Growing Up Male - Raising Sons


by David J. Baxter (with Marion Balla) © 2001



Growing Up Male - Raising Sons

July 2001


The "Boy Code"

William Pollack, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood and The Real Boys Workbook, and Dan Kindlon & Michael Thompson, authors of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, tell us that as a society we are shaming young boys and men into repressing and denying their feelings. Pollack talks about the "Boy Code" that asserts, "Be a man, be strong, be brave, don't be a sissy, don't show your feelings". He suggests that it is learned at an early age in sandboxes, playgrounds, classrooms, and our homes. Boys who don't learn quickly to conform to this code are taunted and shamed until they do. As a result, they learn to be silent and to suffer quietly, retreating behind what Pollack calls "the mask of masculinity".


Parents often unintentionally play a significant role in perpetuating the stereotypes of what it is to be male (and what it is to be female). Many fathers model the Boy Code that they themselves learned as children from their own fathers, a style which typically does not engage the child's feelings. In contrast, mothers tend to calm and comfort their sons, to "fix" the problem as quickly as possible when their sons are distressed (which again can inadvertently send the message to boys that feelings are "bad", something to be avoided). However, perhaps because young boys tend to be more intense or aggressive in the way they express emotions, it has been observed that mothers tend to hold back and respond less expressively than they would with their daughters.


By the time boys become teenagers, most of them have become so adept at repressing and masking their more tender feelings that they often no longer have a vocabulary to identify or describe these feelings even to themselves. The exception is anger &em; the one acceptable male emotion. Anger hides other feelings from the people around them and even from the boys themselves รถ especially feelings like fear, anxiety, and depression. As clinicians, we are aware that anger is often a warning flag, a signal that something else is wrong. For example, it is typically the first observable sign of teenage depression. As a result, parents often feel confused by the silence and by what they see as "inexplicable bouts of anger" or "wild mood swings" in their sons. They ask themselves, "What is happening to him? He used to be such a happy little boy." Parents, fearing for their son's well-being, will often point to outside influences as they try to understand these changes which do not make sense to them. Parents talk about feeling bankrupt, not knowing how to connect meaningfully with their sons.


Kindlon & Thompson, in Raising Cain, say that ". . . boys typically avoid discussing their feelings with anybody. They struggle alone, often with tragic consequences. . . just as Superman retreats into his Fortress of Silence." As these boys grow into men, their wives and girlfriends complain that, "He never talks about his feelings. I never know what he's thinking. He doesn't share anything with me."


An article by Philip Lee in the Ottawa Citizen (March 7, 2001) quotes Christina Hoff Sommers, author of The War Against Boys, as stating that Pollack and others are "attributing pathology to normal boys" and seeking to "socialize boys away from conventional maleness". However, it is the Boy Code to which boys are socialized that "pathologizes" boys and men. As Pollack says, the intent is not to strip boys of their masculinity but to "give boys back the other half of being human that we've taken away from them".


The Role of Parents

Fathers have an important role to play. For better or for worse, men provide models of masculinity for both their sons and their daughters. By learning how to talk about his own feelings, hopes, worries, and fears, a father conveys to his children that it is normal and acceptable for a man to have such feelings and to display them. Having themselves grown up with the emotional shackles of the Boy Code, this is often difficult for men, but fathers need to do this not only for their sons, but also for their wives, their daughters, their grandchildren, and themselves.


Mothers can give boys what they need to become healthier men by doing what is often in their hearts, giving their sons "complete and unconditional empathy and understanding for a full range of feelings". Mothers, too, model what it is to be masculine. Mothers are the female mirror through which boys gain understanding of how men and women relate to each other.


Parents make boys into men. The love of their parents, which respects and supports the recognition and respect of, and connection to, the feelings of their sons, can and does make boys stronger, emotionally and psychologically.


Raising sons today requires dialogue, introspection, and feedback. It requires being open and willing to challenge past modeling about "being male". It requires both fathers and mothers to reach out to their sons to break through the Boy Code by supporting the expression of their full range of feelings and emotions in an atmosphere of love, safety, and respect.



Recommended Reading


Kindlon, Dan, & Thompson, Michael
Raising Cain: Protecting The Emotional Life Of Boys. Ballantine Books, 2000


Pipher, Mary
Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Ballantine Books, 1995


Pollack, William
Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. Random House, 1998


Pollack, William, & Cushman, Kathleen
Real Boys Workbook: Definitive Guide to Understanding and Interacting with Boys of All Ages. Villard Books, 2001







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