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About the Author
William Pollack, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, is the co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. He and his family live in Massachusetts.
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Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood
By William Pollack
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 1998 William Pollack
All rights reserved.
Inside the World of Boys: Behind the Mask of Masculinity
"I get a little down," Adam confessed, "but I'm very good at hiding it. It's like I wear a mask. Even when the kids call me names or taunt me, I never show them how much it crushes me inside. I keep it all in."
The Boy Code: "Everything's Just Fine"
Adam is a fourteen-year-old boy whose mother sought me out after a workshop I was leading on the subject of boys and families. Adam, she told me, had been performing very well in school, but now she felt something was wrong.
Adam had shown such promise that he had been selected to join a special program for talented students, and the program was available only at a different — and more academically prestigious — school than the one Adam had attended. The new school was located in a well-to-do section of town, more affluent than Adam's own neighborhood. Adam's mother had been pleased when her son had qualified for the program and even more delighted that he would be given a scholarship to pay for it. And so Adam had set off on this new life.
At the time we talked, Mrs. Harrison's delight had turned to worry. Adam was not doing well at the new school. His grades were mediocre, and at midterm he had been given a warning that he might fail algebra. Yet Adam continued to insist, "I'm fine. Everything's just fine." He said this both at home and at school. Adam's mother was perplexed, as was the guidance counselor at his new school. "Adam seems cheerful and has no complaints," the counselor told her. "But something must be wrong." His mother tried to talk to Adam, hoping to find out what was troubling him and causing him to do so poorly in school. "But the more I questioned him about what was going on," she said, "the more he continued to deny any problems."
Adam was a quiet and rather shy boy, small for his age. In his bright blue eyes I detected an inner pain, a malaise whose cause I could not easily fathom. I had seen a similar look on the faces of a number of boys of different ages, including many boys in the "Listening to Boys' Voices" study. Adam looked wary, hurt, closed-in, self-protective. Most of all, he looked alone.
One day, his mother continued, Adam came home with a black eye. She asked him what had happened. "Just an accident," Adam had mumbled. He'd kept his eyes cast down, she remembered, as if he felt guilty or ashamed. His mother probed more deeply. She told him that she knew something was wrong, something upsetting was going on, and that — whatever it was — they could deal with it, they could face it together. Suddenly, Adam erupted in tears, and the story he had been holding inside came pouring out.
Adam was being picked on at school, heckled on the bus, goaded into fights in the schoolyard. "Hey, White Trash!" the other boys shouted at him. "You don't belong here with us!" taunted a twelfth-grade bully. "Why don't you go back to your own side of town!" The taunts often led to physical attacks, and Adam found himself having to fight back in order to defend himself. "But I never throw the first punch," Adam explained to his mother. "I don't show them they can hurt me. I don't want to embarrass myself in front of everybody."
I turned to Adam. "How do you feel about all this?" I asked. "How do you handle your feelings of anger and frustration?" His answer was, I'm sad to say, a refrain I hear often when I am able to connect to the inner lives of boys.
"I get a little down," Adam confessed, "but I'm very good at hiding it. It's like I wear a mask. Even when the kids call me names or taunt me, I never show them how much it crushes me inside. I keep it all in."
"What do you do with the sadness?" I asked.
"I tend to let it boil inside until I can't hold it any longer, and then it explodes. It's like I have a breakdown, screaming and yelling. But I only do it inside my own room at home, where nobody can hear. Where nobody will know about it." He paused a moment. "I think I got this from my dad, unfortunately."
Adam was doing what I find so many boys do: he was hiding behind a mask, and using it to hide his deepest thoughts and feelings — his real self — from everyone, even the people closest to him. This mask of masculinity enabled Adam to make a bold (if inaccurate) statement to the world: "I can handle it. Everything's fine. I am invincible."
Adam, like other boys, wore this mask as an invisible shield, a persona to show the outside world a feigned self-confidence and bravado, and to hide the shame he felt at his feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness, and isolation. He couldn't handle the school situation alone — very few boys or girls of fourteen could — and he didn't know how to ask for help, even from people he knew loved him. As a result, Adam was unhappy and was falling behind in his academic performance.
Many of the boys I see today are like Adam, living behind a mask of masculine bravado that hides the genuine self to conform to our society's expectations; they feel it is necessary to cut themselves off from any feelings that society teaches them are unacceptable for men and boys — fear, uncertainty, feelings of loneliness and need.
