Let's lose our 'toxic' image of boys

When I first heard of the fight between two fathers at a hockey rink near Boston recently, which resulted in one father killing the other, the first person I thought of was Christina Hoff Sommers. That might seem like a strange connection on first glance - I don't know if Ms. Sommers has ever been near a hockey rink, for instance - but bear with me.

This tragic fight was a classic example of extreme male rage. And male rage has become a popular topic the past few years, particularly in light of the numerous school shootings in America, all carried out by young men (or in one case, young boys) whose unspoken rage seemed to fuel their acts. The result has been that mainstream media have created this image of boys in particular as being (in the words of one writer on the subject) "toxic."

That's where Sommers enters the picture. A fellow at the conservative American Heritage Institute, Sommers has written a book called "The War on Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men." She attacks the creation of these toxic images, which she says are largely the result of the work of feminists (a group that Sommers herself has declared war on). To paraphrase her argument, Sommers believes that we've spent so much time worrying about how girls are treated, in schools for instance, that we've neglected boys and turned masculinity into a politically incorrect idea.

Sommers has a lot of good points, and her book has served to bring the issue to a wider audience. But in her ideological zeal to craft a conservative political message (which might be described as "Blame the feminists! Blame the feminists!") Sommers has, well, missed the point. Or, as my mother might say, she's in the right church, but the wrong pew.

The redefinition of women's gender roles that has been occurring gradually - and sometimes dramatically - over the past few decades is in fact a very positive development. And as the father of two girls, I would be the last one to say that paying more attention to girls' needs is in some way a detriment to society - in fact, quite the opposite is true. But I'm also the father of a young boy about to enter school this fall, and I've spent more than a little time thinking about the messages society gives about what it means to be a boy, and the lack of support boys receive in our society.

The answer is not to reinforce the traditional male stereotype of the stoic, often brooding, male, who never has an emotional reaction to anything. If that's the only image of masculinity that conservatives want to return to, then I say, forget it. And I don't believe that this image is what boys themselves really want. (Apparently Sommers actually never spent any time talking to boys when she wrote the book "War on Boys," which is a little like writing a book on gardening without ever having spent any time in one.)

What we do need to do is break what author William Pollack has described as "the boy code" - a set of strict cultural rules that forces boys to hide, as Mr. Pollack says, behind a "mask of masculinity." Which means, to me, that we're pushing this stoic stereotype on boys at such an early age, and so forcefully through so many means, that we make boys feel socially isolated, misunderstood, and confused.

What is needed for boys is the kind of gender stereotype revolution that has helped girls, and thus women, redefine their role in society. And that means that parents, educators, media, etc., need to, as writer Dan Kindlon said in a recent article, give boys the same kind of encouragement to be "emotionally literate - to be expressive of their own feelings and to be responsive to the feelings of others," that girls regularly receive from a young age.

Yet before boys can change, men, particularly fathers, need to change as well - especially in the way we deal with anger and aggression. Because our sons look to us as role models.

Allow me to give a personal example. Recently my children and I were at Logan Airport in Boston waiting for a flight, and we headed for the children's play area in our terminal.

While the kids were playing, a young boy came tearing across the room and smacked into my toddler daughter, which sent her flying back and she struck her head.

I completely lost control and turned on this young boy and literally roared at him, even though he had obviously not meant to hurt my daughter. His parents came and hurried him away, but I realized that I had terrorized him.

So a few minutes later I went looking for him, and when I saw him, I knelt down beside him and apologized for my response. I told him that I was upset because I thought my daughter was hurt, but that anger was the wrong way to respond, and that it didn't do anything except make us both feel bad. I don't know if my words comforted this young boy, but I looked up to see my own son standing looking at me. As we walked away, he took my hand and said, "You did the right thing, Daddy."

If we sincerely want to help young boys become young men, then we all need to do the right thing more often.

And that doesn't mean blaming feminists for all the problems of boys, but instead finding meaningful ways that we can help boys be more complete human beings.

*Tom Regan is associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Web site, csmonitor.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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