Why do today’s boys get such a bad rap from society? In the landscape of any community, teenage boys are everywhere. They often seem like they don’t have much to do. They might be found at local skate parks (or local sidewalks) performing dangerous stunts on skateboards or on small BMX bikes. They might not be wearing safety gear. They can also be seen hanging out in packs or cruising all over town on swift-moving new-age skateboards called long boards.
The uniforms of boys are often similar: they include multi-colored shoes with fat neon laces. T-shirts and hats emblazoned with merchandising messages from rock groups and sporting goods companies. They wear expensive, tattered, oversized pants that fall down to exhibit boxer shorts of various designs. Many of these young men will add a tattoo and maybe a piercing or two at some point. To the untrained observer, teenage boys can appear as threatening thugs who defy good taste, authority and break the law.
But this is simply not true. There is no reason to perpetuate this anti-boy campaign based on their appearance and behavior. Rather, I think it’s important that we remember that our boys are struggling to become men, just as they always have. The difference is that today the rules for proper conduct can be unclear, while the sanctions are often more harsh.
Like everyone else, boys want rules they can follow; they want to be good at something and they want to know what is expected of them. Boys need guidance more than ever. They need to know how to build things, cook, take things apart and put them together. They need teachers who understand them and who don’t expect them to behave the same way girls do in school. They need to know how to cope with emotions — rejection, when to seek help, and how to behave with girls.
Learning how to get along with girls often presents serious problems for boys. Girls mature more quickly; that is a biological fact. Boys must learn to respond to their attention and rejection appropriately all at once. Peers and the media encourage their participation, but they are often ill equipped. What was once regarded as an ordinary rite of passage experience such as a first kiss may now become a damaging public sexual harassment charge.
When our own boys were in elementary school, their neighborhood friend Amanda was a frequent playmate who exercised strong influence over their activities. Amanda and our oldest son were exactly the same age; luckily, she had four older brothers and an innate sense of how to manage them. When she was present, the boys played imaginative games with roles and responsibility. They followed the rules and did what she told them to do. Even at six, Amanda was assertive, (not bossy), kind, (but not a pushover).
In Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, published in 2000, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson attribute many of the problems boys experience to arrested emotional development. Parents and teachers treat boys and girls differently and boys continue to be misunderstood. Harsh discipline is presumed to be a necessity to make a man out of a boy. Kindlon and Thomas suggest that the “tyranny of toughness” needs to end if boys are ever going to develop into good fathers and husbands.
Boys need guidance, mentors, understanding, kindness, the opportunity to fail and teachers and parents who understand how they tick.
(By the way, recently Amanda became a teacher. I am confident that she will be amazingly good at it.)