A destiny of aggression isn't born, it's made, most notably in societies like ours in which aggressive impulses are allowed free rein. We can raise boys to be nonviolent if we so choose.
Closer to Home:Training Boys for Toughness
Although there is a lot of lip service being paid to the new age of the "sensitive male," stereotypic images of masculinity are still with us. Whereas boys used to emulate John Wayne or James Dean (who now seem quaint by comparison), today's boys see even more exaggerated images of stoic, violent, impossibly powerful supermen on movie, television, computer, and video screens. The media serves up as role models Neanderthal professional wrestlers; hockey "goons," ready at the slightest provocation to drop their sticks and pummel an opponent; multimillionaire professional athletes in trouble with the law, demanding "respect" from fans and the press; and angry, drug-using, misogynist rock stars.
Even boys who are not allowed to watch violent movies or play violent video games, but who watch television sports, will nevertheless consume a steady diet of commercials in which a man is not a man unless he is tough, drives a tough truck, and drinks lots of beer. These are not visions of manhood that celebrate emotional introspection or empathy. We are often invited to schools to talk with students when incidents or behaviors have roused the concern of parents or teachers. At one such meeting, the topic was drinking, which, on an average weekend, reached epic proportions among the high-school-age boys. The boys talked openly about hangovers, passing out, fights, drunk driving, and casual sex, but this behavior did not appear to worry them. Instead, they spoke with pride about the amount of alcohol they could consume.
Our culture co-opts some of the most impressive qualities a boy can possess--their physical energy, boldness, curiosity, and action orientation--and distorts them into a punishing, dangerous definition of masculinity.
Evidence of the maladaptive nature of this vision of masculinity comes from one of the most revealing windows on boys' attitudes, the National Survey of Adolescent Males, in which researchers interviewed a large, representative group of fifteen- to nineteen-year-old boys in the United States. Funded in the early days of the HIV crisis, the survey focused on risk-related sexual behavior. Boys were asked, for example, whether they used condoms. To find out how strongly they believed in a "masculinity ideology"--the attitude that manhood is primarily based on strength, stoicism, toughness, and dominance over women--researchers asked the boys how much they agreed with the statements:
The survey results showed that the more boys agreed with the masculinity ideology statements, the more those statements corresponded to the boys' own views, the more likely they were to drink beer, smoke pot, have unprotected sex, get suspended from school, and "trick" or force someone into having sex. In fact, the most significant risk factor for a boy's involvement in unprotected sex was his belief in this set of "hypermasculine" traditional male attitudes. This mind-set spelled trouble for boys whether they were black or white, rich or poor, city kid or suburbanite.
Popular culture is a destructive element in our boys' lives, but the emotional miseducation of boys begins much earlier and much closer to home. Most parents, relatives, teachers, and others who work or live with boys set out to teach them how to get along in the world and with one another. In the process of teaching them one thing, however, we often teach them another, quite different thing that ultimately works against their emotional potential. Traditional gender stereotypes are embedded in the way we respond to boys and teach them to respond to others. Whether unintentionally or deliberately, we tend to discourage emotional awareness in boys. Scientists who study the way parents shape their children's emotional responses find that parents tend to have preconceived stereotypic gender notions even about infants (like the father we know who bragged to us that his son didn't cry when he was circumcised). Because of this, parents provide a different emotional education for sons as opposed to daughters.
Excerpted from Raising Cain by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. Copyright© 1999 by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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