Since reading Real Boys by William Pollack in graduate school, I have been fascinated to learn about the lives of boys. In my graduate and doctoral program, many of my papers were focused on the expectations we have on boys about manhood and masculinity. Subsequently, I have run countless boy-focused groups and seen numerous male patients in my practice. The fact that I am now a mother of two little boys, my interest in understanding the “boy code” has become a concern.
I was recently able to view the documentary, The Mask You Live In (directed, produced & written by Jennifer Siebel Newsom). The film follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. Experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education, and media weigh in, offering empirical evidence of the “boy crisis” and tactics to combat it.
The film begins with the statements we often hear people saying to boys, such as stop acting like a girl, be a man, stop crying, man-up, etc. How many times have you overheard these terms said to a boy from a parent, a teacher, or even a coach? How many times, as a parent, a teacher, or a coach, have you said these things to a boy? These gender stereotypes are truly hurting our boys.
It is not surprising that the title of the documentary is The Mask You Live In and that one of the chapters of Pollack’s book is Inside the World of Boys: Behind the Mask of Masculinity. Our boys are taught at a very young age to wear a mask. They are taught that it is not okay to cry, to keep their feelings inside, and to appear tough. A very poignant part of the documentary shows a teacher with a group of boys. He tells them to write down what other people see when they see them (the mask) and then to write down what they really feel inside. The dissimilarities in the mask and the true inside feelings were astonishing. Pressured by sports, their peer group, academics, and even the adults in their lives, our boys receive messages encouraging them to disconnect from their emotions and resolve conflicts through violence.
We, as a society, need to raise a healthier generation of boys and young men. Pollack says that “the starting place for parents-as well as for teachers and other mentors of our boys-is to become sensitive to the early signs of the masking of feelings. The second step to getting behind the mask is learning a new way to talk to boys so that they don’t feel afraid or ashamed to share their true feelings.” We need stop saying stop crying and start saying why are you crying and how can I help?