How Society Fails Boys [And What We Can Do About It]
By Janis Leibs Dworkis
Photographs by John Fulton
Young men today face a crisis, says author Michael Gurian, because they aren't provided the three "families" - parents, relatives and mentors, and community groups - necessary for total growth.
Not providing boys the attention, information, and love they need, warns Michael Gurian, can result in a generation unable to grow into stable, secure, and motivated men.
Michael Gurian is worried about boys.
Underneath their sometimes gruff, I-don't-need-your-help exterior, boys are fragile beings who hunger to be shown the magic path to manhood, says the family therapist, educator, and author of The Wonder of Boys and A Fine Young Man - two books that examine the crisis of boyhood in America today.
Boys want challenges, they want discipline, they want to learn how to create and shape and fix and build, Gurian says. They want to feel a sense of their place and their worth in the world.
But instead of actively helping boys to discover their core selves, our society has collectively turned its backs on them, he warns.
When they're young, we work hard to stifle their energy. For example, boys who sit still for long periods of time playing quietly with toys are labeled "good," while energetic boys who run and jump and climb and rarely ever want to sit still are labeled "bad." And when they're teens, we fear their physical size, emotional turmoil, and strong sexuality.
Rarely do we meet boys head on and give them the attention, information, and love they need in order to thrive. The result, Gurian concludes, is a generation of boys who do not have the direction they need to grow into the stable, secure, and motivated men our society needs.
Meeting boys' needs
Gurian's studies of male development have challenged the existing theories.
"Adolescent boys are now, arguably, our most undernurtured population. They bring their yearning to their society, but often they are not rewarded with careful and forceful human love," Gurian says. "One of the great tasks of the new millennium is certainly the invigoration of a healthy, robust, compassionate, and successful masculinity for our adolescent males."
Gurian is hopeful that task can be accomplished. With better education of parents, teachers, and other mentors and with programs that help boys grow into the best men they can become - he mentions Scouting as an excellent example - we can meet our boys' needs.
Michael Gurian became interested in researching male development in the 1980s when he realized that the then-current theories about child development - which stated that boys were doing fine but girls were suffering in our culture - just didn't ring true for him.
"I have two daughters, and I would never want the culture to forget them," Gurian says. "But if we look culture-wide right now, we have to see that our males are in real trouble."
Three 'families' every boy needs
Gurian's books offer guidance for promoting the healthy development of young boys and adolescents. First and foremost, Gurian says, boys of all ages need three families: 1) the "nuclear" family, 2) the extended family, including blood relatives, close friends, male mentors, teachers, peers, and day-care providers, and 3) culture and community, including religious groups, influential community figures, and a child-friendly media.
"Most of our ancestors were brought up in some form of a three-family culture," Gurian observes. "Most of our own American predecessors lived close to their grandparents, aunts, uncles, or lived in small neighborhoods. When they moved to another city, they usually moved to another family member's neighborhood and thus felt, soon enough, that they belonged in more than one family, and their kids would be raised by far more than one adult."
A failing safety net
Boys need to compete, Gurian observes. "Nurtured competition is crucial to male development and self-image."
But by the time Gurian was growing up in the 1960s and early 70s, that three-family safety net was beginning to split apart. While most families still had two parents, the number of single-parent families was on the rise. Although many still lived near large, extended families or long-term friends who were as close as family, an increasing number of nuclear families were striking out on their own as society became more mobile. And the age of media stars and media influence was dawning.
Today, he says, we see those trends in extreme. Vast numbers of boys are being raised by loving single moms but without the presence of a suitable male role model. Extended family is rarely nearby, and might not include any male role models.
Instead, "family and community systems that once guided boys have been replaced by vague cultural signals from media characters with whom the boys will never be personally intimate," Gurian notes.
This widespread influence of television, movies, professional sports, video games, and the Internet has become a new "third family," one that often teaches values contrary to what parents hope to instill in their sons.
