Raising an Alpha Male Who Doesn't Have to Prove It
Why manning up is not always good for men: Part 2
Posted Jun 30, 2019
This is the second installment of a three-part series about why manning up is bad for boys. I ended the first post suggesting that the opposite of masculinity is not femininity; it is authenticity. Authenticity means having a choice, to sometimes step outside the narrow box that defines what it is to be a man. It means being afraid or vulnerable does not have to make you feel like less of a man. However, there is something about how we socialize boys that subverts them from being their authentic selves. The psychologist Carol Gilligan suggests that acting like a man requires a betrayal of one’s emotional life in order to conform to a gender type. In other words, becoming a man means burying or silencing a part of oneself.
Are boys and girls really that different? To what extent is this a nature vs. nurture issue? Well neuroscience has debunked the myth “men are from Mars and women are from Venus": that brains are either pink or blue. In fact, Jo B. Paoletti found that for the first half of the twentieth century the color pink was associated with boys and blue with girls! The difference between girl’s and boy’s brains is so small that scientists using brain scans cannot even tell the difference.
Another myth, perhaps a subset of the men are from mars tale, is that girls are naturally more empathic than boys. They are not. Though it may look that way because girls have greater freedom to express their feelings. In fact, as infants, boys are the emotional ones. A study found out of Boston found that six-month-old boys were more likely to show “facial expressions to fuss, to gesture to be picked up” and “tended to cry more than girls.”
Spend ten minutes watching children at a playground and the differences between boys and girls will be obvious. While biology does account for some of this difference, there is also a significant body of research shows that demonstrates how differently we treat boys and girls. In a classic study from the 1960s, an infant boy was dressed either in pink and called Jane, or in blue and called John. Parents interacted very differently with the same baby, depending on its name and clothing color. If baby Jane cried parents in the study thought she was upset, and she was soothed. However, parents interpreted Baby John's tears as anger, and they played with him in a rougher manner.
Unfortunately, it does not take long for us to socialize vulnerability out of boys. From an early age, they are taught to hide their emotions. Judy Chu at Stanford demonstrated this by following a classroom of children from Pre-K through 4th grade. The pre-k boy and kindergarten related to each other with authenticity and attention. However, by first grade, these qualities began to vanish as boys learned how to be boys. In fourth grade, they started forming a club she called the "mean team" It's main activity was to 'bother people' and act against the girls. These boys were defining masculinity as being the opposite of being feminine.
Another psychologist, Niobe Way from NYU demonstrated how during adolescence another aspect of openness and intimacy ends up on the endangered list: friendship. Way found that younger adolescent boys really do have close friends. Remember when your son was a toddler and spoke of loving his best male friend? Well, young adolescents do the same thing! They seek friendships in which they can share deep secrets, whom they can trust not to betray them. And they know the value of these relationships. As George, a high school junior in her study explains, “without a best friend to tell your secrets to, you would go whacko".
However, around age 15 or 16 boys begin to talk less and to sound like the stereotypical male. In order to be a man, to be emotionally stoic and independent, they had to sacrifice something: the best friend with whom the shared a secret with. To quote Way:" The very same boys who had spoken so openly about their love for their best friend now hedged any depiction of emotional intimacy with other boys with the phrase "no homo." Right at the moment of development when the suicide rate for boys increases to four times the rate of girls, boys become less able to articulate their feelings, speak about losing their closest male friends, and become increasingly distrustful of their male peers. This happened to me: during the summer between 9th and 10th grade my best friend and I stopped talking to each other. Nothing happened. We just started high school and stopped speaking to one another.
Way's research provides a perfect example of how manning up is bad for men. Close friendships provide a sense of self-worth, validation, and connectedness, which in turn significantly enhance psychological, physical, and academic well-being. Boys who report high levels of intimacy and support in their friendships are more likely to report being academically engaged (i.e., do their homework) than those who report low levels of support. However, adolescents without close friendships are at risk of depression, drug use, delinquent behavior, and even suicide. Research has even suggested that the effects of the quality of friendships on psychological adjustment may be stronger for boys than for girls.
What supplants true friendship during late adolescence is the 'bro culture. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness where strength is everything and emotions are a weakness; Bros measure masculinity by athletic ability, how much beer they can hold, and how many girls they can hook up with Unfortunately this narrow description of manhood has led to what people call "Toxic masculinity", defined by violence, sex, status and aggression.
So let me ask you something, Is this the only way to be a man? Let's look at one more study, one that offers a different definition of masculinity. This one is not about boys, it's about a pack of wolves, though maybe they are not that different than a pack of boys. The study comes to us from a Yellowstone park ranger named Rick McIntyre, who tracked in wolves there for many years. One wolf, named 21 after his tracking number, was deemed a 'super wolf' because he never lost a fight and ferociously defended his family. However, at home 21 was far from a dominating 'leader of the pack. He was a gentle father who not only loved wrestling with the pups but actually pretended to lose. “21” exuded a quiet confidence and self-assurance, led by example, knew what was best for his pack, and was a calming influence.
The true alpha male, according to McIntyre, and Carl Safina, the nature writer who documented his work, is not aggressive because he does not need to be. Rather, he is emotionally secure, having already proven what needs to be proved. In other words, he does not need to defend his masculinity. And in our world, there is room for more than one way of being masculine.
Chu, Judy Y. (2014) When Boys Become Boys: Development, Relationships, And Masculinity by Judy Y. Chu. New York University Press, New York (Carol Gillian is quoted from the introduction of this book).
Paoletti, Jo B. (2012) Pink and Blue: Telling Boys and Girls from Each other. Indiana University Press, Bloomington
Safina, Carl: Tapping Your Inner Wolf. New York Times Op-Ed. June 6, 2015.
Scott, Catherine, Ph.D Educating Boys-and girls. https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/educating-boys-and-girls. Searched July 24, 201
Smith, C., & Lloyd, B. (1978). Maternal behavior and perceived sex of infant: Revisited. Child Development, 49(4), 1263-1265.
Walum, L.R. (1977). The dynamics of sex and gender: a sociological perspective. Chicago: Rand Mcnally
Way, Niobe (2011). Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the crisis of Connection: Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA