By Rachael Ashak Porter
Issue 133, November/December 2005
"Our culture defines masculinity in many ways, but primarily it prevents boys from expressing their feelings, becoming emotional, or maintaining an authentic self," states Cheryl Ann Pollock, BA, director of training and educational programs at the Ophelia Project–Tampa Bay. "The self," Pollock explains, "gets lost when boys are controlled by a culture that tells them how to think, act, look, and choose friends. Although they face the same daily drama as girls, they are expected to toughen up and stick it out without being emotionally affected."
Daniel J. Kindlon, PhD, coauthor of the best-selling Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, believes girls’ premature rush into adolescence puts pressure on young boys to be "men" and, furthermore, "to have sex earlier and engage in other more adultlike behavior before they are emotionally ready." However, Dr. Kindlon, who has been a Harvard University faculty member since 1985, doubts the new term tween will have a dramatic effect on boys themselves, though he does feel it may accelerate their development a bit, at least in the eyes of adults.
"The main difference at this age is that girls are more advanced physically, socially, and certainly sexually," says Dr. Kindlon. "Thus they are more ready for a new wave of marketed products (makeup, sexy clothes) than boys are. The changes that occur at puberty are more significant for girls than boys."
What can parents do to help their growing boys? Dr. Kindlon suggests that "mothers need to stay in sync with their changing sons, neither too intrusive nor too distant, depending on the cues they get. Fathers need to avoid too much criticism, they need to listen respectfully, and they need to be good role models of emotional maturity." Pollock believes our culture stresses to girls that feelings are important, and provides many creative opportunities for them to express and work through their emotions.
She explains how families can do the same for their sons: "Parents can start dialogues with specific questions about peer relationships, rather than the general ‘How was your day?’ " Moms and dads can ask specific questions, Pollock says, such as, What qualities do you look for in a friend? Do you emulate these qualities back? Have you ever had to lie to prove yourself? Are you part of a group? Does your group exclude others? Keeping an honest and respectful line of communication open with boys tells them that their feelings are important and validates the reality of their evolving world.
"We must begin by coaching our boys to recognize how ?the culture influences their behavior and teach them how to recognize and evaluate the messages they are receiving," explains Pollock. "Boys can maintain an authentic self independent of social pressures if they have the support from their families and friends."
Rachael Ashak Porter is a university academic adviser and freelance writer whose work has been featured in US and Canadian publications. She lives with her family in rural New England.