It was Nobel Laureate and eminent novelist, Doris Lessing who pointed out that boys were the new silent victims in the gender war where they are being “continually demeaned and insulted” and subject to “automatic rubbishing”. I couldn’t agree with her more.
It takes a village to raise a child and it takes an equally strong village to stand by him when he stumbles so that he learns to stand tall and question the patriarchy rather than becoming another victim to it.
What are little boys made of | Snips & snails & puppy dogs tails. | What are little girls made of | Sugar & spice & all things nice.
You might have heard this nursery rhyme and chuckled at its accuracy. We just have to peep into a typical classroom to confirm it. Where the girls would be sitting “so together”, reading, writing or charming the teacher with their pert little answers, and the boys seen daydreaming, spaced out, antsy, rowdy, distracted, kicking each other under the desks or generally playing the clown. Let loose from their classes they go hurtling down the stairs, pushing, shouting, abusing, shoving their way to the fields. It is so easy to judge them and shrug them off as “badly behaved boys”, but do we really understand the nuances of the “boy code”?
Recently, I met a young man I will call Kabir who recalled how as a little kid, he was bullied by everybody for being a “sissy,” “wimp”. As he shared, “I could not talk to anybody about how scared I was. My parents wanted me to be tough and fight back like other boys and my teachers didn’t really care. I was bullied through junior and middle school and it was only when I was in senior school that I decided — enough is enough, payback time!” The funny thing was (equally tragic though) that bullying completely stopped and people around started looking at him with a “different respect”. “I don’t even remember when I turned into this monster,” Kabir said as he shakily sank his face in his hands. He had been referred to me as he had broken another boy’s nose in a fight at school.
Listening to Kabir, I was reminded of my own son and many other boys I have known, sensitive souls who have struggled to find a space of their own or even get their soft voices heard. It is a confusing time for our boys as on one hand they are being urged not to be rough and be more caring, compassionate and then on the other there is this constant message to “man up”. A kind of a double bind with the mixed messaging of “be more like girls” and then with equal veracity we denounce them for any femininity they might show. As Michael Kaufman, Canadian activist and scholar remarked, “strange combination of power and powerlessness, privilege and pain.” Our boys are stuck in a maze of cultural clichés of narrow masculinity and we have no idea how to get them out of it. It was Nobel Laureate and eminent novelist, Doris Lessing who pointed out that boys were the new silent victims in the gender war where they are being “continually demeaned and insulted” and subject to “automatic rubbishing”. I couldn’t agree with her more.
So how do they deal with this confusion? I will borrow George Orwell’s words here, “He wears a mask and grows into it.” And how they grow into their mask of bravado, aggression, bluster leaving a trail of underachievement, addictions and fractured relationships!
At the risk of sounding provocative, let me talk about the ham-handed way the recent #MeToo movement was carried out in schools and colleges. Young men were expelled, excommunicated, shamed, exiled without any sense of justice at all. Lines were drawn in the sand, black and white sides were taken and majority of the time young men were ostracised without any attempt for restorative justice. Had they wronged? Of course! Did we need a certain amount of accountability and reparation from them? Without any doubt. Was there any justice in the way they were thrown out of the community without any idea what they needed to do to restore their place? Not a grain of it. Where is our responsibility as far these young men are concerned? Does it stop after we call them out and banish them or do we have a collective duty to address it? Would we do the same to a young man in our family if he faced these charges? It takes a village to raise a child and it takes an equally strong village to stand by him when he stumbles so that he learns to stand tall and question the patriarchy rather than becoming another victim to it.
The reason I feel strongly about it as I have met many of these young men (ranging from 13 to 21 years) in the past one year and attempted to sit with them to look beyond the mask to see gentle beings who at the want of other words were just confused, lost and hurting themselves and had taken lashing out as a way of imposing their maleness and machismo. Anybody who has read We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver would have had sleepless nights on the eternal question of “nature or nurture”? But I can say this with complete conviction, not a single kid out there – a gun wielding, throat slitting kid out there is born evil or twisted. So doesn’t that make us responsible for who they become?
It takes immense compassion to see the human behind the heavy mask of manhood. And if we did, all that we would find is boys, little boys still craving for connection and understanding. We are failing our boys and the only way we can redeem ourselves is if we stand up to every gender stereotype and commit to bring about a change.
Acceptance of the wiring
It is really interesting to note that most boys are surrounded by women from the time they are little; mother, aunts, grandmothers, domestic staff, teachers. And let’s admit it, most boys (with exceptions) can be very different from us women folk with their obsessions with cars, dinosaurs, dragons, football, aeroplanes and what not. We know through research and experience that the boys’ brains are late bloomers as they take a little longer time to mature. They might be more scattered, little disorganised, verbally not so adept and socially awkward. So rather than being critical, accept your boy’s wiring and provide him scaffolding as he learns to find his feet. Explore healthy and safe ways to seek excitement in terms of adventure sports, regular physical activity and forays into nature. Having said that, provide him equal opportunity to explore his feminine side too – nurture his creativity, let him sing, dance, paint, wear what he wants to without gender policing. Obviously, the same goes for your girl too.
Give him emotionally safe space to build deep connections where he can be vulnerable, talk about his feelings, cry, share his worries, cuddle up and just ‘be’ without being judged. Recognise and marvel at his sensitivity, little acts of kindness, on how gentle he can be with little kids or the puppy. Boys need balance of both female and male role models to show them how it is okay to express emotions, assert, manage bullies, do household chores, how to relate to and respect girls, understand sexual consent, gender inequality in power and be a feminist.
Boys also need a healthy dose of this to understand what is okay and what is not okay. However, these boundaries need to be defined with a lot of empathy and not anger and hostility for it to be effective. Boys learn from adults who they feel ‘get them’ rather than the ones who just lecture them for not being good enough. There will be times when he might push back demanding his space and you might step back in confusion as you feel like giving up especially if your values are in direct contrast to his behaviour. However, do not give up, hang in there at the cost of being stubbornly intrusive. Let him know that you are there by his side even if you do not agree with what he is doing.
We all need to stand up for our boys and that does not mean that we are rescuing them or as often is misinterpreted “mollycoddling” them. More than anything, have faith in him and know that he will find his place under the sun. And he will remember you for believing in him when nobody else did.
(Shelja Sen is co-founder of Children First, a child & adolescent mental health institute, and author of Imagine: No Child Left Invisible; All You Need is Love: The Art of Mindful Parenting; Reclaim Your Life: Going Beyond Silence, Shame and Stigma in Mental Health. Email: [email protected])
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