How can we reconnect with boys?
"Boys very often cry in my office, and I've learned to never mention it. You can't just tell boys, 'It's okay to cry.' I don't even hand boys Kleenex, because that also makes them stop. I let a boy cry until he's done and then we talk about it. To help I might say 'That was a tough situation. Any guy might have cried.' I can let him know that it is possible to be both vulnerable and a boy."
Michael Thompson, Ph.D.
Co-Author, Raising Cain; Host, PBS documentary, RAISING CAIN
Despite the strict rules, tests, and codes of masculinity, we can show boys that there are many ways to be a man. It's possible to help your boy discover his real identity although he seems surrounded by the rigid rules of boy life.
Develop authentic relationships with boys. By establishing meaningful, open relationships in which boys don't feel judged for their beliefs and interests, and in an open atmosphere that stimulates (but doesn't force) conversations, your boy will begin to trust in you and in himself. "The relationship has to be deep enough so the boy recognizes that you are not judging him. This is also not a quick process. And you need to be proactive and engage your boy," says Geoffrey Canada.
Change the daily reality for boys. Fortunately, there are day-to-day ways adult role models can affect boys' images of themselves. "If the most powerful boys in my kindergarten classroom stick strictly to cartoon images of masculinity, then there may be little deviation from the narrow definition of manhood by the boys who are eager to fit into that role. Yet trusted adults can affect this culture," says teacher Jane Katch. "In my class, every day we act out books and children's original stories. I emphasize that it is all right for any child to take any role. If there are no male roles available, many boys will take a female role if it is the only way they can join the activity. And when I prohibit teasing about cross-gender friendships, they flourish."
Challenge the myth of the tough guy. While respecting that this mythology is important to boys, experts also recommend that you expose boys to other kinds of role models and values. "When boys see men serving their communities in positive and different ways, it shows them that there many ways to be a productive man. It's not enough for a boy to have a father and a teacher, he also needs an athletic coach, a concerned neighbor, and someone at youth group helping with after-school activities," comments Thompson. "The kind of man so many poor boys want to be is a mythical tough guy," says Canada. "Boys want to emulate this behavior. It leads to boys posturing themselves in a way that says to the world, 'I am not afraid.' We have to help boys understand that the standards of manhood are not defined by street culture but are instead defined by a set of values — a man should be a person who understands himself and others, who cares for his family emotionally and financially."
Show boys it's OK to feel your feelings."Boys begin to turn off their emotions in the process of transforming themselves into the kinds of hypothetical males they want to be. Part of our jobs as men is to continue to talk with boys about how they feel and how we feel," adds Canada. We need to begin to share that men do cry and that this has nothing to do with your masculinity. We need to explain to boys that developing their emotional lives will allow them to be better men, to be well-rounded, more mature, better able to raise a family and keep a job; that they've been sold a bill of goods around maleness that has hampered many of them.
Demonstrate what it means to be a real man. If boys see through examples that their fathers and other authority figures care about and are actively engaged with their families, and live by their own standards of masculinity, they will begin to see that men are not defined by society's rules, but by the kinds of people we are inside. "I think we have to make men become three-dimensional figures in our boys' lives. By exposing boys to a variety of men who talk explicitly about their lives and values, we will give boys some choices about who they can grow up to be," notes Canada.
Support boys who don't fit in."The rules of masculinity are tough on boys who may be gay, as well as boys who simply don't share traditional boy interests or fit the traditional mold. We need to support these boys, acknowledge and value their interests without criticism, and discuss their fear that they won't fit in. We need to help them feel secure in their identity and place in the world, while acknowledging that the rules do exist and may have an impact on the boy's life," says Thompson.