August 06, 1998
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Boys Struggle To Be Boys

By William J. Cromie

Gazette Staff

Boys will be boys, and that's now a big problem, according to Harvard psychologist William Pollack. He just completed a three-year study of healthy, middle-class boys and concluded that many of them are depressed, confused, isolated, and vulnerable.

Far from the stereotype of unfeeling "snips and snails and puppy dogs' tails," boys in the study voiced profound feelings of sadness, fear, and uncertainty about the prospect of becoming men. "Boys are caught in the impossible bind of living up to society's conception of the new male, who is caring, sensitive, and believes in female equality, while subscribing to traditional ideas about needing to be tough and macho," says Pollack.

The frustration of trying to live with a split psychology can lead to depression and repression of feelings, he concludes. It can also foster anger and violence. In extreme cases, it might contribute to suicide and murder.

"Many boys not allowed to shed tears, shoot bullets," Pollack comments. "The study has uncovered the tip of a deeper, more frightening iceberg, one that can cause serious violence in boys who make poor adjustments. The problem might be characterized as including the recent tragic shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas; Pearl, Mississippi; and Springfield, Oregon."

Pollack will present his findings at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association on Aug. 14-17 in San Francisco.

Like Father, Unlike Son

Pollack directs the Center for Men at McLean Hospital, a teaching facility of Harvard Medical School, and is the author of Real Boys: Rescuing our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood (Random House, 1998).

Psychologists are well-known for studying abnormal people and dysfunctional families. But in the 1970s, Pollack and his colleagues decided to focus on healthy families, particularly fathers and their relationships with their sons.

"We were surprised at how much pain and confusion men had about fatherhood," Pollack recalls. "Every father told us that his father was not the kind of model he wanted to be for his own children. Although they loved them, they felt their fathers were not involved as much as they should have been."

In 1995, Pollack began studying "normal" boys between ages 12 and 18. He tested and interviewed 200 boys. Most of them came from white, middle-class families in the northeastern part of the country. About 10 percent represented working-class and minority families, but all the boys expressed similar emotional problems.

"While they all appear to be doing fine, beneath the outward bravado many are in silent crisis," Pollack maintains. "Struggling under a double standard about what it means to become the 'New Age man' versus the 'traditional guy' creates an inner confusion that is reflected in conflicting ideas about gender roles, in sadness and depression, and in low self-esteem."

One boy's complaint was typical. "When I try to be sensitive and caring, girls ignore me," he said. "They want to go out with the jocks. When I play the tough, dominant guy, they complain that I'm harassing them. How can I win?"

Psychologists usually give tests that measure either egalitarian or macho attitudes. Boys agree or disagree with statements like: "Boys and girls should both be allowed to express feelings," or "Men are always ready for sex."

"If a boy scored high on one type of statement, it was assumed he would score low on the other," Pollack explains. "But when I gave them both types of tests, they scored high on each one."

As boys grow older, the inner conflict increases. They feel more pressure to be a "regular guy" and not be seen as a sissy or wimp.

Pollack administered tests of self-esteem which allowed him to determine whether someone was hiding his true feelings by the pattern of answers. As boys get older, he found, they express false self-esteem to mask their feelings of weakness and vulnerability. For example, they exaggerate sexual conquests and their lack of emotions and tender feelings.

Boys tend to keep their feelings to themselves in fear of being taunted by their peers. "It's difficult, however, when you lose a girlfriend or there's a death in the family, and you have to keep your emotions bottled up," Pollack says.

One boy told him, "If something happens, you have to say 'no big deal.' You brush it off, punch things. I've punched a lot of lockers. Then when I got home, I cried."


Risk-Taking and Suicide

"Boys feel great concern about growing into adults," Pollack says. "They overwhelmingly see manhood as filled with unrewarding work, isolation, unhappiness, and disappointment."

He believes such feelings can push boys toward risky behavior and even suicide.

Many boys interviewed for the study talked of peer pressure to use alcohol and marijuana and to drive beyond the speed limit. Mixing that combination with depression can add up to accidental injury and death that has a suicidal component.

"Boys are three to four times more likely to commit suicide than girls," Pollack notes. He mentions a spate of six suicides that occurred in Boston last year. "Each of the six had mentioned their sadness and depression beforehand, or revealed it through anger and irritability. However, no one took them seriously.

"Psychologically, the difference between boys who commit suicide and those who commit murder is not always that large."


The Good with the Bad

Not all of a boy's life is gloom and doom. The study found positive aspects too, the most significant of which is friendship.

"Ask boys about the most important thing in their lives and they invariably answer 'close and trusted friends,' " Pollack says. "Ask what advice they would give to younger boys, and they say, 'Find a friend you can trust and stick with him.' "

It's also common for boys today to have girls as friends, as opposed to girlfriends, the study found. The boys described coed, nonsexual slumber parties where they play games, watch TV, and talk about school.

"Many parents couldn't believe that," Pollack comments. "They worry that their sons and daughters are going to a 'sex fest.' "

The boys, however, said that having girls for friends adds something extra to their lives.

Another positive element is the role models many boys choose. Instead of citing sports idols, 75 percent of them said their real heroes are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other adults in close touch.

Pollack tells of one boy who picks his mother as a role model. "' My father left us when I was very young,' " he said. "' My mother sacrificed her whole life for me.' "

Such friendships and role models help boys deal with the confusion, sadness, and anxiety of growing up. In addition, Pollack suggests things that parents and schools can do to help.

He recommends that parents create "shame-free zones at home where boys can express their emotional side without fear that people will make fun of them. Close adults should listen to their concerns and try to understand them."

Schools have learned to listen to girls' problems and to take steps to help them. "Now, it's time to listen to boys," Pollack says.

Finally, Pollack believes, "society has to acknowledge the problem of 'good ol' boys' versus 'real boys' who are diverse, loving, and caring. They need to know we admire them for who they genuinely are, and that we will help them to express a full range of emotions without feeling shame."


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College