Understanding The Troubles With Teenage Boys

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Most of us have learned the language of worrying about teenage girls: We talk about self-esteem, body image, mean girls, ambition. We teach them to turn inward for approval and decision-making, rather than relying on peers as pilot lights for their life. We tolerate their vanity, their need always to be in a group of friends, whether in person or online, and their snide, condescending remarks toward us as they begin the long, slow process of separating. Indeed, there is a pretty well-defined and understood arc that a teenage girl goes through. This is not to say it isn't riven with potential pitfalls, but we believe we know the dynamic after twelve years of discovery and research, ever since Mary Pipher wrote her watershed book about the crisis of being 13, Reviving Ophelia.

teenage boy

Credit Image: Christian_238 on Flickr

Now let's talk about what we know and understand as a society about teenage boys: ____________? Okay, "boys will be boys," that's a tried-and-true statement. But what does it mean, exactly? It assigns a definitive yet completely undefined path to all kinds of boys, no matter their background or inclination; it damns them to an uncertain fate that is defined purely by their gender. Men are supposed to be strong, men are supposed to dominate, be in charge. Men are supposed to be the head of the household. But what if they aren't? What if in larger and larger numbers what men thought was their destiny in life is drifting away on a sea of social change?

We wouldn't allow girls to be defined solely by their gender? How is it possible we have allowed that for our boys?

This weekend at the inaugural Dad 2.0 Summit, being held outside Austin, TX, I will get to pose that question to four prominent thinkers about the challenges of helping boys become men. All four experts believe we are at a crucial turning point of redefining masculinity , or, perhaps it's better to say UNdefining it, so that teenage boys can get the support, love and direction they need, so they can have specific aspirations ad goals about how to be a friend, a partner, a leader, at a time when the economic ad social power in this country is swinging away from men, when fewer boys are being raised with men in the household, when the proliferation of electronic communication is robbing teenage boys of the opportunity to learn empathy.

But don't take my word for it; let's hear it from the men on the front lines who will be headlining this panel:

Dr. William Pollack, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From The Myths of Boyhood, and a family therapist and researcher on the subject of boys for more than 20 years, as well as an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School: "We must face the fact that boys, too many of them, are "failing to launch," confused about possibilities of and healthy roles for adult manhood, and that society continues consciously and unconsciously to raise impediments to change."

Jeremy Adam Smith, a writer, blogger, founder of DaddyDialectic.com and cultural critic, whose book Daddy Shift started a national dialogue about the changing role of fatherhood: "men today have many more possibilities than did their grandfathers, and many more anxieties. These are fundamentally anxieties of choice, but also anxieties that arise from a loss of social status and loss of the securities that arise from unearned privilege. On an individual level, fathers must think consciously of how to model behavior for sons that is adapted for a world in which men must share economic power and responsibilities with women. They also need to model and teach healthier behaviors, and help them to navigate a world of choices." Also appearing are Dr. Alan Heisterkamp, a longtime edcator and administrator who is currently working with two anti-violence programs in high schools, including "Coaching Boys to Men," a mentoring program launched by Futures Without Violence that encourages sports coaches to open honest dialogue with the boys on their sports teams about violence against women, ideas of strength and more.

And filmmaker Frederick Marx, a producer of the award-winning documentary "Hoop Dreams", is currently working on a film called "Boys Become Men" that documents the lives of several teen boys as they grapple with their manhood. As Marx puts it, "The lack of mature masculinity is killing men and boys, women and girls, the environment, the whole of society, our planet. Its implications are everywhere. And it takes men to teach boys how to be men. The key mechanisms are initiation and mentorship, two halves of one whole."

What does it mean to be a man? What should we be teaching our sons? How can fathers (and mothers) help them define their own paths, and reject the one that is so often laid out before them as their only choice?

I am the mother of an 8-year-old boy, a boy who doesn't like sports at ALL, who is very comfortable talking about his feelings, who is empathetic and concerned about others. But it's not long before he learns that a lot of that is not okay. Already, the 10-year-olds in his school have called him "sissy" on the playground, because he has no interest in the basketball games or soccer matches during recess; instead he gravitates toward the jungle gyms and plays with the younger kids. Already, he has made decisions about what "boys do" and what "girls do," refusing to read or even touch a once beloved book because it has a main character who's a girl.

So this weekend, I will lead this thought-provoking discussion with these four amazing men who have staked their time, attention and efforts on the very hard work of pushing against our culture, to give boys the room to define their masculinity as it suits them, to urge our boys to reach out for support, to show them the limitations of violence and domination, to help them accept their own vulnerability, and, most important to give them the tools to realize their inner potential and find the support, acceptance and love they deserve in their lives.

I can't wait to hear what these four men have to say and share about these topics, and I promise I will come back and share it all with you.

What would you like to ask these men? What do you want to know about why boys are struggling so much today? What do you worry about for your sons? Please let me know in the comments below.

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