Boys and a culture of cruelty: Can we stop the cycle
By Barbara Meltz
19 October 2000, PageH3
Most of us don't know how mean our sons can be.
There are two possible reasons for this: We aren't around them all the
time, so we don't hear the taunts they routinely direct at each other; and
even if we did hear everything, we'd dismiss half of it with a "boys will
be boys" shrug.
With any luck, boys' behavior and parents' attitudes are on the cusp of
change. The women's movement of the early 1970s set the stage for a
crackdown on boys' sexual harassment of girls at school; now, researchers
who study boys' development hope to free our sons from their own culture of
cruelty against each other.
This is not about the out-and-out bully and the one victim he targets. This
is about across-the-board sniping that affects all boys, sometimes without
their realizing it, sometimes with great guilt, but always at a high
emotional cost, researchers say.
"Boys are caught in a game where the only rule is you can't be weak," says
psychologist and school consultant Michael Thompson, author of the
best-selling book, "Raising Cain."
Thompson says that the typical boy hears dozens, maybe hundreds, of taunts
every day directed at him or someone else, from mild teasing about a
haircut to muttered epithets of wimp or faggot. It's most intense in the
middle-school years when, according to his research, boys divide into four
groups: at the top of the pecking order are about 15 percent who are
popular; beneath them, 45 percent are widely accepted; 20 percent are
ambiguous, and 20 percent are neglected, rejected, or controversial.
The boys regroup constantly around the issue of who's masculine and who's
not, sometimes changing daily because that's how quickly their bodies
change. Boys in the bottom groups tend to be most susceptible to attacks on
their masculinity, but - and this is one of Thompson's pivotal points - no
boy is exempt. "Even boys in the top 15 percent live with the potential
threat of sliding down the pole," says Thompson. His newest book is
"Speaking of Boys" (Ballantine).
The stage gets set for this as early as 5 or 6. "Even at this age, there's
lots of evidence that boys learn to guard emotions like fear and
vulnerability" even from parents because they know it makes them a target
for peers, says psychologist Marla Brassard of Teachers College at Columbia
Psychologist William Pollack, author of "Real Boys" and "Real Boys' Voices"
(Random House), calls this the boy code. "It starts off as playful teasing
in which boys are equals and take turns poking fun at each other," he says.
Sooner or later, though, "every boy gets a message, even if he's not the
target: 'You could be next, watch out;' 'Join in so you're on the winning
side,'" says educator Barney Brawer, coordinator of the Program for
Educational Change Agents at Tufts University.
Some of this competition is part of our human equipment: Research shows
that primates, especially human males, develop hierarchy systems. "They
jockey for position based on things like size, physical competence,
leadership, and judgment," says Brassard.
Boys cede leadership
While she acknowledges boys operate partly by picking on each other,
Brassard cautions, "It's not necessarily in a cruel way. Through
competition and comparison, boys cede leadership to boys who are more
Traditionally and in some cultures today, as a boy hits puberty and
struggles with what it means to be a man, an adult male mentoring system
steps in, says therapist Michael Gurian, author of "The Good Son" (Penguin,
"The males are there to say, 'Masculinity is based on compassion and here's
what it looks like,'" he says.
This has mostly disappeared, only to be replaced by a popular culture that
glamorizes violence. Says Gurian: "It's making the rite of passage from
boyhood to manhood crueler than it needs to be."
This translates to a pressure that boys tend to express in banter and
bravado. "There's more of a push to use [whatever edge you have at the
moment], to lord your power over another boy if you're unsure inside
yourself," says Pollack. He is director of the Center for Men and Young Men
at McLean Hospital.
In some cases, emotional jabs move along a continuum to physical
violence such as hazing.
Thompson says it all has to do "with boys' hunger to be masculine,
the desire to have a test that tells them they are [masculine], and
all of it getting out of control."
Here's how some boys cope:
They become desensitized. "The 'joking' about minor things - 'That's
a girl's shirt!' - becomes so routine that they lose track of what
does and does not hurt emotionally," says Brawer. "They know what
they are supposed to say and feel, but they don't know anymore what
they actually do feel."
