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.