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Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood

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Overview

Featuring a new preface by the author on how parents can make a difference.

With author appearances on Good Morning America, The Today Show, 20 /20 and NPR's Fresh Air, and featuring articles in Newsweek, Time, and The New York Times, Real Boys is one of the most talked-about and influential books published this year.

Based on William Pollack's groundbreaking research at Harvard Medical School over two decades, Real Boys explores why many boys ...

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Overview

Featuring a new preface by the author on how parents can make a difference.

With author appearances on Good Morning America, The Today Show, 20 /20 and NPR's Fresh Air, and featuring articles in Newsweek, Time, and The New York Times, Real Boys is one of the most talked-about and influential books published this year.

Based on William Pollack's groundbreaking research at Harvard Medical School over two decades, Real Boys explores why many boys are sad, lonely, and confused although they may appear tough, cheerful, and confident. Pollack challenges conventional expectations about manhood and masculinity that encourage parents to treat boys as little men, raising them through a toughening process that drives their true emotions underground. Only when we understand what boys are really like, says Pollack, can we help them develop more self-confidence and the emotional savvy they need to deal with issues such as depression, love and sexuality, drugs and alcohol, divorce, and violence.

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Editorial Reviews

VOYA
Written preColumbine, but in the shadow of other incidents and after over twenty years of research, Pollack, codirector of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School, spells out in detail the drama, trauma, and dilemma of the "boy code." Simply, boys are raised to choke down their feelings; they are raised to be "little men;" they are raised to be tough; and they are raised to explode. YPut down this journal, go directly to filling out an order slip. Pause only long enough to check the catalog to see how many copies you have. However many that it is, you probably need at least one more. Reviewer: Patrick Jones
Kirkus Reviews
Following in the footsteps of Carol Gilligan, a study showing that boys learn to hide their real selves and may suffer from it more than girls do. Schools, parents, and society fail boys by demanding that they fit into an unwritten "Boy Code," says psychiatrist Pollack (co-director of the Center for Men at Harvard Medical School). The code challenges boys to be self-reliant and confident, risk takers, powerful and dominant and unemotional. The toughening process begins as early as preschool, when according to Pollack, boys are encouraged to separate from their parents — in particular their mothers — far too early and are shamed into hiding their fears and sorrow. The shaming process (don't be a 'wimp,' don't be a 'wuss') continues into adulthood, perpetuated sometimes unconsciously by parents, teachers, and peers. Boys can become confused, frustrated, lonely, sad, and disconnected as they learn to bury feelings and behavior that would lead to taunts or teasing. Their confusion can lead to actions that on one end of the scale are characterized as "boys will be boys" — calling out in class, daring each other to new exploits — but on the other end are violent and suicidal. School statistics, which show far more boys than girls diagnosed as learning disabled or emotionally disturbed, support Pollack's findings. The book is divided into three parts, the first an overview of the Boy Code and its effect on boys' development. The second section gives advice to mothers and fathers on how to offset social pressure, so boys can develop into their "real selves." Part three is a discussion of sadness, suicide, and depression, often misdiagnosed in boys, because they may try tohide it with bravado. There is a section generally approving sports as molder of boys' character but warning of tyrannical and insensitive coaches, and a section on homosexuality. Sympathetic, but with little that's new, this project unfortunately has a kind of "Hey, we're sensitive too" quality. Better to wait for Gilligan's study of boys, now in the works.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402850257
  • Publisher: Random House, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/15/2002
  • Format: Other
  • Edition description: Abridged, 2 Cassettes, 3 Hours

Meet the Author

William S. Pollack, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, is the co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. He and his family live in Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

An Excerpt from Real Boys by William Pollack

INSIDE THE WORLD OF BOYS: BEHIND THE MASK OF MASCULINITY


"I get a little down," Adam confessed, "but I'm very good at hiding it. It's like I wear a mask. Even when the kids call me names or taunt me, I never show them how much it crushes me inside. I keep it all in."
The Boy Code: "Everything's Just Fine"
Adam is a fourteen-year-old boy whose mother sought me out after a workshop I was leading on the subject of boys and families. Adam, she told me, had been performing very well in school, but now she felt something was wrong.

