How to Believe in Boys
We need not be pessimistic about the goodness of boys and men
Posted Feb 09, 2019
In some form or another, one particular question comes up whenever I talk to parents of boys. A worried mother or father will ask: “How can I keep my son from becoming… (angry, addicted, abusive, delinquent, defiant, disconnected, self-centered, sick, etc.)?” Over the past several decades I have worked with boys and their families, a sea change has occurred. Where a son was considered a blessing in generations past, there seem so many ways for boys to go off track today. Recent surveys report that expecting parents prefer a girl, believing that raising sons is “too uncertain.”
The truth is that there have always been casualties of boyhood—to the point that our culture has a host of handy myths to normalize the losses. Greater risk-taking, for example, producing disproportionate rates of death or injury from accidents of all kinds, is magically attributed to male hormones. Pseudoscience renders the more basic problem invisible. Everyone expects boys and young men to act with less regard for their well being.
But such outcomes are not natural and boys can and should be expected to act in their own best interests. Unwise risks, unsound decisions, hurtful or immoral acts—these and other kinds of misbehavior signal a boy who is adrift. It is when children become detached from their relational anchors that they lose sight of themselves and their core values. Absent that reality check, a boy is vulnerable to the norms and impulses of his male peer group, guided not by accountability to someone who loves and values him but to a brotherhood he seeks to impress.
My understanding of the relational needs of boys was sharpened by two experiences. A couple of years ago, my son and his wife had a boy, sending me, in a sense, back to school. My grandson and I have developed favorite routines: walking to the playground down the street; from there to the coffee shop, where he gets a muffin; or, to the zoo when it’s warmer; sometimes to the nature center. Most days, wherever we go he walks and I follow, meandering across yards, streets and sidewalks, taking stock of everything along the way. Other days, he turns to me with his arms outstretched, a winning smile on his face, and asks, “Shoulders?” It is my cue to pick him up so he can ride up top, clasping my hair.
Most mornings I try to greet my grandson as warmly as I can when my son drops him off: “I am so glad you’re here,” I say, to match his own openhearted enthusiasm to be with us. The other day, out of the blue, while hugging me he took my head in his hands and pulled back to place his forehead and nose against mine, peering deeply into my eyes and smiling. His native ability to connect catches me by surprise in so many ways.
I had a similar experience in several studies of boys’ education I led, finding myself unprepared for how remarkably attuned adolescent boys were to the moods, efforts, and personalities of their teachers and coaches. Thousands of boys in countries around the world described a serve-and-volley communication process that honed teachers’ lessons until they “fit” their interests and aptitudes. Boys “elicit” the pedagogy they need from attentive and responsive teachers.
Contrary to popular stereotypes, we could see that instead of being indifferent to relationships boys are, if anything, even more dependent on personal connections as a precondition for trying something new. In all sorts of classrooms around the world, we realized, it is less how a young man learns than for whom he will learn.
I have incorporated this insight into how I approach young men and their families in my clinical practice. Underlying the problem that brings the family in will be a breakdown in the boy’s sense of “feeling felt” by his parents. I work with both ends of the disconnection, encouraging parents to reach for their sons and boys to be more honest with their mothers and fathers about their needs.
There are usually real explanations for parents’ disconnection from their sons: intergenerational trauma, current problems, hyper-masculine family cultures. Mothers face the special challenge Kate Lombardi Stone called the Mama’s Boy Myth: “Instead of pushing them out of the nest to make their way in the rough-and-tumble world, these moms hold their sons too tightly.”
Boys themselves pick up on similar cues that they should not depend on their parents. Researchers have found that preschool boys who don’t project macho images of toughness and independence are likely to become peer group targets. Australian sociologist Amanda Keddie, in a paper titled “Little Boys: Tomorrows Macho Lads,” described research with 6-8 year olds who were brutally frank about punishing other boys who failed to conform.
Young males take these messages to heart, feeling weak or ashamed when they need comfort or protection. Plan International, the children’s rights NGO, commissioned a study in 2018 among 10-18 year olds that confirmed how these norms continue to shape how boys and young men think of themselves. Nearly three quarters said they felt pressure to be physically strong and nearly half felt they must be “willing to punch someone if provoked.” Nearly all had heard someone tell a boy he was “acting like a girl” when he showed vulnerable feelings.
The link between these cultural experiences and misconduct has been clearly established. A 2017 study of 18-30 year olds from the U.S., U.K., and Mexico found that the young men most wedded to traditional masculine identities were unhappier, more prone to bullying, and to sexual harassment and assault. What was most sobering was that 60% of the young men in the study said their parents were the primary source of their conditioning in masculinity. Is it really surprising that both self-concept and behavior come to reflect boys’ experience of their most intimate relationships?
Children forget who they are, come to question their most basic human needs, when those they depend on for care are in a fog about their humanity. A man’s capacity to wreak damage on himself and others must not be underestimated, but as I have sat with boys and men guilty of the worst kinds of acts, the factors leading to their actions have always been horribly apparent. Should such males be held accountable? They must, as an ounce of prevention.
But the current reckoning with men and masculinity, long overdue, will invariably lead to a more searching reconsideration of male development. From my experience with my grandson, my clients, boys I meet with in schools and in research studies, I can say that this effort is likely to be heartening, one that should restore our faith in boys (and men).
Amanda Keddie, Little Boys: Tomorrow's Macho Lads. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 24 (3), December 2003.
Kate Lombardi Stone, The Mama's Boy Myth: Why Keeping Our Sons Close Makes Them Stronger. New York: Penguin Group, 2012.
Brian Heilman, Gary Barker & Alexander Harrison, The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in the US, UK, and Mexico. Washington, DC: Promundo - US, 2017.
Tresa Undem & Ann Wang, The State of Gender Equality for U.S. Adolescents. Washington, DC: Plan International, 2018.