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Raising Boys

Home » The Search for Masculinity »

Growing Up Masculine

Learning the Rules

Learning the Rules

"Boys are really desperate to understand how to become men. And they often are taught by their peers and older boys that there are certain things that will prevent you from becoming a man. These things are associated with what boys would define as soft and some of us would define as kind and caring. We have to help boys understand that growing into a man is not something that your actions or your beliefs can prevent from happening. That the standards of manhood are not defined by street culture but are defined by a set of values surrounding family, self and community."

Geoffrey Canada

Author, Fist Stick Knife Gun, a Personal History of Violence in America.

President and CEO, Harlem Children's Zone

Why do young boys want to be masculine from an early age and why do they work so hard at it? Our RAISING CAIN experts offer their theories about why boys strive to be men, starting in preschool.

Certain "male" behaviors may be inborn." Boys may be biologically programmed to behave in certain ways that we define as masculine," says Thompson. For example, boys in all cultures around the world like to wrestle, and do a lot more of it than girls do. And when boys wrestle and roughhouse, parents typically say, 'Boys will be boys.' In this way, society expects and condones this type of behavior.

Boys pay attention to what society expects of them and act accordingly." I once asked a group of high school boys what the biggest influence on their definition of masculinity was," comments Thompson. "They told me it was ads they had seen on television, especially ads with football players." Even the youngest of boys pick up expectations through what they experience in the media and by what others say to them. And many wind up thinking, "I am a boy; therefore, I want to do boy things' and look around for socially accepted 'boy activities.'"

"Lots of boys pick strong messages about who they are and who they want to be from the media," says Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone and author of Fist Stick Knife Gun, a Personal History of Violence in America."The music industry presents overtly sexual messages that denigrate women and portray them as sex toys. Video games offer violent messages, and even the sports video games include taunting and teasing. Movies portray men as tough guys. And there are the subtle advertising messages aimed at boys, in the liquor ads on billboards and buses. All of these offer images of masculinity that boys strive to achieve."

The first divide is between boys and girls. As soon as kids enter preschool, boys and girls (once friends) begin to play and socialize separately. By the time they reach elementary school this divide becomes permanent. "At age five, a boy often discovers that the rules are unyielding," says kindergarten teacher Jane Katch, author of Under Deadman's Skin: Discovering the Meaning of Children's Violent Play."If girls enjoy a game of cross-hand clapping, then it is forbidden for boys. If girls play mothers and babies in the house area, boys put the dolls in the oven and pretend to cook them."

Boys imitate and emulate their fathers. Boys want to grow up to be like their fathers. "The human brain is wired for imitation. Every boy loves his father and wants to be able to do what he does, both to honor him, to earn his praise, and to compete with him," notes Thompson. "Men are extremely important in giving boys messages about being a man," adds Canada. "Boys want to grow up to be like their male role models. And boys who grow up in homes with absent fathers search the hardest to figure out what it means to be male."

The Tests of Masculinity

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