Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood

By William S. Pollack, Ph.D.

Introduction to Real Boys:

“While it may seem as if we live in a man’s world,” reports Pollack, “we do not live in a boy’s world.” Many boys today are struggling either silently, with low self-esteem and feelings of loneliness and isolation, or publicly, by acting out feelings of emotional and social disconnection through anger and acts of violence against themselves or their friends and families. While academic performance and self-esteem are low, the rates of suicide and depression are on the rise. As the recent tragedies in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and Edinboro, Pennsylvania demonstrated, boys today are in crisis–on a national scale. REAL BOYS explains why.

Much has been written about the plight of girls in adolescence–their decreased self-esteem, increased emphasis on appearance, gender bias in the classroom, and the confusion about what it means to be feminine. Boys, Pollack discovered, suffer a similar gender identity crisis even before adolescence. Reasearch shows that male infants are more emotionally expressive than female infants. However, as a boy ages, his emotional expressiveness decreases. Why? Because ‘The Boy Code’–society’s definition of what it means to be a boy–demands that boys suppress or cover up their emotions. As a result, boys develop a “mask of masculinity” to hide their shame, vulnerability and the other feelings they cannot express publicly. The inability to show true emotions hardens a boy until, ultimately, he loses touch with them. Today’s boys, Pollack writes, are “only allowed to lead half their emotional lives.”

REAL BOYS examines:

  • How raising boys is different from raising girls
  • The truth about boys’ self-esteem and how to improve it
  • Society’s double standard of what it means to be masculine
  • How to help boys become more confident and expressive men
  • The double standard of masculinity
  • The empowerment of boys through a close maternal and paternal connection
  • How to help boys find their genuine voice

In REAL BOYS, Pollack debunks the three most pervasive and erroneous myths about boys:


Myth Reality
Myth #1: Boys will be boys
“Where there are boys, there is testosterone, and where there is testosterone there is aggression, and where there is aggression, there is violence, or at least its potential.”
Most people believe that testosterone controls a boy’s behavior. The truth is that while it may determine patterns of behavior, it does not determine a boy’s behavior. Boys are as much products of nurture as they are of nature.
Myth #2: Boys should be boys
Boys must fit the gender stereotype or “gender straitjacket” society has for them–tough, dominant, “macho”.
There are many ways to be masculine. Sensitivity, a close maternal attachment and activities that are not traditionally masculine are natural and do not make a boy any less manly in adulthood.
Myth #3: Boys are toxic
The belief that boys are “psychologically unaware, emotionally unsocialized creatures.”
Boys are just as caring as girls. They may have different patterns of behavior and learn and communicate through action, but they are as capable of being sensitive and empathic as girls are.


How Boys Communicate

As Pollack debunks the myths that boys are less empathic and loving than girls, he exposes the patterns of behavior and emotional responses that are specific to them. While girls communicate verbally, boys express their emotions through actions rather than words, seeking attachment indirectly through activities or play. By understanding the pattern of how boys deal with emotional pain or a blow to self-esteem, parents can, Pollack writes, understand how and when to talk to adolescent boys about their problems. For example, a boy in pain will initially retreat, want to be silent and alone, acting out what Pollack calls the Timed Silence Syndrome. Recognizing the moment when a boy wants to talk is critical, Pollack says, because unlike with girls, it may be a parent’s one opportunity to find out what is wrong.

Real Boys in School

In REAL BOYS, Pollack goes into the classroom to demonstrate how boys and girls learn differently and reveals that many schools are ill-suited to the educational and behavioral needs of today’s boys. The self-esteem of young male students in incredibly fragile, even more so than that of girls. There are “different tempos” of learning between the genders – many girls prefer to learn by watching or listening, boys prefer to learn by doing. Many classrooms are not geared toward the way boys learn and as a result, a boy will act up due to boredom or restlessness and then be labeled as having a behavoiral problem, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or hyperactivity. “Many school systems,” Pollack argues, “to a large extent have ‘pathologized what is simply normal for boys.'” Among the issues discussed in REAL BOYS are:

  • The gender gap in academic performance
  • The pros and cons of single-sex education
  • How many schools are failing our boys
  • Boys’ specific educational needs and learning styles

Through case studies, research and the voices of real boys, REAL BOYS explains the emotional, psychological, and physical needs and desires of today’s boys and reveals how parents and teachers can work together to better understand them.


