Instead of trying to stifle a boy’s natural propensity for competition and aggression, parents should make every effort to channel them. Boys are the future men of the world. They need to be handled with care.
According to Michael Gurian, author of the critically acclaimed book The Wonder of Boys (Putnam), parents concerned that their sons are too rough and tumble or too tough, in large part, can’t change innately what a boy is. Parents can teach their son to develop who he is with confidence and toward a direction that contributes to our world, but first and foremost, the son must be allowed to be a boy.
According to Gurian, boys need to be taught to be brave, truthful and good, or they will not feel real. And if they do not feel real then they will become more aggressive. Teaching a boy to be gentle, then, is all about teaching a boy to be himself. But the road can be a tricky one for parents.
Boys’ self-esteem is fragile. More fragile even than that of girls, says William Pollack, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School who has studied men and boys for more than 20 years. Their confidence can be more easily eroded. And boys are more likely than girls to be treated as discipline problems, to be suspended from school and even to drop out. Finally, studies show that boys suffer from depression as much as, if not more than, girls, and that boys are four to six times more likely than girls to commit suicide.
In the midst of these disturbing statistics and ever-present boy-committed acts of violence, Pollack wrote Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (Random House). Pollack and Gurian draw on vast professional experiences to explain the psychology of boys and how they interact with our culture. Both authors conclude that boys’ needs are not being met by those members of society to whom they are entrusted due to society’s misperception of who boys are.
Boy vs. Girl
Boys ARE different from girls. They learn and play differently and resolve conflicts differently. Boys who experience hurt or rejection tend to throw themselves into some physical activity. Gurian stresses that boys have a unique chemical make-up that influences them to behave differently than girls do. Boys are more competitive, more aggressive and more emotionally fragile.
Boys are “hard-wired,” with chemically-disposed tendencies, Gurian says, and his book helps parents deal with their sons based on improving his readers’ comprehension of how boys work. Gurian also feels that after the age of 10, boys’ formation should be overseen by the father and trusted older male mentors. His book offers answers to a variety of issues, serving as a manual for parents.
For those parents who seek a basic rule-of-thumb philosophy that honors the unique qualities of individual sons, Pollack feels that a premature definition of a boy’s identity harms him. Preset stereotypes deny our sons the emotional range that in our society may be identified with the female. Our sons are the victims of outdated myths: one of the most harmful is that boys should separate from their mothers as early as possible. Well-meaning mothers are complying in different degrees with this mandate, to their sons’ detriment.
Cutting ties with our sons makes them lonely and depressed. Pollack says that for most boys, this separation starts in earnest when boys begin elementary school and then again when they reach adolescence. It is not so much that boys are introduced to the world; it’s that boys are pushed “outside the family too abruptly, with too little preparation for what lies in store, too little emotional support, not enough opportunity to express their feelings, and often with no option of going back or changing course.” In our culture, he continues, “we don’t tolerate any stalling or listen to any whining. That’s because we believe that disconnection is important, even essential, for a boy to ‘make a clean break’ and become a man.”
The Unwritten Boy Code
Even though parents may raise their sons to be empathetic and emotionally open, the world outside the family still promotes what Pollack calls the “unwritten boy code,” which emphasizes the tough exterior and states the only acceptable emotion for a man, hence, boy, is anger. But to understand where boys are coming from and to defuse the explosive messages of the boy code in our society is to move toward a solution.
Pollack says, “We now know a great deal about how shame fuels anger, what can trigger it to turn into rage and violence, and how to think about and behave with boys differently, so they can feel better about their genuine selves, turn away from anger, avoid violent behavior, and still retain the qualities and pursue the activities that are more positively ‘boy’ – the vigorous action, the productive intensity, the boldness of individual endeavor, the empathy found in group play and team sports.”
Reconnecting with Boys
Parents need to allow their sons to feel the entire spectrum of emotions, not just the ones society deems acceptable. Many parents, in an effort to cheer up their sons, may downplay their sons’ feelings of sadness or rejection. Or perhaps one’s son has been in a fight at school or brings home a set of low grades. How parents react to their son’s misbehavior or failures also shapes his sense of self worth.
Overreacting with shock (“How could you do that?”) or globalizing (“How do you expect to get into a good college?”) will make the boy feel inherently bad or incompetent. Seeking out the facts and understanding his motives and feelings will better enable us to foster moral accountability and future success. Shaming or humiliating strikes a blow at the core of a boy’s sense of self and encourages him to disassociate from the traits labeled unacceptable.
In many cases, when boys are troubled, they won’t talk about their problems. Pollack offers parents sensible advice here. If your son has a problem, don’t take his refusal to talk about it personally. “Time silence syndrome” is a normal response to a painful experience. Boys may want to retreat in order to recover from a bad experience. Boys also need a safe place where they can express feelings of hurt without fear of ridicule or put-downs. Finally, boys communicate best when they are in action. In the course of doing something together, be it riding bicycles, taking a walk or even driving to the store, boys will reconnect with their parents and talk out their problems.
Boys and Why Tribes Matter
It’s very simple, really. Boys are dominated by the hormone testosterone. This is what makes them behave the way they do. Little boys will turn toys into guns or swords with more frequency than girls will. They will hit more. They’ll try to one-up more. A boy will seek out rough-and-tumble play, or, if he perceives himself as weak, another outlet for aggression. According to Gurian, the way to work with a boy’s natural tendencies is to love him in the way he needs to be loved.
Gurian says boys need tribes: one of his birth or adoptive parents including his grandparents; one of his extended family including friends, teachers, peers and mentors; and one of the community including church, media and other business-type groups. If a boy’s tribes do not coordinate efforts that encourage him to realize his true value in the world, he’s left without a life-defining or confident sense of purpose. With a lack of purpose, a boy’s life can flounder, and aggressive tendencies can surface.
A Safe Place
Although boys don’t always communicate and will often reject our best efforts to help them, Pollack’s message, nonetheless, is for the parent to say, “Here I am!” Saying less is injurious.
Pollack states, “We don’t really want our boys to move across the country, live apart from us and never call, although part of the mythic view of manhood is that boys must go through some solitary hardening ritual, some heroic mission, to prove their courage and solidify their masculinity.”
In reality, Pollack says we live in a world where people are interdependent and where our sons, no matter where they may live and work, can phone or come home easily. A parent’s heart and home must be the safe place to which a son can return, again and again.
Lynn Myrick is a local author. Susan Day is editor of this publication and the mother of three boys, ages 1, 5 and 8.