By Willow Lawson, published on July 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
"Don't be a mama's boy."
"Be a little man."
These expressions, so embedded in American culture, are our early attempts to socialize young boys into the roles we will eventually demand of them, says William Pollack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. These sayings may seem innocuous, but such words "tell boys that they can't show feelings of connection," he says. "Boys are yearning for adult connection."
Pollack, the author of the book Real Boys, believes our assumptions of how boys should behave—that anger, rage and aggression are normal, that "boys will be boys"—are at the root of rapid increases in the diagnosis of ADHD and depression in boys. He says violence is also a by-product of the struggles that boys and young men face.
"These are illnesses we create as a society," says Pollack, who presented his research at a New York Academy of Sciences conference on youth violence prevention. He calls behavioral problems in boys a "silent crisis": Many boys appear happy, tough and confident, but are really depressed, lonely and sometimes violent.
Parents often assume that giving boys too much attention and love will result in dependent and clingy kids, especially in their relationships with their mothers. As a result, boys are told to be strong and independent at the tender ages of 3, 4 or 5 years old, a process that stunts healthy emotional development and interrupts the attachment process, Pollack says. Frequently compounding boys' detachment is the absence of father figures. Girls, on the other hand, are often encouraged to maintain a close bond to both their mother and father through childhood.
How can parents help their boys grow up emotionally strong? Pollack says parents should dispense with the notion that boys should get "hard knocks" to help them grow into independent, self-sufficient adults.