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Raising Boys

Home » The Search for Masculinity »

The Tests of Masculinity

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Passing the Test Doesn't Make You a Man

Passing the Test Doesn't Make You a Man

"The difficulty with these tests is that they may make boys feel more masculine in a conventional way but may not make them a moral or empathic human being. If a boy thinks winning a race is the only way to prove that he's a boy, he will brag about it and become obnoxious, rude and arrogant. But there are other things that matter besides winning the race and being the strongest, fastest boy, so we have to balance boys' pursuit of tests with other requirements that they be good community members, classmates, and empathetic people."

Michael Thompson, Ph.D.

Co-Author, Raising Cain; Host, PBS documentary, RAISING CAIN

Boys believe that their road to manhood requires passing a series of psychological and physical tests. In communities rich and poor, black and white; many boys struggle to pass these tests or avoid them. Like them or not, experts say it's important to understand these tests, acknowledge they exist, and talk about them in ways your boy will understand. Keep in mind that while you have perspective and can even reject the idea of these tests it's likely that your boy cannot.

The tests have a set of common themes. While the tests vary from community to community, boys everywhere have to deal with them. "It is impossible to create a comprehensive list of all the tests of masculinity because they differ according to race and social class," says Thompson. "However, you can be sure that all boys know the tests that apply in their neighborhood. And all the tests have common themes: strength, stoicism and avoiding everything feminine. In rural Texas or New Hampshire, the test might be learning to hunt and kill a deer. For teens in a suburban town, it might be doing something illegal: driving without a license or drinking. For many boys who want to be cool it may mean not doing well in school."

The most important test is to prove you're not feminine. The hidden agenda in every test of classic masculinity requires a boy to prove he is not "girlish" and therefore not "gay".

The tests become more violent in violent environments." We all have the same emotional lives, but we live in different environments," notes Geoffrey Canada. "The more violent the environment, the more violent the tests of masculinity, and the more violent the expectations of what it means to be a man, the more violent we are likely to be."

Boys compete daily to win these tests. Boys compete openly to be the best at running, at sports, at showing off, at boasting, at Pokemon, at Warhammer, and at mastering the internet. The winner boasts, "Because I won, I'm the best at being a boy."

Successful athletes score the highest points. Most boys, whether they want to be athletic or not, measure themselves against the athletes in school, or against the kids in their neighborhood who are successful in town sports.

Boys act out to prove they've passed the test. They need to show other boys how well they've done and this is reflected in their behavior in social groups, on the streets, and at school, where this presents particular problems. "Educators need to realize that some of what is called misbehavior in classrooms should be viewed sympathetically as boys' need to act out a masculine identity. For little boys this can include being a wise guy or a class clown. Older boys may prove themselves by being bullies," says Joseph Tobin.

Hiding Their Tender Selves

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