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Michael Bader: Boys will be boys

Most of us know that boys are socialized differently than girls. For example, boys are encouraged to keep their feelings to themselves and to be independent. The fact that these ideals are often belied by reality doesn’t mean they aren’t still expected. When boys show too much vulnerability or are too obviously dependent, they’re often shamed, and certainly feel shame. The caricatures of masculinity seen in male heroes on television and in movies only reflect and reinforce the power of socialization to tell boys how to be boys.

Not only are such caricatures belied by reality every day, they are also harmful.

I see the suffering that undergirds masculinity every day in my clinical practice. Behind every depiction of male strength and heroism lies a shadow of loneliness and shame. There is an anti-hero behind every hero. The anti-hero is a man who is lost, unable to be intimate, forever falling short of the socially-approved standards of masculinity.

It’s not necessarily much fun to be a man in our culture, despite the social privileges that a sexist society affords their gender.

While most of us see the powerful effects of social role modeling and learning in shaping masculinity, we are less aware of its deeper roots in the traumas of early childhood. Developmental psychologists have sketched out the broad outlines of male identity formation and help us see the conflicts that often fuel it.

Despite changes in family structures and childrearing practices over the last 50 years, most infants in our culture are still primarily cared for by women. The infant/toddler, whether male or female, feels a natural urge to become more independent of his or her mother, to separate both psychologically and physically. The developmental task is to individuate — to become a separate and unique individual. The special problem facing boys, however, is that they also have to become a different gender than their mother, not simply a separate person. Boys, in other words, have a more complicated road to selfhood than do girls.

This process is obviously aided tremendously by mothers who enjoy the masculinity of their child and by the presence and involvement of fathers. Failures on both ends almost always create problems. But even in father-absent homes, male children seize on role models wherever they find them to use as beacons showing them the way out of their dependency and toward a masculine gender identity. This process is complicated, however, by the fact that our society too often defines masculinity as the opposite – or even the negation of — femininity. To become a boy, separate and different than one’s mother, is to become not feminine. And since femininity is still devalued in our culture, boys grow up and away from their mothers by assuming a gender role that requires them to devalue the opposite sex, and traits inside themselves that are associated with the opposite sex, e.g. tenderness, vulnerability, nurturing, dependency, etc.

Boys grow up having to suppress these traits associated with femininity and warding off feelings that are associated with the opposite sex because these traits and feelings threaten not only their gender identity but their very sense of separateness and independence. The stakes are higher for boys in this respect. Their separation process is more rough and rigid. Their ego boundaries have to be more strict and harsh, but because they are so often threatened, these boundaries are also more fragile. Boys have greater difficulty being connected and intimate because such a desirable relational state threatens to undermine their boundaries. The result is greater isolation and loneliness. They still long for loving connections, but have to avoid them equally strongly.

This is the tragedy of masculinity in our culture. We have boys who spend too much energy not being girls, which ends up leaving them impaired in their capacity to nurture, show feelings, and to give and receive love.

The solution, of course, is to break down gender roles and stop devaluing women and their femininity. Only then can boys grow up embracing the best of both worlds.

Michael Bader, DMH, is a psychologist in private practice in Grass Valley. He can be contacted at michaelbaderdmh@gmail.com.

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