The Boy’s Dilemma

The idea that boys like to play with guns while girls prefer dolls is venerable. But in recent years, boys have started playing with real guns...

The idea that boys like to play with guns while girls prefer dolls is venerable. But in recent years, boys have started playing with real guns, killing other students and teachers in Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Colorado. Not one perpetrator in this string of schoolyard shootings has been female.

It's not the presence of gun play in the lives of boys that causes real-life violence, according to Daniel J. Kindlon, assistant professor in the department of maternal and child health at the School of Public Health. The real problem, he says, lies with what's missing from their lives.

Boys have always been tough to deal with. Eighty-four percent of the people arrested for juvenile drunk driving are male, as are 85 percent of teen suicides. Boys commit 94 percent of juvenile murders. Even the familiar phenomenon of the childhood bully shows up in the data: nearly five of six children who bully other children are boys. It is popular to ascribe these differences to biology, explaining that many male tendencies, including violence, are simply testosterone-driven behavior. Kindlon asserts, however, that "whatever biological differences exist, we amplify by the way we raise boys." And we do indeed treat boys more harshly; they're half again more likely to receive corporal punishment than girls, and in schools, they get corporal punishment at six times the female rate.

In Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, Kindlon and Michael Thompson '69, Ed.M. '72, outline the problem and the solutions they've drawn from their years of work with boys. Both school psychologists, Kindlon at St. Sebastian's School in Needham, Massachusetts, and Thompson at Belmont Hill School in Belmont, Massachusetts, they believe most parents and teachers simply do not understand what drives these boys' behavior, and in their bafflement, see the boys as adversaries. "In boys," the authors write, "the motivation for aggression is more 'defensive' rather than offensive or predatory."

Although boys' violent emotions are frightening to others, they are equally frightening--perhaps even more so--to the boys themselves. And when boys worry that their fear will show, making them appear weak, they opt for excessive bravado and act out even more violently in an attempt to prove they are "real men."

We immerse our boys in a culture of cruelty, rife with teasing, competition, and physical and psychic jabs, encouraging them to be tough rather than show actual feelings, Kindlon argues. Left with a desperate scarcity of emotional outlets, punished by their peers for displaying "soft" emotions like compassion, sadness, and fear, boys turn to the socially acceptable ways of showing feelings. They learn to suppress everything but anger and rage--an especially dangerous habit during the tumultuous years of adolescence.

The solution, says Kindlon, is as simple as treating boys the way we treat girls. We reward girls for showing empathy and talking about their feelings. Kindlon envisions a world in which boys have as many behavioral options as girls do. Feminism, he argues, has cleared the path for women to act in ways not traditionally feminine, but men have not yet been granted the same freedoms from traditional masculinity. "The five-year-old daughter comes into the room wearing Dad's shoes and hat, and people say, 'Cute, cute,' but if a boy comes in wearing high heels and lingerie with a matching bag, they get a little edgy," he says. "The definition of masculinity is narrower than the definition of femininity."

Boys' emancipation begins with granting them what Kindlon calls "emotional literacy": the ability to put names to emotions, to express what one is feeling. "Just as men won't ask for help when they're lost, boys don't tell us when they're in pain," he says. So if boys don't tell us, how to connect with them? By asking. Kindlon tells story after story of boys behaving badly when their feelings are hurt, out of hope that it will show their parents that something is wrong. When asked a few simple questions about how they're feeling, when given a patient and supportive ear, it turns out that boys can and do open up.

In the book, Kindlon and Thompson tell a story about Thompson's son, Will. During a severe thunderstorm, Will's fright was apparent. Once the storm had passed, several options occurred to Thompson for discussing the storm with his son. One was the culturally stereotyped response encouraging the boy to be tough: "You weren't scared, were you, buddy?" Instead, he asked, "That was a little scary, wasn't it, Will?"

Will's reply? "No, Dad, that was very scary."

Kindlon's two daughters--7 and 10--give him a vested interest in helping boys. "I don't want my girls to be reaching out to someone who's protecting himself behind a shield of anger and defensiveness," he says. "I don't want them to put their hearts out to someone whose preferred mode of dealing with emotional pain is drowning it in a six-pack of beer. I want my daughters to know men who have retained their exuberant boyishness, but not at the expense of a lost emotional life."

Read more articles by: Elizabeth Gudrais

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