Preparing Boys for Life.

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The Boy Behind the Mask
Janet Heed, Upper School Counselor, and Michael Reichert, Consulting School Psychologist

He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant, 1938

For the first time, surveys show that expecting parents prefer having a girl by more than 2 to 1. After centuries of preference for boys, parents see boys as "too risky." How do we help our sons build healthy identities as men? In a dramatically changed gender landscape, how do we help boys develop the virtues and character strengths to flourish?

A starting point for raising healthy and successful sons is to be clear about their humanity and the critical role parents play throughout their lives. Two myths about boys are especially confusing:

  1. The idea that "biology is destiny" has guided parenting and education for generations – obscuring boys' fundamentally relational natures. What scientists know for sure is that human brains respond to experience and that all children need understanding and warm connections to thrive.
  2. Berkeley professor Allison Gopnik describes in her book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, that rather than stamping out boys to fit a certain mold, parents must nurture the unique child they have. "To be a parent – to care for a child – is to be part of a profound and unique human relationship, to engage in a particular kind of love," Gopnik writes.

Parents can be a bulwark protecting boys from cultural and peer pressures to fit themselves to a masculine standard. The mask has become a popular metaphor for describing how boys learn to hide their deepest thoughts and feelings. But being confined to an "act like a man box" often leads to negative outcomes. In fact, researchers have consistently found that the more thoroughly a boy conforms to the masculine standard, the more likely he is to be bullied, to bully others himself, and to exhibit a range of depressive symptoms. A just-released global study found that 74% of young males "in the box" report having "little interest or pleasure in doing things," 64% feel "down, depressed or hopeless," and, most troubling, 40% have "thoughts of suicide."

At The Haverford School, we have been engaged in an important effort to help boys offer each other real opportunities to step out from behind the mask. What helps boys stay on course through challenges, setbacks, and adversities is how well they remember they are not alone.

During the Best for Boys workshop, we presented a series of scenarios representing parenting challenges that commonly arise in families with adolescent boys. Questions about how to stay close to a son even as he pulls away, gets caught up in video gaming or social media, or becomes overwhelmed by conflicts with teachers or coaches engaged workshop participants in lively discussions with each other. We contributed strategies of our own as food for further thought.

At The Haverford School, we have been engaged in an important effort to help boys offer each other real opportunities to step out from behind the mask. The Peer Counseling Program teaches skills in listening, sharing and offering empathy and has become popular with V and VI Formers. For the 2017-18 school year, the school is extending the program to all forms in the Upper School, introducing students to the basic message of the program.

What helps boys stay on course through challenges, setbacks, and adversities is how well they remember they are not alone. Attentive, caring relationships fortify and transform boys. Appreciation for boys' relational natures is the threshold to confidence and resilience.

Further reading: "The Boy Behind the Mask"


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