"The culture of sex and sexuality is in the faces of our adolescent boys as never before, but the boys are provided too little commensurate sexual guidance," Gurian says.
"We used to have systems set up where boys could turn to their parents or 20 other adults - including many males - who were part of their lives. And the scariest thing today is that boys just don't have that anymore. In fact, so many boys don't have any males at all in their lives - not even dad."
A bleak landscape
In A Fine Young Man, Gurian cites statistics that show adolescent males
- significantly outnumber females in diagnoses of most conduct disorders, thought disorders, and brain disorders.
- are significantly more likely than females to be left back a grade.
- drop out of high school at four times the rate of adolescent females.
- are four times more likely than adolescent females to commit suicide.
When boys are not well nurtured, Gurian says, they grow into adolescents and young men who take out their frustrations on their families and others. The result can be chaos and violence in the home and on the street - a result that shows up more and more often in the daily headlines.
A message ignored
Gurian became aware of the severity of the problem when he started tracking gang violence in 1983.
"At that time, the message didn't get through to the general public - because that violence was affecting mainly black males," Gurian says. As long as the majority didn't feel the problem was theirs, it was ignored.
"And then Jonesboro happened. And now we are absolutely waking up."
"Jonesboro" refers to the March 1998 shooting death of four students and one teacher at Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Ark. Two boys, ages 11 and 13, were responsible for the murders.
Gurian says that after Jonesboro, he started hearing boys' violence being addressed as a major national crisis. People began to genuinely question what could cause this behavior, instead of just shaking their heads and feeling powerless.
That "sea change" in attitude, as Gurian describes it, is a big step in the right direction.
Because in order to help our boys - in order to give them the chance to grow into fine young men - we have to understand what makes them tick.
To Gurian, the answer begins with biology, and the fact that boys have one type of brain and girls have another.
That doesn't mean one brain type is inherently better than the other, just different. And if we ignore that difference, we will never be able to understand who our boys are and what they really need from us.
Gurian notes that brain researchers have identified seven structural differences between the male and female brain that lead directly to the following behavioral differences:
(1) Males do better on average than females in spatial tasks; (2) Girls in general do better in reading than boys; (3) Females are more verbally oriented than males, in general; (4) Males are more single-task oriented than females, in general; (5) Females are usually more successful at accomplishing a variety of tasks at once than males are; (6) Females are able to more accurately identify the emotions on another person's face than males.
And then there's testosterone.
By the end of puberty, boys produce up to 20 times as much of the sex hormone testosterone as girls, and it is secreted in their bodies in five to seven surges each day. On average, testosterone is responsible for males having greater muscle mass, a higher sex drive, and higher levels of aggression than females. (It's important to note that aggression, not violence, is a natural result of testosterone production. Violence can result if that natural aggression isn't dealt with appropriately. But violence is not a "natural" tendency for boys.)
Testosterone and the male brain cause boys to need quick release of physical tension. They want to solve problems quickly, even complex problems that require time and effort. And when they can't find that quick answer, that quick release, their internal system often becomes frustrated.
Instead of working to give boys healthy outlets for their natural tendencies toward aggression and competition, we have either ignored those needs or actively encouraged boys to stifle them, Gurian says. Instead of recognizing that our older boys might find it inherently difficult to understand their girlfriends' emotions, we berate them and tell them they're insensitive rather than help them to learn better communication. In general, our culture's message to our boys is that there's something wrong with them.
What we can do
So what is it exactly that our boys need? What can we do to help them grow to their full - and uniquely male - potential?
First, Gurian says, we need to respect the male way of doing things - and show our boys that we value those ways. For example, our society values the female model of nurturing - compassionate conversation, shared thoughts and feelings, tender hugs. Rarely do we give equal validity to the male model of nurturing - a model that involves competition and testing.
"Competition, for boys, is a form of nurturing behavior. They have formed cultural constructs in which to gain self-image through t his strategy," Gurian says. "Nurtured competition is crucial to male development and self-image. Boys must find ways to compete and see themselves as performing well."
