Behind the 'Mask of Masculinity'

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Carol Gilligan's work opened eyes to the difficulties of adolescent girls. But in many ways the statistics on boys may tell an even sadder story.

Carol Gilligan's work opened eyes around the world to the difficulties girls face in adolescence. But in many ways the statistics on boys may tell an even sadder story.

Boys and young men are much more likely than girls to kill themselves, to become the victims of a violent crime, and to be diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, experts say.

"I think we are seeing a national crisis in the lives of boys," says William Pollack, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor and psychiatrist who has studied boys for more than a decade.

Pollack is in the vanguard of researchers, writers, clinicians, and educators who, like Gilligan, have begun to focus on boys' development in recent years.

"The field I think is just now opening up, and people are beginning to say, 'Hey, wait a minute. We really don't know what is going on with boys, but we've been making a lot of assumptions about them,'" adds Diane J. Hulse, a researcher and the head of the middle school at the Collegiate School, a private K-12 school for boys in New York City.

One false assumption, Pollack says, is that boys must be somehow civilized out of a biological predisposition to aggression and stunted emotional growth. "The myth about boys is that boys are inherently aggressive, that it's based on testosterone, and that they are consequently toxic and that we have to learn to detoxify them," says Pollack, whose book on boys, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, is scheduled to be published by Random House next month.

He says his studies show that boys can be just as empathetic, just as caring, and just as keen to maintain emotional connections with friends and families as girls are. But, like adolescent girls, they get the message from society early in life that they need to bury their true feelings to step into the gender roles that have been cut out for them.

"Although girls' voices have been disempowered, boys' voices are strident and full of bravado," Pollack says. "But their voices are disconnected from their genuine feelings. The way we bring up boys leads them to what I call this 'mask of masculinity.'"

And, as Gilligan suspects, he says the disconnection could come as early as preschool and kindergarten, when boys are prematurely pushed to "stand on their own two feet" and to separate from their mothers.

Already at that age, boys and girls seem to have markedly different play patterns. "The boys stay together in large groups, and they do a lot of very active play," says Maria Barbarino, a Watertown, Mass., private school teacher who has worked with kindergarten and preschool students for more than 20 years. "This entails sometimes a lot of bank robbers, and gangs, explosions."

The girls, on the other hand, are more likely to spend their free time drawing and talking, or creating "happy little situations" in the housekeeping area, Barbarino says.

Later on in school, boys tend to be medicated for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder at higher rates than girls, to lag behind girls in reading and writing, and to act up more in the classroom.

"You can't be a school principal without noticing the parade of boys that get sent to the principal's office," says Barney Brawer, a former principal and now a Harvard University graduate student. He collaborated with Gilligan on the Harvard Project on Women's Psychology, Boys' Development, and the Culture of Manhood, a forum for discussion that ended last year.

Part of the problem, several researchers say, is the poor fit between most schools and most boys.

"Schools for the most part are run by women for girls. To take a high-spirited 2nd or 3rd grade boy and expect him to behave like a girl in school is asking too much," says Christina Hoff Sommers, a researcher at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., whose book on boys is due out next year. Her thesis, however, is that much of the new research on little boys may be "pathologizing boyhood" or trying to create problems where none exist.

Hulse, of the Collegiate School, has compared economically matched, middle school boys in two Manhattan private schools. One school was coeducational and the other was an all-boys school.

She concluded that the boys from the single-sex school were less defensive and less susceptible to peer pressures than the boys in coeducational schools. They were also more egalitarian in their views on women's and men's roles, and more comfortable in their relationships with girls. The boys' school group also felt they had more control over their academic performance.

But Pollack thinks schools may not need to separate boys from girls to foster healthier psychological development in boys. He says coed schools might instead integrate some of the curricula of all-boys schools into their programs.

On one point, most of the researchers agree: Boys' problems, whatever their causes, are worsening. Their point was brought home painfully in March when two preteen boys are alleged to have shot and killed a teacher and four classmates at a Jonesboro, Ark., middle school. The tragedy was the third multiple killing at a school in five months, and boys have been charged in all the incidents. ("Arkansas Community Still Reeling After Fatal School Shooting Spree," April 1, 1998.)

Such incidents are extreme, but may be signs of a wider crisis. That crisis, Brawer believes, partly stems from the shifting "plate tectonics of gender" in society--an upheaval being spurred by the women's movement. "We've deconstructed the old version of manhood, but we've not constructed a new version."


Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 37

Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Behind the 'Mask of Masculinity'
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