This turned into kind of a long book review, so I’m going to give a quick summary at the beginning. You only have to read the whole thing if you want all the details.
I’ve been reading two books:
- Real Boys by William Pollack
- The War Against Boys by Christina Hoff-Sommer
Pollack says many boys are sad, lonely, and confused because society tells us we should treat them like little men and raise them through a toughening process. This drives their true emotions underground and forces them to put on a tough, cheerful and confident mask, which ends up being very harmful. Only when we understand what boys are really experiencing can we help them learn to deal with issues.
Hoff-Sommers says that boys want to be tough and confident and treated like little men and that the real problem is that society is trying to raise boys to be like girls. If we would just let them be boys they would be better off. She identifies a systematic agenda to make education and child-rearing a form of non-surgical castration that is harmful to boys.
I think there’s truth in both books. I’ve seen first hand trends in parenting and education that are harmful to boys, but I think the answer looks much more like Pollack’s approach than Hoff-Sommer’s. Read on if you want to hear more.
Hoff-Sommer begins by presenting a pretty convincing argument. Her sources are very credible, and main point is that some of the more radical feminist leaders are promoting programs and policies that don’t simply stop at furthering the cause of girls and women. The go beyond promoting equality and the ability of girls and women to live and work up to their full potential. In fact, these “misguided feminists” (her words, not mine) actively demean, disadvantage, and discriminate against boys and just about anything that smell of masculinity or testosterone. They knowingly and unknowingly endorse practices, opinions, and perspectives that overtly and covertly harm boys. She explains that while the original motives of some in this movement were very good, it has developed into something that is contrary to the original positive intention. Rather than lifting up girls, they are putting down boys.
In Real Boys, William Pollack uses his own clinical experience and solid research to identify and address what he sees as a negative “myth of boyhood” in our culture that requires boys to detach from their caregivers and their feelings in order to be tough or what society would label a “real boy.” This disconnection results in repressed/unprocessed feelings, stunted emotional development, and sometimes psychological disorders. Pollack has treated boys who have been violent, bullies or antisocial in other ways as well as boys who are depressed and suicidal. In most of the cases he has discovered boys who are in distress emotionally and whose pain could be traced back to early trauma with toxic beliefs about what boys are supposed to be like. He goes further and says that while only some boys may exhibit pathological consequences, most boys suffer from the negative consequences of the myths of boyhood.
The conflict between these two books is that Hoff-Sommers argues that we need to stop trying to make boys act more like girls. If we do, then boys will be better off. As a culture, we don’t need to put up with boys acting inappropriately to girls, women, and each other, but we do need to let them relate to work, play, learning, and life in ways that are consistent with their biology. There’s nothing wrong with being stereotypically male. She thinks that people like Pollack are most likely trying to make boys be something that males naturally are not.
Pollack, on the other hand, would say that it’s great for boys to be authentically male, but that our society has developed an incorrect idea of what that is. To raise healthy, real boys, according to Pollack, we need to allow boys to develop the emotional intelligence that they are born with and express it with an authentically masculine style. There’s no need to force them to be artificially tough, jaded, cocky or chauvinistic.
To sum up, it is good that Hoff-Sommers raises awareness about some very scary, radical trends in feminist social activism (PLEASE NOTE, I AM NOT OPPOSED FEMINISM. RADICALISM IN GENERAL TENDS TO HAVE LESS THAN POSITIVE RESULTS, REGARDLESS OF HOW GOOD ITS FOUNDATION MIGHT BE) and education that are directly harmful to boys and indirectly harmful to girls as well. We shouldn’t stifle boy’s energy, creativity, and personhood to make classrooms more manageable, playgrounds “softer,” backyards quieter, or sports less competitive. For girls to achieve, they don’t need society to squash boys. This line of thinking maintains a low opinion of both boys and girls.
However, Pollack provides a much better path forward. Real boys are not destined to repeat a stereotypical “boys will be boys” pattern of behavior and repression. We can raise our sons to be true to themselves as well as authentic, healthy men by fostering emotional intelligence and debunking cultural myths of boyhood in a way that embraces all the wildness and wonder that naturally comes boys.