My story starts with this:
This is undoubtedly one of my favorite images ever. It has been hanging on the wall of my classroom since my school opened eleven years ago and gives me inspiration whenever my eyes fall upon it. When I first saw this image, I think the subtext for me went something like this: “Celebrate the WHOLE boy! Don’t forget to embrace his sensitive and artistic nature as an integral part of who he is.” After more than 20 years of being with young children, having a son of my own, and closely observing social attitudes towards growing boys, the subtext reads somewhat differently for me now. “Celebrate the WHOLE boy! Don’t forget to embrace his masculinity as an integral part of who he is.”
Why on earth would I do that? You may be asking yourself. And how do you define masculinity? Well, I’m not sure, and here’s where the discussion gets tricky. So tricky in fact, that we often avoid it altogether. It is complex. It is a highly sensitive topic, and controversial by nature. As it should be. However, I think we are suffering from a crisis of boyhood in our culture, and we can not afford to avoid this discussion any longer.
Almost the whole of my career in education has been in the highly feminized culture of early childhood education, and 23 years of that time has been in Portland. The majority of those years have been spent co-teaching with men. This is an issue that has always been dear to me. I love male energy and enjoy being able to “hold the space” for boys in all that they need to do. And, sometimes what boys need to do is wild, exuberant, and turbulent. It can feel uncomfortable. Some may even find it disturbing. As a teacher, I must confess it can be too loud and chaotic for me, and while I do not find it frightening, it is often wildly inconvenient.
In the early childhood classroom, all too often the message to boys is “We love you just the way you are! But…could you please tone it down a bit? Smaller, quieter, slower, more gentle. Generally, a bit less visible. Thanks!”
This is problematic because it says, We accept who you are, with conditions. Your desire to jump, to shout, to be wild, to climb the furniture, to play “bad guys” is unacceptable. Therefore the part of you that wants to do that is unacceptable, and there is something wrong with you for wanting/needing that.
What I have observed is that, for the most part, we are very comfortable seeing boys exploring their feminine side. Boys are praised for their “feminine” behavior, (I use this term knowing it is inherently problematic) and their parents get accolades for being open-minded enough to allow for it.
I often hear parents of young boys say, “I LOVE it when he plays with girls.” And we love it too. It is always exciting to see children making connections with others regardless of gender and exploring different aspects of their nature. And yes, we always strive to nurture the compassionate, the gentle, the sensitive nature of ALL our children.
But what I have come to wonder about is, what behaviors have we inadvertently suppressed in our boys because they make us uncomfortable? And what is the long term impact of this suppression?
This question started in my mind long before my son was born. As he grows and I watch him explore and express different sides of himself, I have also observed how others perceive him based on those behaviors. The year we allowed him to sign up for football I felt such intense judgement from other adults that it was palpable. I had to constantly resist the urge to explain our thinking, (which I was rarely able to.) However, when this same boy picked out and proudly wore a pink knitted hat at school in the fall of sixth grade, he received lots of positive strokes from adults, even from strangers on the street. And let’s be honest, it did somehow make me feel like a successful parent. Why? Why do I feel successful when my boy dons his pink hat, and greatly humbled when he wears his football jersey with pads to the grocery store?
What I have observed, generally speaking, is that those characteristics that we typically associate with the feminine are celebrated, while the characteristics we associate with the masculine are criticized. Or at the very least viewed with skepticism. What does this do to a boy’s developing sense of self?
Part of me understands where this fear of the masculine comes from. And I think it is this: We live in a time of masculinity gone awry.
My son was born during the Bush era, just 2 months after September 11th. Our country has been at war almost his entire life. Countless school shootings have occurred during his 11 years, all of them perpetrated by young men. We have all seen the statistics and are aware that boys and men are much more likely to commit acts of violence, or to take their own life. We are afraid of our boys’ potential for destruction, and ultimately, we are afraid for them. We are concerned that if the global tendency towards greed, consumption and boundless power continues it will be devastating to our planet. I understand, and even share these fears to a certain extent. And after all this time, after all that I have read and seen, and all the discussions I have had with others over the years, those questions continue to linger.
But here’s what I know. Our masculine culture gone awry is not birthed from a healthy exploration of what it means to be a boy, or from what it means to be a man. It does not come from childhood gun play, or muddy wrestling sessions on the front lawn.
In my humble opinion, it is born from a cycle of cultural oppression of healthy masculinity and the overwhelming prevalence of destructive masculinity (think pro-football culture, first-person shooter games) which cause a great deal of confusion, and potentially shame for our boys. As they grow, they get increasingly conflicting messages about who they are supposed to be. The beautiful and sunny face of masculinity we see in early childhood can become twisted into something else…a much darker, or a “shadow” version of itself. That’s where the failure, isolation, and rage come in. When we fear or despise masculinity, THIS is the destructive manifestation of masculinity that we are thinking of.
What can we do? Back to the original inspiration…We can celebrate the WHOLE boy. He is beautiful and perfect. He does not somehow carry within him the seed of future violence. Right now he is exactly as he needs to be and you can love him in his entirety. Every single elegant, powerful, competitive, loud, compassionate, wild, and beautiful part of him. If we can help him to love and accept himself and trust in his own nature with the same completeness that we do? Well, that could change everything.