A recent quote from a female journalist, “Today’s boys are being raised in the middle of the biggest redefinition of male gender roles in recent history. ” She continued,  “Should I (a boy) be kind and sensitive or distant and aloof when trying to win a partner over?”   When I started to read the quote I was pleased to see the acknowledgement that boys are being raised in the middle of the biggest redefinition of male gender roles.  However, after reading the second part I started to laugh. The dilemma of whether women prefer the nice guy to the bad boy has been grappled with men of all ages for decades.  Nice guys who respected women and were good listeners were often bewildered when a women they were courting told them they were great friends but then sought romance from the charming scoundrel. Some women seem to outgrow their attraction to the so called “bad boy” after being burned and then look for the nice guy who has been waiting patiently in the wings. 

The additional dilemma for today’s boys is far more confusing than the nice guy vs. the bad boy scenario.  The role models that help shape gender identity for boys has become extremely disparate.  About 40% of boys are being raised in homes without a father limiting their ability to experience male role models on a daily basis. LGBTQ advocates have garnered considerable publicity for gender non-conformity as a socially acceptable lifestyle.  On the other extreme social media has provided forums for men on the toxic masculinity spectrum who advocate patriarchy and a mythological man code.  In addition, there are  parents who are pushing gender neutrality to the point of not identifying the gender of their child in order to allow the child to pick a gender.  No wonder boys are increasing confused about their masculinity.

Educators and parents need to pay more attention to the struggle that boys are facing.  As I have blogged on numerous occasions, boys and young men are falling behind girls and young women in every measure of emotional, vocational and academic achievement.  Schools should provide curriculum and instruction for boys on the societal value of the best of masculinity while altering teaching methods that are more suited to male energy.   Some years ago, with sponsorship from my men’s group,  I was able to conduct workshops with teachers on how they can better tailor their teaching styles for boys.   They were well received.  

It appears that the “metoo” movement and the focus on diversity, albeit important, have put the issues of losing our boys to the back burner.  Can we really afford to neglect 50% of our population.  We are capable of advancing both agendas.

Role Model

In my review of the articles concerning caregiving it was mentioned that there are insufficient examples in the media of men fulfilling a caregiving role.  The problem might be in the narrow definition of male caregiving rather than a lack of examples.   While broadcasting  the end of Super Bowl celebrations the camera turned to the behavior shown in the following image of Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ lineman, Ryan Jensen and his son.   

As a football player the 6’4″,  320 lb. center is known as a fierce competitor and is the highest paid center in the league.  He plays the game utilizing his physical skills in a game that epitomizes controlled violence.   For those of you who do not like football because of the violent nature of the game, at least accept the fact that the violence is governed by rules and all of the participants are there by choice. 

What has Ryan modeled for his son?   On one hand his son saw his father, the warrior,  throughout the course of the game physically attempt to overpower his opponents according to the rules.   On the other hand, at the end of the game Ryan allowed his young son to push him over and to engage in a loving physical interaction.  Ryan’s uniquely male fathering behavior demonstrates his compassion for his son while empowering his son’s confidence and sense of physical intimacy.  In addition the interaction was on display for millions of the TV audience to see.  Imagery that exemplifies  masculine caregiving affirming the best of masculinity. 

Caregiving Men

Is this title an oxymoron?  Some writers, always women, conclude that the facts bear out that men who take on caregiving are in the minority and that the main reason is cultural norms and a lack of models of men who choose to take on a major portion of childcare, housework and related activities.  One writer points to the “creaky old idea that caregiving — for a spouse, parent or child — just doesn’t come naturally to men.”  Is it really a creaky old idea?  Partially so, but other data suggests that it is not that simple.  Over three-quarters of American fathers are back to work two weeks after their baby arrives, and only seven percent of all stay-at-home parents are men.  We know some of this is because paternity leave is shorter for men but studies show that in Scandinavian countries with generous paternity leave men tend to want to come back to work much sooner than their female partners.  A somewhat tongue in cheek comment from former CNN host, Piers Morgan, when questioned on the subject of men and caregiving said, “most dads don’t want to do paid paternity leave because it isn’t the most exciting gig in town.”

