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INSIDE THE WORLD OF BOYS:
BEHIND THE MASK OF
“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.
A MOTHER’S INSTINCTS
One of the things I especially noticed in Adam’s story is a hallmark of other boys’ stories too—the mother’s instincts were accurate; she knew in her heart that something was wrong. But she distrusted her own knowledge, and went along with the Boy Code and with Adam’s saying, “Everything is all right.” In her denial of what she in fact knew, and in her acceptance of society’s code for boys, she disconnected from her own instincts, not realizing she knew better; she didn’t feel empowered to listen to her own intuitions about her son or take action that might have been outside the code but could have helped Adam before the situation came to a crisis. With the very best of intentions, everyone involved—the parents and authorities at both schools—had pushed Adam away from help and connection, from the full range of expressing himself. Everyone believed that the special school program represented a great opportunity for him, as indeed it did; but they failed to realize that it also represented a change in his social setting that needed to be handled for and with the boy.
Adam tried to tough it out on his own, the way boys do. It’s part of the code.
BEHIND THE MASK OF MASCULINITY: SHAME AND THE TRAUMA OF SEPARATION
Just as Adam and his parents unwittingly adhered to the Boy Code, most parents and schools do the same. It has been ingrained in our society for so long, we’re unaware of it. One educational expert recently suggested that the way to achieve equality in schooling would be by “teaching girls to raise their voices and boys to develop their ears.” Of course boys should learn to listen. They should also speak clearly, in their own personal voices. I believe, however, that it’s not boys who cannot hear us—it is we who are unable to hear them.
Researchers have found that at birth, and for several months afterward, male infants are actually more emotionally expressive than female babies. But by the time boys reach elementary school much of their emotional expressiveness has been lost or has gone underground. Boys at five or six become less likely than girls to express hurt or distress, either to their teachers or to their own parents. Many parents have asked me what triggers this remarkable transformation, this squelching of a boy’s natural emotional expressiveness. What makes a boy who was open and exuberant unwilling to show the whole range of his emotions?
Recent research points to two primary causes for this change, and both of them grow out of assumptions about and attitudes toward boys that are deeply ingrained in the codes of our society.
The first reason is the use of shame in the toughening-up process by which it’s assumed boys need to be raised. Little boys are made to feel ashamed of their feelings, guilty especially about feelings of weakness, vulnerability, fear, and despair.
The second reason is the separation process as it applies to boys, the emphasis society places on a boy’s separating emotionally from his mother at an unnecessarily early age, usually by the time the boys are six years old and then again in adolescence.
The use of shame to “control” boys is pervasive; it is so corrosive I will devote a whole chapter to it in this book. Boys are made to feel shame over and over, in the midst of growing up, through what I call society’s shame-hardening process. The idea is that a boy needs to be disciplined, toughened up, made to act like a “real man,” be independent, keep the emotions in check. A boy is told that “big boys don’t cry,” that he shouldn’t be “a mama’s boy.” If these things aren’t said directly, these messages dominate in subtle ways in how boys are treated—and therefore how boys come to think of themselves. Shame is at the heart of how others behave toward boys on our playing fields, in schoolrooms, summer camps, and in our homes. A number of other societal factors contribute to this old-fashioned process of shame-hardening boys, and I’ll have more to say about shame in the next chapter.
The second reason we lose sight of the real boy behind a mask of masculinity, and ultimately lose the boy himself, is the premature separation of a boy from his mother and all things maternal at the beginning of school. Mothers are encouraged to separate from their sons, and the act of forced separation is so common that it is generally considered to be “normal.” But I have come to understand that this forcing of early separation is so acutely hurtful to boys that it can only be called a trauma—an emotional blow of damaging proportions. I also believe that it is an unnecessary trauma. Boys, like girls, will separate very naturally from their mothers, if allowed to do so at their own pace.
As if the trauma of separation at age six were not wrenching enough, boys often suffer a second separation trauma when they reach sexual maturity. As a boy enters adolescence, our society becomes concerned and confused about the mother-son relationship. We feel unsure about how intimate a mother should be with her sexually mature son. We worry that an intense and loving relationship between the two will somehow get in the way of the boy’s ability to form friendships with girls his own age. As a result, parents—encouraged by the society around them—may once again push the boy away from the family and, in particular, the nurturing female realm. Our society tells us this is “good” for the boy, that he needs to be pushed out of the nest or he will never fly. But I believe that the opposite is true—that a boy will make the leap when he is ready, and he will do it better if he feels that there is someone there to catch him if he falls.
This double trauma of boyhood contributes to the creation in boys of a deep wellspring of grief and sadness that may last throughout their lives.
MIXED MESSAGES: SOCIETY’S NEW EXPECTATIONS FOR BOYS
William S. 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.