Bucking The Boy Code

Recent research indicates that outdated notions about masculinity have dire consequences for boys.



When my 4‑year‑old son snuggled into my lap one evening six years ago, I braced myself for criticism. My relatives had never passed up an opportunity to warn me against raising a sissy. So I was hardly surprised when my uncle offered his opinion: "I suppose it's OK if Travis is always touching you. After all, Gen. MacArthur was a momma's boy."

My uncle's message was clear: My job is to ensure that my son is competitive enough to surpass his peers at the military academy, tough enough to excel as the Army's youngest general, and brave enough to lead the defeat of the Japanese forces in World War II. Too much affection could hinder his progress to "manhood."

Every day, from the time boys are very young, our society delivers a similar refrain to parents and their sons, writes William Pollack Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School, in his book "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood" (Random House, 1998). The oft‑repeated message is this: Boys must be brave, tough and independent.

This cultural pressure causes parents‑especially mothers‑to fight their innate desire to nurture their sons, Pollack contends. And often women push away their boys at the very time they most need their parents' love and acceptance.  This rush to cut the apron strings has dire consequences, warns Pollack, whose book is based on 20 years of experience working with boys. By the age of 7 or so, many males become "hardened," he explains. They shut off their emotions, feel lonely and isolated, and sometimes turn to anger and violence.

"When parents tell boys to be a man and not to cry, they are saying they no longer welcome who the boy is and what he feels," notes Ari Cowan, director of the Bellevue, Wash.‑based Family Health Institute, which aims to fight violence. "The boy says, 'In order to belong, I need to shut down my emotions and be like a man. I need to be brave and heroic and beat up a lot of people.'" 

That's not the worst of it.

Pollack cites chilling statistics: Boys are twice as likely as girls to be labeled with learning disabilities, they make up 67 percent of special‑ education classes, in some areas are 10 times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with serious emotional disorders, and are four to six times more likely than girls to commit suicide.

These figures represent the legions of boys who couldn't buck what Pollack calls the "Boy Code," the unspoken rule that enslaves them: Boys must be more independent than girls, or they will be labeled "sissies."

And, Pollack continues, under our culture's rules, it's up to the parents‑especially the mothers‑to ensure that their boys don't become too reliant on them. They begin to cut boys off by the age of five or six.  On the other hand, parents allow girls to remain attached to them and are more tolerant of girls’ feelings. “We think we have to disconnect boys emotionally,” said Pollack in an interview. “We disconnect them from care giving and love and from vulnerability.”

Marilyn Soulas, who has a 14‑year‑old son and 8‑year‑old daughter, has found that mothers often force themselves to repress their instincts to protect and nurture their sons for fear of embarrassing them in front of their friends.  She tells this story to illustrate her point: "One of the boys on our son's football team got hurt, and was down on the field," she relates. "Both parents were watching the game. The mom said, 'He's hurt; I have to go down there.'  The dad said, 'Don't you dare!'

"She was so torn, but she stayed put. If it were your little girl," Soulas concludes, "you would be down there in a heartbeat!"

Hardening Process

After more than 10 years spent working as a family therapist, Olga Silverstein has drawn similar conclusions about the ways in which our sons are socialized. In her book, "The Courage to Raise Good Men" (Viking Penguin, 1994), she writes that parents think they shouldn't tolerate boys' crying or vulnerability, especially at critical times in their sons' lives: when being dropped off at daycare, leaving for summer camp, or enrolling in sports teams. In contrast, daughters are much more likely to receive emotional support during these transitions.

Silverstein laments the fact that she too bought into the "Boy Code." When her son was 13, she gave him a private bedroom because she thought he needed to be independent. Slowly he grew more and more emotionally distant. And many years later he told his mother how isolated he had felt at that time. Not until he was 45 did mother and son begin to repair the damage that had been caused by Silverstein's attempts at "enforcing masculinity."

Rather than forcing boys to be independent, parents should help them gain autonomy by ensuring that they have access to feelings that allow them to decide who they are as individuals, Silverstein counsels.  Boys will thrive by remaining connected to parents and other loved ones.

Pollack concurs: “I believe health is based on a balance between ‘I’ and ‘we,’ or ‘I’ and connection.’ We grow by becoming more our own person in the context of connection. It is just as true of boys as it is of girls. Boys need connection.”

