The Problem with Boys: What They Need and How We Can Help

What does it mean to be a man? This question has been answered in history through many different ways. Some noble and integral, and some just the opposite. My more cynical side would say it’s the later part mostly. And yet, I’m the mom of two boys, so I wrestle with this question myself. At times, I fear how they will turn out as men. I question how they will treat people, women especially, and I worry for the health of their relationships. The culture at large is still asking this question and the Church as well. Sadly, the Church can adopt the lies of masculinity found in the culture, as Mike Cosper points out in his podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Mark Driscoll is a prime example of a male leader in the Church answering this question in toxic ways. As we’ve seen the rise of someone like Rachel Denhollander, saw the fall of Ravi Zacherias post-mortem, and the recent findings in the Southern Baptist Convention, parts of the Church are telling the world what it means to be a man, and it’s not very different from what the world tells us. 

In the documentary, The Mask You Live In, educator, author, activist, pastor and coach Joe Ehrmann shares a story from his childhood. As a small boy his father took him into the basement for a talk, telling him to “be a man!” “Stop with the tears. Stop with the emotions.” Ehrmann says this encounter was a source of great shame for him as he began his journey fighting this feeling of not being enough of a man. He then goes on to share how football became a way for him to hide. Maybe then his dad would see him as strong and tough and give him the love and attention he craved? Ehrmann says these three words: “Be a man!” are the most destructive words in our society. 

The Mask You Live In explores the socialization of boys in the ways of “manhood”. How from a young age boys are taught, culturally and socially, to lock down their emotions. Even with the most recent school shooting in Texas, perpetrated by another young man, our social problem is on full display. By the time a boy commits a violent act he has already embraced and lived out the lies of masculinity that our culture promotes. As Ehrmann points out in his Ted Talk: “Violence is unprocessed grief” and “Boys who can’t cry, shoot bullets.” In our culture today a man is measured by his athleticism (strength, speed, skill set), his sexual conquests, and his economic success. This is how the world tells us to measure the worth of a man. And these lies come at a great cost to our boys. 

George Orwell said, “He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it.” In the documentary, The Mask You Live In, various boys say things like, “We don’t really talk about feelings at our house,” “I felt alone”, “I was an outcast”, “I couldn’t be myself”. Psychologist and educator, Dr. William Pollack, says boys are not encouraged to talk about any kind of pain, and when they do most parents look for ways to fix the problem; parents tend to focus on an action instead of the emotions. Boys (and I would argue some girls too) put on a mask to hide their insecurities and vulnerabilities, because they feel the cultural pressure to hide (or mask) their emotions. This leaves a boy disconnected from himself, and if he doesn’t understand his own emotions and feelings, then how will he ever be an understanding and empathetic person? As Ehrmann points out, we don’t typically raise boys to be relationally successful. 

And yet, this is my heart’s passion as a mother of two boys. My biggest goal is to foster a healthy relationship with them, model for them the things I want them to emulate, things like openness, honesty, and humility in relationships. I know I mess up at times, but I still strive to be a safe person for them. They know the times I mess up, because we talk about it. This helps them know I’m still safe, but not perfect. I make naming emotions in myself and in them a priority, and we talk about things we can do when we feel a certain way. This creates safety, security, and connection in a home. I try my hardest to validate and confirm their feelings and experiences, even if it involves me or their siblings. If I can be the one person my children come to for emotional, relational, and life help then I’m satisfied. 

Ehrmann points out the significance of a boy having just one meaningful relationship. A close connection where he can open up, share what he’s going through, be held accountable, and express what he’s feeling. We typically associate these qualities with girls (though I have personally seen enough women who don’t have these skills), and we assume an innate biological nature to girls that is different from boys when it comes to social/emotional development. Because of those beliefs, or gender stereotypes, we end up perpetuating them. Because we assume boys are innately bad at talking about their feelings, and having close relationships, we then don’t expect that of them and then they grow up to be dysfunctional men who are not fully human. We end up treating our daughters very differently from our sons, instead of realizing that boys and girls are both human beings with feelings and emotions and needs for connection. Psychologist, Dr. Michael Thompson, says boys and girls are much more the same than they are different. He shares a study where 50,000 boys and 50,000 girls were given the same psychological tests and the bell curve for boys and girls overlaps 90%. It’s the traits found in the edges sticking out of the bell curves where we get our gender stereotypes. 

The American Psychological Association says that 80% of men suffer from some form of alexithymia (an inability to put emotions/feelings into words). With all this emotional suppression we’re teaching our boys (directly or indirectly) combined with narrow definitions of masculinity, it’s no wonder we have a mental health crisis (which typically turns into a substance abuse crisis) in our country. Many boys are at risk for mental health disorders and substance abuse, and far too many at risk of suicide. All of this has the potential to accumulate into acts of violence. Ehrmann says a broken man is one who has disconnected his head from his heart. He then shares how a real man is one who knows the importance of relationships and being connected to a great cause. It’s about a man’s heart. Emotional connection is not a feminine trait, it’s a human one, and our boys are missing out. As the great orator and abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, once said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 

So, where does this leave the Church? We need to examine the ways we’ve adopted the larger cultures beliefs about manhood into our Church culture. We need to root out these lies that should have no part in the Kingdom of God. This is not the way of the man of sorrows, the God who became flesh and dwelt among us in the ultimate act of empathy and connection. A good biblical counter phrase to “Be a man!” is “Jesus wept”. Jesus showed us what it means to be human and what it means to be divine. God has a heart, God has feelings and emotions. He made us in his image, therefore we have emotions and feelings. When we shut them down we are not only becoming less human, we are becoming less like God. We are distorting his image in us and in the lives of others. God created us for connection. With himself and with others. And yet we walk around as lesser parts of ourselves, disconnected, and less whole. May we seek ways to connect deeply and meaningfully with others as we open up and heal our collective brokenness in this country and in our world. May his Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, and may we join in that work in our own lives, in our homes, in our churches, and in our communities.