Boys to Men

The science of masculinity and manhood

What Do Boys Want?

Reflections on a stereotype and the emotional lives of boys

Today's issue (December 2, 2013) of TIME Magazine contains an article on "the emotional lives of boys": "What Boys Want." This promises to be a departure from much journalism on young males in recent years that has focused on boys' behavior (typically "bad" behavior), not their inner lives and experience.

Two stereotypes at work are examined: (1) only girls are hurt by casual physical relationships, and (2) boys are the sole perpetrators of acts that hurt others, mostly girls. Discussions of "hook-up" culture typically portray boys as 100% eager to make casual contacts with girls (or boys) they are attracted to, "do 'it'," and forget it. The evidence collected by the author, based on interviews "with hundreds of boys across the country," suggests something quite different: that boys are also hurt very deeply from indifferent, often impulsive "hook-ups" with age mates.

The context of the article is the well-known gains girls have experienced in recent decades, in school especially. Boys have during recent decades lost ground, however, again especially in school. The fall-out from this trend for boys is seen in increasing rates of depression and suicide. Well, do read the article for more details, most of which I have recounted here in earlier postings. I single out the tendency of boys not to talk about their experience as a theme worth considering for a few minutes. The theme is central to the TIME article.

The not-so-"great male silence" is a legacy of most males for as many generations as one may care to count. Excluded from this group is the very small number who say a great deal (politicians, writers, teachers), but usually not about their inner lives, unless you count the rare exceptions (creative writers, theoretical psychologists such as Freud and Jung). Most men do not talk about their experience and that is the point.

Men have not changed much throughout the period of rapid transformation among women, and this is most notable among young males of high school and college age. The so-called "code of silence" has been in place forever, however, for boys and men. Just why this is so remains unclear, but living by the code now entails serious emotional consequences. Now? I would argue that it always has. I can only speak of the generations of my grandfathers, my father, my male friends, and my young male students. Nothing has changed in the 150 years those generations cover.

I recall the taciturn grandfathers, the emotionally inaccessible fathers, peers who have only begun to talk about our experience, and a few young males who risk breaking the code. But their numbers are small. They will tell me it is essential that they get things out into the open—but hesitate.

The TIME Magazine journalist also points to the need among boys for "intimacy, love and romance." My friend Malina Saval wrote about "The Secret Lives of Boys," but there is little on that topic. This need is essential to know about, since it's at the heart of lives that boys are dying to talk about.

Miles Groth, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Wagner College.

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