ACA Blog

Dec 18, 2013

Boys Will Be Boys . . . Unless We Teach Them Something Better

Some of you may already be aware of Rosalind Wiseman’s work. She initially became recognized as a national parenting authority with the publication of her popular book, “Queen Bees and Wannabees” (2003).  This book inspired the movie “Mean Girls.” Despite her lack of academic credentials (a B.A. in Political Science from Occidental College), she has done some good work around the topic of girl bullying.

In her latest book, Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World she ventures into new and exciting territory. But from the perspective of a grown up boy, I think, despite her best intentions, she doesn’t really get the boy world. This is probably because she never was a boy and can only try to understand the internal struggles and experiences of boys from an external perspective. This doesn’t make her effort bad or unimportant . . . but it does limit her reach. For the purposes of this blog, I want to focus on one particular excerpt that I found both ridiculous and potentially damaging.

On p. 87, she wrote:

“It's important to allow him [your boy] to have a wide range of feelings.  Moms, if he's feeling so angry that he wants to release his anger by punching a pillow or a punching bag, or going into his room and yelling at the top of his lungs, or playing really loud music, or even playing a violent video game, let him do it.  If he punches the wall, that's okay too, as long as he isn't threatening someone else when he's doing it.  Plus, after he's calmed down, he can then learn the skill of drywall patching. The bottom line is that a lot of women can be intimidated in the presence of men's anger (with good reason).  But at the same time, your son needs a healthy outlet to express his anger without feeling like you think he's a violent, crazy person for having his feelings.”

Let me just say this, “Like OMG. This is like some really gnarly bad advice.”

As you can see, I’m about as good at channeling my inner girl as Wiseman is at channeling her inner boy. To get back to my adult male persona, what I really want to say is that in this short excerpt, Wiseman’s ideas are so limited that I find them disturbing.

Perhaps the worst part is that Wiseman doesn’t seem to understand the basic and crucial difference between emotions and behaviors. It is and should be completely acceptable for all boys and all girls to experience anger. Anger is a natural and inevitable human emotion. But the emotion of anger is not the same as aggressive behavior. The fact is that boys CAN acknowledge and express their anger WITHOUT PUNCHING THINGS. And they SHOULD be expected to NOT PUNCH THINGS.

Let me emphasize this by saying it again: Boys can and should be expected to express their angry emotions without becoming violent or aggressive. It’s absolutely crucial for boys to learn to use their words and to control or inhibit their aggressive behaviors. A big problem with Wiseman’s message is that she’s coaching moms (and other adults) to accept inappropriate and unacceptable aggressive behaviors—from boys. She seems to be advocating the all-American excuse that boys will be boys and so therefore we should tolerate their aggression and not expect anything different. This is an unhelpful and potentially destructive message. Instead, the message from parents and caring adults needs to be: “I accept your angry emotions; but aggressive behavior is unacceptable.”

Part of what Wiseman is suggesting isn’t terrible. The idea of a natural consequence of drywall patching after an unacceptable aggressive outburst is reasonable. And the idea that moms shouldn’t be intimidated in response to their son’s anger or aggression is very important. But there’s a big difference between accepting an emotion and tolerating an aggressive behavior. Boys need to know that punching and destroying things is an unacceptable way to express their anger.

I think one of Wiseman’s limitations is that she’s never experienced anger and aggressive impulses from the inside of a male body.

As for myself:

I remember the last time I punched a wall . . .

I remember the last time I broke down a door . . .

I remember the last time I ripped a cupboard door off its hinges . . .

I also recall the last time I lashed out in anger and used a particularly unacceptable word to describe a woman. And I’m thankful to the person who taught me very clearly and very directly that I was engaging in an unacceptable behavior. It took me one firm but gentle lesson from a caring adult to learn to never use that disparaging word again.

I remember getting laid out as flat as a pancake by a 290 pound offensive tackle at Reser Stadium in 1978. And I remember wanting nothing more than another chance to get him back.

I also remember how I learned to watch my anger instead of acting on it. I remember the lessons my parents taught me. I remember practicing a deep breath and talking with my psychotherapist about my angry rages. I remember learning to deal more constructively with my revenge impulses even though I wanted so badly to give another male a physical pay-back. And I remember NEEDING SOMEONE to set limits on my aggressive behaviors.

It’s not easy for boys to learn to control their behavior. It’s also not easy for boys to learn to talk about anger (rather than acting on it). But this isn’t all about biology and testosterone. It’s also—and perhaps primarily—about the social expectations that most people hold for boys. If we expect and tolerate aggressive behavior as just part of being a boy, then we have very little chance of changing or improving how boys are capable of behaving.

The bottom line for me (and I know this is personalized and not completely unbiased) is that boys need caring and loving adults to raise the bar for them. I needed—and many boys need—higher (not lower) expectations when it comes to dealing with our anger.

My memories (and my counseling and psychotherapy work with boys) inspire my conclusions. Here they are:

IT IS ESSENTIAL for caring and loving adults to actively teach their boys that anger and sadness and fear and guilt and joy are all acceptable and expected emotions.

It’s equally essential for these same caring and loving adults to teach boys that aggressive behavior is NOT ACCEPTABLE.

If we don’t teach boys these lessons, then we’re lowering the bar to the point that we have no right to expect them to behave in civilized and non-violent ways.

And most of us are far better off when boys and men understand and manage their anger—rather than acting on their aggressive impulses.

Please help spread the word that we should expect more (not less or the same old thing) from boys. I know Ms. Wiseman is well-intended, but in this case we need to counter her bad advice with some good ideas.
________________________________________________________________________

John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D. is a counselor educator at The University of Montana. For more information on counseling, psychotherapy, parenting, or clinical assessment, check out his blog at johnsommersflanagan.com 

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