The media frenzy about police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York have a disturbing connection that has not been mentioned. In all cases the men involved acted in the shadow side of their masculine energy. Let me break it down. In the Ferguson incident, Michael Brown the young man who was killed, started the chain of events by stealing a box of cigars and pushing aside a store clerk who tried to stop him. He was then confronted by a police officer, apparently refused to move to the sidewalk and engaged the cop, Darren Wilson, in a physical altercation which ended up with Michael being shot to death. Michael’s stealing and assault of the store clerk and his subsequent confrontation with Darren Wilson point to impulsive and aggressive behaviors that can be attributed to masculine energy in excess. Officer Wilson over reacted to the aggressive behavior of Michael and pursued him leading to his shooting of a clearly unarmed individual. Did Wilson act out of a vengeful need to recapture his manhood because he was disrespected and punched by Michael? Again, Wilson’s masculine energy was inappropriately expressed with excessive force. The result. One life lost, one career ruined and a community outraged over the apparent racial aspects of the incident.
In Staten Island, Eric Garner was selling untaxed cigarettes on a street corner. A crime, although petty, it is against the law and known to Garner who was a previous offender. When confronted by officer Daniel Pantoleo he did not follow the officer’s instructions and his refusal led to the cop taking him down in an apparent choke hold which subsequently killed him. Garner made two decisions. The first one was to consciously break the law. The second was to refuse Ponteleo’s commands because he didn’t want to be arrested. Garner’s decision to break the law is once more an expression of an excess of masculinity – I can risk defying a law for my own gain. As for Officer Pantoleo, we do not have the audio portion of his confrontation with Garner, but we can easily hypothesize that Pantoleo’s sense of his mamboed was challenged by Garner’s verbal refusal to obey. Why else would the officer have made the decision to employ an illegal choke hold to bring down the offender who was unarmed, not physically aggressive but simply refusing to do what the officer demanded. Pantoleo over reacted as a result of his excessive male energy driven by his personal need to be instantly obeyed and respected. The result, Garner is dead, Pantoleo will most likely lose his job and another community is outraged over the racial aspects of the incident.
Let me be clear.. I am not attempting to negate the racial implications inherent in these cases. In both instances a white police officer’s actions led to the death of a black man. However, I believe there is an additional narrative to be considered concerning how men can express their masculinity. Men need to learn how to more appropriately act in the light not the shadow of their masculine aggression. Aggression which can often lead to violence needs to be expressed as non-violent assertiveness. Men can fully embrace their masculinity without resorting to violence to preserve it.
An interesting story by Jaime Primak Sullivan on Yahoo illustrates the conflict between being a husband and being a Dad. The author details how her marriage almost fell apart because her husband abandoned her emotionally and transferred his reservoir of affection and intimacy to the kids. Contrary to the stereotype where men feel neglected because their wives put the kids ahead of them the author described how her husband ignored her needs – emotionally and physically – despite her frequent feedback to him about what she was feeling. Even when it came to disciplining the children, she would take a fairly strict approach and he would often contradict her and appease the misbehaving child. Finally, when she threatened separation, he listened and they began to work on salvaging their relationship which essentially boiled down to the principle that the health of their relationships came before the needs of the children.
The idea that our partner’s needs should take precedence over our kids needs is not new. Most marriage and family therapists often remind couples that when as individuals they are feeling being second fiddle to the kids that they have to make efforts to give their relationship the highest priority. My experience with modern child rearing practices has led me to the conclusion that the issue of conflicting needs between a couple’s relationship and parenting has become far more prevalent. Raising kids to compete in our 21st century environment has created two working parents, the helicopter parent and the over scheduled child. No wonder couples find little time for each other and the health of their relationship.
What to do about it? First, make sure your relationship is in good shape before you decide to have children. At times couples will falsely believe that having a child will resolve their relationship issues. Be on the same page as far as parenting strategies. Read parenting books, discuss the good and bad of how you were parented, adopt a philosophy of parenting and never disagree in front of the children. Nurture your relationships with your partner. Schedule date nights, set aside time each day to share and most importantly pay attention to meeting your own adult needs even if it means not always fulfilling what you think your kids need. Children who are raised by parents who are loving and caring for each other will have healthier relationships in their lives and will learn that they are not always the center of the universe – an important lesson in our hyper-narcissistic society. .
Last night I attended an education symposium by a local education foundation entitled, “Why We Are Losing Our Boys?” I left the presentation with mixed feelings. On the positive side was the focus on the data that clearly shows how boys are not succeeding as well as girls in our schools. The facts: 80% of high school dropouts are boys, 75% percent of students diagnosed with learning disabilities are boys, nationally, of the children classified as emotionally disturbed, 84% are boys, boys account for the overwhelming majority of students receiving D’s & F’s and are far more likely to be suspended for disciplinary reasons. This information has been known for quite some time but it is still important to remind an audience ofteachers and youth workers of the hard facts about the gaps in achievement between boys and girls. In addition, important questions were raised. Can we continue to use the same methods for both boys and girls and close our eyes to the fact that many of the methods aren’t producing equal results? Should we encourage our schools and legislators to reconsider and modify zero-tolerance policies which are not working and cause collateral damage? Do we start formal education at too young an age?
