Column: We’re Crushing the ‘Essential Nature’ of Boys

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    The new "Guidelines for the Psychological Practice with Boys and Men," marks the first-ever report published by the association with the specific aim addressing issues that specifically develop in males as they age. (Dreamstime) Dreamstime

For the Valley News
Published: 1/19/2019 10:20:15 PM
Modified: 1/19/2019 10:20:17 PM

It’s an interesting time to be a man. The #MeToo movement focuses with laser intensity on the issue of sexual misconduct, exposing the dark underbelly of the entertainment business among other segments of society.

Colleges, as in the recent case at Dartmouth, grapple with long-standing sexist environments where women are underrepresented, subjected to unwanted attention and denied equitable opportunities.

Hundreds of gymnasts have been abused and the (now resigned) interim president of Michigan State University, former Gov. John Engler, quips that some of them enjoyed the spotlight. Talk about tone-deaf misogyny.

Feminists, colorfully represented by the delightfully fearless Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (known in some parts as AOC), are making their presence felt in Congress. How can one not love the #WheresMitch gambit last week when AOC joined fellow freshmen Democrats in a vain search for the vainglorious Mitch McConnell as he apparently hid in a bunker?

The eruption has created a hilarious backlash, as many men claim that they are the victims. “We have to be soooo careful,” they whine, as centuries of entitlement and impunity are challenged. Poor us.

There are political, social and psychological dimensions to this long-overdue examination of masculinity in society.

The psychological dimension is examined in a recent report issued by the American Psychological Association. The study proposes, with ample statistical evidence, that something is wrong with boys and men in our culture. No kidding! We men are, after all, responsible for 90 percent of homicides, 98 percent of mass murders, and are 3.5 times more likely to take our own lives. The statistics on sexual misconduct are similar: 91 percent of victims are women and girls, almost all at the hands of men.

The APA report is long and complex, but a broad reading suggests that boys are imbued with a toxic form of masculinity as they develop. The report argues that socialization in a form of “traditional masculinity (characterized by) emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance and competitiveness” leads to “aggression and violence as a means to resolve interpersonal conflict” as well as “substance abuse, incarceration, and early mortality.”

The report’s guidelines call for a re-examination of “the socially constructed nature of masculinity and how it affects boys and men.”

While partially implied rather than explicit, the report identifies risk-taking, adventure and impulsive behavior as being among the social constructs and suggests acculturating boys into a less-aggressive manifestation of their gender. Critics, including Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, note the omission of recognizing biological differences, including the role of testosterone.

So which is it? Are boys biologically impulsive, risk-taking adventure seekers, or is this by and large a social construct?

I suggest that it is both and that a failure to honor the nature of boys is a major cause of the subsequent dysfunctional behavior.

As an educator I was deeply involved in the development of boys and the problems of men and I am now writing a book on the topic. It is unusual that I agree with arch conservative David French of the National Review, but his response to the APA guidelines is important.

“Male children are falling behind in school not because schools indulge their risk-taking and adventurousness but often because they relentlessly suppress boys and sometimes punish boys’ essential nature, from the opening bell to the close of the day.”

If the complexity can be contained in a nutshell, it is this seemingly contradictory notion: The way we suppress boys’ “essential nature,” particularly in schools, is a major contributor to aggression and misconduct in adulthood.

An important aside: Not all boys have the stereotypical version of “essential nature.” The minority of boys whose essential nature is more aligned to the cultural idea of femininity may be even more at risk, as their way of being in the world is often subject to scorn, thus creating another milieu for the development of anger, aggression and deep unhappiness.

And of course the opposite is importantly true. Many girls have an “essential nature” that seeks adventure, risk-taking and vigorous play. The socialization that inhibits this nature does a different, equally insidious kind of damage.

So “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” is the daily reality for too many children.

Male development is not a continuum over time, where energy, impulsivity, risk-taking and restlessness turn into sexual violence, male entitlement and mass murder unless the boys are “civilized.” The opposite is true. Making room at school and at home for the biological reality of boys will reduce the likelihood of dysfunction as men.

Schools that expect compliance and conformity are unhealthy and unnatural for both boys and girls. For many reasons girls are better able to tolerate the unnatural environment without exploding, but it takes a toll on them too.

Parents, often because of their own socialization, or following the lead of the school, exacerbate the damage by imposing similarly punitive responses on their sons.

Schools — particularly “no excuses” charter schools or rigid public schools — are anti-boy, and too many parents and caregivers are complicit. If boys are free to be boys and loved unconditionally, they can develop into healthy, gentle adults who still play vigorously, take risks, seek adventure and love well.

If we genuinely allow “boys to be boys” when they are children, whatever kind of boy they may be, we can dramatically reduce the “boys will be boys” excuse when men behave outrageously.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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