They're equals. "Small emotional jabs are acceptable and manageable
when they're mutual, when boys take turns dishing it out. It's good-
natured," says Pollack. When comments escalate, however, so does the
hurt. "If every time you walk past a certain group of boys, they're
muttering 'faggot' under their breath, it's no longer a small
emotional jab but a painful, psychic comment that lowers self-esteem."
They overcompensate. The trick is to cover up fears (of inadequacy,
of being picked on, of what it means to be a man) by acting
cool. "The small boy who's nonetheless athletic is OK as long as he
keeps his edge," says Thompson. "The small boy with a sense of humor
is OK as long as he keeps his sense of humor about being small."
Learning to deal with an adversity can sometimes be the impetus for
They look the other way. For the boy who doesn't participate but
stands by when urine is substituted for shampoo in the locker room (a
true story), or who keeps quiet when junior varsity boys are beaten
up on the back of the bus by varsity players (in Otter Valley, Vt.,
late last month), it's a matter of survival. "Boys see this as a
warning shot across your bow: If you do anything the group considers
not masculine, if you're excessively tender, or compassionate, or
community-minded, they'll call you a wimp, or a suck-up or worse,"
In other words, the code of silence is alive and well and at least
partly responsible for the "Mom-it's-nothing-don't-make-a-big-deal"
response we so often get.
The problem with these strategies, of course, is that feelings get
ignored or pushed aside. "What we have to guard against is that a boy
feels OK about something only because he or his group has decided to
identify it as normal," says Wayland Middle School principal Richard
Schaye set out to change the culture because of a gradual recognition
that "it's become OK not to be nice to each other. It's not punching
or fighting; it's a swagger, a push, an innuendo, all done with a
veneer of joking."
Four years ago, he created teacher advisory groups so each student
meets weekly with an advisor and fellow advisees. Among other things,
he says, "We talk about boy culture stuff: What about the bumping in
the hallways? Are we alright with this or not? We haven't always
changed behavior, but we help students recognize it and even identify
it for us."
Dads sharing pain
Fathers or other adult males may have the best chance of helping a
boy by sharing their own experiences, says Brawer. "Tell him, '
'Here's what I went through in seventh grade. It was pretty painful.
I've never figured it out.'"
Brawer tells mothers to strive for side-to-side rather than face-to-face
intimacy. "A boy isn't going to open up sitting across the table from you,"
he says, "but he might open up after a long bike ride together." He also
recommends talking indirectly about the culture of cruelty: "Does it happen
at your school?" rather than "Does it happen to you?"
Schaye says feedback he gets from boys as well as girls makes him hopeful.
"Kids in this school are not surprised we find out about things. They
expect we are always listening," he says. "I think they like that. They
know ... our goal is to help boys not feel isolated and therefore feel less
That changes the rules, as well as how the game is played.
Recommended: "You know your child is gifted when ... A beginner's guide to
life on the bright side" by Judy Galbraith (Free Spirit Publishing).
Talk to your son about feelings, and then listen
1. Help a son develop empathetic responses by providing an arena for
talking about feelings. The younger he is when you do this, the less likely
he'll be ashamed of feelings later.
2. When you hear your son and his friends use words in a hurtful way, take
a stand: "I don't want people in my house using the word 'faggot.' It's a
hate word. It's cruel." If your son is angry with you, tell him, "I'm sorry
I embarrassed you, but that's a moral issue with me. Our house has to be
3. Let your son know you want to know if there are situations at school
that jeopardize his or classmates' safety. Promise you won't do anything
rash if he promises to tell you. Tell him, "We need to know your school is
safe. That's part of our job."
4. One way to get a boy to open up is to put thoughts out without expecting
an answer: "I have a feeling you're doing OK with your friends, but I
wonder if there are some boys who are tortured by bigger boys. This is an
age where that happens."
5. Two videos to watch with your son: "Lucas" and "My Bodyguard." Talk
about them afterward: "I'm baffled by boy culture. Is it better or worse
where you are, or not like this at all?"
[Note - for information resources on Boys, refer to the Information Resources Section, Family and Individual Sections http://www.peace.ca/info.htm ]
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