Making Boys Better Men

Making Boys Better Men

If men are simple and easily understood, then boys, who are arguably younger and smaller, should be even simpler and easier to understand.  However, numerous findings indicate that boys are having trouble and that this trouble has resulted in big societal changes.  For example, girls are now graduating from college in greater numbers than boys, obtaining higher starting salaries in many different occupations, and outperforming boys in more roles that were traditionally defined as masculine.  What is happening to our boys?  If boys will be boys, when will they be men?  How do we ensure that the development of men occurs in the most effective way that promotes their growth and well-being, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually?

Let’s back up to the 1970’s for a minute.  S. L. Bem (1974) began writing about what was termed “psychological androgyny,” which essentially promoted the notion that the amount of satisfaction in a marriage or relationship increased when the partners had more characteristics of both sexes.  Briefly, one conclusion of this line of thinking is that men  who reported having more traits that were traditionally feminine made better husbands or boyfriends than did their “totally macho” counterparts.  Later researchers indicated that this perceived positive contribution of androgyny in a relationship might be achieved at the expense of the male’s identity or sense of masculine self in other areas of life. In fact, it was suggested that men who were not conforming to the biological, that is, innate and hard-wired, imperatives of traditional masculinity were undergoing stress and negative effects of not living up to the notion of what it means to be a man (Bohan, 1997).  The  Women’s Liberation Movement and its tendency to promote women at the expense of the male ego was often noted in this research.  Many thought that the growth and success of women came at the expense and decline of men, and thus was to blame for the emerging findings that boys are not doing as well as girls in educational and occupational settings.

In 1989, Robert Bly published Iron John: A Book About Men, (updated in 2004) a book that explains why men are hurting and what could be done about it. One of the book’s strongest ideas is that, due to the women’s movement, men are now allowing women to define masculinity, as opposed to learning masculinity from a man. Bly went even further back into history and concluded that the diminution of the male’s importance began with the Industrial Revolution, and that the transition from a rural economy, in which the father was home, tending the farm, and visible to the wife and children all day, to an urban economy, in which the father left home in the morning before the children were awake and returned home later and later at night, even when the children were already in bed, made the father, in specific, and later the male, in general, less of an influence in the child’s life. Eventually, the father’s absence resulted in his being a target of the wife and children’s anger. The father’s time in his children’s lives, especially as regards the father’s teaching, was preempted by his working outside the home, which was, again, attributable to the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution.

The working male evolved in the United States into the “50’s male,” typified by John Wayne, in which the man was independent, unemotional, tough, and responsible, often at the expense of his emotions and his family. Men could not share their innermost secrets with their male friends, as they were too busy competing with them, and their male friends might see them as weak or dependent. Men could not share their innermost secrets with their wives, as they were afraid their wives would then perceive them as weak or dependent, and no self-respecting woman would tolerate a weak or dependent  man. Therefore, the males of the 50’s mopped themselves into an emotional corner, so to speak, where the only confidantes with whom they felt comfortable sharing their true selves were their male bartender, who would listen in a non-judgmental way while they became alcoholics, or by finding a mistress, a woman other than their wife with whom they could share their true and unfiltered thoughts and feelings about their lives. Both of these solutions to their emotional difficulties eventually bred more problems.

Robert Bly suggested that we look into other cultures, as well as still farther back into history, into ancient myths and legends, to help us rediscover how men have inculcated a sense of the masculine into boys over the years. He relates an ancient German myth, Iron Hans, dated 1250 B.C., in which a boy is mentored into adulthood by a caring man other than his father, and he proposes a similar kind of developmental scheme for the current generation. There were some excellent points about this work for my work with boys and men, and they bear discussing here. First, a boy is born into the world, and he is usually assigned to the care of the mother, who nurtures the boy, feeds him, and soothes his hurts and pains. As this occurs, the boy develops a bond with the mother, which enables him to grow up and trust women. At or around the age of ten, the boy learns to self-soothe, and he begins to separate from his mother and prepare to go to the world of the father.

Unfortunately, when many boys are at the prime moment for this induction into the world of the father, the world of man, the father is not present. He is either working, the parents are divorced, or the father has never been around to take responsibility for the son’s development. This results in what Bly has termed “father hunger.” If the father is present in the boy’s life, then the boy bonds with the father, learns the masculine way of being-in-the-world, and is prepared to trust and deal with older men and take his place with them when he grows up. When the boy enters high school, he begins the process of separating from his father. Now, with both the bonding with the mother and the bonding with his father under his belt, the boy is prepared to meet the male mentor or mentors that will help him grow from boyhood to manhood. He will learn how to be a man from other men in his life, and he will not be dependent upon women to teach him how to be a man.

