Does being a guy mean that you have to fight?
“Mom, I’ve decided I need a pocket knife. And a pellet gun.”
My nine year-old had been begging us for a pocketknife for years. This seemed like a dangerous idea to his dad and me, even though his main interests had previously been carving his name in trees and cutting rope. But this time he seemed very concerned. I stopped what I was doing and sat down across from him.
“Honey, why do you think you need a weapon?”
“To protect myself and you guys, if someone tries to hurt us.”
“Nobody’s going to hurt us, buddy,” I said without thinking. Of course I didn’t know that, but the answer was reflexive. As a parent, you don’t want your kids to be afraid, even if the world is sometimes scary. We have a job to protect them – not just from harm, but also from unnecessary worry.
But at that moment it occurred to me that this boy’s world was expanding. He was starting to see outside of our little family bubble, into the world of men. And he wanted to feel capable of taking care of himself in a way that I’d never even considered.
While every child is different, and there are no rules about how all boys think or feel, it does seem as though boys in our society have an acute understanding of violence. Starting young, they want to know what to do about it and what will happen if they have to fight.
Do boys ever really feel safe?
The ways we’ve been failing our boys in regards to violence in their everyday lives became obvious after I read a Young Adult novel called Wise Young Fool. Although the book is primarily a coming-of-age story about a teenager who wants to play in a rock band, it wasn’t the music or the teen angst that stood out to me.
The main character, Richie, is aware of the threat of violence in nearly every social situation – and it pretty much never ends. At school there’s a bully who lives to torment Richie and his friend. Guys in rival bands hate him and destroy his stuff. Parties, with booze and tempers and hot girls are even worse. Everywhere he goes, Richie is aware of the guys who simply don’t like the look of him. When Richie lands in juvenile detention, you can imagine how much the presence of violence in his life increases.
After finishing the book, I asked my husband if the degree to which Richie thought about fighting was realistic. “Of course,” he said. “Life as a guy means knowing someone is probably about to beat you up or take your stuff.”
As a teenage girl, I definitely felt a daily threat of violence, but it was almost always sexual violence. Snapped bras, breasts “accidentally” groped, and butts being grabbed were an accepted part of daily life, as much as we hated it or felt violated.
My constant vigilance for this type of harassment was legitimate. However my own internal focus kept me, as a teen and even as a mother, from seeing the daily threats that boys face in those same years.
Often it’s not until we step away from the culture of youth and look in as parents that we start to see how scary it can be to be a teenager.
Yes, your son is probably dealing with violence in his life
We have to be clear here that there is a huge variance of experiences relating to violence. In no way could anybody write about what violence is like and have it engender the experiences of all kids. Certainly there are kids who are much more at risk than others, and there are some for whom violence is not much more than a passing thought.
Jamie Utt, a diversity and inclusion consultant and sexual violence prevention educator, explains:
“You start with a baseline reality of the threat of daily violence, but when you compound LGBT violence or racialized violence, or the violence that’s more common in low income communities, the threat of violence young men face is compounded.”
What I think really surprised me, however, was the level of violence in the lives of boys whom we assume have no real problems: boys in schools we consider to be good, boys with good parents, boys who have friends and hobbies and no criminal records.
I talked to Sean Beaudoin, author of Wise Young Fool, about the role of violence in his book, and he explained that he had set out to write about three things: What it was like to be in a band, what it was like to be incarcerated, and the effects of drunk driving.
“The fighting stuff, that had to be in there because it was just part of growing up,” he told me. “There was always the sense that I could be punched, shoved or pushed into lockers. That was just normal.”
Sean says there are always going to be big guys who can mess you up. At some point you’re probably going to have to choose between fighting them—knowing that if you don’t, you’ll lose respect and girls won’t like you—or being a guy who doesn’t fight. You also know that if you do choose to fight, every tough guy is going to try to test his toughness against you.
Based upon his day-to-day interactions with students, Jamie Utt agrees that most boys probably walk around with the daily threat of violence on their minds.
Jamie was bullied as a kid, and while he feels fortunate to have had great parents and the opportunity to be in a school where violence was not permitted, he still suffered the daily fear of being hurt. He admits that he couldn’t help but fantasize about the ways in which he would defend himself physically.
“Even in an ideal American experience, I still saw violence. I thought about and fantasized about beating up kids who were mean to me. I didn’t do it, I knew the consequences. I knew I would never do it, but it was just a release.”
In one of my favorite books about boys, Masterminds and Wingmen, author and educator Rosalind Wiseman tells the story of a promising young man named Dre, who got into a fight and ended up suspended – a punishment that would be noted on his permanent record. Dre was defending himself, but when the other boy stopped fighting, Dre continued. Wiseman explains:
Dre believed that he had to go after the guy full force to convince him to never go after him again. Using that line of reasoning, defense wasn’t enough. From Dre’s perspective, his offense was part of his defense—for the future… Dre understandably wants the future respect (meaning fear) of the guy who attacked him, so that he’ll be left alone. But that desire for future respect among his peers right now messes up his overall future, because if he has a history of fighting, adults wont trust him… His future of doing well in school, going to college, having adults who can explain the fight to other adults, becomes much less likely. To gain the respect tof his peers in the present, Dre is truly risking his future. (Wiseman, p. 227).
