boy break dancing

Men and boys run a pretty tight club, one beauty of it being that all of their rules and codes of conduct are handed down without benefit of contracts or bylaws or training manuals or even note cards. Most guys probably couldn’t even tell you where or when all that handing down takes place. It just does, in all those invisible moments and forgotten spaces in between people and places and events, places where boys learn without knowing they’re being taught that you’re supposed to do that instead of this, say this instead of that, never admit to you-know-what, and always do XYZ when some other boy does ABC. Of course the downside to this unobtrusive schooling is that all these rules and codes just keep getting handed down one generation after another, without benefit of revision or modernization, sticking everyone with masculine ideals more suitable for the Colosseum or the Wild West than for twenty-first-century living.

Look a little closer, and you’ll see another fly in the ointment. The club guidelines may help boys grow up to be guys, but some of the values they shape in boys and men are actually incongruent with values and personality traits often thought to be associated with men of good character. Take, for example, the four basic, stereotyped male ideals or models of behavior that the author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, William Pollack, describes as being at the heart of “Boy Code.” The first one urges boys to remain stoic and independent at all times, masking any weaknesses or insecurities. This is the very opposite of the honesty and emotional accessibility that philosophers Aristotle and Plato had encouraged in their young charges. It’s also contrary to the concept of transparency inherent in “Purity”—one of the knightly virtues, that ruling code of honor assembled by no less manly a source than the male elders of the High Middle Ages.

A second injunction of Boy Code endorses the thrill-seeking, risk-taking nature of boys, but ratchets it up some. Bravado and daredevilry and the wish to resolve all matters through physicality become the ideal, in contrast to a more knightly “Prudence,” which counsels circumspection, among other things, and the self-restraint implied by its sibling virtue, “Temperance.”

A third tells boys that real males pursue status, power, and dominance over others, while a fourth admonishes boys against expressing anything that could be mistaken for dependency, vulnerability, or empathy. Looking at it this way, a lot of what our boys learn about being men flies in the face of what we teach people about being good human beings—humility, mercy, benevolence, justice—suggesting, and rather ironically, too, that at least on some level, Boy Code and a virtuous, knight-worthy life do not make good bedfellows.

It’s an amusing juxtaposition on paper; however, in real life, trying to balance these two contradictory honor calls is no laughing matter for boys. Moreover, who is teaching that second honor call? Has gender socialization become the more prominent process of acculturation for children, making kids and parents think more about raising true-to-type boys and girls than about raising good human beings?

Excerpted from, The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood

— Janet Sasson Edgette