Ronald Levant, a past-president of the American Psychological Association (APA), proposed a different way of looking at the development of the male psyche.  He views gender roles as constructed by the society in which we live, as opposed to the biological imperative discussed above.  Levant (2012) cites evidence that boys as infants have been found to be more “emotional” than girls, which flies in the face of many years of our believing that women are more emotional than men.  Could it be that, as a society, we have somehow forced boys into stereotypes that contradict their very nature?  Levant and his colleagues have proposed the Gender Role Identity Paradigm (GRIP) to emphasize the notion that individual differences are more important than had originally been thought in studying within-gender differences, and that the men who are more likely to have trouble are those who think that men should have sex-specific characteristics or traits, and that women should not.  Again, the idea that men are simple, and women are complex.  The Gender Role Strain model argues that males and females have more in common than does the “boys will be boys” type of thinking.  It is society that creates what is termed the Masculinity Ideology.  To quote Levant:

“Masculinity Ideology is the internalization of cultural belief systems and attitudes toward masculinity and men’s roles (operationally defined by gender role stereotypes and norms).  Through social influence processes resulting in reinforcement, punishment, and observational learning, masculinity ideologies inform, encourage, and constrain boys (and men) to conform to the prevailing male role norms by adopting certain socially-sanctioned masculine behaviors and avoiding certain proscribed behaviors”.(p.21).

Thus, boys who perceive themselves as not meeting these societally-imposed requirements of manhood experience what Levant and his colleagues refer to a Gender Role Strain, and they often become disenfranchised, depressed, or worse.  This then accounts for the trends noted above and the fact that girls tend to be “getting ahead” in a number of traditional male categories.

How do we fix this? 

First, we need to inculcate in boys a sense that their individuality is more important than their manliness.  This will not be easy.  Boys are continually bombarded with macho notions of what it means to be a man.  Just as exposure to ultra- thin models has been blamed for the rise in eating disorders and low self-esteem among girls, awareness needs to be raised of the fact that the continuing presentation of the idea that boys are only as good as their macho image has had similar destructive effects on boys.  We need to turn off our television sets and decrease our exposure to media that presents an endless succession of these images.

More education in the way of combating bullying and providing boys who are bullied with more protections are needed.  Consciousness has been raised a great deal about this area in the past few years, and we are beginning to see some inroads into more ways to prevent bullying.  This should eventually lead to boys getting back on an equal footing with girls in both educational and occupational areas.

We need to provide more opportunities for boys to communicate and spend time with other boys in a non-competitive environment.  This is not to say that I am against sports, but it is to say that there need to be venues other than sports and school for boys to spend time with other boys.  I have recently begun a Men’s Group for Boys, in which the boys are introduced to the work of Robert Bly and other ways of thinking about their unique way of being in the world.  Part of the group is focused on self-understanding, as well as an attempt to have the boys grasp the idea that their individuality trumps whatever macho rendition of their identity they think is necessary to succeed in the world or be accepted by their peers (or girls!).

Boys need to work on more self-awareness.  This includes talking about their activities during the day at school.  If your son has a difficult time with this, help him out by giving him choices rather than just open-ended questions.  For example, consider the questions, “How was your day?” or “What did you do at school?”  These usually generate the response of “Fine” and “Nothing.”  Instead, ask them to fill in the blanks of several sentences, such as, I got mad today when ______________, ___________ made me glad this morning, or I look forward to _____________’s class because _________________. Many of the parents of the boys with whom I work have reported that using those simple sentences gets the conversation started, and then spontaneity takes over, and they are no longer necessary.  Since many boys have been taught not to discuss feelings or have  difficulty talking about their feelings, tell them to use simple ones such as mad, sad, glad, afraid, ashamed, or hurt.  In fact, if they cannot tell you how they feel, present that list and have them pick one.  Then ask what they think caused or triggered that feeling.

If your boy is in high school, college, or past those ages and still at home or having a hard time finding a job, then a few of the concepts from the Men’s Group might be applicable for them.  Have them go through Robert Bly’s stages of development, and ask if they are able to soothe themselves well enough to have separated from their mother. Ask for specific examples of how they can take care of themselves, cook their own meals, clean up after themselves, and soothe themselves when they experience a hurt, loss, or failure.  One of the explanations of bad male behavior, such as alcohol or drug addiction, is that the man has not made the break and separated from the mother, so he must use substances or cling to a girlfriend in an attempt to replace the mother’s comforting.  If he has father hunger, have him participate in what is called the “building two houses for the father” exercise.  Very simply, have him make a list of all the positives he can think of about his father on one side of the page, and all the negatives that he can think of about his father on the other side of the page.  Boys tend to see their father as all good or all bad.  Men tend to see their father as a human being with both positive and negative traits.  To the extent that the boy can list more items on both sides of the page, they are probably ready to meet male mentors and move along in life.

A lot of help is available on the internet these days.  Googling “men’s issues” and “masculine psychology” generates hundreds of hits.  Promoting more individuation among men and women can also help us all to develop in ways in which we feel that we are, indeed, being true to our selves.  There are also a number of faith-based interventions and organizations that are helpful for boys to see that there are many ways to be a man, and that one of those ways will be the right way for him.  Good luck in your search!


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