The negative side was the lack of depth in the responses by the panel. There is a great deal of information available through books and research on gender differences in achievement in school and the biological and cultural factors contributing to those differences. The consequence of ignoring the literature was proposing solutions that were either off target or beyond the scope of a local community being able to implement. For example, all of the panelists agreed that increasing Physical Education and recess time would be helpful to boys, especially those likely to be labeled ADHD. Not that this is a bad idea for a number of reasons. However, changing PE requirements would take action by both local and state legislators. An upward struggle especially with the emphasis on testing and accountability throughout our nation’s schools. What was needed were suggestions that teachers can immediately implement in their classrooms that would alter the classroom environment in a way that allows boys to more successfully achieve at the same level as girls. Shortening assignments, restructuring instructional groups so that boys can take on more hands on tasks and allowing more freedom in choosing reading materials are just a few of the changes that indiviudal teacher’s can make in their classrooms.
Hopefully, the symposium did increase awareness of the problem of gender differences in school achievement and in the future focus more on immediate and practical interventions that create a level playing field in our classrooms.
Seven football players at a New Jersey High School have been arrested and charged with a variety of offenses involving hazing related sexual assaults against younger players on the team. Hazing, fundamentally the same thing as bullying with the difference being that hazing is more organized and involves initiation and acceptance into an organizational structure like a team or fraternity. The community in this case, which has traditionally been highly supportive of their football team, is sharply divided about the alleged criminal charges and the Superintendent’s decision to shut down the program for the entire season. Some folks feel that the acts of the perpetrators were not that bad – boys will be boys – and that suspending the program hurts the other kids, especially seniors who are seeking college scholarships. Others are horrified by the allegations and want to have answers from the adults in charge as to how they could not have known what was going on in the locker room.
I am relatively certain that what happened in New Jersey is not unique. Males are by nature highly hierarchical, especially within the context of an all male organization, and dominant males will use whatever tactics are necessary to achieve and maintain their dominance. Therefore, if, as we should, want to protect against the most outrageous examples of hazing we need to find other ways of establishing hierarchy without resorting to violence. The usual response by adults in charge is to attempt to ban the practice entirely. In other words zero tolerance for hazing. Frankly all this will do is to drive hazing underground which is potentially far more dangerous. The more logical and ultimately effective response has to be based on the recognition that hierarchical behaviors will not go away. Those in charge should be attempting to define hazing/initiation rules and regulations that .are consistent with the notion of hierarchy yet still protect the well being of those subject to hazing. Of course, this process will work best if the boys and young men who are part of these teams or fraternal organizations have input into the rule setting process. Bottom line – Boys Will Be Boys but they do not have to be abusers to preserve one of the fundamental components of their masculinity. .
Media attention about violent men has shifted from domestic violence – the Ray Rice incident to child abuse – thanks to Adrian Peterson. Both men are NFL stars who have been suspended from football because of their assaultive behaviors. The silver lining in both cases is greater awareness of these issues. However, my concern is that the talking head experts will over generalize the potential for male violence and once more diminish pride in our masculinity. As discussed in a previous post, the testosterone which we are born with does in aggregate make men more aggressive and potentially more physically violent than women. There are a variety of ways to understand, but not condone, domestic violence. The root cause is usually an erosion of a man’s sense of power and control. There could be antecedent circumstances that make a man prone to spousal abuse such as a loss of a job, diminished or aggrandized self worth and/or obsessive jealousy. For these men even a minor argument with a women can lead to a violent attack. Their anger- in the form of abusive behavior – is a misguided short term attempt to restore their sense of power. The irony is that when these men calm down they are often deeply disturbed by what they have done and beg forgiveness from their partners. Unfortunately, unless they find better alternatives to meet their need for power/control they often repeat their abusive behavior. This scenario is even more mystifying for a super star athlete like Ray Rice. One would think that his status and fame would fill him with an enormous sense of power/control. The likely explanation is that his sense of self worth is so over inflated that his perception of being disrespected by his then fiancé triggered the violent response.
Physical abuse of children is a different story. Women abuse children almost as much as men. The difference is that the abuse by men, as in the case of Adrian Peterson, is by and large more violent and devastating. I believe resorting to physical violence against children has the same root cause as domestic violence. A parent finds their sense of power/control diminished by their inability to control a child’s annoying or destructive behavior. Again, the quick fix is anger with its natural consequence of a violent physical or verbal outburst. An additional explanation for men hitting children – especially their sons – is the mythology that only harsh physical discipline will control a boy’s aggressive behavior. These men often say, “My father beat me and I turned out all right.” This appears to be Peterson’s explanation for his crimes. Frankly they might not be as all right as they think and many other men who were beaten are far from all right and often are abusers themselves. As a professional parenting coach I can unequivocally say the corporeal punishment is never OK and there is an enormous amount of research data to support this conclusion. I understand that even the most grounded parent out of frustration may occasionally resort to a quick spank. Not a great disciplinary tool but probably does little harm. However, when spanking or paddling is the primary disciplinary tool we are on the slippery slope to child abuse and causing psychological and physical trauma to a child.
