Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Raising Boys by the Boy Code?

William Pollack, Harvard psychologist and author of Real Boys , has spent twenty years studying boys in our culture. He points out that, at birth, male infants actually seem to be more emotionally expressive than females. But by elementary school, most of that is gone, thanks to a gender straitjacket enforced by what he calls the Boy Code. According to the code, boys and men must not, above all, express their feelings. This rule constrains not only boys, "but everyone else, reducing us all as human beings, and eventually making us strangers to ourselves and to one another."*
Some sixty-five years before Pollack published his New York Times bestseller, C. S. Lewis suggested a similar conviction that it is emotion and sentiment that makes us human. In the Platonic tripartite psychology of head-chest-belly, it is by the middle element, the chest, the seat of emotion and sentiment, "that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal" (The Abolition of Man , p. 25). An education or upbringing that teaches boys to debunk or stifle their feelings produces, in Lewis's words, "Men without Chests": 
It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. [. . .] And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more 'drive,' or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or 'creativity.' In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (25-26)
With his usual insight, Lewis calls our attention to an amazing truth about human nature. However, I'm not sure he goes far enough in his writings. While he urges us to preserve the child's seat of emotion, he wants to see that emotion is properly trained into "stable sentiments" that will lead the child to respond to their experiences with habituated virtue. This is well and good. In fact, Lewis supplies what Pollack may lack in this regard. 

At the same time, Pollack—and other contemporary voices proclaiming with him a similar message—may supply a consideration that Lewis omits, namely the human need to express, to hear, and to accept the immediate, raw, and untrained feelings of ourselves and others with empathy, compassion, and sensitivity regardless of whether the expressed feelings conform or no to any approved sentiments.

To illustrate the passing on of trained sentiment, Lewis gives the example of the Roman father passing on to his son his own deeply-felt conviction—"Dulce et decorum est . . ."—that it is sweet and right to die for one's country. 

Pollack and others point out the complementary truth that it is also humane to express fear and sadness without shame and to nurture and comfort others when they express those natural human feelings.

Elaine Aron is another of the contemporary voices calling for a more humane view of the sexes. She warns of the unhelpfulness of stereotypes and generalities like the often heard "When women have problems, they just want to be listened to, but men want to give and get solutions." She argues instead that "We all need to express our feelings and find solutions to problems," and she cites research that "shows with perfect consistency that people in relationships are happier when women and men behave in what in the past has been seen as a traditionally 'feminine' way—that is, warm, nurturing, emotionally expressive, and eager to discuss the relationship. [. . .] what's called 'feminine' is simply 'normal human.' Fortunately, most men do behave that way too—contrary to stereotypes."*

By relating an example from his own childhood, San Francisco psychotherapist, Spencer Koffman, paints a vivid picture of how the Boy Code stunts the basic human need to express and accept emotion:
Boys are enlisted into "gender bootcamp" at a very early age, where they are taught to be good Warrior/Kings. One of my earliest memories of this indoctrination comes from first grade. I fell off the jungle-gym. I wasn't seriously hurt, but the shock of the fall caused me to cry. The uniform reaction from every boy and teacher was not to console me, but to point out that boys do not cry. That was the first and last time that I cried in school. I was in training to become "a little soldier."*
As I face the daunting challenge of raising a boy, I pause to ask myself, How can I equip my son to become a soldier against injustice, a ruler of himself, and a comforter of many, one who is not afraid to cry, to grieve, to rejoice, to engage, and to love with a full-orbed expression of his God-created humanity?

*Quotations from Elaine Aron's The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, a book about which I have several caveats but still find to have helpful insights.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this post, but at the same time, it made me a little angry: because, yes, our culture (and almost all cultures) want to put boys in this mold of being strong and un-emotional. I can't tell you how many times I've come close to exploding when at the playground and I see a boy get hurt, and the boy's parent says, "Don't cry. Brush it off. Be a man." etc etc. Grrr!!! Makes me so mad.
    In answer to your question, "How do I equip my son?" I don't know. I struggle with the same thing. We do let our kids know that feelings are not bad in and of themselves. It's okay to feel them. Some of them have to be dealt with in an appropriate way (such as, if Benji's been crying loudly for 10 minutes over a broken Lego car and won't be consoled, we might say, "It's okay to feel sad, but if you want to continue screaming, you'll need to go to your room and do it.") In fact, I think you might have taught us that one!
    I'll have to check back on here later and see if others give comments. I would be interested to know how other parents of boys are teaching their boys to have emotion in their "God-created humanity."
    Thank you for the thought-provoking post!