills, no friends, and are often bullied. Some have learning disabilities. School is not a happy place for them. They are generally depressed and angry. They don’t know who to turn to and don’t have anyone to talk to. If they don’t get help earlier on, this is what might happen.
So, what can parents, teachers, and coaches do to support emotional health in our boys and overcome the stigma of the Boy Code? A lot of our kids’ time is spent at school and in sports. Here are some important steps:
**Pay attention to your child’s temperament and interests. Expose them to lots of different activities and experiences, but if they are drawn to sports, or drawn to art, encourage that.
**Young boys already have built in sensitivity, caring and tenderness. It’s not anything new for them. They are born knowing how to be emotional. We as caregivers and adult role models need to support them to continue to express their emotions, and be whole human beings. Allow them to cry. Allow them to be afraid or anxious. It’s human.
**When boys are in touch with their own feelings, get support from caring adults and friends, and can self-soothe and have empathy for themselves, they are in turn able to have empathy for others. That is one of the greatest traits boys can have in forging friendships, working well with others and developing close romantic and family relationships.
**Concentrate on letting your boys be “kids first”. Worry about being a man later.
We tell boys to “act like a man”. We don’t tell girls to “act like a woman.”
**Encourage boys to “use their words” to identify their feelings, and to self soothe. Kids who are empathetic towards themselves, are empathetic towards others.
**let them talk about and write reports about bugs, and poo and guns and blowing things up with interest and in appropriate fashion.
**When very young, ask boys and girls “how many?”, (how many ducks are on the lake?) and “what color?”, (what are the colors in that flag?), and also ask “how is that person feeling”, and “how are you feeling? (A friend at school lost their lunch money. How do you think they are feeling?” Also after watching a TV show or movie, parents can talk with their kids about how certain characters felt at certain times)
** Follow the “11 Words You Need to Teach Your Son Before he Turns Six” article:
(Lonely, frustrated, intimidated, That’s just not my thing, hangry, proper names for their body parts, touched out, overwhelmed, may I please?
**Use the NY Times Article “How to Raise a Feminist Son” as a
Blueprint for raising Emotionally Healthy Boys
**Create Buddy Benches at school so no kid feels left out, on their own, unaccepted. Use the app so kids can communicate privately with one another so no one feels embarrassed or singled out.
So, bottom line, raising emotionally healthy boys increases Emotional Intelligence, decreases aggression and depression, and has a ripple effect on individuals, families and society.
List of Resources:
-Emotions: the Data Men Miss
-NY Times Article
How to Raise a Feminist Son
-Real Boys Voices, by Dr. William S. Pollack (p 238. The Dad Connection)
-Raising Cain, Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, by Dr. Dan Kindlon and Dr. michael Thompson
-Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax
-11 Words You Need to Teach Your Son Before He Turns Six
-Our Boys Call for Help: How we Can change the Way we Interact With Struggling Boys
-7 Ways Teachers Can Make School Better For Boys (buildingboys.net)
Raelene S. Weaver is a licensed MFT, who also holds a K-12 Teaching Credential. She has worked with middle school-aged special Ed. kids and high school-aged boys through SCC Probation Department. She is founder of the Silicon Valley Men’s Center on Facebook, a hub for boys and mens emotional and mental health issues.
Statistics cited in this article come from:
National Center for Education Statistics
U.S. National Library of Medicine
American Psychological Association
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention