Relationships, Masculinity and Communicating with Boys

Relationships, Masculinity and Communicating with Boys

Author: John Kinniburgh, Head of Secondary School & Deputy Headmaster

When I watch my two sons play, I am delighted by the boys they are, and during moments of tenderness, I am delighted by the men that they might become. We know that men can be rugged, strong, self-reliant but also kind and caring. Probably most of all, I want my son’s to be gentle and nurturing, and just as much as I want my daughter to be strong and independent. It is my hope that they are guided on a positive path toward adulthood that is paved by inspiring men and women and in a world where feminine and masculine ideals are celebrated.

As their father, I am responsible for raising my children to be good people. I also know that I cannot do it alone. I need my wife, our parents, our siblings, their respective families and our friends. I need the men and women that they encounter in life to also be admirable. I want society to champion positive, healthy attitudes regarding women, and work to remove all prejudices that are destructive and dangerous. Therefore, the quality of the relationships that they have with the people in their life, is very important and this is particularly so with their teachers.

At Princes and indeed any school, the value of positive day-to-day interactions that occur can never be underestimated – teachers with boys, staff with staff, boys with boys, staff with families. These interactions, as well as a whole school approach to developing positive relationships and connectedness to school, are well documented as being important and necessary in a contemporary school setting. It is also recognised that these benefits not only promote positive mental health and wellbeing but they also improve educational outcomes.

All relationships at Princes are a priority, however, one of the most important is the one that exists between a member of staff and a boy. Positive relationships such as these can help to ensure that students within the school community are provided with security, stability and support. It is important that every student has at least one significant adult with whom they have a caring relationship – someone who knows them well, knows their strengths, can ‘check in’ with them regularly, and act as an advocate at all times.

Forging strong relationships with boys is obviously a priority but so too is the way that we speak with boys and the language that we use in our conversations with them. Schools are formative experiences and they play a major role in the young men that they will become. But, how do we help them be the man that they should be? How do we help them to be caring, empathetic and kind? The way we communicate with boys can play a role in this regard.

Tony Porter is an American educator and internationally recognised activist recognised for his efforts to raise awareness of violence against women. In his 2010 Ted talk titled “A Call to Men”, he reflects on his childhood growing up in the Bronx, New York. He remembers being:

“taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating – no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger – and definitely no fear; that men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and you should just follow and do what we say; that men are superior; women are inferior; that men are strong; women are weak; that women are of less value, property of men and objects, particularly sexual objects.”

He calls this collective socialization of men as the “man box” which contains the ingredients of how we define what it means to be a man. He calls for us all to challenge the ingredients of the “man box” by deconstructing and redefining what we assume manhood to be:

  • Don’t cry or openly express emotions – with the exception of anger
  • Do not show weakness or fear
  • Demonstrate power control – especially over women
  • Aggression-Dominance
  • Protector
  • Do not be “like a woman”
  • Heterosexual
  • Do not be “like a gay man”
  • Tough-Athletic-Strength-Courage
  • Makes decisions – does not need help
  • Views women as property/objects

Others share similar views including Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL defensive lineman and now a pastor, who suggests that the three scariest words that a boy can hear are “be a man”. Ehrmann reflects on the way that he has been confronted by varying models of masculinity in his career and personal life. He reflects on the influence of his own father, a boxer, whose definition of masculinity was to suggest that:

“Men don’t need. Men don’t want. Men don’t touch. Men don’t feel. If you’re going to be a man in this world, you better learn how to dominate and control people and circumstances”.

On the construct of what it means to be a man, Ehrmann argues that it can be defined by two things:

  1. Your capacity to love and to be loved – masculinity ought to be defined in terms of relationships.
  2. It ought to be defined by commitment to a cause. All of us have a responsibility to give back, to make the world fairer, more just, more hospitable for every human being.

Andrew Reiner, a lecturer at Towson University in the United States, recently discussed the challenges faced by boys today, at the International Boys School Coalition conference in Baltimore. He presented several points that we as educators need to challenge in order to “give boys back their emotional voice”. From his point of view, the “most concerning plotlines” are:

  • Always be in control
  • Off the field or off the court, never let ‘em see you sweat
  • Never show that you care too much
  • Be a man of quick, decisive action; better to be impulsive and wrong
  • Be a BIG DEAL – be the centre of attention
  • Never back down
  • Don’t admit to being wrong
  • Never, appear weak (read: vulnerable) in any way – don’t ask for help
  • The BIGGEST offence – appearing femine

For thousands of years, many traditional societies had ways to help boys develop their masculinity. One of these was via some form of initiation which was intended to shift boys towards manhood by showing them, occasionally forcefully, that there were things more important than themselves. The purpose of this was to convert them into men who could care for and protect others whose lives would be lived for the common good. Initiation was not intended to diminish a boy but in fact to enhance and encourage the wildness, creativity and intensity of all the young men involved. These practices were also delivered in a caring, not unkind, way.

Once they had completed this rite of passage, they were brought back into a world of shared purpose in which women, children and the natural world on which they depended would be enhanced and protected by the young men’s presence. Things are certainly different today. Some might suggest that its only by chance today that the combination of a shattering experience, matched with the right kind of support and awareness, provides the appropriate stimulus that pushes a boy to manhood and the level once reached by men thousands of years ago.

An important consideration for parents today is how we communicate with boys using the right language. The reality is that how we teach boys, sometimes with the best of intentions, can have a significant effect on them. When our boys cry or show emotion, to what extent is our natural response to encourage the suppression of those feelings? Comments such as ‘Don’t cry’ or ‘you’ll be right!’ can in fact direct our son’s emotional suffering into some other emotional state. This can lead to a young man feeling conflicted with himself and his emotions. The reality is that boys need the very thing that they fear the most yet when they are immunised against this deeper emotional honesty, the results can have far-reaching and damaging consequences.

When it comes to being a father, it is important that we model sensitivity for boys instead of portraying “cool” behaviours or traditional stereotypes of masculinity. Shifting these attitudes is necessary if we want to alter perceptions that the development of a boy’s emotional intelligence is largely the responsibility of females. As the American editor and publisher Peggy O’Mara noted, “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice”.

Our boys, however, might need to be taught to think beyond traditional stereotypes. The reality is that many boys, whilst every bit as intelligent as girls, do spend less time on homework and assignments as many do not see it as a priority and don’t want to be seen as a ‘Try Hard’. In a 2013 report titled “The Rise of Women: The Growing Gender Gap in Education and What it means for American Schools”, the authors (two sociologists) observed that “boys’ underperformance in school had more to do with society’s norms about masculinity than with anatomy, hormones or brain structure. In fact, boys involved in extra-curricular cultural activities such as music, art, drama and foreign languages report higher levels of school engagement and get better grades than other boys. But these cultural activities in some settings are denigrated as un-masculine by pre-adolescent and adolescent boys”. They go onto say that throughout elementary school and beyond (in the U.S.), girls consistently show “higher social and behavioural skills”, which translate into “higher rates of cognitive learning” and “higher levels of academic investment”.

It is therefore essential that we help our boys shed deep-seated gender stereotypes that feed stories they have heard about themselves as learners. Whilst perceptions of masculinity have fortunately changed considerably since the 18th century, many of our boys do put on convincing masks covering hidden emotions that suggest they aren’t who they pretend to be. Whilst I feel that we have an open culture towards mental health at Princes, I can’t help but think there will be boys at the school who feel some sense of shame at showing non-traditional male emotions – sadness, despair or any strong emotion other than anger, let alone being able to express it and the perceived alienation that might occur as a result. Fortunately, I feel quite affirmed by what I’ve seen at Princes including recent examples in which numerous boys have shared concerns about their peers to key support staff at the College.

Boys are naturally more sensitive and emotional than girls, particularly at a younger age. In 1999, a Harvard Medical School study found that 6-month old boys were more likely to show “facial expressions of anger, to fuss, to gesture to be picked up” and “tended to cry more than girls.” The study went on to show that boys were also more socially oriented than girls – more likely to look at their mother and “display facial expressions of joy”.

Boys also need more scaffolding to support how they feel and they are often presented with a conflicting view of how they should present their feelings. In some cases, this comes from significant males in their lives who send strong messages to stifle fear, pain and suffering, or to “be a man”. Boys, especially early and middle adolescents have great capacity to develop deep, meaningful friendships, easily rivalling girls in their emotional honesty and intimacy. Our role is to encourage and leverage these position emotions. They also feel more exposed in relationships with girls as they tend to invest more into ongoing romantic relationships and have less confidence navigating them than do girls.

At Prince Alfred College, we are committed to teaching boys the right skills to help them monitor and self-regulate their emotions including communication, empathy, kindness, gratitude, to name just a few. This adds further importance to the new developments and directions we are taking in pastoral care, particularly our taught wellbeing curriculum, in which we seek to develop all aspects of the Princes Man through character virtues. We do have an obligation through our Pastoral Care program, as well as our interactions with boys, to be empathetic to the challenges that they face and to help them to explore their shared struggles. By helping our boys to explore the socialised norms of masculinity we can challenge them to evaluate whether these norms encourage a healthy, sustainable male identity.