The issue then becomes whether or not women take on the lion’s share of caregiving because of  reasons beyond the “creaky old ideas.”  The fact is that women generally are more nurturing than men and the reason is for that goes far deeper than patriarchy and historical male dominance.   Women read verbal and non-verbal emotional cues better than men and this leads to having greater empathy than men.  Nurturing, the essence of childcare for infants and toddlers, is the byproduct of empathy and the bonding hormone oxytocin which is released for women during childbirth and breast feeding.  For most women nurturing young children can be quite fulfilling despite the more tedious demands of childcare.  For most men they feel enormously loving and protective of their infant children and feel the pressure of what it means to provide for their new family. The most thoughtful men will help with diaper changing but frankly do not find the day to day maintenance of an infant as satisfying as their female partner.  Therefore, unless there is a significant economic advantage for the family, women will choose the primary caregiving role and not resent that choice.  Obviously, their male partner’s willingness to help out as much as possible is certainly welcome and ultimately will lead to a more satisfying family experience for all parties, including the child. 

Tough Guy

The recent siege and violence at the Capitol Building, perpetrated by mostly men, has again created a media storm about male dominance and the tough guy stereotype.  The question to consider: Is acting like a tough guy always a negative behavior?  It is a fact that a mob of male outlaws acted violently and made verbal threats against government officials and were encouraged to “be strong and get tough” by certain mostly male elected political figures and their media recognized supporters.  I suppose that these perpetrators think of themselves as “tough guys” and are reinforced in that perception by their compatriots who cheered from home while watching the assault of the Capitol on their  tv screens.  My concern is that the descriptor “tough guy” should not by itself be viewed as a negative aspect of masculinity.

The dictionary definition of tough is a good starting point – “strong enough to withstand adverse conditions” and “able to endure hardship or pain.”  Other descriptors of tough include resiliency and having grit which focus on bouncing back and learning from adversity.  It appears that the word tough is not associated with negative behavior.  What makes a tough guy a thug is not that he is tough but how he utilizes his toughness to achieve a particular goal.  Utilizing the framework of the four archetypes of masculinity the question to be asked is whether one’s warrior is acting in the light or the shadow as directed by the goals and plans of his king?  A warrior using his toughness in the shadow is a violent man or bully while a warrior acting in the light is often a hero.    

We often  associate toughness with firefighters, soldiers in combat and high performing athletes.   However, we should not fail to recognize the toughness of  health care workers who have been in the front lines dealing with the pandemic.  Many have worked extra shifts, been exposed to highly contagious environments and still show up for work each day.  How about the toughness of wounded veterans and others with a physical disability who despite their prosthetics compete in Paralympics and go to work every day.  Think of  the toughness of Dr. Ugur Sahin.  He co-founded BioNTech and worked day and night alongside his wife in developing a vaccine in record time utilizing research findings of their earlier work on RNA. 

My point is that you don’t need a bulletproof vest, camouflage clothing and a loud mouth to be a tough guy.   In fact this type of seemingly tough behavior is in the shadow of masculinity and only tarnishes the really tough guys who we admire and depend on in our everyday lives. 

Dads Under Attack

The changes in family life that have resulted from the pandemic have led to a renewed attack on Dad’s not doing their fair share of childcare, domestic work and emotional labor at home.

According to a recent media story, the pandemic has certainly made things much harder for working moms, but according to the reporter this is hardly a new problem. When American women who have male partners work outside the home, they also do 65% of the child care, while men take on 35% — and these numbers haven’t changed in 20 years, clinical psychologist Darcy Lockman notes in her 2019 book “All the Rage: Mothers, Fathers and the Myth of Equal Partnership.”  In addition, it was also reported that, “Women also tend to take on the largely invisible burden of what freelance journalist Gemma Hartley calls the emotional labor in our homes in her 2018 book “Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward.” Emotional labor is defined as tasks like arranging child care, scheduling doctors’ appointments and play dates, buying presents, upending our own schedules when things go wrong, and  reminding our male partners what they’ve promised to do..