Many boys, like Adam, also think it's necessary that they handle their problems alone. A boy is not expected to reach out — to his family, his friends, his counselors, or coaches — for help, comfort, understanding, and support. And so he is simply not as close as he could be to the people who love him and yearn to give him the human connections of love, caring, and affection every person needs.
The problem for those of us who want to help is that, on the outside, the boy who is having problems may seem cheerful and resilient while keeping inside the feelings that don't fit the male model — being troubled, lonely, afraid, desperate. Boys learn to wear the mask so skillfully — in fact, they don't even know they're doing it — that it can be difficult to detect what is really going on when they are suffering at school, when their friendships are not working out, when they are being bullied, becoming depressed, even dangerously so, to the point of feeling suicidal. The problems below the surface become obvious only when boys go "over the edge" and get into trouble at school, start to fight with friends, take drugs or abuse alcohol, are diagnosed with clinical depression or attention deficit disorder, erupt into physical violence, or come home with a black eye, as Adam did. Adam's mother, for example, did not know from her son that anything was wrong until Adam came home with an eye swollen shut; all she knew was that he had those perplexingly poor grades.
The Gender Straitjacket
Many years ago, when I began my research into boys, I had assumed that since America was revising its ideas about girls and women, it must have also been reevaluating its traditional ideas about boys, men, and masculinity. But over the years my research findings have shown that as far as boys today are concerned, the old Boy Code — the outdated and constricting assumptions, models, and rules about boys that our society has used since the nineteenth century — is still operating in force. I have been surprised to find that even in the most progressive schools and the most politically correct communities in every part of the country and in families of all types, the Boy Code continues to affect the behavior of all of us — the boys themselves, their parents, their teachers, and society as a whole. None of us is immune — it is so ingrained. I have caught myself behaving in accordance with the code, despite my awareness of its falseness — denying sometimes that I'm emotionally in pain when in fact I am; insisting that everything is all right, when it is not.
The Boy Code puts boys and men into a gender straitjacket that constrains not only them but everyone else, reducing us all as human beings, and eventually making us strangers to ourselves and to one another — or, at least, not as strongly connected to one another as we long to be.
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ophelia is lover to the young prince of Denmark. Despondent over the death of his father, Hamlet turns away from Ophelia. She, in turn, is devastated and she eventually commits suicide. In recent years, Mary Pipher's book on adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, has made Ophelia a symbolic figure for troubled, voiceless adolescent girls. But what of Hamlet? What of Ophelia's brothers?
For Hamlet fared little better than Ophelia. Alienated from himself, as well as from his mother and father, he was plagued by doubt and erupted in uncontrolled outbursts. He grew increasingly isolated, desolate, and alone, and those who loved him were never able to get through to him. In the end, he died a tragic and unnecessary death.
The boys we care for, much like the girls we cherish, often seem to feel they must live semi-inauthentic lives, lives that conceal much of their true selves and feelings, and studies show they do so in order to fit in and be loved. The boys I see — in the "Listening to Boys' Voices" study, in schools, and in private practice — often are hiding not only a wide range of their feelings but also some of their creativity and originality, showing in effect only a handful of primary colors rather than a broad spectrum of colors and hues of the self.
The Boy Code is so strong, yet so subtle, in its influence that boys may not even know they are living their lives in accordance with it. In fact, they may not realize there is such a thing until they violate the code in some way or try to ignore it. When they do, however, society tends to let them know — swiftly and forcefully — in the form of a taunt by a sibling, a rebuke by a parent or a teacher, or ostracism by classmates.
But, it doesn't have to be this way. I know that Adam could have been saved a great deal of pain if his parents and the well-meaning school authorities had known how to help him, how to make him feel safe to express his real feelings, beginning with the entirely natural anxiety about starting at a new school. This could have eased the transition from one school to a new one, rather than leaving Adam to tough it out by himself — even though Adam would have said, "Everything's all right."
How to Get Behind the Mask
As we'll discuss throughout this book, there are many ways that we can learn how to understand a boy's deepest feelings and experience, to come to know who he really is, and to help him love and feel comfortable with his genuine self. The starting place for parents — as well as for teachers and other mentors of our boys — is to become sensitive to the early signs of the masking of feelings. These signs include everything from bad grades to rowdy behavior, from "seeming quiet" to manifesting symptoms of depression, from using drugs or alcohol to becoming a perpetrator or victim of violence; and sometimes, as in the case of Adam, the mask may accompany the mantra that "everything is fine."