What do these boys have to fight about?
So what are all these boys are fighting over? Is it turf, as Beaudoin’s character Richie finds himself dodging punches for? Is it having to prove their manhood to not be targeted again, as Wiseman noted in Masterminds? Or is it mainly just survival, as Jamie Utt remembers?
Dr. Andrew Irwin-Smiler, an expert on teen and adult masculine behavior and author of Challenging Casanova: Beyond the Stereotype of the Promiscuous Young Male, explained to me that it is our overall expectation of masculinity that puts this pressure on boys:
“Even in stuff related to sex or relationships, one of the very real ways that gender gets policed, at least among guys, is this perpetual threat or joke of ‘somebody’s going to kick your ass.’ It’s kind of always there, and guys know it.”
It seems there’s also a caveman-like expectation placed upon boys that they will protect “their girl”, as well as their sexuality, by any means necessary. If they’re not willing to do so, there’s the threat that they aren’t man enough to keep the girl.
“There is an understanding that one of the ways to keep a girl’s affection is to make sure that she doesn’t have any rival suitors. There’s a sense that your vigilance will somehow prevent another guy from ‘stealing your girl’,” Dr. Smiler explains.
If this is how boys are seeing their relationships with girls, that they have no real will and therefore have to be protected like property, that’s a huge burden upon a kid. If you can step out of the scarily misogynistic message that sends boys about girls, you can start to imagine the stress our boys must be feeling. Without believing his girlfriend has the agency to choose a partner based upon his merit rather than just his perceived manliness, this girl could suddenly be snatched away.
Is there a solution, or is this just what boys do?
So what can be done to help release our boys from the daily stress the threat of violence takes?
Dr. Smiler explained to me that part of the reason boys believe violence works is that they see adults as a combination of being ineffective and not trustworthy. “They’ve learned not to go to adults. If you’re fourteen years old, the last thing you want to do is be the kid who tells the teachers or his parents, and has them take care of it.”
As a result, there is a very real sense within kids that they’re on their own, that seeking help to resolve a bigger problem would only make them more of a target.
When working with schools to help prevent bullying, Jamie Utt says that progress cannot be made until the biggest issues in the school, often unique to that school, are addressed. Sometimes it’s different factions of kids who hate one another, sometimes it’s race-based, and sometimes it’s more nebulous and hard to pin down.
He explains that the challenge with bullying and violence prevention in schools is that it needs to be tailored to the community and the culture of the school.”There are no quick fixes. It needs to be geared toward giving students options and tools that are not just fighting. Not just telling him to ‘choose the biggest kid and punch him in the face.’”
We need to talk to them – and keep talking to them – on their terms
In Masterminds and Wingmen, Wiseman offers a chapter on how to talk through the stages of a fight with your son so he can better understand his options and the possible real and lasting consequences. Her eight-point guide will help you talk through these issues with your sons, but, as she explains, “there are no ironclad rules.”
He can’t start the fight by his words or actions. He must always match the level of his response to the level of the threat. He needs to stop the behavior not the person. He doesn’t have the right to humiliate the person.” (Wiseman, p. 223)
To write her essential book, Wiseman worked with over 160 boys to learn about their lives and get insider advice on how parents should talk to their sons. Wiseman asserts, and I agree, that it’s crucial we teach boys what they’ll face when they get into a fight, so they can think through the reality and consequences of fighting in the heat of the moment, when they may not be reasoning well.
In an email, Wiseman explained to me that parents’ conversations with kids about fighting are woefully lacking.
I think both boys and girls need to be given reasonable and realistic information about the possibility of getting into physical altercations with other people. But overall, adults (parents, grandparents, other family members) coaches are more likely to talk to boys about physical fighting—there’s an assumption by at least one of those people that a boy will be in a situation where he will be in a fight or experience someone wanting to fight him. My experience with parents is usually the advice given to boys is either “violence is never the answer” or “use your words” or on the other extreme of “make sure you hit first and make it count.”
But talking to boys about fighting requires a hell of a lot more than asking them to punch a bigger kid or, conversely, the expectation that they will always choose to walk away.
My feeling, as a parent, is that the first step to helping our boys is to make clear that we don’t see the issue as black or white. We need to slow down, engage our boys in conversations on their terms and listen to them, so we can recognize the complicated social dynamics at play.
If I can do one thing for my boys, I hope it’s to give them a place to bring their problems where I will truly listen to them. And the first step to that is recognizing the reality of violence in the daily lives of boys.
But my son is still not getting a pocket knife. Or a pellet gun.
Lead photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons/Janels Katlaps