Raising boys: From good boys to better men

"The challenge for boys is to claim their differentiating masculinity in a hostile world."
"The challenge for boys is to claim their differentiating masculinity in a hostile world."

We live in a country with one of the highest rates of women and sexual abuse in the world. Our absentee father statistics are staggering.

The latest research shows that two thirds of South Africa’s children are being raised by single mothers.

It is time for change.

We no longer want to live in a society where men are so conspicuously absent from family life. We no longer want to feel unsafe in our own country, where the threat from sexual and other violence, perpetuated mostly by men, is unacceptably high.

It is in our interests as a society to raise boys who do not grow up to abuse, who are not violent, and who are as comfortable in their masculine skins as they possibly can be. But how on earth do we raise “better” boys? Perhaps by first examining the concept of masculinity.

Let’s first take a short detour through some psychological theory.

The makings of masculinity

“Masculinity is inherently insecure,” asserts Thomas Burkhalter, a Johannesburg based psychologist witha keen interest inmasculinity research.“ Society’s challenge is what we do with that inherent insecurity, with the vulnerabilities that come from boys trying to attain a masculinity that is defined mostly by what it is not.”

“We are all born of and like our mother,” Thomas explains. “Masculinity is something to be attained and earned, and also constant lyre-proved, in the necessary process of separating from the mother (and the femininity she represents), and it happens in rites of passage across cultures and eras,” he adds.

While girls remain “like” their mothers, he argues, the challenge for boys is to claim their differentiating masculinity in a hostile world.

In the developed world, as gender constraints are being removed, men can be especially threatened if they are sometimes outperformed in traditionally masculine pursuits by women. Patriarchy and its place in society is in decline or increasingly resisted as sexism loses currency, and masculinity is often seen as something problematic and “bad”.

The psychological defence of an insecure man is the exact opposite: “I’m not scared, I’m strong.”

When you’re scared, you use whatever you have to your advantage – much of patriarchy, and men’s need for social control and dominance, argues Thomas, can be explained through the lens of a male response to insecurity around women.

As a result, we’ve constructed a world in which to be female means to be subjugated and to be male is to be dominant, or otherwise insecure.

The Representation Project, makers of the upcoming documentary The Mask You Live In, (watch the trailer on YouTube) postulates that many boys don’t know how to be close to one another without feeling their masculinity is at risk, and are at a loss as to how to express emotions, especially difficult ones such as sadness, jealousy, humiliation, regret or disappointment, or indeed any gentle emotions, without resorting to aggression or derision.

As a culture we’ve undervalued qualities we’ve ascribed as “feminine” in our men: caring, empathy, love, gentleness. In the doccie, US gender studies sociologist Dr Michael Kimmel says, “We’ve constructed an idea of masculinity in the United States that doesn’t give young boys a way to feel secure in their masculinity, so we make them go prove it all the time.”

Also read: OPINION: Who is responsible for improving the current crisis of gender-based violence in South Africa?

Raising our boys 

If masculinity is already insecure, as Thomas says it is, we are not doing much as a culture to allow boys to drop the “I’m strong” facade.

While girls get the message that appearance and sexuality are their most important assets (and this is equally problematic), boys are told that their physicality, their aggression or bravery, is what makes them a man. And the most threatened men will use their strength in the most destructive ways.

To work against that, we can help our boys imagine healthy, socially acceptable ways to be brave and assertive and strong, and we can help them to think of loving, present and gentlemen as manly.

Initiatives are springing up throughout South Africa to try to change perceptions around masculinity, such as Front Page Father and the Sonke Gender Justice Project’s Men Care projects. Men’s groups attempt to get men to reflect on their masculinity, boys’ groups try to find positive male role models for high school boys. Strength to their elbow, and may their reach be wide. However, we can each try to effect change in our own family contexts.

Also read: OPINION: We aren’t doing enough to protect our boys from sexual assault

In the family

Thomas says mothers are powerful beings who are able both to give and to frustrate.