The second step to getting behind the mask is learning a new way to talk to boys so that they don't feel afraid or ashamed to share their true feelings. For example, when a boy like Adam comes home with a black eye, rather than saying "Oh my God! Just what is happening to you at school?" or "What the heck happened to you?" less intimidating language can be used, such as "What is going on — can you tell me?" or "I've noticed things seem a little different for you lately — now I can see something's wrong. Let's talk about it."
The third step is to learn how to accept a boy's own emotional schedule. As we'll discuss more in this book, boys who do share their feelings often take longer to do so than girls do. Whereas a girl might share her feelings as soon as she's asked what's going wrong, a boy will often refuse (or ignore us) the first time he's approached. We have to learn how to give the boy the time he needs and how to recognize in his words and actions the signals that he is ready to talk.
A boy's need to be silent — and then his subsequent readiness to share what he is feeling — is what we will call the timed silence syndrome. It's the boy who usually needs to set the clock himself — to determine how much time he needs to remain silent before opening up to share his feelings. If we learn to become sensitive to each boy's unique timing, we become better at respecting how he copes with emotions and make it more possible for him to be honest about the feelings behind the mask.
The fourth step involves what I call connection through action. This means that rather than nudging a boy to sit down and share his feelings with us, we begin by simply joining him in an activity that he enjoys. Often by simply doing something with the boy — playing a game with him, joining him for a duet on the piano, taking him to an amusement park — we forge a connection that then enables him to open up. In the middle of the game, the duet, or the Ferris wheel ride, a boy may often feel close and safe enough to share the feelings he'd otherwise keep hidden.
Finally, we can often help boys take off their masks by telling them stories about our own experiences. We can tell them "war stories" about when we were young and had to deal with life's ups and downs, or we can share recent experiences that challenged us. Even if our boy groans or rolls his eyes when we begin to share our story, he almost always benefits from the empathy that telling the story inevitably conveys. By discovering that, yes, we too have felt scared, embarrassed, or disappointed, the boy begins to feel less ashamed of his own vulnerable feelings. He feels our empathy and discovers that we understand, love, and respect the real boy in him.
For schools, getting behind the mask to help a boy like Adam requires several specific additional steps. First, as we'll learn throughout this book, teachers, school administrators, guidance counselors, and others all need to learn about how the Boy Code operates. They need to be actually trained to understand how this code restricts boys from being their true selves and how it pushes them to put on the mask. Second, I often suggest that schools assign to each boy an adult mentor who is sensitive and empathic to that boy's unique personality and interests. For example, the mentor for a boy who loves sports might be one of the gym teachers, whereas the mentor for the boy who loves poetry might be the English teacher. By assigning a mentor whose interests mirror those of the boy, the boy gains an adult friend with whom he can talk, somebody with whom he might feel comfortable sharing his deepest feelings and thoughts. Third, schools need to monitor closely those areas where the Boy Code operates most intensely. These include bus rides (where boys are often completely unsupervised), gym class, recess, and extracurricular sports. In such situations, teachers and other supervisors need to be especially vigilant about making sure that each boy is doing all right. Fourth, when teachers or others do intervene to help a boy who seems to be hurting behind the mask, it's important that they use the kind of nonshaming approach I discussed above. For example, when a boy seems to be the victim of a lot of teasing, rather than intervening suddenly by saying "Hey, what's going on here? Cut that out!" the adult supervisor might take aside the boys involved, individually and at separate times, and investigate what's happening in the particular situation. Finally, as I'll discuss more in this book, schools need to give boys a "report card" that covers not only their academic progress and classroom conduct but also their social life. By keeping an eye on a boy's social adjustment, schools are much better able to stay in touch with a boy's genuine emotional experience.
Preparing a Boy for Change
In addition to learning how to get to know the real boy, it's important for us as adults to anticipate situations such as important life changes — a move, a divorce, the birth of a new sibling — that are likely to bring up the kinds of painful feelings that force many boys to retreat behind the mask. For example, a new school, knowing that a boy like Adam was coming there from a less advantaged neighborhood, might have anticipated difficulties, assigned a buddy or mentor to Adam, an older boy who could teach him the ropes, introduce him to other boys, help him to become an insider rather than remain an outsider, and be a friend to ease him through the first weeks of school. The school counselors might have been in contact with Adam's mother from the first sign of an academic dip. Adam's teachers, too, might have been encouraged to help him get acquainted. Adam's parents might have spent more time with Adam during the first few weeks, and also prepared him in advance for his new experience, talking with him about what to expect, meeting with other parents and boys who had been involved in the same program, looking for another parent with a boy in the new school who might befriend Adam or talk with that parent about the school, visiting the school with Adam before his first day, and exploring the new neighborhood so he could adjust to the scene. Once he began to experience academic difficulties, which was the first indication to them that something was amiss, his parents might have tried to create safe spaces or activities to do together in which Adam might have felt able to open up and share his feelings; they might also have talked about their own memories of going away to college or feeling alone in a new experience.
