Boys: Not as Tough as You Think
Last summer, my six-year-old nephew was determined to master jumping from the swim dock into the water. A bit shy by nature, he waited until my older daughters were elsewhere, and I was in the water to catch him. On his first attempt, he threw his arms around my neck and whispered into my ear, "Hold me tighter!" When I later related this story to our assembled family, my nephew chastised me: "Uncle Kyle, I told you not to tell!" Although he actually hadn't, the message was clear: don't tell that he'd wanted holding—tight holding.
My heart sank. Here was a wonderful young boy ashamed that he feels or needs something perfectly okay to need and feel. With a loving, doting dad and skilled elementary teacher for a mom, I knew they weren't preparing him for a life in the World Wrestling Federation, but he had begun school last year and, in this little scene, seemed to have started his training to be a man.
Are Males the Stronger Sex?
Why do so many boys seem to feel that being thick-skinned, tight-lipped, dry-eyed and in-your-face is the best way to live life and conduct meaningful relationships? Is it because boys are naturally tougher? The reason is precisely the opposite. Boys are more vulnerable from the beginning to the end of life. The male fetus is at greater risk of death, infection and medical complication at birth. By six weeks of age, boys have begun to fall behind girls developmentally. During their early years, they are more susceptible to poor parental care. By adolescence, girls out-perform boys at school, and boys are four times more likely to die by suicide. As adults, males live shorter lives, are more likely to die violent and accidental deaths, are more susceptible to cancer and the list goes on. This is not the profile of a stronger sex.
Parents should also be aware of other important distinctions between the genders:
- Girls usually talk earlier and better than boys.
- As boys age, they express and recognize less and less emotion.
- Boys are more physically active throughout life.
Combine the above list with these interesting differences in parental behavior:
- From birth on, mothers talk more with their girls than with their boys.
- Both parents reinforce the physical competence of their boys over their girls.
- Mothers, in particular, feel some obligation to "toughen" their sons, perhaps already aware of their sons' vulnerabilities.
As a practicing physician for twenty-five years, I've become increasingly worried about the premature shutdown of boys' emotional, moral, and spiritual development. I suspect a growing causative link between boys' stronger potential for violence, paternal abandonment, and the way we as parents, teachers, and society collude with our boys' "need to be boys" before they become fully socialized.
Suggestions to Parents of Boys of All Ages:
- Talk to your son about the connection between feelings and behavior. Teach him that he is more out of control when he is upset and that it is more comfortable when he feels understood or close to people he loves and likes. This gives him permission to have a living, internal emotional world that is interesting, secure, and strong.
- Give him opportunities to be physically active. Using large muscles is how boys work out their action potential, and it settles them to bounce off the walls, ground, and each other. Sports can be an effective outlet provided they are well-coached and socially responsible about participation and competition.
- Start early to encourage and model as much physical and emotional affection as you can. This helps boys feel better about their less aggressive interpersonal needs.
- Don't let your son slip into silent mode without supportive and regular challenge to this behavior. Make him talk to you rather than allowing him to slip into the "fortress of solitude" as described in Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon and Mike Thompson (Ballantine Books, 2000).
- Maintain high expectations that your son will continue to develop the inborn abilities in empathy that he demonstrated as a toddler. Authentic bravery and courage are emotional, not armed or muscled. Talk to him about moral dilemmas and everyday challenges to his values.
- Help him in the management of his anger. Problem-solving skills are teachable and should be reinforced by parents on a continuing basis.
- Supervise TV, computer use, video games, and movie choices. Media influence will challenge your progress in humanizing your son Periodically unplug, and give your son the skills to think through these advertising-driven distortions of real masculinity.
By Dr. Kyle Pruett. Pruett is Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and School of Medicine. He is also past president of Zero to Three, the nation's largest think tank, research, and policy center for the first three years of life. His most recent book is Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child (Free Press, 2000)
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