I remember well in the 1960s when African-Americans started using the phrase “Black is beautiful.” They were primarily talking about physical appearance, because until then, so many black people did what they could to look white – including expensive and painful hair straightening. Actually, the movement went beyond physical appearance to include pride in culture. A few years later came two short sentences –the title and opening lyrics of a James Brown song – which went even further: “Say it loud! I’m black and I’m proud!”
These were major attempts to deal with self-hate. And looking back, it’s clear that they were necessary steps toward true liberation. Virtually every minority group has had to deal with self-hate, and there are at least remnants of it still remaining – including in Jews, Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans.
For any of these groups, the most important members who need to hear this message of pride are children, human beings in their formative years, who otherwise grow up feeling that there is something wrong with them because of the way they feel, look, or act.
Women have dealt with issues of self-esteem too, perhaps most vociferously and most successfully, and they have certainly transmitted this new sense of pride to their daughters (as have the fathers of daughters). Probably the phrase most often said to girls today, and it is one that has been said for years now, is “You can do anything!”
But we do seem to need a scapegoat, don’t we? Whether or not life is a zero-sum game, the fact is that it is or certainly feels like it to most of us. And in some cases, like the gender of who is in the top 20% of a high school class, it is. If girls and young women (but not boys and young men) are going to get all kinds of encouragement to succeed, someone is going to fall behind, and that someone is very possibly your son or grandson.
And even if he is not going to fall behind, he is very likely to get the message – from school among other places – that there is something inherently wrong with him if he is a boy who acts like many, probably most, boys have always acted. It may not often be front page news, but every parent and grandparent of boys knows that the grade school classroom is often not boy-friendly.
I have four grandsons, who range in age from two to 10. My second oldest is nine, and by the time he was seven, he had already gotten in trouble in school on several occasions. My oldest has had an occasional problem in school as well. And these are fundamentally good boys. Yes, I’m biased, but I’m not blind, and what I see when I visit them are normal children, bright and caring children, who simply act like boys.
My sons, the fathers of these two boys, have both expressed major issues with the policies of “zero tolerance” that now appear to dominate schools. And how does this policy manifest itself? Take the example of my then 7-year-old grandson, whose father got a call one day at work to say that he had to come and pick up his son, who had been suspended for the rest of the school day – for drawing a picture.
What was the picture? Was it a gun? A bomb? The scene of an explosion? No. It was an anatomically correct stick figure of a man. Yes, it was a man with a penis.
My son was very upset – not with my grandson, but with the school, for forcing my son to leave work in the middle of the day to pick up my grandson for what my son felt was an absurd reason. And my daughter-in-law also thought it was ridiculous, as did my wife, and my son’s in-laws, who are far more conservative than we are.
I think my son handled it beautifully. My grandson was upset to be sent home, and felt like there was something wrong with him. And that is how kids feel; you have to be pretty grown up to feel that maybe it’s not you; that perhaps there is something wrong with “the system.” My son told him that there was nothing bad in what he drew, and that he should feel free to draw anything he wanted and write anything he wanted, anything – at home.
“But the school has its rules,” my son said to him. “And when you’re at school you have to follow those rules.”
Good point, but as many articles and books point out, those rules more often make it harder for boys than they do for girls. There wouldn’t be books like educator Kelley King’s Writing the Playbook: A Practitioner’s Guide to Creating Boy-Friendly Schools if there wasn’t a problem with boy-unfriendly classrooms.
And the worst of it is that boys who act like “traditional boys” are beginning to think that there is something wrong with them. Some people get upset with the expression “Boys will be boys” because they see it as excusing violent behavior. But neither I nor my sons are suggesting that violent behavior should be excused.
However, even in innocuous acts that barely touch on violence, things seem to have gone too far. Most “zero tolerance” stories that we see in the media involve boys who do anything even involving the shape of a gun, no matter how harmless. In a one story, two second-grade boys were suspended from school for pretending their pencils were guns and that they were “shooting” at each other. While I applaud the efforts to make sure that boys who don’t fit the “traditional” boy mold are not picked on and are truly accepted for who they are, I feel that we must extend this same tolerance to boys who do act in the more traditional ways – so long as this doesn’t involve bullying or other violence.
Otherwise we do run the risk of making them feel that there is something wrong with them. As psychologist Michael Thompson, an expert on boys, has said, "Girl behavior is the gold standard in schools. Boys are treated like defective girls."
And this can lead to self-hate. Boys have to feel good about themselves. But this will be hard for them as long as so many well-meaning adults – often including teachers and school administrators, but sometimes including their own parents – make them feel that their natural behaviors are basically wrong.
Sure, boys can be difficult. But it is imperative that they not be led to feel that they are, in their very natures, flawed. And this isn’t simply about my grandsons -- whom I adore. It’s about all boys, who are someone’s sons and grandsons, and who deserve a society that treasures them every bit as much as it does their sisters.
Say it loud! I’m a boy and I’m proud! Yes, boy is beautiful.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Sherman