 Are men really that selfish and indifferent to the efforts of our female partners when it comes to domestic responsibilities?   I am certain that we can find some men who truly are deaf to their partners needs and view a women’s role, regardless of whether or not she is working outside the home, as totally responsible for managing the kids and the needs of the household.   However, my life experiences and my many years facilitating men’s groups leads me to believe that chauvinistic behavior is more the exception rather than the rule especially for the current generation of males who are becoming fathers.  For example, during my years as a school principal in a middle class suburban community, there were just as many fathers as mothers who attended back to school night and teacher/parent conferences.

The other issue that is avoided by the quoted female journalists is choice.   As I have often blogged, gender roles are not shaped solely by current societal norms.  Females tend to have more nurturing energy than males which leads to the need to be intimately involved with young children.  I don’t think even the most liberated father has been able to breast feed his young child.  In my community, which has tons of organized youth sports there is no shortage of fathers attending games, practices and coaching.  Do the accusers of male neglect count these efforts from fathers?   In addition, does the data on doing domestic chores include the time men mow the lawn, do home repairs and maintain the family cars?

I certainly realize that gender roles -especially for women – have changed substantially and this requires both men and women to better communicate with each other in negotiating the responsibilities  of family life.   However, this must be done with respect for gender strengths and without the presumption that men are inherently indifferent to the needs of their partners and families.

Mixed Message

When I saw the advertisement on CNN for an episode of “This Is Life” hosted by Lisa Ling dealing with an intervention for adolescent boys I was eager to watch. I recorded the show and when I was ready to watch it I sat down with my note pad to hopefully learn and gain new insights into a question that has troubled me for some time – “Are we losing our boys?”  The program began with a recitation of the familiar statistics about the appalling increase in suicides among young men between 15 to 24, the alarming rate of school dropout for boys and the increase in poor grades and involvement with the criminal justice system for adolescent boys and young men. Lisa then interviewed a college counselor who talked about the growing number of male students coming forward seeking help for depression and anxiety. He rightly focused on  the fact that there is no template for how young men become men and their confusion about what it means to be a man.  Lisa and he also discussed the harmful impact of video gaming on the socialization and mental health of young men. Unfortunately,  when speaking about how to address the problems of young men the counselor offered the overly simplistic explanation that boys are taught not to cry and that the phrase, “man up” is toxic to healthy masculinity. As I have explored in previous blogs, the real men don’t cry mantra is largely a relic of a previous generation.  Today we see that male celebrities and  current and aspiring athletic superstars are quite comfortable crying in public.  As an example, I was watching a portion of the recent NBA draft and when a particular athlete was chosen and the camera flashed to his home and family the young men often shed tears.  As to the “man up” notion, I have frankly explored the virtues of manning up in certain circumstances.   Obviously it can be overdone and harmful to tell a young boy to ignore his feelings completely and just man up.   However,  we can certainly teach and model that one can be in touch with feelings but make a decision not to emote at a particular time for the good of the situation.

