There once was a teenage boy who was kind, friendly, funny, and very musically talented. He spent most of his social time with girls because they were nice to him. When around boys his age, though, he smiled less, and wished to be alone. So, he often took refuge at the piano.
Most who saw him probably never knew that when he went off alone, he was actually crying out for understanding, crying out for acceptance, crying out for compassion, crying out for acknowledgement, and crying out for friendship.
This time of life was extremely painful for him because he didn’t fit the mold of his leaders’ and peers’ definitions of “manly” and “masculine.”
Most of his peers were “tough” boys, who thought it was fun to prank others, and shove and push them around. Swirlies, wedgies, and wet willies were hilarious, and no big deal, even to the adults. But this boy wouldn’t do those things because he thought they were mean-spirited.
The boys were often obnoxious or demeaning to the girls their age, but he wanted to be their friends.
Basketball was the activity of choice, but for him, it was too ruthless, and he didn’t like playing.
To be fair, the boys were all friendly when alone, but most of them became “scoundrels” in group social settings. They ganged up on those who were different, and bullied them.
My friend took the bullying really hard, but what was even worse than that, was the lack of recognition from his leaders. They didn’t see how he was being victimized, because they thought that type of behavior was a normal use of masculinity – the “boys will be boys” complex.
He didn’t feel like he could talk to his leaders about his fears, because crying, expressing frustration or sadness, was seen as a form of emotional weakness. Boys were supposed to be strong and manly. Anyone who couldn’t be strong was a “sissy.” He knew he would be told to “man up” if he came forward, instead of being met with the compassion he needed.
Most of the male leaders focused on sports and being tough, and because that wasn’t his forte, it was really hard to bond with anyone. He did enjoy being a Boy Scout, but he was stressed about how anything he would say or do would be judged.
It was a really isolating experience to feel that he didn’t have anyone to talk to. He really felt that something was wrong with him because he didn’t fit in with others’ expectations. He thought he was flawed and limited because he just wasn’t like the other boys, and could feel himself being judged with the unspoken, but clear, masculine standard.
Women and girls were easier to bond with because they didn’t normally recognize the masculine ideology. Older men were also very kind and sweet to him. They had lived long enough to become wiser, and see more clearly.
But even with the kindness of these groups of people, he still wished things could have been different with the men and boys in his life. Perhaps his teenage years and early adult years would have been happier.
When I spoke to this young man about his experiences, I became worried. I have three boys of my own, and I have already witnessed some of the stereotypes given to boys. I have also heard many accounts of bullying from my oldest, all of which break my heart. How can I prevent this? How can I spread the word that this isn’t right?
It is clear what the problems were in my friend’s life, which problems still often exist today:
- Ranking masculine above the feminine. It is misogynistic to say that boys are “sissies” for showing any type of “femininity.”
- Stereotyping what a boy and girl should be. Saying boys should be tough and hold back emotion is incredibly damaging.
- Invalidating the feelings of a boy who is hurt or upset, saying he needs to “be a man.”
- Using pejorative terms for boys who don’t follow the gender stereotype. “Sissy” is a bad word. The correlating terms for girls, “tomboy,” normally is not, though both bring pressure to conform. Why use these terms at all?
- Giving implicit approval to mean-spirited behaviors because “boys will be boys.”
- Dismissing qualities that don’t fit the mold of what boys should be interested and excel in.
- Not paying attention to or trying to understand boys who are different, who are struggling, and who are crying out for help.
- Correcting or punishing a kid for being “different.”
Implementing these unfair gender standards, lead the victims to feel that they have to conform or not belong, or bully to not be bullied.
My friend gave me some very thoughtful and profound suggestions of what adult male teachers, leaders, and even parents, can do to be an advocate for all boys, not just those that fit the “norm”:
- Celebrate and acknowledge each boy’s talents and gifts. Give him a chance to demonstrate his qualities and talents. When my friend was growing up, he felt that only two men in his life were proud of him. It should have been much more than two. Everyone deserves to feel that those who love them and hold stewardship over them are proud of them.
- Do a variety of activities. Sports are good sometimes, but what about talent shows, science experiments, or music lessons? Not every boy likes or is good at sports, believe it or not!
- Get to know each kid personally. Be curious about what makes him tick, so you can know how to best minister to him. Desire to love and understand him.
- Be careful of the words and behaviors that you use. If you want boys to be respectful and kind, you must also be that way. Bullies beget bullies.
- Should you be tempted to call a boy a “sissy,” stop yourself from being judgmental by trying to see his perspective. Give him the benefit of the doubt, and strive to make sense of his actions. Answer to his experience, rather than to your perception. After all, you can’t say that you love him if you don’t stretch your mind to seek where he is coming from.
Perhaps the most important change should be the way men and boys define what it is to be a “man.” Where should we look to find the qualities of a man to be admired – a man to be emulated?
My friend surprised me, and humbled me, when he looked to Jesus Christ as an example of a real man.
He said that Jesus never avoided those who were different, or who didn’t live the way he felt they should. No, he spent time with everyone – the prostitutes, the lepers, the poor – everyone. He was compassionate and merciful. He showed that there is no need to fear someone who is different.
The Jews were looking for a powerful man to deliver them, to save them from Roman power, and bring them national prosperity. But, Jesus, who was the true Messiah, came as a lamb, not a lion.
Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world (St. John 1:29).
It would be unfair to say that every man who is guilty of these words and behaviors is far away from Christ. Most men likely have good intentions, but they, as do everyone else, have blind spots. Sometimes people don’t see how their behavior works against their goals of being affirming, kind, and even Christ-like.
Should you know any men who fit the character of these teachers and leaders my friend had growing up, please share this message with them. Help them see that though they may have good intentions, they could be psychologically damaging a boy who just needs their acceptance and love.
Thankfully, this boy, now man, still plays the piano, and has since become confident that he is special, smart, and that his talents are indeed worthy of admiration. I thank him for sharing his experiences with me, to help other boys like him.