August 11, 2017

“It might be nice to be a girl, ‘cause then I wouldn’t have to be emotionless.”


"One avenue into understanding men’s loneliness is to consider how children are socialized. In an interview, Niobe Way, a lecturer at New York University who has worked with adolescent boys for over two decades, talked about how we are failing boys. “The social and emotional skills necessary for boys to thrive are just not being fostered,” she said in an interview. Indeed, when you look at the research, men do not start life as the stereotypes we become. Six-month-old boys are likely to “cry more than girls,” more likely to express joy at the sight of our mother’s faces, and more likely to match our expressions to theirs. In general, before the age of four or five, research shows that boys are more emotive than girls.

The change begins around the time we start school: at that age—about five—boys become worse than girls at “changing our facial expressions to foster social relationships.” This is the beginning of a socialization process in “a culture that supports emotional development for girls and discourages it for boys,” according to Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson. This begins to affect our friendships early—in a study in New Haven, Connecticut, boys aged 10-18 were significantly worse than girls at knowing who their friends were: “over a two-week period, the boys changed their nomination of who their best friend was more frequently than girls, and their nomination was less likely to be reciprocated.”

Still, there’ll never be better soil than school in which to grow friendships, and most boys do find good friends as children. Way, who summarized her findings in her book Deep Secrets, found that, up until early adolescence, boys are not shy about how much they love their friends. Way quotes one boy named Justin in his first year of high school: “[My best friend and I] love each other… That’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. … I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect, and love for each other.” Another high school freshman, Jason, told Way friendships were important because then “you are not lonely … you need someone to turn to when things are bad.”

However, for many boys—Way calls it “near-universal”—a shift occurs in late adolescence, roughly from the ages of 15-20. In a phase of life we often think of in optimistic terms—self-discovery, coming of age—boys’ trust in each other shatters like glass. Three years after his first interview, Jason, asked if he had any close friends, said no, “and immediately adds that while he has nothing against gay people, he himself is not gay.” Another boy interviewed by Way in the eleventh grade who up until the year before had maintained a best friendship for ten years said he now had no friends because “you can’t trust nobody these days.” In interviews with thousands of boys, Way saw a tight correlation between confiding in close friends and mental health, and she observed that, across all ethnic groups and income brackets, three quarters of the boys she spoke to “grow fearful of betrayal by and distrustful of their male peers” in late adolescence, and “begin to speak increasingly of feeling lonely and depressed.”

Making matters worse, in the middle of this estrangement from other boys, as we’re becoming young men, we’re governed more than ever by a new set of rules about what behaviour we’re allowed to show. Psychologists call them display rules. “Expressions of hurt and worry and of care and concern for others,” according to white high schools boys, are “gay” or “girly.” Black and Hispanic boys, according to Way’s interviews, feel pressure to conform to even stricter rules. Men who break the rules, and express “sadness, depression, fear, and dysphoric self-conscious emotions such as shame and embarrassment” are viewed as “unmanly” and are comforted less than women. Way told me when she speaks in public, she often quotes a 16-year-old boy who said, “It might be nice to be a girl, ‘cause then I wouldn’t have to be emotionless.”

- Stephen Thomas, from The Legion Lonely


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