APA MONITOR (publication of the American Psychological Association)
VOLUME 30 , NUMBER 7 July/August 1999

Boys to men: emotional miseducation

Boys are still taught to forfeit sensitivity for a 'mask of bravado,' say violence experts.

By Bridget Murray
Monitor staff

American boys are being so "emotionally miseducated" by everyone from parents and peers to the entertainment industry, say some psychologists, that the recent outbreak of murderous rampages at school may be an inevitable result.

And, say a small group of psychological researchers--who have spent the past several years independently studying and voicing concern about the ways our culture emotionally cripples boys--a set of unique stresses is continuing to propel today's young males down a troubled path. Among their findings:

"When we don't let boys cry tears, some will cry bullets," says William Pollack, PhD, co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School. He is one of several psychologists--among them James Garbarino, PhD, Dan Kindlon, PhD, and Michael Thompson, PhD--conducting research on boys' problems and calling on their colleagues to join them.

Among their suggestions: Heed what we're already finding about boys, conduct further research to enhance that understanding and revise what Pollack calls the "Boys' Code" of toughness.

"Even the men who'd like to offer boys a gentler model of masculinity feel constrained by their peers," says Garbarino, co-director of the Family Life Development Center at Cornell University. "We need get past this tremendous inertia on who will dare to be different."

Since Littleton, psychologists' work on teen-age boys has grabbed the attention of the public, media and research community. Garbarino's book, "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them," (Free Press, 1999), sold out immediately in its first printing in April. Likewise, "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys" (Ballantine, 1999), by Kindlon and Thompson, immediately hit the bestseller list and sold out after its April release. And Pollack's book, "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood," (Henry Holt, 1998) topped the nation's list of paperback bestsellers.

Pollack, Garbarino and others say the symptoms of boys' growing dissatisfaction, previously ignored, have been steadily building: Rising numbers of boys are prescribed the drug Ritalin for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder--legitimately prescribed in some cases but perhaps over-prescribed to curb acting-out behaviors in others.

Also, boys' academic performance has declined, while girls' achievement has risen. The same pattern is true for college attendance. And boys are much more likely than girls to hurt or kill themselves or each other.

A lopsided gender revolution

What's responsible for the troubling trends? Kindlon, a child-development researcher at Harvard University, points to what he calls society's "emotional miseducation" of boys. Meaning that boys are taught to shut down their feelings, including empathy, sympathy and other key ingredients of pro-social behavior. Combine that emotional disconnection with increased exposure to violent movies and video games and decreased supervision by adults, says Kindlon, the co-author, with Thompson, of "Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys" (Ballantine, 1999) and "you've got a recipe for disaster."

Until recently, researchers have largely overlooked the alarming state of male socialization. Up to the 1970s, boys had mainly been the focus of pioneering psychologists such as Erik Erikson, Harry Stack Sullivan and Lawrence Kohlberg. But with the advent of feminism, researchers found adolescent girls were ignored in the research and had different problems from boys. This triggered a new line of study, and researchers led by psychologist Carol Gilligan, PhD, of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, began listening to girls' voices and their concerns about female stereotypes of beauty, thinness and passivity.

But as girls were urged to shed stereotypes and enter traditionally "male" career fields, boys weren't encouraged to challenge male stereotypes and enter traditionally "female" fields.

For example, there's still a taboo among many men against being a male kindergarten teacher, notes Barney Brawer, PhD, a former Gilligan student and now coordinator of Tufts University's Program for Educational Change Agents. And, says Kindlon, many men fear that if "any femininity or softness creeps into our lives, we'll stop being men." Not that men are the only ones who perpetuate male "toughness," he says. Women unconsciously reinforce it by discouraging signs of weakness in sons and husbands.

'Will you please pay attention?'

Some researchers working with Gilligan have begun applying to boys the same qualitative methods they've been using with girls--interviewing them about their experiences without structured surveys or checklists. Their approach, known as the 'voice-centered relational method,' uses open-ended questions to let people to say what they really think and feel.

Niobe Way, PhD, a former student of Gilligan's who uses the method, says that it is enabling her and other developmental researchers to update the 1950s theory that boys primarily value autonomy and seek individuation above all else.

"The boys of the 1990s are screaming, 'Will you please pay attention?'" says Way, an assistant professor of psychology at New York University.

In research reported in her book "Everyday Courage: The Lives and Stories of Urban Teenagers," (New York University Press, 1998), Way found that as boys enter adolescence, most stop trusting other boys and lose their closest friends.

"They talked about how much they wish they could have an intimate friend," says Way. "They told strong, angry, sad stories about how they couldn't trust anyone."

That conformity to traditional masculinity, says Pollack, takes hold at adolescence. He recently administered Pleck's Traditional Male Role Attitude Scale to 150 boys, ages 12 to 18. Most scored high, supporting notions such as "A guy always has to stand on his two feet and fight for respect," and "It bothers me when a guy acts like a girl." However, most boys in the same sample also scored high on the Sex Role Egalitarianism Scale, supporting equal professional training for women and men, and courses in home management for both sexes.

The results indicate a split in boys' idea of being a man, says Pollack. "Boys are caught in a gender-role Catch 22," he says. "Not only do many of them feel isolated, they're also confused."

Unmasking the subterranean life

Pollack and others suggest investigating why boys stop trusting each other; why they lose close friends; why they feel isolated and neglected; from whom they learn traditional notions of masculinity; how gender-role confusion affects them and how they handle it.

Existing research doesn't really get to "how boys see themselves, what underlies their aggression," adds Garbarino. To find answers, he listens to the stories of troubled boys incarcerated for murder. Their stories, he says, not only enlighten him but enable the boys themselves to see what underlies their behavior.

"Boys' inner life is often quite subterranean and seems inaccessible to us and to themselves," says Garbarino. "But when we ask them about it, it's often the first time they're engaged in this kind of self-reflection."

In addition to interviewing boys, rigorous empirical research is needed, says Pollack. He calls for survey and quantitative studies of adolescent boys' disconnection from others and themselves, of how to improve boys' socialization, of demographic and ethnic differences in boys' self-perceptions and of how the sexes interact.

Making a plan

Also needed, say Pollack and Kindlon, is an action plan to help boys prosper, prevent them from becoming alienated and stop their academic decline. They believe in restructuring elementary schools. Young boys are typically more rambunctious than girls, says Kindlon, yet grade school teachers, overwhelmingly women, confine them to chairs for long periods and punish them for activity. As a result, some boys develop a negative notion of education as controlling and prohibitive, he says.

"Many boys think schools are rigged so that they can't succeed," says Kindlon. "Particularly in elementary school, boys aren't as ready to sit still and they generally are not as verbal and ready to start reading. This comes at a time when competence is a major psychological task. So if they're not fitting in academically, some boys will turn to dominating and fighting others."

Kindlon suggests hiring more male teachers who've had the same experiences, and providing more outlets for activity in schools. More intimate environments in smaller schools, say Kindlon and Pollack, would likely allow for more connection between boys and adults.

More generally, Pollack suggests adults spend more time with boys and change their expectations of them. Boys can be encouraged to be caring rather than tough. Mothers can learn from fathers how to engage in sports and active play with their sons. And fathers can learn from mothers how to be more nurturing, says Pollack. What boys need most, psychologist agree, is the love and understanding of adults.

"If we understand the sadness in boys," says Garbarino, "we'll deal with that sadness and not wait to have to cope with their aggression."

Further reading