If the process of separating from the mother is problematic, boys might grow up to be misogynistic, or rigidly self-reliant and angry. If a mother struggles to let her son go,a result in an adult could be a manipulative man who expects his whims to be indulged. But if the separation occurs less traumatically, the result is a less insecure man.

Similarly, if a loving father is available then the separation from the mother can be less dramatic and painful because a boy has a role model to emulate.

But if the mother is disdainful about or angry with the father, a boy may internalise this feeling, with the result of internal conflict –“If I am like my father, then I am in trouble. So I can choose to be angry with my mother and idealise my absent or non-ideal father, or I can hate myself.”

So conscious parents of boys are in a good position to start effecting the social change we want. According to the Sonke Gender Justice Network’s Men Care project, 80% of the boys in the world will one day become fathers. A boy’s potential to become a positive role model, to rise above the rather depressing hopes that society sometimes seems to have for young men, is immense.

A child’s direct relationship to the father is important,” agrees Thomas.

“Instead of being strangers or distant others who occasionally enter a child’s world, fathers must be in the picture. They can be nurturing beings from the start, safe adults who can say: ‘I am not always the boss. I can sometimes cry. But I am still strong.’”

So his advice to fathers of boys is: “ Be conscious of what kind of masculinity you are showing to your son. Is that what you want him to emulate?”

“We are raised in a culture of violence,” says Kevin Rutter, who founded Front Page Father. “We were taught never to show emotion, that’s it’s not a manly thing. But I started hugging my son and it has helped solidify your relationship.”

But equally important, adds Thomas, is a boy’s mediated relationship with his father: the representation of the father that a child receives from his mother. If the parental relationship is troubled, a mother can let her criticism of the father “undermine to the boy the man he will become”.

Thomas suggests there is no simple answer for, for instance, instructing a boy how to behave with bullies on the playground, or whether it is ever right to hit his sister. Judgements such as these are to some extent dependent on the social context in which you live, on the norms of your family and community.

“I am hesitant, in my practice,to give parents practical parenting advice. Should I tell a parent to tell her son not to hit back at bullies in a gangland community, when the advice might be inappropriate to the situation?” asks Thomas.

“However, instead of assuming we have all the answers, parents can simply be brave enough to interrogate themselves. We tend to hand over to ‘experts’ but we sometimes neglect to value our own parenting experience.”

Violence in childhood is, however, still a good predictor of violence as an adult.

You can try to redirect your son’s violent impulses by suggesting nonviolent alternatives. You might note that rescuing a victim from a bully is brave and manly, or that self-defence can happen with words as well as fists.

Also read: ‘Hey, you can’t talk to girls like that’: Which gender-based violence interventions actually work?

A woman alone

It’s all very well to caution that a boy might internalise the anger his mother feels towards his father, but if the anger is justified and the relationship broken beyond repair, an absent father is always better than an abusive one.

Get out of an unsafe or violent relationship any way you can.

Safe houses for abused women exist and your church, school or social worker can help you find one – or call Lifeline on 0861 322 322. Whether there is a father figure present or not, you can verbalise to your son that not all males need to grow up violent, and you can emphasise that he has choices.

You can both learn a different version of masculinity. You can raise a good man alone.

Trust your instincts, because you may already know more than you think. “Everyone has an idea of masculinity in their minds. A mother can relate to her boys as male, and also interrogate her own idea of what it means to be a male,” suggests Thomas.

Yes, many women raise sons without positive male role models, and these role models are “helpful but not necessary,” according to Thomas. Mothers have other abilities. One strategy for raising self assured boys is to encourage an extended intimacy between mother and son.

“William Pollack argues in his book Real Boys that boys leave their mothers too early, and that they need to be little for longer, because they will be striving, forever after, to be big. He says it is good to give them those depths of security.

And Steve Biddulph in his best seller Raising Boys also argues for keeping boys with their mothers for longer in order to minimise the trauma of the eventual separation,” says Thomas.

“The parent-centred life is central to Western culture– we don’t want to be too compromised by our children. But we should resist separating too early.”

The take-home message for mothers and fathers of sons: give them time and attention. Hug them, talk to them, and don’t be scared to love them –for a long time.

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