On Psychology

Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 1999 / 21 Kislev, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

Boys to Men: Add a Dose of Masculinity

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- PERHAPS IT'S BECAUSE my two teenage daughters are now of dating age, but lately I find myself thinking a lot about the character and well-being of boys. And so should we all. After nearly three decades of focusing on girls, we are beginning to realize how much we have been neglecting the boys. The results of this neglect have been profound.

Take just about any risk factor of childhood, and it is boys, not girls, who are in deep trouble. Boys account for the majority of discipline problems in school; are twice as likely than girls to be labeled as learning disabled; up to ten times more likely to be diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder; and make up 67 percent of special education classes.

As teenagers, boys are much more likely than girls to get into trouble with the law, and the crimes they commit tend to be much more violent. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, boys account for 94% of known juvenile murderers. Overall, 1 in 10 high school boys has carried a gun to school, compared to only 1 in 70 girls. When it comes to suicide, males account for 6 of every 7 suicides among children and young adults.

If statistics bore you, think for a moment of the rash of shootings in schools across the country. Can you name one shooter who was a girl? I can't. The lesson: When we neglect the boys, not only they, but we are in for trouble. The question is what to do about it.


Judging from newspaper articles and popular books by psychologists and other self-proclaimed experts on children, the answer is to help boys get into touch with their feelings. "Boys who can't shed tears, shoot guns," asserts William Pollack, author of "Real Boys" (Henry Holt & Co.). To him, the answer is to replace outmoded models of masculinity focusing on strength, athletics, and stoicism, with one emphasizing emotional expression. Call this the Alan Alda School of Boy Repair.

To others, masculinity itself is the problem. In a recent "Practitioner Report" to the American Psychological Association, Ronald F. Levant asserts "masculinity is a strong predisposing factor in school violence." Fortunately, according to Levant, masculinity is merely a "social construction" (that is, made up by society with no inherent biological underpinnings), and as such can be "re-constructed." For example, he says, boys should be taught when they are shoved down on a playground, they ought to come up with a "face full of tears" rather than a "fistful of gravel."

Still others, especially feminists on the hard left, see the problems being experienced by boys as a reaction to the diminution of male power and prestige. In this world view, boys and men are simply raging against the recent gains made by women and girls.

I'm not so sure any of these views make a whole lot of sense. First, research suggests that expressing emotions is not very helpful in helping to keep behavior under control; in fact, it may even make things worse. When, for example, therapists merely encourage their patients to express painful emotions, such as sadness or anger, the most predictable result is a deepening, not lessening, of those painful emotions. What helps is not the expression of the emotion, but the acquisition of a new response. In other words, coming up with a plan helps more than simply expressing one's feelings.

Second, anyone who insists that boys and girls have no inherent biological differences, must never have spent much time around boys and girls. Research consistently shows that boys, on average, are more active, more impulsive, and more physical than are girls. Simply asserting that these differences are "socially constructed" is as unhelpful in assisting boys manage these behaviors as was John Lennon's proscription for securing world peace of merely imagining it were so.

Finally, the idea that the problems boys face are due to anti-feminist rage runs counter to historical fact. Boys have, since the beginning of recorded history, been described as more rambunctious, aggressive, and physical than girls. These differences didn't arise simply with the advent of modern feminism.

So, what do we do about the boys? Missing in most experts' opinions about what to do is what is also missing in the lives of the boys who are in the most trouble: fathers.

Fatherless boys, compared to well-fathered boys, are more likely to experience school failure; suffer from an emotional or behavioral problem; commit crime; develop an alcohol or drug problem; and commit suicide. Name the disorder, and fatherless boys are more likely to have it.

But just as fatherlessness rears dysfunction, good fathers rear the opposite. Boys who grow up in a home in which they interact daily with a father who regularly and consistently controls himself despite the presence of strong emotions, learn how to control their own emotions. Boys who grow up in a home in which the father supports, encourages, and loves the mother, learn the importance of supporting and encouraging the females in their lives. In short, when boys grow up with a father who teach them what it means to be a good man, a good husband, and a good father, masculinity is not something to be feared or "re-constructed," but something wondrous to behold.

Don Eberly, founder of the National Fatherhood Initiative put it this way: "If the picture of dysfunctional masculinity is ugly, the picture of mature masculinity is beautiful. There are few things more magnificent than a mature man, rich in character and self-control, secure in his masculinity, confident in his fathering, and able to lead and serve with compassion and tender-heartedness. Such a man makes a huge difference in his world."

He does, indeed.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn