Updated: Jul 2, 2018
Discussing gender stereotypes with twelve year olds is a tricky business but I relish the opportunity to hear my students' thoughts. Young people are today confronted with messages about masculinity being toxic, feminism becoming too aggressive and they struggle to find language to explore their feminine and masculine natures.
When I started offering girl circles at school, boys would approach and ask when will there be boy circles? Men who were keen to support these boys suggested they could do some mechanics with the boys or build dens in the woods – I was told that’s how we get boys talking and bonding. But why is it assumed boys need a task focused structure in order to communicate their feelings?
Clinical psychologist, William Pollack believes that society is inadvertently fostering an idea of boyhood that represses boys’ emotional needs, promotes aggressive behaviour and boys’ ability to develop relationships. Two decades ago he explained in his book, ‘Real Boys-Rescuing Our Sons From The Myths Of Boyhood’, that expectations for boys do not reflect the current needs of our society and to address this we must break what he entitled the 'Boy Code'.
Pollack lead the Harvard research project ‘Listening to Boys’ Voices’ and believes that boys are suffering a ‘silent crisis’ as society stereotypes masculinity; shaping boys through a lifelong process of shame and indoctrination. This ‘silent crisis’ is indeed reflected in the fact that male suicide rates are three times higher than female suicide rates in the UK (Samaritans 2017).
Almost two decades after Pollack coined the phrase ‘Boy Code’ Australian author Tim Winton has spoken out in the wake of the # me too movement to say that boys are being betrayed by western culture and left to figure out how to be a man by themselves. He notes that:
‘we forget or simply don’t notice the ways in which men, too, are shackled by misogyny’
Some of the boys I teach admit they don’t know which way to turn as they approach adolescence; they are unsure how to behave and speak, particularly around girls. More than ever they need guidance, support and a sense of community. I believe that with intentional mentoring and acknowledging their journey to adulthood, boys can turn the tide and embrace their true essence. But…. we need men to do this work.
There are some fantastic projects connecting with boys and young men at this level. In the UK Journeyman UK offers support networks in the Bristol and Stroud areas. Their vision is to create communities where mentors guide boys during the transition from childhood to adulthood. Before becoming a mentor for Journeyman UK men have to do their own inner work to ensure they are ready to model healthy masculinity.
So how do we guide boys and enable them to embrace their power as opposed to shame, subdue or ignore their unique gifts? Indigenous cultures acknowledge coming of age with a rite of passage and for boys this ritual is usually a challenge they have to face, a form of vision quest in the wilderness exploring their personal thresholds and returning with pride and a sense of responsibility to their community. Journeyman UK offers modern day rites of passages and it would be great to see these opportunities in every community.
Mentoring boys allows adolescent potency to be embraced and gives young men direction and self-belief. However, the breakdown in community means not much is on offer for boys as they journey to adulthood in modern life. When asked do they have mentors or men to guide them apart from their dad, one of my male students said, ‘We don’t need mentors, we have the internet’.
In discussions on feminism my male students have a lot to say. Some of them feel that we are living in a feminised society – not a patriarchy. They feel marginalised, judged and that feminism attacks men unjustly. They are not alone in feeling this and I believe it is vital we discuss how feminism can support both men and women and consider what healthy feminism resembles, just as much as we discuss masculinity.
In the UK Rebel Wisdom is creating a forum for men and women’s groups, organising events and weekend retreats that allow a space for conversations around the different challenges we face. The new American platform Women Teach Men explores the boundaries between the sexes in the 21st century; demonstrating that women have much to share with men. It is uplifting to know there are safe and positive opportunities for these vulnerable discussions but I am left wondering what I can do to support boys locally.
Rushing out to school one morning this week my six year old son said I had to come and see something in his room, we were late but he insisted. ‘Look mummy’ he said, ‘my Ninjago figures are having a boy circle!’ We can encourage boys to build dens and enjoy mechanics but we also need to inspire them to express their emotions and communicate healthily and we need men to lead this. It took me two years to find a male teacher to hold sessions for the boys at my school. This has been the first year and the boys love it. As Pollack concludes:
“Real boys need people to be with who allow them to show all of their emotions including their most intense feelings of sadness, disappointment, and fear. Real boys need to hear that these feelings are normal, good, and ‘masculine.”
-Author Tim Winton on Toxic Masculinity
-William Pollack - Real Boys-Rescuing Our Sons From The Myths Of Boyhood
-Dr Stephen Biddulph – Raising Boys in the 21st Century
-Ted Talk with Dr Michael Kimmel (author of Guyland) on why gender equality is good for everyone.