Decoding boys
Friday, September 17, 2004
By Geoff Mosher, Westborough News

Dr. William Pollack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is probably best known for his book Real Boys - Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood.

Pollack is nationally-renowned speaker, having appeared on television shows such as The Today Show, 20/20, Good Morning America, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. He is co-director of the Center for Men and Director of Continuing Education on Psychology at McLean Hospital in Belmont. Aside from his writing and his work at McLean and Harvard, he maintains a small private practice in Newton where he treats boys, girls, men and women.

Pollack's groundbreaking book http://www.amazon.ca/exec/obidos/ASI...inks04-20]Real Boys[/url] was published in 1998 by Random House. It contains his advice on raising boys and numerous insights gleaned from the study of 200 boys, ages 12 to 18.

In his study, Pollack found that many boys are confused by conflicting demands on males in society and are left feeling depressed, isolated and vulnerable - with some potentially frightening implications. Boys who appear to be psychologically healthy on the outside are sometimes suffering from confusion and despair on the inside.

Pollack began his study in the mid-1990s, after spending 20 years treating adolescent and adult males in a clinical setting. Participants in his study came from mostly white, middle-class families in the northeastern United States. They were subjected to one-on-one interviews and a host of psychological inventories designed to measure subconscious emotional states.

The results of his study showed how the gender revolution that began 30 years ago has caused confusion among adolescent males today, who are trying to live up to traditional macho images of masculinity, while also trying to conform to society's "new-age" male - caring, sensitive and empathic.

"When I try to be sensitive and caring, girls ignore me," one interviewed boy said. "They want to go out with the jocks. When I play the tough, dominant guy, they complain that I'm harassing them. How can I win?"

The pressure to conform to traditional male stereotypes increases as boys age, forcing them to mask their feelings through what Pollack calls the "boy code" - an unwritten rule that boys must hide their feelings, put up a nonchalant front and "be a man," he says.

On their way to becoming men, boys are getting caught in the cross fire of mixed messages, Pollack argues. Some act out by bullying others. Some wallow in depression while their grades plummet. And, as the carnage at Columbine High School showed, a small few retaliate violently - on a large scale.

The "boy code" begins to affect boys as young as 4 years old, when parents, especially mothers, are encouraged to make their children less dependent on them. Often, they are discouraged from playing with girls and told not to do activities perceived as feminine.

At home, parents need to create a "shame-free zone" for their sons, showing them that they can talk to their parents without being ridiculed. Pollack suggests that parents do activities with boys that they enjoy - such as video games - and then broach the topic with a comment like, "It seems like a tough time right now." Many boys will talk immediately, while others will need to be approached a few times before they acknowledge that something is wrong.

In Real Boys' Voices, his follow-up book, Pollack spent time in Littleton, Colo., after the Columbine shootings and spoke to many boys there. Surprisingly, many were sympathetic to the gunmen, he found.

Many boys become bullies, or are bullied themselves and unable to talk about how it makes them feel, he said. Part of cleaning up the problem of bullying is to have empathy with the bully as well as his victim.

See also:
Baxter, David. Raising Sons. Transition Magazine, 2003.

Pollack, William, & Cushman, Kathleen. Real Boys Workbook: Definitive Guide to Understanding and Interacting with Boys of All Ages. Villard Books, 2001