Adam had shown such promise that he had been selected to join a special program for talented students, and the program was available only at a different -- and more academically prestigious -- school than the one Adam had attended. The new school was located in a well-to-do section of town, more affluent than Adam's own neighborhood. Adam's mother had been pleased when her son had qualified for the program and even more delighted that he would be given a scholarship to pay for it. And so Adam had set off on this new life.

At the time we talked, Mrs. Harrison's delight had turned to worry. Adam was not doing well at the new school. His grades were mediocre, and at midterm he had been given a warning that he might fail algebra. Yet Adam continued to insist, "I'm fine. Everything's just fine." He said this both at home and at school. Adam's mother was perplexed, as was the guidance counselor at his new school. "Adam seems cheerful and has no complaints," the counselor told her. "But something must be wrong." His mother tried to talk to Adam, hoping to find out what was troubling him and causing him to do so poorly in school. "But the more I questioned him about what was going on," she said, "the more he continued to deny any problems."

Adam was a quiet and rather shy boy, small for his age. In his bright blue eyes I detected an inner pain, a malaise whose cause I could not easily fathom. I had seen a similar look on the faces of a number of boys of different ages, including many boys in the "Listening to Boys' Voices" study. Adam looked wary, hurt, closed-in, self-protective. Most of all, he looked alone.

One day, his mother continued, Adam came home with a black eye. She asked him what had happened. "Just an accident," Adam had mumbled. He'd kept his eyes cast down, she remembered, as if he felt guilty or ashamed. His mother probed more deeply. She told him that she knew something was wrong, something upsetting was going on, and that -- whatever it was -- they could deal with it, they could face it together. Suddenly, Adam erupted in tears, and the story he had been holding inside came pouring out.

Adam was being picked on at school, heckled on the bus, goaded into fights in the schoolyard. "Hey, White Trash!" the other boys shouted at him. "You don't belong here with us!" taunted a twelfth-grade bully. "Why don't you go back to your own side of town!" The taunts often led to physical attacks, and Adam found himself having to fight back in order to defend himself. "But I never throw the first punch," Adam explained to his mother. "I don't show them they can hurt me. I don't want to embarrass myself in front of everybody."

I turned to Adam. "How do you feel about all this?" I asked. "How do you handle your feelings of anger and frustration?" His answer was, I'm sad to say, a refrain I hear often when I am able to connect to the inner lives of boys.

"I get a little down," Adam confessed, "but I'm very good at hiding it. It's like I wear a mask. Even when the kids call me names or taunt me, I never show them how much it crushes me inside. I keep it all in."

"What do you do with the sadness?" I asked.

"I tend to let it boil inside until I can't hold it any longer, and then it explodes. It's like I have a breakdown, screaming and yelling. But I only do it inside my own room at home, where nobody can hear. Where nobody will know about it." He paused a moment. "I think I got this from my dad,unfortunately."

Adam was doing what I find so many boys do: he was hiding behind a mask, and using it to hide his deepest thoughts and feelings -- his real self -- from everyone, even the people closest to him. This mask of masculinity enabled Adam to make a bold (if inaccurate) statement to the world: "I can handle it. Everything's fine. I am invincible."

Adam, like other boys, wore this mask as an invisible shield, a persona to show the outside world a feigned self-confidence and bravado, and to hide the shame he felt at his feelings of vulnerability, powerlessness, and isolation. He couldn't handle the school situation alone -- very few boys or girls of fourteen could -- and he didn't know how to ask for help, even from people he knew loved him. As a result, Adam was unhappy and was falling behind in his academic performance.

Many of the boys I see today are like Adam, living behind a mask of masculine bravado that hides the genuine self to conform to our society's expectations; they feel it is necessary to cut themselves off from any feelings that society teaches them are unacceptable for men and boys -- fear, uncertainty, feelings of loneliness and need.

