The Trouble With Boys
The Trouble With Boys
Ben Boquist

"At Walden, we nurture a child's natural wonder and personal dignity." This is the first line of our mission statement and a principle that guides our practices. We believe this is especially important as we live in a society that likes to tear people down. One obstacle to personal dignity is gender scripting. As children make observations and take in information, they learn to police gender boundaries that are harmful for everyone. This blog will focus specifically on how it effects boys and what we can do about it.

But first, a story:

It was the summer of 2004. The Lindsay Lohan movie Mean Girls came out a few months earlier and it prompted a larger conversation about how popularity culture pits girls against each other. The trope of the Queen Bee and her gossipy lackeys showed up in most movies and shows that summer. But commentary on the way boys treated each other was a lot harder to find.

I happened to notice because I was a camp counselor for a cabin of middle school guys. I had just graduated high school and was working a summer job before going off to college, but I wasn't prepared for the mean spirited hazing I was about to witness. Individually, these 12 and 13 year olds were fun and thoughtful. But their group dynamic was all about keeping score, getting the better of each other and appearing tough. Almost as soon as they got off the bus I was struck by how mean they were to each other. They made fun of each other constantly. They took pleasure in embarrassing one another.

I learned quickly that I had to be hyper attentive with this group as I was constantly discovering their "pranks;" Things like mustard packets in sleeping bags, toothpaste in swim suits and candy bars smeared on sleeping faces. Some of these pranks were harmless, but many were not and a handful were down right cruel. This disturbed me.

'Where was the "Mean Boys" movie?' I wondered. More than a decade later the conversation finally caught up with us. Now the internet is full of articles on toxic masculinity and it's many forms. While most discussions of toxic masculinity center around the destructive behaviors of adult men, it's equally important to trace it back to it's sources; childhood, summer camp, school and the playground.

According to Wikipedia "Toxic masculinity is a critique of the way society has created men to be dominant, aggressive ... and unemotional, both collectively and as individuals."

A quick look at statistics paints a similar picture. In 2014 men accounted for 80.4% of persons arrested for violent crime and 62.9% of those arrested for property crime. Between 1980 and 2008 men represented 90.5% of homicides in the US. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reports that suicide rates are 4 times higher in men than in women. A quick look at the news shows us male egos causing destruction on the world stage. In short, the writing is on the wall. Our society produces a disproportionate amount of unhealthy men.

But I would like to posit that these are not gendered traits at all. There is nothing masculine about destruction, violence or cruelty. Being born male doesn't predispose anyone to "toxic" actions. But society seems to think otherwise, and to expect it of us. Revisiting wikipedia's definition, one word stands out to me; "unemotional."

At that summer camp in 2004, I realized one of the un written rules of mean boy culture.

All of the cruelty has to be funny. No one is allowed to care very much, or to be hurt. You're supposed to laugh it off. Yes the pranks and insults are hurtful but no one is allowed to acknowledge this for fear of being weak. When that's the case, unmet emotional needs have no choice but to present themselves in destructive ways.

The good news, especially for those of us who work with children, is that we're not powerless. There are lots of things we can do to combat this trend. Here are a few:

  1. Be Equitable.
    It's easy to create different standards for boys and girls. I found myself doing this my first year at Walden. On the playground, I complimented a female student for comforting a friend when they scraped their knee. ("Thanks for being a caring friend.") When the same scenario happened with a male student, I said "Give him some space buddy. Don't hover." A coworker was good enough to point this out to me. Empathy should be encouraged in everyone, regardless of their gender. We all make mistakes. The important thing is to strive to treat all people equally and to think of children (and adults) as people before thinking of them as boys and girls.

  2. Provide Emotional Vocabulary.
    A big part of this is giving all children equal tools to articulate their emotions. In an excellent article from the Washington post entitled "Here's How and Why to Help Boys feel all the feels" journalist and college professor, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill says, "One of the tragic elements of hegemonic masculinity is that [boys are] taught that expressing emotions other than anger is 'unmanly.' [Boys] are taught early not to express feelings of desire, longing, hurt, or insecurity."

    The article goes on to say, "Someone who understands their own feelings and can articulate them has a good grasp on not only their own wants and needs but those of others. Being able to recognize and understand our own complex emotional landscape helps us empathize and understand the feelings in others. In my role as a teacher, I try to encourage this by gently pushing for more descriptive words when students (but especially boys) tell me they are "mad" or "annoyed." Anger is easy, but hurt feelings require vulnerability. More words and more tools make expressing these important feelings easier. Not long ago, I asked a student to tell me how he was feeling without using the words mad, angry or frustrated. What came out were words and phrases like "I feel jealous," "I feel replaced," "I feel ignored." I was very proud of this student and once I understood where he was coming from, I knew how to speak to those things.

  3. Let them be sad.
    Articulating one's emotional state takes time. As we've already established, society prefers that men deal with their emotions "off screen," lest they appear weak or "Girly." (Click here for a great article about how sexist language effects girls and what to do about it)

    To combat this, it's imperative to make time for all children, but especially for boys, to express sadness, hurt and disappointment. In that same Washington Post article, Dr. Lamot Hill says "I have had adult clients who have trouble with feelings because when they expressed something in childhood they were told they were "too sensitive" or to "get over" something that felt really important to them. When a small child is hurting, we try to boost them up by telling them they are okay, but they don't feel okay in that moment."

    This is why Walden's SEL (or Social Emotional Learning) emphasis is so important. By using tools like feeling charts or by having circle discussions to talk about emotions, we are normalizing feelings as a healthy, integral part of the human experience.

  4. Build Confidence.
    Insecurity or a poor sense of sense causes people to behave in destructive ways. Returning to my opening illustration, it became clear a few days into camp that my cabin of boys were deeply concerned about how their peers perceived them. I felt for them, because I could tell they were exhausted. Who wouldn't be? Constantly worrying about your status in a group is hard and anxious work.

    However, as the days wore on our staff of counselors got to know the campers and made them feel safe and accepted. A range of different camp activities gave them a chance to show off their unique skills and to be validated. Sleeping in a drafty cabin with mosquitos gave them a sense of comradery and something to commiserate about. The hazing and toxic jabs at each other were still present by the end of camp, but on a significantly smaller scale. They were given less attention by the group as they gradually became invested in actual relationships and experiences. I think this is because the longer they spent at camp, the more confident and accepted they felt. Well placed, authentic compliments go a long way towards promoting this.

It's hard to believe, but those campers are in their mid twenties now. I hope for their sakes and for the sake of their communities that they are healthy, secure and have grown past feeling shame about their emotions.

Now, in my role at Walden, I get a close up look at the daily lives of our students. I take great pride in the way our community values emotional learning and creates space for processing feelings. I also take pride in being part of a community where children are given a healthy sense of self.

Society's toxic masculinity problem is real and pervasive. But at Walden, I see a generation of students with tools to rise above it.