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Let boys be boys, not myths

Pinocchio knew what he wanted more than anything else Ñ to be a real boy.

Do we know what that means? All too often, our reaction to boys is to suppress their innate desire to do things like run and jump because our expectations demand quiet, immobility and passivity. Their innate behaviors often are labeled conduct disorders. Too often, boys end up with labels and prescriptions intended to 'fix' them.

In his New York Times best seller, 'Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood,' William Pollack outlines the damage we do in gender-stereotyping boys. According to Pollack, some of the fidgeting and physical aggressiveness that boys exhibit may be nothing more than their reaction to suppressing their true selves.

Pollack believes that our culture encourages boys to wear 'masks' of the personas we expect them to be Ñ personas that are much different from who the boys really are.

According to Pollack, the times when we suppress boys Ñ when they learn to hide behind their masks Ñ are when we expect them to be stoic, stable and independent.

We encourage them to put on their boy masks whenever we say things like 'Stop being a sissy,' 'Boys don't cry,' 'Don't cling,' 'Don't play with dolls,' and 'Don't wrestle.'

Our society dictates that 'a man should never show his weakness,' Pollack writes. But that is some boys' natural way of being, and we create gender straitjackets for them when we inhibit behaviors that we stereotypically call feminine, such as warmth and empathy.

Pollack proposes that we 'develop a new code for real boys, create gender-informed schools, and a more gender-savvy society where both boys and girls are drawn out to be themselves.'

OK, so let's rewrite the boy code. But what happens when you teach your son to be sensitive and empathetic Ñ and he comes home with a black eye?

Pollack encourages us to explain to boys that throughout their lives, some people will be hard on them just because of their gender. Tell them that they may get teased or taunted and that their families will work through it together.

Help them explore feelings in a noninterrogating way, and teach them that it's OK to cry and express themselves, as well as to choose to temporarily hide vulnerable emotions when it doesn't seem safe (such as on the football field).

With work, we can help boys strip away their wooden masks and let their real selves emerge.