Boys Will Be ... The Boys We Raise

There’s poetry written in the heart of a boy. Sometimes with enough coaxing and patience, it bubbles up reluctantly in halting lines and clipped stanzas; sometimes it springs forth in sudden floods of joy or sorrow. More often, the words huddle deep amid the testosterone-fueled confusion of adolescence, yearning to be heard, yet suppressed in stoic silence. In solitude. The hearts of many men are not so different. Perhaps we—educators and parents of boys—can do better at interpreting the verses and building the rhymes. 

At the Jesuit high school for boys where I’ve been teaching for many years, we try to promote healthy masculinity—to embrace that poetry, even as it is being written, sometimes very messily. Along with intellectual, physical, spiritual, artistic, and social development, we also try to foster mature emotional fluency by the time our young men graduate. We have retreats, seminars, and formative curricula that challenge our boys to communicate deeply and meaningfully while exploring relationships and feelings. Regarding this, I’ve heard more than once: “It’s good you get them in touch with their feminine side.”  

I know it’s meant as a compliment. Except that emotional intimacy is not, of course, exclusively feminine territory. And our culture, intentionally or not, often teaches boys that it is. Same, too often, with artistic pursuits—things like music, writing, painting, poetry, sculpture, and dance. Likewise, when our culture implies to girls that certain qualities, such as athleticism, competitiveness, or business savvy, are more naturally masculine terrain, we do a similar disservice. It’s reductionist and it’s limiting.

Don’t get me wrong. As one of five brothers, a husband, a father of two boys and a daughter, and a teacher and coach of adolescent boys for 20 years now, I have no doubt that boys and girls have differences. Certainly, more boys than girls gravitate to some interests, and vice versa. But I’m not talking about what activities we encourage. Rather, I’m concerned that our culture has assigned, or at least has acquiesced to, acceptable ranges of emotional fluency based on gender. Specifically, it seems we’ve set a problematic upper limit of what constitutes appropriate sensitivity for boys and men—and we are seeing the results in headlines. 

Aiming for Emotional Fluency 

It’s conventional wisdom among educators to look out for “the sensitive boy.” Of course, this only reveals to what extent we’ve become inclined to consider sensitivity essentially atypical. The thing is, at least in my experience, all boys are sensitive. Some are just better at understanding and responding to their emotions. Or hiding them, which is too often the enculturated default for boys—and therefore a self-perpetuating problem among men. The result? Emotional fluency, along with the meaningful communication it enables, too often becomes framed as the opposite of manliness. And so, much of the poetry gets hidden away, behind a wall of toughness. But toughness and sensitivity don’t have to be “either/or” prospects. They can, and should be, “both/and” qualities.

It’s important to address, at this point, a valid concern. Some will assert—with defensible evidence—that I’ve got it backward. They’ll say this generation lacks resilience and toughness, that today’s teenage boys are not lacking sensitivity at all—that on the contrary, they are, in fact, hypersensitive and thus ill-equipped to deal with obstacles, setbacks, and criticism with healthy resolve. To this point I say: Actual grit and resilience compose authentic toughness—the kind we really want. And that’s a very different quality indeed than a macho façade covering insecurity and self-doubt. In this sense, then, emotional fluency and empathy are key ingredients to the kind of toughness young people do, in fact, need. 

Confusion on this matter—what constitutes true toughness—hinders the ability to express deep feelings. Take shedding tears, for example. I have seen many boys cry in my line of work. When they do, whatever they are struggling with is compounded by anxiety over the fact that they’re crying. Because in the confusing messages our culture sends about masculinity, tears and toughness aren’t compatible—except in some very limited contexts. Yes, men and boys express love, pain, and other feelings often without words. But we must do a better job equipping boys with an emotional vocabulary and encouraging its use. This would enable them to listen better—to themselves and to each other, as well as to girls and women. And some cathartic tears from time to time wouldn’t hurt at all.

Teaching Boys to Navigate the Digital Landscape

“Toxic masculinity,” which has been the focus of no small number of recent national conversations, is a fair label for what’s at the root of some terrible attitudes and behavior among boys and men. But let’s be clear that masculinity is not intrinsically toxic. That assertion is toxic in itself. To that end, and particularly in light of recent headlines, we should be ever more direct with adolescent boys about the essential relationship among sex, respect, and love. We should make clear that their natural sex drive is just that—natural—but that misunderstood, undisciplined, or disrespected, it can so quickly lead to harmful attitudes and behaviors. 

Sex education is no longer just about the birds and the bees. An additional burden now lies with parents and educators: We must acknowledge and address the ubiquity of online pornography. Even if they aren’t looking for it, it will find them sooner or later. Unfortunately, the trend lately is sooner; by middle school, a kid has almost certainly come across something not meant for young eyes. As parents and educators, our choice is stark: We can either talk to our kids about sexual matters, grounding the conversation in values and mature perspectives, or we can avoid it and hope—naively—that the sketchier realm of the internet won’t provide its own answers to their natural curiosity.

We can’t shy away from helping all kids navigate the digital realm responsibly and respectfully. We need to be savvy digital citizens ourselves. And just as we must make clear that not everything online is real, we must also move past the false dichotomy of online versus “real” life—in other words, concede that online behavior and “real life” are not entirely distinct. What is done and said online is part of real life, with real consequences.    

The Power of Authentic Masculinity

If we want balanced, authentic, respectful men, let’s dispel ingrained and enculturated notions that emotional intimacy and artistic expression aren’t masculine ideals—that “tough” and “sensitive” are mutually exclusive. Even as we continue to embrace boys’ needs for roughhousing and physicality and traditional male rites of passage, let’s also get them reading, thinking, and talking more. Masculinity is not simplistic. It’s complex enough to include a range of interests, priorities, ideas, values, and sexualities. Let’s normalize emotionally authentic conversations in forums where boys can be honest and open, mentored and encouraged by men and women who joyfully and lovingly appreciate masculinity’s nuanced complexity. Yes, boys might broach emotional intimacy with their peers in limited contexts—the halftime huddle, the religious retreat, camping with the guys. But we need them to see that authentic emotional intimacy can and should transcend these moments. That it’s key to respectful relationships in everyday life.  
Deepening our understanding of masculinity is not about acquiescing to patronizing political correctness. It’s not emasculating. On the contrary, it’s an invitation to virtue. It is existentially vital for boys and men, and we—men and women alike—must take on the responsibility to be proactive in this aspect of education and formation. We can and should read the poetry of boyhood more carefully. Boys will become the boys we raise, and, of course, they will become the men we raised. Ultimately, with a more authentic understanding of masculinity will come a deeper appreciation for our common humanity. 
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Paul Cumbo

Paul J. Cumbo is an English teacher at Canisius High School in Buffalo, New York, where he chairs the Digital Citizenship Committee. He served as founding director of the school’s “Companions/Compañeros” immersive service-learning program.