Boys to Men
Over the last 25 years or more, I have been fortunate to meet hundreds of boys and men of all ages in my work as a Psychotherapist. I cannot adequately express what a privilege it is to have had this experience. It has unequivocally altered, shaped and grown my understanding of what it is to “be a man.” I was just at the point of starting a new group for High-School-aged males when I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what it means to grow up as a male in our culture. Combined with a review of recent research, I would like to share this experience. I want to address how families, schools and society have prescribed a norm for masculinity which is inconsistent with who they are at their very core. Specifically, I would like to draw attention to the research which invariably finds that the more a man subscribes to conventional norms for masculinity, the less healthy and civil he is.
“The majority of men who adhere to the rules of the Man Box are more likely to put their health and well-being at risk, to cut themselves off from intimate friendships, to resist seeking help when they need it, to experience depression, and to think frequently about ending their own life.”1
The Man Box, 2017
The “Man Box” was first used in the 1980’s and is used commonly now to refer to “a set of beliefs, communicated by parents, families, the media, peers, and other members of society, that place pressure on men and boys to act a certain way.” 1 Some of the behaviors include: being self-sufficient; acting tough; looking sexually attractive in a certain way; acting with prowess; sucking up feelings; demonstrating athleticism; competing and winning; being rigidly heterosexual; and, using aggression to resolve conflicts. Many of these behaviors are very rigid, unattainable, and idealized ways of being. Falling short of these ideals can lead to low self-esteem, loneliness, depression and even violence.
Even the best-intentioned fathers and mothers play a role in the multi-generational transmission of these over-masculinizing norms. Many fathers believe it is their job to pass down “what it is to be a man,” while some mothers withdraw emotional closeness for fear that their boys won’t grow up to be independent and strong men. The truth is that “what is often perceived and described as natural to boys is in fact not a manifestation of their nature but an adaptation to cultures that require boys to be emotionally stoic, aggressive, and competitive, if they are to be perceived and accepted as ‘real boys.’”2 Separating their private thoughts and feelings from their authentic selves, boys can start posturing and acting out the stereotypical images of masculinity in public. Without the possibility of developing their own versions of themselves, they can become “cynical,” “sober,” less “exuberant,” and more “discontented.”2.
Masculine norms are not only excessive and unrealistic, but also contrary to the very nature and biology of boys and men. Both males and females are innately and equally wired to be in sync with other humans. Both sexes are literally built to connect and operate within a network of caring relationships. The masculine stereotypes of independence and “go it aloneness” are complete contradications for survival. Boys don’t develop as boys because of their biology but rather as a result of how we treat them.
Now let us examine how the imposition of male gender roles and stereotypes is impacting not just the males, but also society as a whole. The information below was extracted from a study in April 2019 by Mark J. Perry 3, concurrently a scholar at AEI and a professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan's Flint campus.
BIRTHS & DEATHS
For every 100 girls and women ages 15 to 24 years who die, 280 boys and men die.
For every 100 girls K-12 in public schools classified as having emotional disturbance, there are 355 boys.
For every 100 girls suspended from public elementary and secondary schools, 240 boys are suspended.
For every 100 women enrolled in US colleges (degree-granting postsecondary institutions) at all levels, there are 77 men enrolled.
EDUCATIONAL ATTAINMENT OF YOUNG ADULTS
For every 100 women ages 25 to 29 years who have at least a master’s degree, there are 73 men.
For every 100 women who die on the job, there are 1,294 men who die working.
For every 100 females who are in adult correctional facilities there are 1,000 males.
For every 100 females ages 20-24 who die of homicide, there are 717 males.
In the 2020 report “The State of America’s Boys: An Urgent Case for a More Connected Boyhood,” Drs. Michael Reichert and Derrick Nelson discuss the recent research on boyhood and gender norms. They criticize the conditions, pressures and outcomes “historically baked into boyhood.” In particular, they draw our attention to the ways in which male stereotypes can do a tremendous disservice to boys and men by discounting their most fundamental need – strong and nurturing relationships with others.
“What stands out is the role of strong relationships as the best way to protect boys from conditions that otherwise can compromise their development. Boys cannot fix themselves by themselves. It will be in relationship to caring others – parents, teachers, educators, coaches, friends – that healthy boyhood is to be found, recovered and reinvented.”
Reichert & Nelson, 2020
They make the following recommendations:
Give parents guidance and support to help their sons affirm a healthier vision of manhood.
Provide teacher training in relational pedagogy, curricular content that builds relationships, professional development in racial justice and anti-racism, and extracurricular activities that strengthen boys’ relationships with girls, as well as between boys and others in their lives.
Help boys develop caring relationships with their bodies and resist cultural norms that erode the integrity of their commitment to well-being.
Help parents to partner with media, educators, and policymakers to intervene when boys act out difficult feelings at another’s expense.
Change how schools view boys – as relational and not as lone, stoic wolves.
Change how we respond to misbehavior. Research is clear that restorative justice approaches premised on reconnection to communities, alternative discipline approaches, and strengthening connections to pro-social peers and mentors are the most promising correctional strategies.
Challenge parents and teachers to understand what boys discover in social media, TV, and games and help them to be critical media consumers. As in the physical realm, boys should also be encouraged to speak out against violence online.
“Either people in boys’ lives – parents, teachers, educators, coaches, policymakers, and media makers – create a boyhood that nurtures the qualities boys need
to flourish – to attach, to develop their emotional and relational capacities, to engage in learning and living out their values – or boys will continue to be pressed into throwback identities that succeed less and less.”
Reichert & Nelson, 2020
In summary, the evidence is clear that adherence to rigid male stereotypes and gender norms is both developmentally restrictive and unhealthy. We need to speak up and challenge harmful ideas of manhood.
“Harmful ideas of manhood and of boyhood are being called out every day. Change in the direction of a healthier, more egalitarian version of manhood is inevitable – the question is how quickly it comes and how many more generations of boys, girls, and others will be sacrificed.”
Reichert & Nelson, 2020
1. Heilman, B., Barker, G., & Harrison, A. (2017) The Man Box: A study on being a young man in the US, UK, and Mexico (pp60). Promundo-US & Unilever
2. Chu, J.Y. (2014) Conclusion. In J.Y. Chu & C. Gilligan (Eds.) When boys become “boys”: Development, relationships and masculinity (pp.202-207). New York University Press.
4.Reichert, M. C., & Nelson, J. D. (2020). The State of America’s Boys: An Urgent Case for a More Connected Boyhood. Washington, DC: Promundo-US.