Behind the Silence

UPDATED 09/21/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/21/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

Perhaps we still live in a man's world, but judging by some particularly disturbing numbers we apparently don't live in a boy's. According to William Pollack, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (Random House), adolescent boys are committing suicide at four times the rate of girls, are failing in school and dropping out at much higher rates and are increasingly less likely to go on to college. The reason, he believes, is that boys are struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation brought on by the burden of having to hide their feelings and tough out their emotional problems. In extreme cases, their suppressed anger may lead to the kind of school shootings that America saw last winter and spring. "Boys' pain, given the way we bring them up, is often invisible to us," says Pollack. "Sometimes, until it explodes, it is invisible to them as well." An assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Pollack, who lives near Boston with his wife, Marsha Padwa, and their daughter Sarah, 11, spoke about the problem with contributor Tom Duffy.

Are American boys in crisis?

Actually, there are two crises. There is the one we read about in the media: boys with AK-47s killing schoolmates. But there is another, less obvious, crisis: boys who feel alone and isolated and can't express their feelings—the majority.

The effects of this crisis show up in some surprising statistics: Sixty-seven percent of all special education students are boys. In science and math, girls have nearly caught up with boys, while boys' reading and writing scores are 7 to 13 points behind girls', and falling. Last year the U.S. Secretary of Education said children who have low reading and writing scores often lapse into depression and fall victim to drugs.

Are the kids who shoot their schoolmates just aberrations, or part of a wider pattern?

They are the tip of the iceberg, the extreme end of one large crisis. It's the part people see because it is so frightening. A year ago in South Boston six young people killed themselves over a short time. All the media covered it. They talked about the role of the family, fathers, the community, the media, the ease with which firearms could be gotten. All that was true. But nobody emphasized the fact these were all boys, and that the way they were raised in our society made it much more likely that they would kill themselves.

How are boys brought up?

According to the Boy Code, a set of 19th-century ideals about masculinity proclaiming that boys should be stoic and dominant and stand alone, and that they should steer clear of sissy stuff—behavior that shows their vulnerability and is therefore seen as "girl-like."

What are the most harmful myths about boys?

The first is: "Boys will be boys"—the idea that where there are boys, there is testosterone, and that where there's testosterone there is aggression and violence. Myth No. 1 is not true because, although testosterone makes boys different from girls, most behaviors we see in boys are determined more by nurture than nature.

The second myth is: "Boys should be boys"—that there are only one or two ways to be a real man or real boy, the sort of John Wayne-Arnold Schwarzenegger-Fortune 500 CEO way. In fact, masculinity is just as diverse as femininity. You can be just as real a boy if you put on ballet shoes or play piano as you can if you put on cleats and play football.

The third myth, and the most hurtful, is that boys are toxic: naturally unsocialized, aggressive creatures, and that we have to civilize them. It's a stereotype and not true.

Aren't boys and girls different?

Yes—because of their biology and because of the way we bring them up. Girls are raised to be more connected and sensitive to other people's feelings. Girls can talk about their pain; in fact, they are encouraged to. Boys are trained to hide their pain. Research shows that at birth boys are actually more empathic, responsive and interactive with their mothers than girls. And yet by the time a boy is in third or fourth grade he isn't talking about his feelings; some parents can't even see his feelings in his face. So the Boy Code is not natural; it's something created by society.

What do boys do with their pain?

One boy I interviewed for the book, whom I'll call Cam, had just lost his girlfriend. I asked how he felt about it and he said, "I don't do anything about it." I said, "That must feel terribly lonely." And Cam said, "Yes, it does, but I can't really talk about it. That's what a guy has got to do." What's going on there is that he has learned the Boy Code. He has been taught to wear the mask of masculinity. You keep the sadness to yourself.

The only emotion left open to boys other than being happy—since sadness and vulnerability are not allowed to be expressed—is irritability and anger. So you can see how, if his sadness is great enough, a boy will become isolated and depressed, or, in extreme cases, dangerous and homicidal.

What about society's response when boys act out violently?

We respond aggressively: "Maybe we need to crack down on them before they do it again." The problem is it won't work. You want to find out why a boy might have been sad or disturbed. That doesn't excuse him. If someone has killed, at the very least we want to protect society from him. But we should want to know what went on. I suggest that the bravado of anger is the other side of the coin of sadness and vulnerability.

In your book you say that schools are a big part of the problem.

Coeducational schools are the most boy-unfriendly places on earth. Teachers love boys as much as girls. But the way elementary schools, in particular, are set up is hurtful to boys' capacity to learn and massively diminishes their self-esteem.

Most schools do not recognize that boys and girls learn at different tempos and with different styles. Children are still expected to sit quietly for long periods and learn visually. But boys do better if they can move around and handle things. In many schools that's considered bad behavior or a conduct disorder; so instead of learning, boys are often in the principal's office.

Is it possible to take the nurturing of boys too far?

You can't love a boy too much, and you can't give him too much self-esteem. Sometimes people will criticize me by saying, "Oh, you want to make boys into girls. You want to take away all those wonderful attributes that boys have, like being heroic and assertive and competitive." And I say, "No, I don't want to take those qualities away. I want to add to them being caring, compassionate and understanding." Then they would be the kind of boys girls could relate to, the kind of men women have been asking for.

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