Globe and Mail

Wrestling with the Boy Code

As your sons grow up, they will have to deal with a male culture in which showing feelings is looked down on. It's okay to worry.

SEAN FINE
The Globe and Mail
Friday, November 19, 1999

Toronto -- He is the man of the house at 62 pounds.

But life is pretty good for 12-year-old Joshua Guerriero. At first, he was sad when his father moved out a year ago, and thought he might become like a friend of his, who has been depressed for three or four years over his parents' divorce.

Now, he feels that he has adjusted to it. "I don't have any more feelings. Why should I bother with it? I don't have to," he says.

Although everyone is worried about boys these days, he thinks that it must be harder to be a girl. "The way they get periods -- we don't really have that kind of stuff."

His eight-year-old brother, Tyler, chirps his agreement. "Harder to get dressed."

"We just grow up," Joshua says. "They have all these changes to do."

Even so, changes are coming. He is in that final stage before puberty -- before the physical changes, but also before the shine of sweetness and innocence fades, perhaps into something brooding and darker.

He will soon find -- perhaps he has already -- that the unwritten Boy Code, which prescribes stoicism enforced by the shaming of those who reveal sad feelings, grants few exemptions.

Still, his mother, Sue Ballantyne, is an optimist.

"I think the tough male culture will subside to a degree," says the 36-year-old legal assistant, who lives on a middle-class street in Toronto's Danforth village, where the residents have agreed to let a reporter track their lives for a year.

It is safe now to worry about boys. Even long-time feminists have announced that they, too, are worried.

Angela Phillips wrote in The Trouble With Boys that their mothers do not hug them enough. And major organizations are taking note of the changed climate. The Canadian Institute of Child Health, which produced a report in 1997 on the development of girls, is considering a similar report on boys.

Boys are being outperformed in elementary school by girls and outnumbered on high-school honour rolls and in undergraduate programs at universities.

However, they easily surpass girls when it comes to dying young -- the death rate for boys 13 to 19 is more than twice that of girls. And boys are infinitely more likely than girls to lash out in the sort of rage that produced last year's massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

"Boys today are in serious trouble, including many who seem 'normal' and to be doing just fine," William Pollack, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, wrote in Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood.

The problem is a code that tells them they must be tough and deny their feelings of vulnerability, he says. "I believe that boys, feeling ashamed of their vulnerability, mask their emotions and ultimately their true selves."

Joshua was always small. And that made him an easy mark at school for the bullies. He didn't talk about it though.

"He never really complained about it. He thought that was the way it was supposed to be," Ms. Ballantyne says.

Then one day he came home with ripped jeans. His mother asked him what had happened. "He said, 'They pulled me around like I'm a rag doll.' "

She did not complain to the school authorities or to the bullies' parents. Instead, she enrolled him -- and Tyler -- in a kung fu course.

"I can't change the other children, but I can change the way he deals with things. I wanted him to be more confident and know that he can stand up to them and say, 'No, don't do that to me.' "

She was looking down the road too. She did not want him to be pushed into things -- drugs, for instance.

Joshua, who is in Grade 7, says he doesn't remember being dragged around the school yard. The rip in his jeans came from sliding down a hill.

However, he says, "There was always this person who scared me. He had one brown eye and one blue eye. He always chased me around the school yard."

After taking kung fu, he knew he could defend himself. "One time, I took his ball and threw it in his face. He tried to push me. I'm like, 'Don't push me. I'm not scared.' "

The problem cleared up after that.

His mother also prodded him to play hockey. He dropped it after a couple years. He felt that he was too small, and he had to wake up too early -- games started at 6:30. "Oh man, it was just so bad. I'd get on the ice and I'd be like . . ." His eyes clank shut. "I'd be trying to stay awake."

"It's funny how you just assume boys will like sports," his mother says, "and that's not the case."

Tyler loves sports, which for boys can be "a theatre for the unfettered expression of their feelings," according to Dr. Pollack.

Tyler is the type of boy who always takes some sort of ball to school, his mother says. He is a spirited, sweet-faced 50-pounder who plays hockey and soccer and runs in cross-country races and is still at the stage where he can sit on his mother's lap without embarrassment.

But the Grade 3 student already knows what it means to be the man of the house: "If someone breaks in, you have to fight back."

His mother says that although Tyler is the classic rough-and-tumble boy, he is more open and direct about his feelings than Joshua, who has a deeper sensitivity and more analytical turn of mind.

Tyler says that when he was first told that his father was moving out, "my eyes were really, like, full of water. I would miss him a lot. Mom said, 'You can see him every weekend.' I'm like, 'Yay!' "

Now, nearly a year later, he misses his father, but "I don't always pay attention -- I like to play, I don't think about it."

Boys may not discuss their feelings with one another as girls do, but the importance of boys' friendships has been vastly underestimated, Dr. Pollack wrote. "Boys are immensely loving and they yearn for relationships far more than we have ever recognized."

Tyler has what his mother describes as "a best friend in all the world," and Joshua also has close relationships. He often has a friend sleep over on the weekend, or he sleeps at a friend's place.

"We get to stay with our friends for a lot longer, instead of leaving at 9," Joshua says. "We try and stay up as long as we can, so we can play and stuff."

They talk about The Simpsons and watch horror videos about Chucky, the demonic doll. "It's a good time. It gets me away from everything else. It's like a vacation," he says.

Although he feels the same pressure to bulk up that so many slightly built boys feel (he wants to weigh 70 pounds), Joshua thinks that the Boy Code is not all that relevant to him.

"Just because you're a boy doesn't mean you're a rough, tough, wrestler guy. It's not like boys have to be big and tough and fighting. You can just be a normal, quiet person."

Ms. Ballantyne wants her boys to be self-sufficient. She wants them to know how to mend socks and iron a shirt. "I don't need a male to take care of me. I don't want them to need a woman to take care of them."

Ms. Ballantyne wants her sons to know they can always come to her without fear of ridicule.

Although Dr. Pollack warns that boys suffer silently, Joshua and Tyler have lighthearted smiles, quick laughter and a playful openness. The children's report cards show they are doing well.

Ms. Ballantyne seems infused with the positive energy that makes people resilient in difficult times. As if she were not busy enough, she has taken French courses so she can help her children, who are both in French immersion.

"It's a happy house," she says.

TEENAGE MORTALITY

Canadians aged 13-19, 1997:
Total deaths (rate per 100,000):

Males          942 (64.5)


Females        394 (29.3)

Leading causes, as a percentage of the total:

                           Males   Females


Unintentional injuries     45%       44%


Suicide                    24        17


Cancer                      7         9


Other                      23        30

-Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding
Deaths from injuries

Males:                         Females:


296    Motor vehicle accidents     146


14              Falls                2


12              Fire                 2


33      Drowning, suffocation        6


6          Boat accident             4


6    Accidental drug poisoning       1

Source: Statistics Canada

Copyright © 1999 Globe Information Services