Boys are raised in an environment that expects them to be tough and to take risks to prove their manhood. They can become divorced from emotions except for anger in order to avoid being seen as weak or ‘like a girl’.
On behalf of Parenting SA, Dr Justin Coulson, nationally recognised parenting speaker, author and researcher, discusses the ‘boy code’ and its impact on boys from an early age. He provides tips for parents on how to help boys reframe the boy code so they are not constrained by it. This includes helping them with emotions, boundaries and developing respectful relationships. He also encourages parents to not blame boys themselves but to change the culture that creates the boy code.
The Parenting SA website has a broad range of Parent Easy Guides for parents of children aged 0 to 18 years.
Hi, I’m Dr Justin Coulson, parenting author, researcher and speaker. In this video ‘How to teach boys about respectful relationships’, researcher William Pollack argues that we’ve actually created a gender ‘straight jacket’ for our boys.
Our boys have got to adhere to this thing he calls the ‘boy code’, which is as a boy, you’ve got to be tough, divorced from your emotions, except anger – anger is OK. You’ve got to be willing to take risks, and at all times not ‘be a girl’. And it starts really young. So, if boys get upset when they are separated from their parents at school, they learn really quickly to deny that emotional pain, to push it down.
Even if we don’t do it as adults, their peers make sure that boys are never ‘wimps’ or ‘wooses’. You are not allowed to cry if you are a boy. We divorce them from those emotions. As they get older, any display of emotion (except for anger) is met with teasing and bullying, and even punching. Boys just love to punch to show that they are tough, and they put up these shields to hide their emotions. Barriers like bravado bolster this ‘boy code’, and their sensitivity to their own emotions drops.
Then teen years hit, and… empathy just takes a dive, especially in boys. And, if it hasn’t started already, there seems to be a corresponding leap in disrespect because they are trying to assert themselves and separate themselves from the adults in their lives. It’s time to ‘be a man’ and you’ve got to ‘toughen up’.
The easiest way to prove manliness is to tell others that you are ‘in charge of you’. And boys can sometimes be pretty clumsy and disrespectful in their efforts to prove how they are independent. They often feel like they have to display their independence openly and aggressively, and they especially like to be disrespectful to those who they perceive as weaker than them, or those who they are not afraid of. And often, that means girls and women.
So, how are we supposed to teach our boys, with all of this going on, to be respectful of everyone, but particularly of girls and women? Well, here are 7 routes to respect.
Number one - We actually have to re-frame this thing that we call the ‘boy code’. And we do this by asking questions of our boys. Is this how a man really acts? Do you think being a man is being hurtful and disrespectful? Can you be cool and kind? Or does being cool mean being cold and callous? We can’t re-frame the ‘boy code’ and break the gender ‘straight jacket’ that boys experience when they are really fired up and emotional. But in those quiet moments that you have with them you can actually invite them to reflect on what it really means to be a man.
Second - We’ve got to set a good example as both men and women. This means that we should show respect, be respectful, model respect to our boys. It means that men should show willingness to listen carefully to women and never, ever, ever degrade them. When we ask for respect, we need to do it respectfully. I can’t tell you how many times I see a parent say, ‘You need to show me some respect!’ It’s so ironic that we demand respect in such disrespectful ways.
Third - We can enlist boys’ help. I love this idea. We might point to someone who needs some help, who needs a hand, and invite our boys to consider how they can make a difference in that person’s life. When we build a sense of empathy and perspective, and a desire to actually help others, we can create boys who are respectful.
Fourth - We must have positive, respectful relationships with our boys. This means that we actually invest in time with them, we understand them, we connect with them. When boys see us as people, they’ll actually be more respectful to us. And we’ll be more respectful of them when we take the time to understand and see them as people.
Fifth - Boys need our help with boundaries. They need us to work with them on establishing wise boundaries around being respectful. But they also need help with boundaries with things like media. There is so much rampant, disrespectful music, movies and social media, as well as their exposure to pornography. Pornography removes respect from relationships. If they are exposed to pornography (and most will be on average by age 11, and by age 15, 99% of them) they need to understand boundaries around consent when it comes to intimate relationships. What I mean by that is that when somebody they are with says ‘No’, they have to understand that and respond appropriately to it. ‘No’ does not mean ‘persuade me’. ’No’ does not mean ‘yes’. ‘No’ means ‘No’.
Sixth - Boys need mentors who build strong relationships of trust through respectful interactions. They need someone to look up to.
And seventh - We need to teach respect by asking them to take the perspective of others. Try giving them an assignment. Maybe have them ask their mum or an aunt or an older sister or another woman about times when they felt unsafe around men. Get boys to understand that woman’s life experience so that they can see the world through their eyes, and understand how it feels to be a woman who is disrespected by a man. And we need to call them on disrespect and sexism. Let them know we’ve spotted it, and that it’s not OK.
If we want respectful boys, we’ve got to stop blaming them and start taking responsibility for what we are perpetuating and teaching as a society: the ‘boy code’, the modelling, the gender ‘straight jacket’, the disrespect, the emotional disengagement and the dysfunctional relationships. Because… unless they are conditioned not to be, boys are respectful, kind and loving human beings.