Many boys, like Adam, also think it's necessary that they handle their problems alone. A boy is not expected to reach out--to his family, his friends, his counselors, or coaches -- for help, comfort, understanding, and support. And so he is simply not as close as he could be to the people who love him and yearn to give him the human connections of love, caring, and affection every person needs.

The problem for those of us who want to help is that, on the outside, the boy who is having problems may seem cheerful and resilient while keeping inside the feelings that don't fit the male model -- being troubled, lonely, afraid, desperate. Boys learn to wear the mask so skillfully -- in fact, they don't even know they're doing it -- that it can be difficult to detect what is really going on when they are suffering at school, when their friendships are not working out, when they are being bullied, becoming depressed, even dangerously so, to the point of feeling suicidal. The problems below the surface become obvious only when boys go "over the edge" and get into trouble at school, start to fight with friends, take drugs or abuse alcohol, are diagnosed with clinical depression or attention deficit disorder, erupt into physical violence, or come home with a black eye, as Adam did. Adam's mother, for example, did not know from her son that anything was wrong until Adam came home with an eye swollen shut; all she knew was that he had those perplexingly poor grades.

The Gender Straitjacket
Many years ago, when I began my research into boys, I had assumed that since America was revising its ideas about girls and women, it must have also been reevaluating its traditional ideas about boys, men, and masculinity. But over the years my research findings have shown that as far as boys today are concerned, the old Boy Code -- the outdated and constricting assumptions, models, and rules about boys that our society has used since the nineteenth century -- is still operating in force. I have been surprised to find that even in the most progressive schools and the most politically correct communities in every part of the country and in families of all types, the Boy Code continues to affect the behavior of all of us -- the boys themselves, their parents, their teachers, and society as a whole. None of us is immune -- it is so ingrained. I have caught myself behaving in accordance with the code, despite my awareness of its falseness -- denying sometimes that I'm emotionally in pain when in fact I am; insisting that everything is all right, when it is not.

The Boy Code puts boys and men into a gender straitjacket that constrains not only them but everyone else, reducing us all as human beings, and eventually making us strangers to ourselves and to one another -- or, at least, not as strongly connected to one another as we long to be.

Ophelia's Brothers
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Ophelia is lover to the young prince of Denmark. Despondent over the death of his father, Hamlet turns away from Ophelia. She, in turn, is devastated and she eventually commits suicide. In recent years, Mary Pipher's book on adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, has made Ophelia a symbolic figure for troubled, voiceless adolescent girls. But what of Hamlet? What of Ophelia's brothers?

For Hamlet fared little better than Ophelia. Alienated from himself, as well as from his mother and father, he was plagued by doubt and erupted in uncontrolled outbursts. He grew increasingly isolated, desolate, and alone, and those who loved him were never able to get through to him. In the end, he died a tragic and unnecessary death.

The boys we care for, much like the girls we cherish, often seem to feel they must live semi-inauthentic lives, lives that conceal much of their true selves and feelings, and studies show they do so in order to fit in and be loved. The boys I see -- in the "Listening to Boys' Voices" study, in schools, and in private practice -- often are hiding not only a wide range of their feelings but also some of their creativity and originality, showing in effect only a handful of primary colors rather than a broad spectrum of colors and hues of the self.

The Boy Code is so strong, yet so subtle, in its influence that boys may not even know they are living their lives in accordance with it. In fact, they may not realize there is such a thing until they violate the code in some way or try to ignore it. When they do, however, society tends to let them know -- swiftly and forcefully -- in the form of a taunt by a sibling, a rebuke by a parent or a teacher, or ostracism by classmates.

But, it doesn't have to be this way. I know that Adam could have been saved a great deal of pain if his parents and the well-meaning school authorities had known how to help him, how to make him feel safe to express his real feelings, beginning with the entirely natural anxiety about starting at a new school. This could have eased the transition from one school to a new one, rather than leaving Adam to tough it out by himself -- even though Adam would have said, "Everything's all right."

