August 21, 2011

From Boxed-In Boys to Healthy Men

Several times a week I hear from a man, usually in mid-life, wondering why his family life looks the way it does. Often he’ll mention that his grown kids call home and ask to speak to Mom, or that “they think of me as the Checkbook, and that’s about all.”

This isn’t unusual, but it is unfortunate, certainly. It makes me want to illustrate in simple terms, how differently society is still treating boys and girls—something we may believe has changed dramatically over the decades, but hasn’t evolved all that much—leading to the situation that brings men (and women) to consult with me.

As boys, we learn early to compete with other boys to win (after all “girls have cooties”), in an effort to achieve what we are told are “the good things in life”; a good job; higher pay; accomplishment in a chosen field, and status in the community. In athletic and academic endeavors, boys are taught that it’s important to be number one, and as a society we reward that. They are deemed successful by the standards we apply to men in this country. No matter whether we are winning or losing at this game, the focus for our efforts is for the most part outside the home, and centered on action. For boys, the rules say: be logical and decisive, stifle emotion, be superior or dominate others, act swiftly and effectively, and DO NOT disclose vulnerability of any kind.

Meanwhile, the general message to young girls is that of cooperation and consideration of the circumstances and feelings of others. We remind girls to “be nice” and to think (as well as pay attention to) how they might be impacting the emotions of their peers. Girls are more likely to be told to understand why another child has behaved badly, or feels the way they do. With boys, we are likely to urge them to “stand up for yourself,” “never back down”, or say, “That’s their problem”. As boys, “Ours is not to wonder why, ours is but to do or die!”

In research on the socialization of girls and boys, girls become women who are more likely to care for the social fabric of life, a developed way of thinking and acting called communion and expressiveness. They hold it all together, mostly through the skills of compassion, understanding, reaching out to others and listening. Psychologist Shelley Taylor has even found this is true among men and women under stress. Men are much more likely to either adopt a fight or flight response to stress, or to withdraw. In contrast, Taylor dubbed women’s stress strategy as “tending and befriending,” and credited these skills with much of the cohesiveness we see in communities, as well as families.

Men, on the other hand, show the remarkable ability to set aside any awareness of their own discomfort, and not to mention the unease of others, as they urgently seek to move forward. Gaining ground on the gridiron for the adolescent male is very much akin to their father’s winning cases, obtaining new accounts, making big sales, or developing new products. That is, until a man reaches an age when he has earned or gained or created just about as much as he is likely to, and at that point, he’s likely to ponder the question: what was all that for?

Describing the differences in gender socialization is a whole lot easier than helping to dissolve some of the crystallized beliefs about it, or to allow an easing of the discomfort that comes when both men and women realize they have missed out on something. It isn’t just the men who sometimes look back and wonder why they didn’t see other options! Plenty of women, socialized from the time they were in diapers to be sensitive to the needs of others, essentially stop short, saying, “When is it going to be my turn to accomplish goals, or achieve something meaningful? I’ve put everyone else’s goals ahead of my own, but why?”  Over forty years ago, women turned these questions into action, and now have been learning how difficult it is to balance the rewards of home with the rewards in the larger culture. For many men, we are only beginning to recognize the absence of rewards in our relation to others.

The easing of gender stereotypes is something we all have a stake in. Our daughters deserve opportunities to compete and achieve, and our sons certainly deserve the opportunity to experience and express the benefits of compassion and reciprocal understanding. Ideally, both boys and girls—women and men—should strike a balance between competing to win at all cost, and tending to and befriending others. Balance in life is a challenge. Becoming aware that we all have needs for both independence and interdependence, and that we all have achievement needs and the need for closeness with others, is a good first step in finding some central path. The next step for men is developing the skills that we didn’t learn as boys.

Let’s stop focusing on the media’s foolishness about a “gender war” and understand that this is about trade-offs, not about right and wrong, Then maybe we can begin to help men “achieve” more of the communion and belongingness that they have sacrificed for millennia, just as women have come to a greater understanding of both the successes and the sacrifices of juggling home and work.

Posted in: General @ 6:36 pm