The next segment of the show focused on a program called “Weekend Wilderness Camp” where a group of grown men volunteers host a group of troubled adolescent boys for an intensive wilderness and male initiation weekend.  The boys are signed up by their parents and many are far from eager to attend.  During the 36 hour encounter the boys go through a combination of boot camp type physical challenges and group circles to talk about pain and how to deal with it in a less self destructive manner.  The boys are supervised and supported by the adult volunteers and at the end of the experience participate in an exercise to simulate their initiation into manhood.  In addition, and in my opinion the most significant part of the program, is the requirement for the parents of the boys to participate in a workshop stressing communication skills and ways to respond to the behaviors of their troubled teens.  Although I have no disagreement with the principles and good will of the volunteers I wonder about sustainability.   How much carryover is there after the weekend experience?   The show did not indicate that there is any follow up with the boys and their families as to what changes have occurred.   Based on my work with behavior and emotionally challenged boys one intervention is not sufficient.   These boys, and frankly all boys and young men, would benefit from participating in group work that emphasized what it means to live in the best of masculinity and to teach boys to trust and be vulnerable to each other.  Schools and existing volunteer men’s groups should prepare a best of masculinity curriculum and encourage boys – especially teens and preteens – to actively participate in on-going groups with trained  adult men as facilitators.  Let’s also not forget to continue to help parents best meet the challenges of parenting our boys and young men so that their sons can evolve to practicde the best of masculinity.

Gender Gap

A recent article in the New York Times asked the question, “Why do men and women, even some living under the same roof, have such divergent views on what people are fit to be our leaders?”  According to the article, research findings suggest that women tend to cast votes based on what they perceive as the overall benefit to the nation and their communities and men are more self interested.  Unfortunately, this research  leads to the conclusion that men are selfish and women are more altruistic.  This appears to be valid on the surface but looking closely at the definitions of community interest and self interest there is another way of drawing conclusions from the data.

For example, is a man’s vote being based solely on the state of the stock market acting selfishly?  Or is it because he is focused on how well his 401 K is performing  because his priority is to provide for his children’s education and their inheritance.  His masculine energy to provide and protect his family is a far cry from being merely selfish.   As far as benefit to the community, I would propose that men and women both care about the community but have gender based beliefs about the best ways of achieving the well being of a community.  Women tend to focus on empathy before looking for action to address a societal issue. Men on the other go quickly to fixes with less attention to the feelings of others.  Solutions do benefit the community by providing a pathway to recovery which relieves the stress of an uncertain future.   I know these are broad generalities but when we look as men as a group and women as a group these gender differences do hold up. The obvious conclusion is that instead of throwing men under the bus for being only self interested in their political views we need to look below the surface of the data and understand what is really going on.  In addition,  many men will put aside self-interest when a broader benefit to society is articulated in such a way that resonates with masculine energy.  For example,  if the message about mask wearing was more focused on its value for protecting one’s family and friends rather than simply good practice non-masking men might come more compliant and focus less on the supposed loss of personal freedom.

Protector or Vigilante

It appears that there is a growing imbalance in the validation of our biological gender differences.  It is great that girls are no longer stigmatized for being athletic and for their emerging assertiveness.  In addition, for the most part, women have gained the right to compete in the workplace based on merit. On the other hand, boys have not yet found their way in appreciating their masculinity. The consequences are manifest in the data that I have frequently blogged that demonstrate how we are losing our boys. It seems that boys and many men are either mired in gender role confusion or have adopted the toxic masculinity culture instead of embracing the best of their masculinity.

On point is a recent article in the Washington Post on the armed vigilante groups which have appeared at cities where Black Lives Matter protests are happening. The article attempts to explain the non-political part of the motivation of many of the men who are joining these groups.  Interviews of group members reveal that one of the reason these men are traveling considerable distances to appear at the protest marches wearing armor and brandishing long guns is their desire to protect property.  For them, the need to express their masculine energy to protect has been subverted to vigilantism.  The question is what is so lacking in their everyday personal lives that they need to protect property that is normally protected by local law enforcement?  Has the pandemic, the gender neutrality agenda and the perceived feminization of manhood led some men to act out in hyper masculine fashion?  Certainly the loss of control over one’s environment engendered by the loss of income and the inability to have any influence on the outcome of the pandemic  has resulted in a diminishing of personal power.  The loss of power can lead to anger and an attempt to regain masculinity by protective behavior that has no direct connection to their  personal lives.   

