Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Thinking about boys

In preparation for having a son, I thought it would be a good idea to read about boys. I just finished reading Speaking of Boys: Answers to the Most-Asked Questions About Raising Sons by Michael Thompson. I liked the book a lot. Thompson clearly has great affection for boys and has thought a lot about their emotional health and development. He acknowledges that society has made it difficult for boys to grow and mature, but not in a "woe-is-them Title IX ruined their lives" kind of way. He also compares boys to young male chimps:
"Many social scientists believe that patterns of boy behavior at this age (junior high) are analogous to social dominance patterns among animals. Young male elk spar constantly, chickens have a 'pecking order,' wolves create a hierarchy with high-status males and low-status males. Young male chimps fight and wrestle until they establish a dominance hierarchy in which every young male knows his place, whom he can beat and whom be cannot beat."
Thompson then goes on to say that young males are constantly trying to define masculinity. He writes, "Masculinity is a social construction, it is not a biological given, and it is very hard for boys to define. Furthermore, from the beginning of their childhoods they have understood that you have to pass some tests to become masculine, but our society does not actually provide the tests, and the criteria for becoming a man is uncertain."

This, in a nutshell (no pun intended) is why some boys act like jerks who grow into men who act like assholes. There are unlimited models for this kind of thing in our society. We revere bullies and there are plenty of bullies who are rich and famous as proof (Rush Limbaugh, Mike Tyson, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, WWE stars, etc.). I can't help but wonder if this love affair with bullies is part of why it's so hard to get anti-bullying legislation passed (like Matt's Safe School Law here in Michigan). Granted, that's not the angle people who oppose such legislation take (usually opposition hinges on the acknowledgment of the existence of gay kids), but I do think some of what would be considered bullying under such laws is what a lot of parents see as "boys will be boys" behavior -- especially those parents who have strong, dominant sons or sons they'd like to see be tough. Thompson makes very clear, however, that cruelty doesn't make a boy "man up."

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