Draw a line down the middle of a blank piece of paper. On the left side, write: “I am a male in society. Being a man means …” On the right side, “I am a female in society. Being a woman means …”
Take several minutes to write at least 5 sentences for each column.
Now, compare the two lists: How are they similar? How are they different? Are they helpful guides for male or female behavior? Or, do you feel they are somehow limiting?
Where do you think these ideas about what it means to be a man or woman come from? Are we born with them or are they learned?
In “It’s Dangerous to Be a Boy,” Michael C. Reichert, a psychologist, writes:
Early in my first go at being a father, I was hijacked by ancient impulses. Our family lived in a rowhouse neighborhood in Philadelphia, and right down the street was a small playground where gangs of boys gathered for games of stickball and basketball. My son loved playing sports. But he was unprepared for what developed as his friends grew older.
After years together laughing and riding their tricycles and then bikes up and down the block, several of the boys grew angry and mean. Ultimately, they turned on my son, taunting him, leaving him out of their games. He began to trudge home, tail between his legs. And I felt called to action.
At first, I tried to bolster his confidence so he would give the playground another go. But one Saturday morning I met him at the front steps and told him he could not come into the house. “You have to figure this out,” I said. “I’ll stay with you as long as you need, but I cannot let you just give up.”
He tried to push past me, his humiliation becoming frantic. He melted down, screaming and crying. I kept saying: “You can do it. You don’t have to give up.” A neighbor poked her head out, concerned about what must have sounded like child abuse.
Did I do the right thing? Even now I’m not sure. He did go back to the playground, and eventually managed some kind of truce with the other kids. He grew up into a fine man, a teacher, and understands I was trying to help, in my clumsy way. But while teaching him to stand up for himself, was I also passing along the prejudice that a boy should override his pain and never back down from a fight?
What happened in my son’s peer group was perfectly predictable. Boyhood immerses boys in violence and the bullying that leads to it. High school boys are more likely than girls to have been in a physical fight in the past year and male children are more likely to have been victims of violence. Three types of male violence — violence against women, violence against other men and violence against themselves — are deeply interwoven.
Violence springs from what boys learn about what it means to be a man. One researcher observed a small group of preschool boys and noticed how, over two years, they adapted to cultural cues. The ways they dressed, played and related to one another and to their parents changed significantly. They even formed a “Mean Team” to harass girls in their classroom. Another researcher interviewed elementary-school boys and captured their brutally frank stories of punishing other boys who failed to conform.
Boys take their experiences to heart, feeling weak and ashamed when they need comfort. Plan International USA, a nonprofit group focused on children’s rights, commissioned a study among 10- to 19-year-olds that found nearly three-quarters of boys said they felt pressure to be physically strong and nearly half of the 14- to 19 year-old male respondents felt pressure to be “willing to punch someone if provoked.”
The link between masculine norms and misconduct has been clearly established. A 2017 study of 18- to 30-year-old men from the United States, Britain and Mexico found that the young men who subscribe most to traditional gender identities were unhappier and more prone to bullying and sexual harassment. Nearly 60 percent of the American respondents said their parents were the primary source of these restrictive cues.
Boys don’t come into the world with some inborn tendency toward domination or violence. As the Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura explained: “People are not born with preformed repertoires of aggressive behavior. They must learn them.” The problem is rooted in boys’ socialization, which is characterized by physical discipline, control and disdain for weakness.
With this template for relating to themselves and to the world, it is not surprising that, compared with girls, adolescent boys and young men abuse tobacco at higher rates, drive more recklessly and engage in riskier sex. In the United States, 75 percent of deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds are of boys and young men. Males are more likely than females to die from injuries sustained in car accidents or falls, and from homicides. Especially when the risks of masculinity are compounded by racism and poverty, too many boys do not survive into manhood.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
— What’s the hardest thing about being a boy? What specific pressures or challenges do boys face? If you’re a girl, what do you observe to be hardships for boys?
— What are the good or best things about being male? What are the advantages that society provides for boys and men?
— Where did you learn what it is to be man or woman? From parents, peers, pop culture? Tell us about a specific time you learned what is expected of you based on your gender? For example, how boys or girls are supposed to dress or act, laugh or cry, express themselves or not?
— Mr. Reichert provides many facts and statistics about boys’ attitudes, behavior and life outcomes. Which did you find most significant and striking, and why? Do you agree with his view that “boyhood immerses boys in violence and the bullying that leads to it?” What have you experienced or observed that supports or contradicts this belief? If you are a boy, have you ever felt pressure to act tough and fight to not appear weak?
— What do adults, parents and teachers get wrong about being a boy? Do you ever feel confused or frustrated by the messages you receive about what it is to be a boy or man? Do you think it is harder to be a boy or man today than for your parents or grandparents? Why or why not?
— The Opinion piece ends:
Fathers, especially, may feel that times have changed so much since they were boys that their counsel amounts to outdated clichés. And it’s true that this generation of boys is in a much better position than we are to assess the future. But it’s not true that we are not needed — far from it.
What parents can do, must do, for their sons is never underestimate the power of listening to them, knowing them, and standing by while they navigate the rough waters of boyhood. Behind every boy who avoids being swept away in the current is someone who holds him — and believes in his ability to hold his own.
Do you agree with Mr. Reichert’s advice to parents? What role should parents play in helping boys to navigate the challenges of boyhood? What would you recommend to parents seeking to understand how to better to support their sons?