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For Adolescent Boys, Maintaining Masculinity Can Stymie Genuine Connections

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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.


One of the main themes in boys’ gender socialization is that they must prove their masculinity and thereby their worth. Moreover, they must do so continually because anyone, at any time, can call their masculinity into question. In societies like ours that define masculinity in contrast to femininity, proving masculinity involves not only aligning with norms of masculine behavior but also eschewing anything deemed feminine. For instance, boys learn through their gender socialization to project a “masculine” image of physical toughness, emotional stoicism, and self-sufficiency and, perhaps more importantly, not to reveal their “feminine” vulnerability, sensitivity, and reliance on others for companionship and support. In essence, boys are taught that, to show that they are “big boys” (and not girls or babies), they must relinquish their “feminine” and “infantile” qualities—including their capacity and desire for emotionally close relationships.

Whereas the content of boys’ gender socialization informs their understanding of how they can gain social acceptance, the contexts in which boys encounter gender-specific expectations influence the extent to which they feel pressure to conform and the ways they choose to present themselves in their social interactions. Even if individual boys are supported elsewhere to express themselves openly and honestly, they may find it difficult (and unwise) to do so within, for instance, contexts that they perceive to be hierarchical, competitive, and antagonistic. Seth, a ninth grader attending a public high school, explains how the risk of being betrayed and targeted for harassment can make it unsafe to reveal personal feelings:

If they know the way you feel and stuff, it’s sort of like they have an edge on you or something. They can, like, throw you down anytime they want—like, make fun of you if they want to or whatever.

Under such circumstances, boys who dare to reveal their relational capabilities and vulnerability risk not only their ability to be “one of the guys” but also their sense of security and control. Keen to avoid these risks (physical risks are another matter for concern), boys may put up a front, so to speak, and feign indifference by claiming, “I don’t care,” especially when they actually do. It is therefore likely, or at least possible, that boys’ alleged emotional and relational shortcomings do not reflect their nature but rather their accommodation to cultures of boyhood that—through gender-policing and shaming—lead them to cover up their relational capabilities and vulnerability for the sake of proving masculinity and protecting vulnerability.

Boys' (Adaptive But Costly) Masculine Posturing

Within potentially hostile contexts, the decision to adopt a defensive stance and conform to group and cultural norms of masculinity (e.g., to avoid standing out and drawing unwanted attention) could be considered socially adaptive. Nevertheless, there is a sense of loss when—as a result of their masculine posturing and other self-protective strategies—it becomes harder for boys to engage with others and vice versa. Although Andy explains that “[boys] want [people] to think that when we’re acting masculine, that’s just our normal way,” he finds that maintaining this public persona is not effortless and can interfere with his ability to be himself and feel at ease in his relationships.

I really want to keep friends no matter what, but I don’t feel right when.....I have to act crazy around them just to keep that......I don’t think many people know me, like the way that I usually am. Most of them just see me joking around most of the time.

Other boys similarly struggle to develop the close relationships they seek when, in trying to be what they think other people expect of them, their pretense overshadows their presence. Maharth, an eleventh grader attending a private all-boys school, offers a case in point:

Tom, you know, he’s my best friend......... Kids will come up to me and be like, “How can you hang out with Tom all the time?.......... That kid is so annoying. All he does is make wisecracks all day.”........ In school, [Tom] feels that he needs to fit in and this is what people recognize him for, like the jokes.          And he thinks that’s what people appreciate. But the truth is . . . he’s not [like that] in real life....... If [kids] ever realized, like, who he really [is]....... I’m sure they’d like [him].

Through their gender socialization, boys are led to feel that it is not enough for them just to be themselves, so they must become something more or something else in order to be valued. Although their desire to maintain friendships and to have a place among their peers motivates their masculine posturing (e.g., acting crazy, joking around, making wisecracks), this approach often prevents other people from seeing and knowing who they really are.

Boys continue throughout their lives to seek connections and resist disconnections, but their alignment with conventions of masculinity can lead them to suppress the very qualities and skills that enable them to relate to others in meaningful ways. For instance, whereas boys in their early childhood demonstrate the ability to be articulate, direct, authentic, and attentive in their relationships, they begin to appear inarticulate, indirect, inauthentic, and inattentive as they become adept at projecting an image of masculinity that is familiar (because it is consistent with gender stereotypes) but misrepresents them. Moreover, when boys wear the mask of masculinity, don a tough guise, or assume a cool pose, they not only hide their relational capabilities and vulnerability from view, but also display attitudes and behaviors that tend to keep others at a distance. Ironically, boys’ conformity to masculine norms that are supposed to ensure social acceptance and a sense of belonging may inadvertently sabotage their chances of developing the emotionally close relationships they need and want, leaving them feeling isolated and lonely instead.

In addition to having implications for their relationships, boys’ alignment with conventions of masculinity has also been linked to psychological and social indicators of decreased well-being. For instance, adolescent boys who believe it is important for boys and men to adhere to traditional norms of masculinity tend to report lower self-esteem and a sense of insecurity. These boys are also more likely to use alcohol and drugs, engage in delinquent activity, be suspended from school, and engage in risky sexual behaviors. In the extreme, boys’ internalization of masculine norms—particularly the denial of sadness and pain, the unchecked sense of entitlement, and the need to project bravado—can contribute to violent behaviors with devastating consequences.

Boys’ alignment with conventions of masculinity can also influence their engagement at school and educational outcomes. For instance, boys who conform to masculine norms tend to be less engaged at school, less likely to enjoy school, and more likely to avoid school. They also tend to score lower on their math exams. Raj, an eighth grader attending a public middle school, explains how masculine aloofness, or being “cool,” can conflict with making an effort in school:

A lot of people who are cool do not do as well in school as they should. . . . I don’t think it’s uncool [to do well in school], but it’s uncool to try hard. I mean, like, you can be smart, but to do extra . . . and to worry about school, to worry about getting good grades, to worry, to study for the test [is not cool].

A boy who is disengaged might act as though he neither needs nor cares about anything having to do with school, except maybe sports. Additionally, societal expectations for boys to appear coolly disengaged can prevent those who are struggling from admitting it, particularly if they have been socialized to view such vulnerability as emasculating and to associate seeking help with weakness and shame. Thus, a boy’s disengagement at school may not necessarily reflect an inability to learn or a lack of interest in learning, but a socially imposed need for boys to abide by rules of masculinity that are not conducive to school achievement.

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. 

Judy Y. Chu, Ed.D. is a Lecturer in the Program in Human Biology at Stanford University, where she teaches a course on Boys’ Psychosocial Development. 



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