Second, we need to provide the support system boys need: lots of love from mom; male role models and male mentors; experiences that connect boys with the natural world; a healthy competitive outlet; the physical, mental, and emotional skills they need to become a healthy adult; and an opportunity to develop a sense of purpose and mission.
In many parts of the world, societies still recognize and meet these male needs. As examples, Gurian cites the Shavante people of Brazil, who purposefully teach their pre-adolescent and adolescent boys the skills of hunting, the rules of conduct for relationships with females, the appropriate way to interact with elders, and how to love their mothers while becoming independent. He also cites Jews of every country who help their sons through the years of study and preparation for their bar mitzvah, the rite of passage from childhood to adulthood in their community.
The important male role model
In general, Gurian says, American society has turned away from meeting those basic needs of male development.
"Our males used to seek a depth of relationship with nature, in which they learned not only to hunt the fruits of nature, but to transform the relationships between man and nature into emotional and physical nurturance for whole communities. They have little time for this direct contact with nature's divinity now," he says. "But perhaps the biggest mistake our culture has made in its history has been its forgetfulness of the essentiality of both the father and the male role model."
And that, Gurian says, is where Scouting comes in. Scouting - along with some church groups and local and national mentoring programs such as Big Brothers - is one of the few institutions that parents and boys can count on now to fulfill that mission of the "third family."
"Scouting provides boys a way to build self-esteem with male and female mentors in a safe and nurturing environment," says Gurian. "I just don't think you can beat Boy Scouts for that."
In addition, Scouting stresses that all-important concept of honor.
"Honor and honor codes are essential to boys and men," Gurian says. "Boys develop personal codes of honor, and they are spongelike in the absorption of codes of honor suggested to them by their nurturing systems. They watch their parents' honor codes like hawks. The word 'honor' must be revitalized in our human conversation if we are to fully develop our boys into men."
Janis Leibs Dworkis is a freelance writer in Dallas and the mother of two sons.
Rituals Are Important
All eras in a boy's life are enhanced by rituals, yet middle adolescence is a time when family rituals often fall apart. Because the boy is pulling away from family in order to become a man, we often let him disappear from family life. This is a grave mistake. He doesn't want it, and neither do we.
Eating together is one such ritual. Families of middle teens ought to try to eat together at least three nights a week. If this means one less sport or activity for the boy, then that's O.K. Eating together and loving one another and communicating during dinner is worth one of those sports.
Family outings are essential. Consider the "going to church" ritual. Even if a youth hates church, at least it's a ritual time when the family's together. Maybe a deal can be struck. "We go to church, then we do what you want." This way, you get two bonding activities out of negotiations surrounding one ritual.
Ritualized clan time is essential. Not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but lots of events, picnics, clan soccer or softball games, where everyone gets to flourish and be seen.
Ritualized father-son time is essential. Maybe father and son play racquetball or tennis together every Saturday afternoon. Maybe father and son work out at the spa or gym, not doing the same exercises, perhaps, but driving there and back together, and meeting for a little while in a hot tub afterward. A few words are exchanged.
Rituals are essential not only for their moment of transpiring but also for the safety they provide. If a middle teen is having trouble figuring out when to tell his parents or mentors something, he always knows the ritual time exists. If he doesn't even know he's bothered by something, the ritual time provides challenges, closeness, opportunities for the hidden to surface, perhaps as he loses his temper during racquetball with Dad and the real reason he's tense comes out.
Protect your family rituals like they are gold. They are truly as important as money in providing for the welfare of that middle-adolescent male.
Reprinted with permission from A Fine Young Man by Michael Gurian, 1998 Tarcher/Putnam
How Scouting Helps Meet the Seven Needs Of Growing Boys
According to Michael Gurian, Scouting fulfills seven important needs of growing boys in the following ways:
May-June 1999 Table of Contents
Copyright © 1999 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.
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