Sunday, February 5, 2012
The Way of Boys
Naobi Way of New York University was a featured guest lecturer at my university on Friday. Her lecture, "Boys and the Crisis of Connection," was one I knew I could not miss. Way, author and/or co-author of 7 books, including Deep Secrets, has spent 22 years in language-based empirical research focused on boys' resistance to cultural conventions. Did this lecture have Anne Carter written all over it, or what?
Her 50 minute presentation focused on the shift that occurs when boys become men, leaving adolescence behind and entering manhood. It is a complicated affair, made ever so much harder by our culture's expectations of masculinity and what it means to be a man.
Way's work is eye-opening, a game-changer that the world has yet to recognize, embrace. And so I've included a recap of her most important discoveries, plus a link to an audio recording of her lecture. Because it's too important to keep to myself.
Through her collections of stories from thousands of teenage boys, (spending 5 years interviewing each boy) Way describes her findings, which have been scientifically validated, over and over again. In her words, boys' stories sound so much more like love stories - forming strong attachments to a same sex friend; "going crazy" without a close male friend - and sound nothing like what you might expect to hear - stories of independence, solitude, competition, a la Lord of the Flies. Adolescent boys are not "emotionally illiterate" as our culture has stereotyped them to be. Adolescent boys recognize and value the role that a close friendship has on their overall health and well-being. In their own words, these boys observe that "without my best friend, I would go crazy. I would be so depressed. I would not be happy. I would kill myself." Adolescent boys share secrets - deep secrets - with their closest male friends. Even in China, in a culture vastly different than our own, one boy interviewed in a parallel empirical study said, "[translated] nobody knows what my heart wants to say if I don't have a friend."
(Read that sentence again. Is that the sentence of an "emotionally illiterate" boy?)
But then, in late adolescence, our culture demands that boys "become mature" and "embrace manhood." When boys abandon their close friends in order to embrace manhood, they become men who are autonomous, emotionally stoic, and disconnected. Suicide rates drastically increase as boys lose their connection to the one "who knows what [their] heart wants to say."
As human beings, we are set apart from other animals by our ability to feel and express emotion. What makes us human is our ability to make deep connections to other humans. When we ask boys to suppress their emotions, we are effectively asking half the population to not be human.
Boys are so much more complex than the flat stereotypes we apply to them. And we owe it to our boys - we owe it to our humanity - to re-examine what it means to be male. "Survival of the fittest" does not apply to us; human beings survive - and thrive - from being empathetic, cooperative, collaborative, and social. Thus, instead of focusing on what makes us different - our gender, for one - instead let the focus be on what is the same: the deep emotions we each feel; the desire to build and maintain strong connections with our fellow human beings; the love and bond we share with a best friend.
One boy observed, "It might be nice to be a girl. Because then you wouldn't have to pretend to be emotionless."
This left me heartbroken, the idea that boys are pretending to be emotionless. I also felt ashamed, keenly aware of the stereotypes and criticisms women tend to heap upon men for appearing to be just that - emotionless. What have we done to these boys? I kept thinking.
Way's entire talk can be found here. Please note that I used direct quotes whenever possible, but much of my recap was in Way's words; all credit for the above ideas and discoveries belong to Naobi Way.
The implications of Way's research are significant. I'm positive that you will find some conflicting research out there, and I'll even give you a head start. Michael Gurian, who is somewhat of a "boy expert," would argue how important it is for boys to be able to compete with each other, how boys desire a "quest" to follow, how boys often seek to assert their independence quite apart from friends and family. Gurian would also argue that boys are not "hard wired" toward empathy as girls tend to be, yet Way refutes this idea, stating that girls are simply allowed to express their feelings more than boys are, resulting in the perception of being more empathetic. (One only has to watch how a baby offers comfort to another, crying baby to know that empathy is largely cultivated). But what Gurian also attests to is the importance of developing a "tribe" comprised of family and friends whom boys can lean on, emotionally and socially, during the most difficult times in their lives. Gurian recognizes the absolutely essential role that boys' friendships play in healthy and happy development. Way and Gurian come to the same conclusions, albeit through different contexts. (For more on Gurian, see The Wonder of Boys).
So where does this leave us? For me, Way's lecture opened my eyes in many ways. I had no idea - no idea that the stories of boys' friendships sound so much like the stories of girls' friendships, centered and built upon the sharing of secrets, the tight bond, the feeling of love shared. I was astonished, really, to learn how alike boys and girls are in their bonds of friendship. I am grateful to know how important these friendships are, how imperative they are to the overall health and well-being of my sons.
And yet simply knowing is not enough. I will continue to challenge the stereotypes I hear about boys. (Like here). I will remember how much we are the same, talk less about how we are different. I will encourage my boys to build close friendships, to value those friendships. I will make space and time for my boys to grow their friendships. I will seek the company of like-minded mothers and fathers. I will continue to teach my sons how to express their emotions in an open and honest way, and I will validate and support their expressions. I will fill their lives with men who embody what I want them to be: sensitive, caring, empathetic, compassionate, emotionally open, expressive, loving.
And I will offer them the same.