What it takes to be a “real boy” in today’s society

I feel a strange sense of pride when my 3-old-son opts to drink his milk from the pink cup or pins his blanket around his torso and asks me if I like his beautiful dress. If I’m honest about it, I must admit that I am happier when he behaves in these more stereotypically “feminine” ways than when constructs from his blocks a “super smoke boomer gun” and rids our apartment of bad guys. This pride stems from my feeling that there is a better way for my son to be a boy, that playing dolls or dress-up indicates a When Boys Become Boys cover-175sensitivity that boys who opt for superheroes and gunplay don’t have. Reading When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, and Masculinity by Judy Y. Chu (NYU Press, June) has significantly altered my thinking about what it means to be a boy and the challenges my son will face as he gets older.

Chu spent two years studying a group of boys attending an independent primary school in New England from prekindergarten through first grade. While her study included a group of only seven boys, the insights she was able to gain from her observations and interviews with the boys, as well as interviews with their parents over an extended period of time present a clear glimpse of what our culture expects from boys, and how their behaviors changed as a result.

My son is very high-energy, as many boys his age are. He likes to run, kick, punch, throw, shoot, jump, and yell. He runs in a pack with the other boys in his preschool, playing good guys and bad guys, chase, and tackle. While I love my son’s exuberance, there are times when I wish he would calm down, or “be good.” Chu argues that these notions of boys—that they are too boisterous, or wild—can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy:

“[These ideas] mainly serve to reinforce a narrow and stereotypical depiction of boys’ capabilities and to reify conventional notions of masculinity. It is true that the boys could be boisterous at times, but there were also times when the boys played nicely, calmly, and quietly, which the adults seemed less likely to notice or comment on. Similarly, there were times when the girls moved around and did things as a group (e.g. when they were chasing or being chased by the boys), but no one compared the girls to wild animals.”

We see what we expect to see, and this has implications for how we raise and educate boys.

At the heart of Chu’s book is what we learn about the way boys create and sustain relationships with each other. Along with being labeled troublesome and boisterous, boys, according to Chu, are stereotypically inattentive, inarticulate, inauthentic, and indirect, and have trouble forming strong emotional relationships as a result. The boys she studied, however, were very attentive, articulate, and emotionally available to each other, at least they were when she first met them. Over the course of the two years she spent with them she observed that the boys’ ability to form relationships became less obvious as they became more focused on gaining their peers’ and parents’ approval by behaving in a more “masculine” way.

Boys learn to conceal their desires for close relationships because such vulnerabilities could be viewed as too “feminine.” At the same time, parents and educators continue to see what they expect to see, and therefore overlook or underestimate boys’ needs for and ability to create relationships, coming to see these skills as inherently easier and more important for girls. Chu writes:

“[W]hat is often perceived and described as natural to boys is in fact not a manifestation of their nature but an adaptation to cultures that require boys to be emotionally stoic, aggressive, and competitive, if they are to be perceived and accepted as “real boys” (i.e., masculine and not feminine). “

The lesson for me is that what I think I know about my son’s needs and capabilities based on his interactions with his peers might not give me the full picture. Over the next few years, as he becomes more aware of cultural norms and desirous of fitting into a peer group, his interest in drinking from a pink cup, modeling a pinned-on dress, or caring for his doll may wane, but his emotional awareness and his need for close relationships will remain. My job, along with his father, is to teach him how to use that awareness to fulfill those needs, and to expand the notion of what it means to be a “real boy.”

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