How to Get Behind the Mask
As we'll discuss throughout this book, there are many ways that we can learn how to understand a boy's deepest feelings and experience, to come to know who he really is, and to help him love and feel comfortable with his genuine self. 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. These signs include everything from bad grades to rowdy behavior, from "seeming quiet" to manifesting symptoms of depression, from using drugs or alcohol to becoming a perpetrator or victim of violence; and sometimes, as in the case of Adam, the mask may accompany the mantra that "everything is fine."

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. For example, when a boy like Adam comes home with a black eye, rather than saying "Oh my God! Just what is happening to you at school?" or "What the heck happened to you?" less intimidating language can be used, such as "What is going on -- can you tell me?" or "I've noticed things seem a little different for you lately -- now I can see something's wrong. Let's talk about it." The third step is to learn how to accept a boy's own emotional schedule. As we'll discuss more in this book, boys who do share their feelings often take longer to do so than girls do. Whereas a girl might share her feelings as soon as she's asked what's going wrong, a boy will often refuse (or ignore us) the first time he's approached. We have to learn how to give the boy the time he needs and how to recognize in his words and actions the signals that he is ready to talk.

A boy's need to be silent -- and then his subsequent readiness to share what he is feeling -- is what we will call the timed silence syndrome. It's the boy who usually needs to set the clock himself -- to determine how much time he needs to remain silent before opening up to share his feelings. If we learn to become sensitive to each boy's unique timing, we become better at respecting how he copes with emotions and make it more possible for him to be honest about the feelings behind the mask.

The fourth step involves what I call connection through action. This means that rather than nudging a boy to sit down and share his feelings with us, we begin by simply joining him in an activity that he enjoys. Often by simply doing something with the boy -- playing a game with him, joining him for a duet on the piano, taking him to an amusement park -- we forge a connection that then enables him to open up. In the middle of the game, the duet, or the Ferris wheel ride, a boy may often feel close and safe enough to share the feelings he'd otherwise keep hidden.

Finally, we can often help boys take off their masks by telling them stories about our own experiences. We can tell them "war stories" about when we were young and had to deal with life's ups and downs, or we can share recent experiences that challenged us. Even if our boy groans or rolls his eyes when we begin to share our story, he almost always benefits from the empathy that telling the story inevitably conveys. By discovering that, yes, we too have felt scared, embarrassed, or disappointed, the boy begins to feel less ashamed of his own vulnerable feelings. He feels our empathy and discovers that we understand, love, and respect the real boy in him.

For schools, getting behind the mask to help a boy like Adam requires several specific additional steps. First, as we'll learn throughout this book, teachers, school administrators, guidance counselors, and others all need to learn about how the Boy Code operates. They need to be actually trained to understand how this code restricts boys from being their true selves and how it pushes them to put on the mask. Second, I often suggest that schools assign to each boy an adult mentor who is sensitive and empathic to that boy's unique personality and interests. For example, the mentor for a boy who loves sports might be one of the gym teachers, whereas the mentor for the boy who loves poetry might be the English teacher. By assigning a mentor whose interests mirror those of the boy, the boy gains an adult friend with whom he can talk, somebody with whom he might feel comfortable sharing his deepest feelings and thoughts. Third, schools need to monitor closely those areas where the Boy Code operates most intensely. These include bus rides (where boys are often completely unsupervised), gym class, recess, and extracurricular sports. In such situations, teachers and other supervisors need to be especially vigilant about making sure that each boy is doing all right. Fourth, when teachers or others do intervene to help a boy who seems to be hurting behind the mask, it's important that they use the kind of nonshaming approach I discussed above. For example, when a boy seems to be the victim of a lot of teasing, rather than intervening suddenly by saying "Hey, what's going on here? Cut that out!" the adult supervisor might take aside the boys involved, individually and at separate times, and investigate what's happening in the particular situation. Finally, as I'll discuss more in this book, schools need to give boys a "report card" that covers not only their academic progress and classroom conduct but also their social life. By keeping an eye on a boy's social adjustment, schools are much better able to stay in touch with a boy's genuine emotional experience.

Copyright c 1998 William Pollack, Ph.D. Used by permission of Holt, Henry & Company, Incorporated. All rights reserved.

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