Unfortunately, turning the tide on the "Boy Code" is far from easy, says Don Cohen, a Portland‑based psychologist who specializes in treating adolescents and families. "From the time they are born," he explains, "there is intense pressure on boys to behave in a certain way: to be little men, not to cry, to be tough and independent."

Silverstein suggests that this "hardening" process often begins even before one's son is born. For example, when one of her patients learned she was pregnant with a son, she began "anticipatory grieving"‑grappling with the fact that, in her mind, she could never be as close to a son as she could be to a daughter.

The "hardening" process continues as soon as baby boys are born, says Pollack.  "Even infant boys are subject to the Boy Code!"

Mothers react differently to infant boys' emotions than to girls' feelings, he writes. They reinforce smiling in sons and discourage unhappy emotions more than they do with daughters.

Jo Sanders, director of the Center for Gender Equity at the Washington Research Institute, says people read infants' reactions differently, depending on whether they think the child is a boy or a girl. In one study, when a baby was startled by a Jack‑in‑the‑Box and started to cry, adults‑both men and women‑interpreted the reaction as anger if they thought the child was a boy, or fear if they thought the child was a girl. "Without even knowing it, we hold different expectations for boys and girls," Sanders concludes.

The most common expectations center on crying: Real boys aren't supposed to shed tears‑or show vulnerability‑even when they are as young as 5. The first day of kindergarten is often a major milestone in the "hardening" process, Pollack notes in his book.

While mothers often feel they must let sons "cry it out" when they drop them off for the first day of kindergarten, daughters who cry during this important transition are more likely to be soothed. Already boys are supposed to be behaving like little men.

My own parenting experience supports this finding. In my son's kindergarten class, children could choose to attend for a half or full day. Saying he preferred to be home, Travis elected the half‑day schedule.  "Shame on you for running down to his class and picking him up every time he cries a little," my relatives scolded. "He's old enough to be away from you all day!”

As sons mature, parents raise their expectations of the boys' inherent toughness and independence and continue to stifle their natural, protective tendencies. Says Diane Herschleb, the mother of three boys and a teacher at Oregon Episcopal School: "When my sons were about 12, they had skateboarding routes in the neighborhood. I had to trust they had common sense. But at my gut level, I wanted to reel them in. If they were girls, I would have told them to stay home more."

Bucking the trend

In spite of our compulsion to raise Marlboro men, many boys, with the help of parents and other loved ones, successfully defy the norm. Andrew Czarnecki is an energetic, athletic 9‑year‑old who recently rounded up some of his male classmates to attend an after‑school sewing group. With help from Andrew's mother, the boys made costumes for a school performance.

When Andrew is playing with other boys his age, he's an able negotiator who uses words instead of fists to defend his interests. He's affectionate with his friends and family, and appears to feel no shame hugging them in public.

Nat Meade is a 23‑year‑old student who gave up a college football scholarship‑and what some relatives said was a career in professional football‑to study art. Last Mother's Day, his mom received a card in which he thanked her for supporting him in everything he had done, especially his pursuit of art.

These boys have bucked the Boy Code. Rather than capitulate to the cultural norms, their mothers and fathers have steadfastly adhered to their innate parenting principles.

"What society and the media and pop culture promote as male and female is mostly bogus‑garbage," says Andrew's father, John, an architect who works from home and can often be found in the kitchen, cooking up a spaghetti dinner for his family. "We are all some mixture of the two. "It's our obligation as parents to help train kids to think about these issues in critical ways."

Cohen agrees: "The balancing act is trying to help them understand what the larger culture is sometimes asking for and what you think is important."

Cowan, the father of two boys, takes a similar approach. Parents shouldn't try to shield their boys from all forms of television and movie violence, he says.  Instead, they should help their sons evaluate the media and make their own decisions.

"If my kids want to see Arnold Schwartzenager, I say, 'Go ahead,'" Cowan explains. "Then we  talk about it. I say, 'How much courage does it take to be Arnold with a gun?'"

Nat's mother, Diane, says she "fought off" pressure to harden her sons. Her parents criticized her for breast‑feeding her boys‑each of them for more than a year‑and for holding them too much. 