Excerpted from Real Boys by William Pollack. Copyright © 1998 William Pollack. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A Showman's Education
Two Loves 22
The Porno Graphic 42
Cafe Society 68
The War Years 117
The Birth of Television
A Temporary Job 136
"Really Big Show" 143
David vs. Goliath 166
The Globetrotter 229
The Times They Are a Changin' 253
The Generation Gap 299
Ripped Asunder 324
Selected Bibliography 352
Reading Group Guide
1. One of the issues raised by Mary Pipher in her foreword is that comparison of girls' and boys' suffering is unproductive. How can the unique problems of adolescent boys be addressed in ways that avoid segregation while making sure that their unique needs are met?
2. Pollack's most controversial claim is that the emotional pain of boys stems from premature separation from their mothers. Are issues such as the use of shame in our culture and the premature separation of mother and child really different for boys than for girls? Pollack qualifies his assertions throughout Real Boys. What do you think are the most useful distinctions to keep in mind?
3. As Pipher points out, Pollack empathizes with "mothers who are expected to push sons away and yet are still held responsible for their sons' emotional health and behavior" (p. xviii). Think of instances in which you have seen this double bind in operation.
4. Pollack asserts that fathers play a unique role in the emotional health of their sons by imparting to boys a feeling of empowerment in changing their environment, in the management of emotions, and in the exploration of novel circumstances (p. 115). Despite these claims, are there ways in which the book perpetuates the custom of relying more on mothers than on fathers to fill the emotional needs of their sons?
5. Pollack cites the results of studies showing that mothers "are particularly resistant to recognizing their [infant] sons' negative emotional states" and "often without realizing it, take steps that squelch their young sons' emotional expressiveness" (pp. 41-42). In light of this research, is it reasonable to suspect that mothers simply don't relate as well to boys as to girls?
6. Several anecdotes in the book describe fathers' objections to mothers nurturing their sons. Why do you think such objections are so common among fathers? What can account for the implication that fathers seem out of touch with their own memories of the need for nurturing that Pollack says is so alive within boys?
7. Pollack claims that the Boy Code is being revised "as society begins to put a premium on 'emotionally intelligent,' verbally capable, empathic, loving men" (pp. 88). Do you see evidence of this?
8. Urging mothers to try and dispel the atmosphere of gender straitjacketing by serving as a "new breed of coach" for other, less open-minded adults, Pollack remarks that single mothers are often the best coaches (pp. 88-95). Do you agree? What qualities, gifts, or experiences might single mothers bring to the job of educating others about the unique needs of boys? How might any mother begin to incorporate these "gifts" into her relationship with her son?
9. Pollack surveys the historical role of mothers in Western society, mentioning Freud in particular (pp. 111-12). How do you think traditional esteem for the "potency of maternal connection" has gotten lost (or do you think it has)? Expand on Pollack's brief discussion using your own experience and cultural perspective.
10. To become effective fathers, men have their own socially imposed conditioning to deal with. Pollack notes that "many men feel a ‘wound' when it comes to the memories of the fathering they received" (p.128). How do you think men can become better fathers by examining their childhood relationships with their own parents?
11. Use the anecdote about saving face (pp. 162-63) to explore your group's opinions and responses to a common "boy" situation. (The anecdote concerns a boy, Scott, who first resists but eventually decides to give in to a classmate's provocation to fight.) What are the implications and consequences of approving or disapproving of the measures Scott took?
12. Pollack has found that reactions to the story of Tommy, his father, and the ice rink (pp. 286-88) vary widely. Discuss these reactions and perspectives without trying to single out a right or wrong response.
13. Understanding the unique situation of boys requires understanding how and why social roles in general have evolved. Widening the frame of reference beyond the unique situation of boys might help to deepen this discussion. Do you think ambivalence exists about all social roles, not just gender? What can parents do to deal with the influence that media stereotyping has on their sons? Are parents, for example, less likely to fulfill their role as parent in an effort to be a friend or confidante?
