More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Raising Sons - Growing Up Male
by David J. Baxter, Transition Magazine
Spring 2003

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, who has since released The Real Boys Handbook, a guide for parents and others, 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.

Kindlon and Thompson say that, like Superman, who retreats into his icy Fortress of Solitude, "boys typically avoid discussing their feelings with anybody. They struggle alone, often with tragic consequences.? As these boys grow into men, their wives and girlfriends complain that "He never talks about his feelings. I never know what he's thinking. He doesn't share anything with me." And, as we have seen, when these men become fathers, they pass on the myths they have learned about what it means to be male to their own sons and daughters.

Philip Lee, in an Ottawa Citizen article (March 7, 2001), quotes Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys, as criticizing Pollack and others for "attributing pathology to normal boys" and seeking to "socialize boys away from conventional maleness." I think Ms. Sommers? complaint is based on a misunderstanding of what Pollack, Kindlon, and Thompson are saying. In fact, it is the Boy Code, the crippling myth of maleness (Kindlon and Thompson call it ?The Big Impossible,? a term they borrowed from the Fox Indians of Papua, New Guinea) that socializes and "pathologizes" boys and men.

As William Pollack says in Real Boys and perhaps even more clearly in The Real Boys Handbook, the intent is not to strip boys of their masculinity but to "give boys back the other half of being human that we've taken away from them" - to help boys understand that the restrictive definitions of masculinity tacitly or expressly promoted by Western society are not the only ways to be male.

The Parent?s Role
Parents make boys into men. Like girls, boys need their parents? love, and ? if it?s a love that recognizes and respects their sons? feelings - it will support them in the struggle to become emotionally mature adults.

Fathers have an important role to play. For better or for worse, men provide models of masculinity for both their sons and their daughters, in particular by conveying to their children what they perceive to be the acceptable limits of emotional closeness and emotional expression for males. By learning how to talk about his own feelings, hopes, worries, and fears, and by talking about such feelings to his children as they mature, a father gives the message that it is normal and acceptable for a man to have such feelings and to display them. Having themselves grown up with the emotional shackles of the Boy Code, men often find this difficult to do. And yet, it is something fathers need to do, not only for the sake of their sons, but also for their wives, their daughters, their grandchildren, and themselves.

As Kindlon and Thompson point out, when a boy reaches middle childhood, ?the way a father behaves during play or shared activities teaches his son how to manage his emotions. Research shows that young boys who are aggressive and low in prosocial activities - meaning they don?t share - have fathers who are more likely to engage in angry exchanges with them.? The authors remind fathers that ?a boy observes how his dad resolves conflicts, cooperates, and works as a partner in marriage and family, in the community, and at work. In all arenas of his life, a father?s actions speak more loudly than his words, and a boy is listening carefully to both.?

Mothers can give boys what they need to become healthier men by doing what is often in their hearts, giving their sons "complete and unconditional empathy and understanding for a full range of feelings, " as Pollack puts it in Real Boys. Mothers, too, model what it is to be masculine. Mothers are the female mirror through which boys gain understanding of how men and women relate to each other. Pollack believes that ?by empowering the mother, you empower the son ? empowered mothers are a key to resolving society?s confusion about masculinity. Far from making boys weaker, the love of a mother can and does make boys stronger, emotionally and psychologically.?

Being a single mother raising one or more sons creates additional challenges. As Pollack notes, more children live with their mothers than with their fathers following divorce. ?How will she provide the key ingredient of her son?s upbringing - whether it be how to use the men?s room or how to throw a fastball - that we often assume a father?s steady presence contributes? How will she keep her own mixed feelings about men (which may include hurt, anger, or disappointment) from negatively affecting her son? How can she keep from unduly relying on her son to play the part of the man in her life, when he [even as a teenager] is still a child himself?? Pollack shows how many single mothers can and do overcome these difficulties, offering several ?Dos and Don?ts? in The Real Boys Handbook.

Adolescence is a particularly difficult time, not only for the adolescent girl or boy but also for the parents. Parents? most common complaint about their teenage son is that he won?t talk to them about his thoughts and feelings, and/or that he is secretive about his life and activities. The teen may react to direct questions as if they were intrusions into his privacy - an interrogation, rather than a conversation.

Often, the solution is twofold: First, find out what interests your son and look for opportunities to join him in that activity, even if only as a spectator (for example, watch him play one of the video games he enjoys). And second, talk to him - about anything. Have a ?conversation? with him that presents repeated opportunities for him to enter into it, starting with non-threatening topics like movies, TV, music or games. Or simply tell him what you are doing, thinking and feeling in your life. He will probably not respond very much initially but by doing this you are, in effect, modeling for him what it means to you to have communication with your family on a variety of levels.

Raising sons today requires dialogue, introspection, and feedback. It demands the ability to be open and the willingness to challenge past modeling about "being male." And it calls for both fathers and mothers to reach out to their sons and break through the Boy Code by supporting the expression of their full range of emotions in an atmosphere of love, safety, and respect.

Kindlon, Dan, & Thompson, Michael. Raising Cain: Protecting The Emotional Life Of Boys. Ballantine Books, 2000
Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Ballantine Books, 1995
Pollack, William. Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. Random House, 1998
Pollack, William, & Cushman, Kathleen. Real Boys Workbook: Definitive Guide to Understanding and Interacting with Boys of All Ages. Villard Books, 2001
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