It is sometimes easy for us to forget about the sensitivity and emotional complexity of boys, and to mistakenly believe they are hearty enough to weather the inevitable cruelties of their peers and the world. This simplistic notion is echoed in John Mayer's song "Daughters." After chronicling the way a girl can be hurt, he notes the difference for boys:
"Boys you can break/you find out how much they can take/ Boys will be strong/ and boys soldier on.."
While he notes that boys will be 'gone without the warmth of a good woman', there is little emphasis on how boys, by their own very nature and in their relationship with other boys and men, have the capacity and right to be vulnerable!
It is wonderful that we have focused in on helping girls deal with 'mean girls' and with empowering them not to feel like the 'odd girl out.' Unfortunately, boys experiences have often been easily and woefully neglected. By failing to zero in on this important aspect of a boy's psychology, we not only do boys a disservice, but we also miss the boat in treating them with the kind of empathy that will truly help them become strong. Fortunately, this doesn't need to be a zero-sum game: we can empower, support, and celebrate girls as we do so for boys as well. Isn't that what equality truly is about after all?
Recent research by neuroscientist Allan N. Schore found that because boys develop slower neurologically--physically, socially, and linguistically--they have less tools to regulate and negotiate emotions and relationships. As a result, they actually require more empathic support than girls, and greatly benefit from the kind of attention and care that we often fail to provide. This completely flies in the face of the 'boy's don't cry' mentality that has often dominated the way we have approached our little men. And while we have come a long way with respects to toughening up our boys (See Pollack's Real Boys), by failing to take the time to notice how boys might be affected by mean behavior, we may be failing them in subtle but profound ways.
It is crucial to encourage and applaud boys for talking about and exploring their feelings with us, especially when they feel they have been mistreated. We need to make sure boys get the message that they have the right to feel hurt and angry, and that they have the right to be protected and supported with addressing these issues. Just as important, boys need to know that they aren't alone in dealing with these issues, and that they don't have to feel burdened by the obligation to be self-sufficient and invincible.
Boys need to be reminded that they not only have the right to feel hurt, but they also deserve to feel supported and empowered to stand up to their bullies and be supported in finding a way to do this with true strength and integrity. Why is this topic so important and crucial now? Boys often get very mixed messages about the balance of being strong and vulnerable, and many of them are confused by the conflicting models out there today and the shifting landscape of gender dynamics. By empathizing with boys who have been hurt or mistreated and helping them to find constructive and empowered ways of negotiating this, we help them to become more three-dimensional and more fully human.
It is so important to do this from within the framework of valuing boys and men as an essential and beautiful part of our culture. As a result of longstanding disparities and downright individual and collective trauma, it is sometimes easy to forget how to approach from this more neutral and positive framework. Unfortunately and very understandably, boys can sometimes be approached from an 'original sin' mentality, one that presumes that they are somehow, from the start, prone to problematic, sinful, or oppressive behavior. I believe that while we need to be aware of these propensities in anybody, regardless of demographic, it is crucial to level the playing field, and allow our boys to be viewed from a framework of openness, love, and genuine possibility.
I once remember hearing a quote by Margaret Atwood that said something to the effect that woman will achieve equality when they are allowed to be as bad as men. In many ways, I think this was revolutionary in allowing women to have greater latitude to explore aspects of their character that were heretofore viewed as problematic, sinful, or inappropriate. I think that the converse applies here with boys. If boys can be allowed to be as emotionally sensitive as girls--to have the freedom and latitude to explore, express, and examine their emotional vulnerability--then, maybe, just maybe we will have truly achieved equality!
Michael Alcee, PhD is the new dad of a little guy and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Tarrytown, NY. He specializes in college counseling and the psychology of men. You can find out more about him at his LinkedIn page or at drmichaelalcee.com.