14. Discuss another book with a different or contrasting point of view alongside Pollack's, such as Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand (New York: William Morrow, 1990).
Using Real Boys In The Classroom And In Parent-Teacher Groups
Using William Pollack's anecdotal material in discussion groups may provide the easiest access to the issues he raises. As hypotheticals, his anecdotes might lend perspective to a discussion of, for example, how parents can distinguish danger signs or plain orneriness from a child's normal wish to separate or to celebrate his differences. In student groups, Pollack's illustrative stories could encourage reluctant contributors.
1. Pollack recounts a classroom forum and discussion on gender roles in which a female airline pilot and a male makeup artist are invited to explain their unconventional occupations. A boy in the class describes having to be "two different people" in the essay he was asked to write in response to the forum (pp.147-49). Later, Pollack explains that the Boy Code tells boys how to furnish the "supposed to" answers in surveys designed to assess their self-esteem (p. 236). In student groups, boys might recount their own similar experiences. For classroom teachers, how might such surveys be redesigned or prefaced differently to elicit more honest responses? Or is the issue perhaps one of ambivalence rather than honesty? Pollack describes his experimental blending of two tests, one measuring traditional male role attitudes and another that measures boys' progress toward gender equality (p. 166). The boys tested responded equally strongly in both traditional and egalitarian categories, revealing to Pollack an "inner fissure" and "inner unconscious confusion about what society expects of them as males."
2. Empathy is one of Pollack's main themes. Although empathy is a natural human response, using it to connect with boys (or girls) does not always come naturally to parents or teachers, not because they don't feel it but because its expression becomes mingled with other agendas. (It may be particularly difficult for a parent focused on providing guidance for a troubled child. Empathy sometimes gets lost between sympathy and guidance.) Any discussion of the subject should help parents and teachers remember that empathy is an intellectual skill as well as an emotional response. It is about sharing someone else's experience.
3. Pollack observes that the Boy Code has become more complicated in our present social climate, where boys are prompted to be tough and, at the same time, more sensitive. Taught to protect what our culture has defined as the core of their masculinity, boys resort to silent stoicism or "hyperactive" behavior that only confirms the stereotype. Pollack finds compassionate solutions in "action love," in analysis of the myth of masculinity, and in honest confrontation of the strong influence of the Boy Code and its mixed messages. His basic advice should be useful in any parent-teacher group discussion:
Take feelings seriously.
Be aware that get-tough messages can be humiliating instead of fortifying.
Acknowledge the mythic component in social and gender roles.
Acknowledge the double standard.
4. If Pollack is right that boys are in crisis in part because they are confused about what is expected of them, discussing the range of possibilities is surely more productive than endorsing one role or another. He mentions a few films that realistically depict the ways boys compete and interact: War of the Buttons (p. 189) and Stand By Me (p. 196). Compile a list of films that show realistic boy behavior. Discussions centered on film or program viewing would be equally useful in the classroom or in a parent- teacher group.
5. Studies show that boys are at their greatest academic disadvantage in writing and reading (p. 246). It is reasonable to suggest that any program addressing boys' issues should include a reading and/or writing component. Do you think this "sedentary" work would defeat the purpose by squelching "active" boy-style communication and learning? How might adjustments be made? Would storytelling groups, improvisational groups, or boy-specific reading groups are more effective?
6. Pollack tells the story of a team writing project that he found to be structured around the way girls like to work, putting boys at a disadvantage (p. 241). How could such a project be made to work better for boys in a coed atmosphere? Discuss Pollack's suggestions for incorporating boys' learning styles, like finding the right tempo (p. 245), moving around (p. 246), taking frequent breaks (p. 251), and encouraging shared lessons (p. 254). Come up with some other suggestions for making these projects more adventurous, such as acting out ideas before or while committing them to paper.
7. Pollack says that the "very structure of most coeducational schools tends unwittingly to favor female students" (p. 239). His description of boy-style learning and his advocacy of the adjustments that need to be made to accommodate boys present challenges to the way many classes are conducted; teachers who value orderly classroom procedures will anticipate problems. Are Pollack's suggestions for classroom reform practical? What changes might your school find possible? (Many coed schools are making certain classes, like math and freshman English, single-sex; others offer single-sex sections as an option in more courses.)
8. Real Boys contains many descriptions of the action-oriented ways boys like (and need) to learn, and equally as many in which boys' acting out is described as "masked emotional pain" (p. 255). How can educators tell the difference? Is Pollack implying that in a "guy-ified" learning environment, acting out would eventually dissipate?