Excerpted with permission from Judy Y. Chu, The Truth about Boys. In Michael Sadowski (Ed.), Adolescents at School: Perspectives on Youth, Identity, and Education, 3rd edition, pp. 107-112, October 2020, published by Harvard Education Press.
Boys' Relational Capabilities and Vulnerability
The truth about boys is that, like all human beings, they have relational capabilities and they are vulnerable. Boys’ relational capabilities include their capacity for thoughtful self-reflection, empathy, and compassion, which researchers have observed in boys as young as four years old and throughout adolescence. When we consider that boys, too, are emotional and relational as well as social beings, we gain insight into their vulnerability. For instance, we see that, because boys also crave personal relationships characterized by trust, understanding, and care, they are emotionally vulnerable to the pain of being ridiculed and rejected, just as they are physically vulnerable to the pain of bodily harm. On some level, we knew this already. Most of us have met boys who are self-aware, considerate of others, and responsive in their relationships. However, we are likely to view these “sensitive” boys to be exceptions rather than representative of boys as a group. As a society, we still tend to overlook boys’ relational capabilities and underestimate their vulnerability.
One reason why we may not notice boys’ relational capabilities and vulnerability is that we do not expect to see them. We live in a society that associates emotions and relationships with femininity and conceptualizes masculinity and femininity as mutually exclusive opposites. To the extent that these gender stereotypes influence our assumptions about what boys are like and our expectations for how boys should act, we may be apt to acknowledge girls (but not boys) who are observant of emotions, invested in relationships, and attuned to social dynamics. Likewise, gender stereotypes lead us to regard vulnerability as socially permissible for girls but a weakness for boys. In turn, when boys glean that their vulnerability is considered a liability, they learn to hide and deny it. As neuroscientist Lise Eliot observes, “Kids rise or fall according to what we believe about them, and the more we dwell on the differences between boys and girls, the likelier such stereotypes are to crystallize into children’s self-perceptions and self-fulfilling prophecies.”
Another reason why we may not notice boys’ relational capabilities and vulnerability is that they are not always apparent. Although boys may be cognizant of their relational capabilities, they seem inclined to view these qualities and skills as setting them apart from, rather than enabling them to identify with and relate to, other boys. For instance, James, a seventh grader attending a private all-boys school, finds:
Most of the kids, they don’t, like, think about other people and, like, their feelings. They just think about themselves. But I’m different that way. I think about other people, and, uh, their feelings. So it’s kind of hard for me to talk to other people about what I’m feeling ’cause they don’t understand.
Andy, an eighth grader at the same school, similarly perceives his relational capabilities to distinguish him from his peers. As he reflects on his sensitivity to people’s feelings, Andy alternates between doubting himself and worrying that he will appear presumptuous when he shares his insights with others. As Andy explains:
I feel like I can sort of sense when somebody’s upset by what someone [else] said........... I sometimes feel like I am more aware than other people are........... I’ll confront them later about it and say, “Why did you say that? He’s really angry.” And they won’t notice [that the person is upset]. And I’m wondering if I’m wrong............ I’ve seen people with God complexes, and I don’t want to come across like that.
Boys are also cognizant of their vulnerability to being judged by others. As Max, a twelfth grader attending a private all-boys school, describes what he feels comfortable sharing about himself, he explains, “I don’t want to put my whole personality on the table for someone to understand, just ’cause I don’t want to be vulnerable like that.” Boys’ belief that their relational capabilities are an anomaly, combined with their fear of being misunderstood (and consequently ridiculed and/or rejected), makes them cautious about what they reveal. So, despite their desire for relationships in which they can feel truly known and accepted, boys refrain from sharing their personal thoughts and feelings, which may help them to fit in and make a good impression but can also compromise their presence in relationships.
Boys' Gender Socialization
This process by which boys become self-conscious and selective about their self-expression reflects how they are actively reading and responding to their cultural and social contexts. Boys learn early and often that there are rules for how they ought to behave. Even if their parents manage to shield them from gender stereotypes, most children nevertheless encounter them through media and in their interactions with other adults and peers, especially once they enter school. Messages about what it means to be a boy or man and pressures to conform to masculine norms are sometimes conveyed explicitly, as when adults say, “boys don’t cry,” or instruct boys to “man up” or “take it like a man.” Socialization messages and pressures are also conveyed implicitly, as when peers punish boys who deviate from masculine norms by degrading or excluding them. Of course, girls also experience this kind of gender-policing. However, because our society generally values masculinity over femininity, deviating from gender norms can have more dire consequences for boys—in the sense that being called a “sissy” or “mama’s boy” usually is intended as an insult, whereas being called a “tomboy” can nowadays be intended as a compliment—at least until adolescence, when the sexualization of girls presents a new set of social expectations and risks.