But her instincts told her to express her feelings and to tell her boys that she missed them when they were away. When Nat was 2 and always had his hand on a crayon, those instincts told her that she should nurture his interest in art, even if it wasn't masculine.

"Don't be afraid to make them too soft," she advises.

Similarly, Andrew's mother makes no excuses for smothering her two children with affection. "I hold onto my babies as long as I can," she says.

These parents are working hard to forge connections with their boys. Pollack says building these bridges is the most powerful way parents can help their sons become "real boys" with feelings, opinions, and desires that help them grow up to be men in their own individual ways.

To help raise real boys, Pollack writes, parents should give their sons their undivided attention at least once a day to show them that they care and are emotionally available. Encourage boys to express a full range of emotions, and never tease them if they show vulnerable feelings. In other words, resist the temptation to abide by the "Boy Code" that urges you to let go of your son.  Express love openly and generously instead.

As Cowan says, "You can't give a kid too much love. I have never seen a child choke from it. You simply need to love the bejeepers out of them!"

Feelings [sidebar]

Encouraging boys to express their feelings can be a lesson in self‑awareness for moms and dads. Helping sons open up requires parents to be introspective, to feel empathy‑and what's probably most difficult‑to listen. "If you listen and are quiet and aren't so quick to react, you will hear a lot of feelings," explains Don Cohen, a Portland‑based psychologist. "But you have to leave space for it."

Parents who are uncomfortable with certain feelings‑such as anger, for instance‑need to be aware of this tendency. Otherwise, they may unwittingly discourage others from expressing these emotions. "They may react in a way that makes the boy feel that anger is bad," says Mitchell Luftig, a child psychologist with The Children's Program in Portland.

Similarly, parents who can't bear to see their child in pain may rush to solve the problem, rather than patiently listening, Luftig adds. In this case, the child may never learn to handle disappointment.

Parents can also help children express their feelings by trying to read and label emotional expressions. "Say, 'Gee you look angry,' or 'You look sad,'" suggests Luftig. Then, don't try to talk the child out of those feelings or cut him off with advice, he adds. Instead, acknowledge his feelings.

While girls are more likely to verbalize their emotions, boys tend to demonstrate them through action, says William Pollack, Ph.D., author of "Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood." An adolescent boy will try to connect with his mother by offering to complete a task he normally avoids, such as taking out the trash. A girl, on the other hand, might touch, kiss, or snuggle with her mother.

Because boys are action‑oriented, they tend to open up when engaged in an activity. "I would more often take a boy, and while I was talking to him, throw a baseball or shoot a basket. It was easier for them to talk when they weren't just looking at me," says Luftig. "There's a reason fathers and sons have always fished together and thrown a baseball back and forth."

Nature vs. Nurture [sidebar]

"It's clear not a lot of women are in prison for rape and assault. Is that because of men's testosterone? Is it socialization? Or a combination of these?" Mitchell Luftig, a Portland‑based child psychologist with The Children's Program, asks rhetorically.

This, of course, is the age‑old nature versus nurture question, a topic that's the focus of much debate about why males in general are more aggressive than females.

While Harvard University psychologist William Pollack emphasizes the role society has played in shaping boys' lives in his book "Real Boys," another author, Michael Gurian  stresses the ways in which boys are physiologically different from girls in "The Wonder of Boys" (Putnam, 1996).  Gurian writes that boys are dominated by the hormone testosterone, which programs them to be aggressive, physical risk‑takers.

For instance, he says, boys transform toys into guns more often than girls do, they are generally more competitive, and because of their exposure to testosterone, they're likely to try to seek independence earlier than girls are.

Gurian holds that boys establish their own culture because the male brain creates it. He advises parents to offer guidance to their sons, but to recognize that there's a limit to their influence because boys are inherently different from girls.

Anti‑violence activist Ari Cowan, director of the Bellevue‑based Family Health Institute, views any theories that suggest that boys are "programmed" to be aggressive with skepticism. "It's just not true," he says. "Human beings are naturally cooperative. We have no claws and no upper‑body strength. We were probably a food group for a long time. We have an intense ability to cooperate."

Author Lisa Cohn received a Silver Award from Parenting Publications of America for this story.