Raising Sons - Growing Up Male
Research over the past decade has revealed increasing evidence that boys and men in our society are suffering in a number of ways - depression, anxiety, difficulties with intimacy, and other problems are all too common - yet the socialization of males forces them into denial, repression, and displacement behaviors.
Mary Pipher's 1994 book, Reviving Ophelia, described today's world as "a look-obsessed, media-saturated, 'girl-poisoning' culture" that causes young girls to "stifle their creative spirits and natural impulses, which ultimately destroys their self-esteem." The book's title refers to the story of Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet: "As a girl, Ophelia is happy and free, but with adolescence she loses herself. When she falls in love with Hamlet, she lives only for his approval. She has no inner direction; rather, she struggles to meet the demands of Hamlet and her father. Her value is determined utterly by their approval. Ophelia is torn apart by her efforts to please. When Hamlet (despondent over the death of his father) spurns her, she goes mad with grief. Dressed in elegant clothes that weigh her down, she drowns in a stream filled with flowers."
Four years later, the release of Real Boys by William Pollack drew attention to the fact that today's boys are also in trouble: "Hamlet fared little better than Ophelia. Alienated from himself, as well as from his mother and father, he was plagued by doubt and erupted in uncontrolled outbursts. He grew increasingly isolated, desolate, and alone, and those who loved him could not get through to him. In the end, he died a tragic and unnecessary death."
Pollack... says that as a society we shame young boys and men into repressing and denying their more tender feelings. Pollack talks about the "Boy Code" that commands boys to "be a man, be strong, be brave, don't be a sissy, don't show your feelings." He suggests that the Boy Code is learned at an early age in sandboxes, playgrounds, classrooms, and our homes. Boys who don't learn quickly to conform to this code are taunted and shamed until they do. As a result, they learn to be silent and to suffer quietly, retreating behind what Pollack calls "the mask of masculinity."
Parents often unintentionally play a significant role in perpetuating the stereotypes of what it is to be male (and what it is to be female). Men and women both learn what it means to be male primarily from adult and peer examples in their own formative years. As a result, both fathers and mothers tend to reinforce the models for masculinity that they themselves learned as children from their own parents and peers, a style which typically does not engage the child's feelings but rather teaches them to "tough it out".
Differences in how parents react to male versus female children are apparent even in infancy. For example, parents tend to try to calm and comfort their sons when they are distressed, to "fix" the problem as quickly as possible. Of course, the desire to comfort an unhappy child is in itself neither abnormal nor a bad thing. However, the response to distressed sons is different from the response to distressed daughters. With daughters, parents tend to respond by encouraging them to express how they feel and - when they're old enough to speak - to talk through their feelings. Perhaps because young boys tend to be more intense or aggressive in the way they express emotions, their parents tend to hold back and respond less expressively than they would with their daughters, which again can inadvertently send the message to boys that feelings are "bad" - something to be avoided.
Pollack refers to research showing that “not only do mothers allow girls to express a greater range of emotional states as infants, but, as girls get older, mothers also simply communicate more with them than with boys. Mothers not only speak more to daughters about feelings but actually display a wider range of feelings to them. [The mother] may actually use more vivid facial expressions, allowing both girl and mother to develop better skills at recognizing each other's emotions. But with sons, mothers tend to hold back, to respond less expressively, conforming to the stereotype that girls should be more emotionally expressive and that boys should be more emotionally constrained."
As these parental messages are given repeatedly through childhood, the different expectations that parents have of their sons and daughters become crystal clear to their children. The same messages are then reinforced by peers in the schoolyards and playgrounds, by teachers in the classroom, by coaches in the locker room, and by other significant adults in boys' lives. Perhaps most significantly, what is conveyed to boys is, as Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson say in their book, Raising Cain, that they must be -- not feminine - perhaps even antifeminine -- and so they consciously and deliberately attack in others and in themselves traits that might possibly be defined as feminine. These include tenderness, empathy, compassion, and any show of emotional vulnerability."
By the time boys become teenagers, most of them have become so adept at repressing and masking their more tender feelings that they often no longer have a vocabulary to identify or describe these feelings even to themselves. The exception is anger - the one "acceptable" male emotion.
Anger hides other, less acceptable feelings from the people around them and even from the boys themselves - especially feelings like fear, anxiety, and depression. Clinicians and counsellors are aware that anger is often a warning flag - a signal that something else is wrong. For example, anger is typically the first observable sign of teenage depression. As a result, parents often feel confused by the silence and by what they see as "inexplicable bouts of anger" or "wild mood swings" in their sons. They ask themselves, "What is happening to him? He used to be such a happy little boy." Parents, fearing for their son's well-being, will often point to outside influences as they try to understand changes that do not make sense to them. Not knowing how to connect meaningfully with their sons, parents talk about feeling bankrupt.
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