Boys in Crisis? Try empathy.

My first widely-read essay was last May, for CNN, on my daughter’s “best-dressed” award. I argued:

Our culture constantly projects the message that only appearances
matter, and this message is aimed squarely at our children. We can fight
this only by working against the grain, resisting gendered language and
emphasizing the internal over the external.

I received many comments, some hilarious (accusing me of being parts of the gay, Jewish, sharia, communist conspiracy to destroy America), some inspiring, and some very thoughtful. Among the last, many people asked me to write about how sex stereotypes hurt boys.

My relationship with boy-culture is complicated by my son’s Down Syndrome, but it’s been on my radar, and something I’ll turn to in time. In the meantime, though, Soraya Chemaly has been doing great writing about the ways in which our patriarchal culture hurts boys. Last May she wrote, “The Problem with Boys will be Boys,” for HuffPo,  and this week Salon published a new essay: The Real Boy Crisis. Chemaly writes:

The ability to feel what others feel has many well-documented benefits,
including, for empathetic people, greater psychological and physical
health. The real and socially significant positive impact of empathy,
however, is the ways in which it affects behavior toward others. People
who are empathetic are less aggressive and prone to denigrate others;
they are predisposed to act with care and compassion; they have
increased egalitarian beliefs and act with less prejudice and
stereotype-based hatred. Empathetic behaviors, however, are associated
with being female. And weak.

The stereotypes that plague our lives
teach that the characteristics of empathetic understanding are
feminine: listening, sensitivity, quiet consideration and gentleness. 
Empathy is feminized and boys learn quickly that what is feminized is,
in a man, the source of disgust. While parents, teachers, coaches,
grandparents and others whose ideas shape children aren’t sitting around
telling boys, “Don’t be empathetic!” they are saying, in daily
micro-aggressive ways, “Don’t be like girls!”  The process of “becoming a
man” still often means rejecting almost any activity or preference that
smacks of cross-gender expression or sympathy.

She then lists five clear ways in which boys are taught not to be empathetic. She concludes:

And restrictive boy codes turn into restrictive man codes. Forcing
boys to reject all “feminine” aspects of themselves means not teaching
them to be fully human. It reduces their ability to be flexible,
adaptable and nimble when encountering new situations. It reduces their opportunities for happiness.

Empathy is essential to changing this. Boys with sisters in households where gender roles are stereotypical are far more likely to grow up to be conservative men with a similar reliance on stereotypes. They end up, often, as benevolent sexists out of sync with
the reality of women’s lives, but, worse, actively involved in making
sure they are not successful in the workplace.  One of the things that
challenges their beliefs as adults, interestingly, is having daughters,
something researchers call a “warming effect.”

who claim to have egalitarian ideals while wringing their hands about a
boy crisis in education are all the while advocating the exact course
of action that limits boys in the first place: a greater emphasis on sex
segregation and debunked, essentialist ideas
about brains, gender and roles in life.  The boy crisis we should be
focusing on is how “boys will be boys” ideas and sexist media leave boys
ill-equipped to function in diverse societies.  School aren’t emasculating boys, American masculinity is dehumanizing them.

She’s writing this in the context of the constant worry about a “crisis” in education for boys. And it is a problem. Fewer and fewer boys are doing well in school say some of the data, and Men’s Rights Activists blame feminism (Chemaly has actually written widely on this). Chemaly is saying the problem is patriarchy.

I largely agree with Chemaly. Most of the time, when men are complaining about a problem that we face as a gender, the solution to the problem, I argue, is more feminism. More feminism leads to an expansion of the possibilities of masculine expression. More feminism enabled boys to function in different environments. More feminism leads to more room for fathers to be involved in the emotional life of their children.

And empathy is vital. In my post on bullying, I aligned myself with Chemaly, writing about the crucial task of parents to teach empathy to their children. Gender norms stand in our way, and that’s a crisis.

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