Getting back to male aggression and the potential for it to be expressed in violence, we need to be reminded that aggressiveness can be expressed in positive ways that are still manly but not violent – unless that violence is in a response to a direct threat to our families. Being assertive through competence, leadership, self-awareness and leading a principled life are ways men can channel their aggression for the benefit of their families and society in general.
Michael Sam’s release from the St. Louis Cardinal football team has again put the issue of an openly gay athlete in the NFL back on the front page of media attention. What I find troubling about the coverage and talking head response to the issue of a gay athlete is that we are only hearing points of view responding to the extremes of the argument.. One side, which is subject to appropriate condemnation, is the view that gay men do not belong, and absolutely should not be in the locker room, of a college or professional team. This extreme homophobic notion is undoubtedly held by some but is far from the mainstream of thought among men. Yet, anyone expressing any concern or point of view or in any way contrary to the idea of total unconditional acceptance of a gay man showering with straight men is immediately condemned as a homophobic caveman. The bottom line is that an openly gay man, by definition, might find a naked attractive man as desirable.. It doesn’t mean he will act on that desire in an inappropriate way but the straight guy next to him is aware that he might be subject to someone elses sexual fantasy. This might make him uncomfortable. Should he be condemned as a homophobe for expressing his discomfort? Logically can we not extend the argument to a straight man showering with women. If he does not act on his desire for the woman next to him why should she object? Taking this even further, I wonder why there is not a hue and cry for unisex bathrooms and locker rooms. My point is that we should be able to voice our discomfort and uncertainties about homosexuality as part of the broader conversation so that we can all better wrap our heads around the bigger issues of gender identity, sexuality and tolerance.
The first anecdote in my memoir exploring my journey as a man is now on the blog in the book section. Please read it and offer your feedback. If you have a similar anecdote from early childhood I would love to read it and share it with the blog readers.
I wanted to wait a few weeks to talk about depression and men because I knew the topic would no longer be highlighted by the Robin Williams suicide. However, depression among men with its strong link to suicide is too important an issue to let the conversation end. Frankly, men suck at confronting mental health issues. Apparently many men still cling to the old man code exemplified by the John Wayne approach to dealing with problems. Suck it up and go at it alone. That is how real men are supposed to deal with problems. It is especially disheartening to see that when it comes to dealing with mental health issues even younger men raised in the feminist era still cling to the misguided beliefs of the old man code. The alarming suicide rates among active military further illustrates the issue. The misguided belief is that expressing vulnerabilities indicates weakness and needs to be hidden. Even more destructive is the linkage between being vulnerable and feeling ashamed of these feelings. Shame is such a negative emotion for men that we will engage in denial or self destructive behaviors to avoid experiencing shame. One way men can free themselves is to become involved in a men’s support/discussion group. In a group setting men learn to share their vulnerabilities without being shamed. Just knowing that whatever dark thoughts you are experiencing is not unique to you but is shared by other men is a great relief. The ability to share both the negative and positives of one’s life journey in the presences of other men helps to liberate a man from the toxic belief that needing help is not manly
Several writers on masculinity have alluded to the concept of a Man Code. Essentially defined as how the mixture of testosterone driven characteristics and societal norms are translated into set of beliefs/principles on how a man should behave and feel good about being a man. It is a strange mixture because one ingredient -Y chromosome generated testosterone – has remained the same over time but social norms about manliness have changed dramatically. Frankly, that is at the crux of the issue. The man code in most cultures that was in place for thousands of years started to become dysfunctional in the developed world as the suffragette movement evolved and became even more obsolete as the feminist movement has matured. What men are left with is ambiguity. Some men try to hold onto the old code with archaic beliefs like “real men don’t cry” and “housework and child rearing is women’s work.” Others attempt to embrace new expectations of behavior that just don’t seem to fit comfortably with their biologically determined flow of testosterone and wind up with uncertainty about what it means to be a man. The challenge is how can we re-write the man code in a way that acknowledges our biological imperatives but still fits the expectations of our 21at century culture.
According to the LA Times only about half of all boys expect to work in well-paid professional jobs when they grow up compared to nearly three quarters of girls. In other words, we’re somehow teaching young boys that either learning is girl’s stuff or that there is no point in aspiring. Either way a dumb lesson that does not seem to be a high enough priority among educators, especially at the K – 8 levels. Compounding the problem is the almost total feminization of school personnel. Only 16% to 18% of teachers in elementary and middle school are male. Therefore, we should be helping teachers learn how best to engage and motivate boys based on their gender based learning styles. For example, boys tend to prefer reading non-fiction over novels. With this in mind, teachers need to allow more freedom in allowing students to choose their reading material. After all the main purpose of reading instruction is to derive meaning from the written word. The particular reading material to achieve that should not be that important. Another example is hands on projects. In general boys are more motivated when the learning experience involves hands on activities. Again teachers should be planning their instructional activities to take gender differences into account. The adage, ” the equal treatment of unequals is inherently unequal” certainly reinforces the need for educators to include gender based strategies in planning educational activities.