I would suggest that a more productive way to manage the perceived loss of power that men are experiencing is to engage in men’s work.  It is not difficult to find a men’s group in person or virtually in most areas of our country. Being in the company of men in a non-shaming environment where they can share their life’s journey is empowering and helps men live the best of masculinity.

Proud Boys!

It is unusual that a group chose a name that so clearly reflects who they are.   If they called themselves Proud Men they would have missed the mark.  Their behavior and style is definitively that of boys not men.   Dressing up with body armor emblazoned with stickers is something that you would expect pre-adolescent boys to wear when going out to trick or treat.  Boys who want the world to think they are tough guys dress up and adopt aggressive postures to bully and intimidate.   Most boys grow up and abandon external symbols, and power posturing and seek recognition through accomplishment and embracing the best of masculinity – thoughtfulness, compassion and a purposeful life.

Right Goal Wrong Approach

Time magazine (9/21) featured an essay by Kyl Myers, Ph.D. adapted from  her book, “Raising Them: Our Adventure in Gender Creative Parenting.”  The essay states, “the goal of gender-creative parenting is not to eliminate gender – the goal is to eliminate gender-based oppression, disparities and violence.”  No argument with the goal.  However, her (sorry Kyl for using a gender specific pronoun) approach is based on  her confusing gender equality with gender neutrality.  It appears that her concern for gender discrimination can only be eliminated by neutralizing inherent gender differences.  According to her philosophy as a parent she believes that we should wait for children to tell us if they are a boy or a girl.  I can just imagine a five year old boy telling his kindergarten teacher I have a penis but actually I am a girl.  Do I have to remind folks that boys are born with XY chromosomes and girls with XX chromosomes.  Genetics matter.  Besides the obvious anatomical differences men’s and women’s brains are different.   One big reason is that for much of their lifetimes women and men have different fuel additives running through their tanks: the sex-steroid hormones.  In female mammals, the primary additives are a few members of the set of molecules called estrogens, along with another molecule called progesterone; and in males, testosterone and a few look-alikes collectively deemed androgens. Importantly, males developing normally in utero get hit with a big mid-gestation surge of testosterone, permanently shaping not only their body parts and proportions but also their brains. The neuroscience literature shows that the human brain is a sex-typed organ with distinct anatomical differences in neural structures and accompanying physiological differences in function, says UC-Irvine professor of neurobiology and behavior Larry Cahill, PhD. Cahill who edited the 70-article January/February 2017 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience Research.

There continues to be considerable debate among researchers as to the role that biology has in shaping gender behavior.  The consensus is that social norms and biological factors both operate but the controversy lies in the degree that each factor shapes behavior.  Social norms are subject to change as the women’s rights movement and Title IX have aptly proven.   Biology is not fluid.  Yes, there are a small number of intersex individuals who are born with some degree of gender ambiguity and they should not be discriminated against.  However, the vast majority of children arrive as either distinctly male or female and that is not subject to choice.  

 For one thing, the animal-research findings resonates with sex-based differences ascribed to people. These findings continue to accrue. In a study of 34 rhesus monkeys, for example, males strongly preferred toys with wheels over plush toys, whereas females found plush toys likable. It would be tough to argue that the monkeys’ parents bought them sex-typed toys or that simian society encourages its male offspring to play more with trucks. A much more recent study established that boys and girls 9 to 17 months old — an age when children show few if any signs of recognizing either their own or other children’s sex — nonetheless show marked differences in their preference for stereotypically male versus stereotypically female toys.

Of course we should not tell children they can’t play with a particular toy because we ascribe a gender connotation to that object.  On the other hand I would strongly discourage my son who was born a non-ambiguous boy from wearing a dress to school.  Are we thwarting gender equality by telling a boy that certain types of clothing are gender specific in a particular culture?  The goal of gender equality is achieved when we appreciate the differences between males and females recognizing that both male and female characteristics are needed to ensure a healthy society.