New Internationalist

Simply… Understanding Boys

September 1987

new internationalist
issue 175 - September 1987

[image, unknown] understanding boys

'The child is Father to the Man,' said William Wordsworth.
Since he was writing nearly 200 years ago we can forgive him
for forgetting about the children who were mothers to women,
but he had a point. Though he might well have gone on to say that
'society is father to the boy'. Boys suffer the brunt of our expectations
about how men should be. And if we want to understand
masculinity we can start by understanding boys.

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[image, unknown] The education of a boy starts as soon as he is born. Some examples of this sexual conditioning are notorious: pink and frilly for girls, blue and functional for boys; guns for boys and dolls for girls. But there are all kinds of more subtle influences which are probably more significant - for example, boys are allowed to make more noise and cause more trouble ('boys will be boys') while girls are expected to show more interest in talking and being responsive to people. This kind of education prepares boys for power in the world - but it still restricts the options and directions available to them.

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[image, unknown] A boy is under pressure in lots of ways. He is supposed to be good at sport, able to stand up for himself in fights and capable of enduring pain without crying. Playground culture may well also demand that he is hurtful to other children. Yet probably only a minority of boys are all of these things. All boys are different - they have different needs and talents, likes and dislikes. Being good at cookery or writing poetry is just as valuable as being good at football or maths. But it won't seem that way to a boy faced with peer group pressure and the world's example. So we should make sure that we value their talents all the more when they depart from what the world expects.

There aren't just 'machos' and 'wimps' - there are the sports stars and the swots, the rebels and the conformists, the girl-chasers and the shy boys. And if we encourage the sense that all of these kinds of boyhood are okay it may help reduce the victimization of those boys who are least macho.

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[image, unknown] Boys enjoy being with other boys - and there is nothing wrong with that. They have fun together in an energetic vivid way that helps them develop into confident human beings. The trouble is that with male friends you often learn to have to put girls down to be cool - something which carries through into later life. Too often a boy feels obliged to hide his feelings - about a girl he likes, for example, or about his best friend - under a show of careless bravado.

At some ages it is common for boys to band together and dismiss things and people which are different. This means that some of their fun lies in sexist, racist or anti-gay jokes, and it is up to all of us to have the courage to say that such jokes or jibes are unacceptable, whether we are 14 or 44 years old.

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[image, unknown] All boys are under enormous pressure to direct their sexual and romantic feelings towards girls. But in every classroom there are at least two or three boys who are more interested sexually in other boys - and probably more who might be if they were not subject to this pressure. When sex comes up in conversation it is common for boys to bluster about their sexual prowess or else lapse into giggly embarrassment. It would really help them to have the chance to talk seriously about it.

Romance is thought of as the province of girls but many adolescent boys are incurable romantics, forever fantasizing that the girl or boy of their dream will recognize the prince under what they may feel is a frog-like face or a stumbling, embarrassed manner. If the adult world valued this sensitive part of boys more there would be something for anti-sexism to build on later. As it is the sensitive side often has to be suppressed for the sake of survival.

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[image, unknown] Some men encounter more violence as boys than they do in the whole of the rest of their lives. A boy's world is often a rough one in which the weak and the losers are picked on simply because they are physically weak. It is a world where you regularly find yourself forced to stand up for your rights or salvage your pride.

Bullies are the source of much violence in the playground culture and knowing what to do about them can be a major dilemma for boys. Do you stand up to them at the risk of being badly hurt? Or do you walk away from their taunts and provocations? Do you carry on walking away while other boys are bullied? It is no comfort to boys faced with this dilemma to know that bullies generally act the way they do because they have been bullied too - by a violent father, for example. But it can help the bullies themselves to talk with other boys and teachers about how they have been mistreated - it helps them feel less isolated.

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[image, unknown] Boys and girls are separated from each other by the social pressures that send them in different directions. Sometimes they even go to different schools. This means that to many boys girls are a world apart. It makes girls fascinating. But it can also make them a bit disturbing for a boy because they are so out of his control. And that means that he is often eager to put down girls out of self-defence.

Much of the contempt for women in the adult male culture stems form this adolescent experience - in that sense sexist men just haven't grown up. The only way to improve things is to reduce the artificial differences between boys and girls from the start - and to encourage contact and friendships between them.

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[image, unknown] Boys can be sensitive and brave, witty and sharp, agile and energetic. Men working to construct an anti-sexist version of masculinity have spent a lot of time trying to find out what is of value in boys' behaviour rather than simply dismissing it as the source of sexism and machismo in later life. Boys respond to the culture around them. They are not innately violent or insensitive - not innately anything in fact. By reducing the pressure on them to grow into 'real men', and by encouraging their openness to nature, people and children, we will give them the chance to build a new kind of man.

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This feature was published in the September 1987 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 175

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