It’s Dangerous to Be a Boy

Charles VerheyELA

March 30, 2019
OPINION—Dr. Michael C. Reichert
The New York Times
Lexile: 1000–1100L

Early in my first go at being a father, I was hijacked by ancient impulses. Our family lived in a rowhouse neighborhood in Philadelphia, and right down the street was a small playground where gangs of boys gathered for games of stickball and basketball. My son loved playing sports. But he was unprepared for what developed as his friends grew older.

After years together laughing and riding their tricycles and then bikes up and down the block, several of the boys grew angry and mean. Ultimately, they turned on my son, taunting him, leaving him out of their games. He began to trudge home, tail between his legs. And I felt called to action.

At first, I tried to bolster his confidence so he would give the playground another go. But one Saturday morning I met him at the front steps and told him he could not come into the house. “You have to figure this out,” I said. “I’ll stay with you as long as you need, but I cannot let you just give up.”

He tried to push past me, his humiliation becoming frantic. He melted down, screaming and crying. I kept saying: “You can do it. You don’t have to give up.” A neighbor poked her head out, concerned about what must have sounded like child abuse.

Did I do the right thing? Even now I’m not sure. He did go back to the playground, and eventually managed some kind of truce with the other kids. He grew up into a fine man, a teacher, and understands I was trying to help, in my clumsy way. But while teaching him to stand up for himself, was I also passing along the prejudice that a boy should override his pain and never back down from a fight?

What happened in my son’s peer group was perfectly predictable. Boyhood immerses boys in violence and the bullying that leads to it. High school boys are more likely than girls to have been in a physical fight in the past year and male children are more likely to have been victims of violence. Three types of male violence—violence against women, violence against other men and violence against themselves—are deeply interwoven.

Violence springs from what boys learn about what it means to be a man. One researcher observed a small group of preschool boys and noticed how, over two years, they adapted to cultural cues. The ways they dressed, played and related to one another and to their parents changed significantly. They even formed a “Mean Team” to harass girls in their classroom. Another researcher interviewed elementary-school boys and captured their brutally frank stories of punishing other boys who failed to conform.

Boys take their experiences to heart, feeling weak and ashamed when they need comfort. Plan International USA, a nonprofit group focused on children’s rights, commissioned a study among 10- to 19-year-olds that found nearly three-quarters of boys said they felt pressure to be physically strong and nearly half of the 14- to 19-year-old male respondents felt pressure to be “willing to punch someone if provoked.”

The link between masculine norms and misconduct has been clearly established. A 2017 study of 18- to 30-year-old men from the United States, Britain and Mexico found that the young men who subscribe most to traditional gender identities were unhappier and more prone to bullying and sexual harassment. Nearly 60 percent of the American respondents said their parents were the primary source of these restrictive cues.

Boys don’t come into the world with some inborn tendency toward domination or violence. As the Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura explained: “People are not born with preformed repertoires of aggressive behavior. They must learn them.” The problem is rooted in boys’ socialization, which is characterized by physical discipline, control and disdain for weakness.

With this template for relating to themselves and to the world, it is not surprising that, compared with girls, adolescent boys and young men abuse tobacco at higher rates, drive more recklessly and engage in riskier sex. In the United States, 75 percent of deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds are of boys and young men. Males are more likely than females to die from injuries sustained in car accidents or falls, and from homicides. Especially when the risks of masculinity are compounded by racism and poverty, too many boys do not survive into manhood.

When I was young I went to an urban, all-boys’ high school where the bigger and more violent guys ruled. One spring, after a school dance, the electric charge of a fight surged and a crowd rushed to one of the gym exits. I could make out some of the guys from my lunch table. One of them, an older boy others said was “crazy,” was hauling off and kicking another boy, who died that night from head trauma.

I have never forgotten that scene. As a psychologist, I have spoken with many young men who have had similarly harrowing experiences, and I have heard from many parents about the effects on their sons. In the grip of stressful experiences like these, boys often pull away from their families. They become accountable not to those who love them but to a brotherhood they seek to impress.

The parents, understandably, feel anxious. Their sons behave a certain way—lackadaisical in school, unkind toward their siblings, anxious or angry or shy—and parents intervene, with concern, irritation, with a hand heavy. They try to give advice and become even more frustrated or alarmed when their sons cannot hear them.

Fathers, especially, may feel that times have changed so much since they were boys that their counsel amounts to outdated clichés. And it’s true that this generation of boys is in a much better position than we are to assess the future. But it’s not true that we are not needed—far from it.

What parents can do, must do, for their sons is never underestimate the power of listening to them, knowing them, and standing by while they navigate the rough waters of boyhood. Behind every boy who avoids being swept away in the current is someone who holds him—and believes in his ability to hold his own.

Questions Using Close Reading and Critical Thinking:

  1. The first section of an article should answer the questions “Who?”, “What?”, “When?”, and “Where?” Identify the four Ws of this article. (Note: The rest of a news article provides details on the why and/or how.)
  2. Does this article appear to have a political bias? Why or why not?
  3. What opinion does the author present in this article?
  4. Near the beginning of the article, the author describes what he did when his own son was having trouble with the other boys in the neighborhood. Explain what the author did and how he feels about his actions now. Then reflect on how you feel about what he did. Did he do the right thing? Does the outcome of the event impact how you feel about it?
  5. Identify one fact about boys and violence that is mentioned in the article. Why was this fact included in the article? How does it help support the author’s position?
  6. The author mixes research and his own personal experience to support his opinion throughout the article. Which type of support do you think is more effective? Why?
  7. Reread the final paragraph. If he could, would the author make the same choices in how he handled the bullying of his son? If not, what do you think he would do instead? Support your answer with specific details from the article.

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