“When we were thirteen or so my friends and I had this game. We’d go down to the basement where it was completely dark, and each of us would find a hiding place, then someone would start the game by turning out the lights, and we’d try to hit each other with darts. You’d think you heard someone make a noise, and you’d come out of your hiding place throwing darts – but cringing because you were fair game too. There would be completer silence, and then you’d hear someone yell “Ow!” One time we turned on the light and a guy had a dart dangling from his cheek, just below his eye.
After that we wore goggles.”
This short story is by a man called Charlie born in 1960’s New York. I can imagine Charlie would fit in well with the boys at my school, half the world away and half a century later. Perhaps one difference between the boys of 1971 and 2021 is that the later can capture their exploits on a cell phone. Recently, while they were supposed to be studying for exams, some of our students put this clip together.
This exuberance, movement, and risk displayed by both generations is what Michael Gurian describes as ‘boy energy’. Between the ages of approximately 13-18 there is a surge of testosterone introduced into the male body. I have heard it best imagined as being injected with a large vial of hormones six times a day.
Testosterone makes boys want to move, compete, and reproduce. This energy is not a negative thing, although males will (with varying degrees of success) spend the best part of ten years learning to manage it. However, it can be so strong that it can overwhelm boys, and those around them, into thinking that this is all they are about. This is a mistake.
Here is another story.
One night a wife found her husband standing over their new baby’s cot. Silently she watched him. As he stood looking at his sleeping, newborn infant she saw on his face a mixture of emotions: disbelief, doubt, delight, amazement, enchantment, scepticism. Touched by this unusual display and the deep emotions it aroused, she wondered what he was feeling. With eyes glistening, she slipped her arm around her husbands.
‘A penny for your thoughts’, she whispered.
He replied, ‘I just don’t see how anybody can make a cot like this for only R 499.00,’
This joke reveals our stereotypes of the emotionless man, while overstating the case to humorous effect. Start paying attention though and you will notice this message is everywhere. From movies to magazine covers, to adverts, as well as the language we use around in our homes and schools, society teaches males, from an early age, that emotions just aren’t manly. “Boys are bombarded with messages that they must deny parts of themselves in order to become a man.” Michael Thompson.
Testosterone makes boys want to move, compete, and reproduce. This energy is not a negative thing, However, it can be so strong that it can overwhelm boys, and those around them, into thinking that this is all they are about.Tweet
The more a boy is told this, the more stressed he becomes by emotional responses, his own or others. This will cause him to avoid and or bury emotions. (The one acceptable emotion for boys seems to be anger, and many other emotions are channelled through that.) One does not have to look too hard to see the devastation this mindset can cause in relationships and the family. While masculinity in itself is not toxic, in a concentrated male environment awash with testosterone, these messages can propel and warp it into a form that is.
Bigger, better, faster, stronger. Boys often get the message that this is what being male is all about, at the expense of other attributes.
“Hold your liquor but don’t worry about holding a conversation.”
“Scoring on the playing field, and scoring while playing the field, are equally important.”
“Build your body even at the expense of building your character.”
These messages are ubiquitous and seductive. Empathy and kindness give way to the fast and furious.
Fast and furious?
That is not to say boys are not active, competitive, or even aggressive. They can be. But this is not all they are, and we do them and ourselves a dis-service if we choose to focus only on this narrow view of masculinity. I have seen teenage boys get straightjacketed into how they are expected to behave as men at the cost of expressing what they really think and feel. We don’t want that.
As Dr Rob Pluke says we want boys to work through emotions, not mask, hide, bury, or avoid them. Isaiah says, ‘even youths grow tired and weary and young men stumble and fall’. As true now as when it was written. Boys may try hard not to show it, but they will get overwhelmed emotionally and they will need support.
I have seen teenage boys get straightjacketed into how they are expected to behave as men at the cost of expressing what they really think and feel. We don’t want that.Tweet
As testosterone does its work on physically developing boys into men, we must do our work on equipping our boys to become mentally healthy and emotionally intelligent adults. This is done by creating an environment that allows them to have a rich emotional life. Giving boys permission to be honest about how they feel is a good place to start.
It is fantastic to revel in boys’ energy and even harness it for good. But next time it’s on display, look a little deeper and see there is so much more to these wonderful young men. Then let them know that you know that.
If you are a parent there are some big questions to consider:
Who are the male role models in your son’s life?”
What type of masculinity do these role models promote?
Take the opportunities to remind your son of his inner life. You can use statements like:
I wonder what you are really feeling right now?
I know you will give this some deep thought.
Why not take some time out and check-in with yourself.