(from Democratic Underground)

Many years ago, when I began my research into boys, I had assumed that since America was revising its ideas about girls and women, it must have also been reevaluating its traditional ideas about boys, men, and masculinity. But over the years my research findings have shown that as far as boys today are concerned, the old Boy Code–the outdated and constricting assumptions, models, and rules about boys that our society has used since the nineteenth century–is still operating in force. I have been surprised to find that even in the most progressive schools and the most politically correct communities in every part of the country and in families of all types, the Boy Code continues to affect the behavior of all of us–the boys themselves, their parents, their teachers, and society as a whole. None of us is immune–it is so ingrained. I have caught myself behaving in accordance with the code, despite my awareness of its falseness–denying sometimes that I’m emotionally in pain when in fact I am; insisting that everything is all right, when it is not.


The boys we care for, much like the girls we cherish, often seem to feel they must live semi-inauthentic lives, lives that conceal much of their true selves and feelings, and studies show they do so in order to fit in and be loved. The boys I see–in the “Listening to Boys’ Voices” study, in schools, and in private practice–often are hiding not only a wide range of their feelings but also some of their creativity and originality, showing in effect only a handful of primary colors rather than a broad spectrum of colors and hues of the self. The Boy Code is so strong, yet so subtle, in its influence that boys may not even know they are living their lives in accordance with it. In fact, they may not realize there is such a thing until they violate the code in some way or try to ignore it. When they do, however, society tends to let them know–swiftly and forcefully–in the form of a taunt by a sibling, a rebuke by a parent or a teacher, or ostracism by classmates.


The use of shame to “control” boys is pervasive; it is so corrosive I will devote a whole chapter to it in this book. Boys are made to feel shame over and over, in the midst of growing up, through what I call society’s shame-hardening process. The idea is that a boy needs to be disciplined, toughened up, made to act like a “real man,” be independent, keep the emotions in check. A boy is told that “big boys don’t cry,” that he shouldn’t be “a mama’s boy.” If these things aren’t said directly, these messages dominate in subtle ways in how boys are treated–and therefore how boys come to think of themselves. Shame is at the heart of how others behave toward boys on our playing fields, in schoolrooms, summer camps, and in our homes. A number of other societal factors contribute to this old-fashioned process of shame-hardening boys, and I’ll have more to say about shame in the next chapter. The second reason we lose sight of the real boy behind a mask of masculinity, and ultimately lose the boy himself, is the premature separation of a boy from his mother and all things maternal at the beginning of school. Mothers are encouraged to separate from their sons, and the act of forced separation is so common that it is generally considered to be “normal.” But I have come to understand that this forcing of early separation is so acutely hurtful to boys that it can only be called a trauma–an emotional blow of damaging proportions. I also believe that it is an unnecessary trauma. Boys, like girls, will separate very naturally from their mothers, if allowed to do so at their own pace.


Until now, many boys have been able to live out and express only half of their emotional lives–they feel free to show their “heroic,” tough, action-oriented side, their physical prowess, as well as their anger and rage. What the Boy Code dictates is that they should suppress all other emotions and cover up the more gentle, caring, vulnerable sides of themselves. In the “Listening to Boys’ Voices” study, many boys told me that they feel frightened and yearn to make a connection but can’t. “At school, and even most times with my parents,” one boy explained, “you can’t act like you’re a weakling. If you start acting scared or freaking out like a crybaby, my parents get mad, other kids punch you out or just tell you to shut up and cut it out.” One mother told me what she expected of her nine-year-old son. “I don’t mind it when Tony complains a little bit,” she said, “but if he starts getting really teary-eyed and whiny I tell him to just put a lid on it. It’s for his own good because if the other boys in the area hear him crying, they’ll make it tough for him. Plus, his father really hates that kind of thing!” Boys suppress feelings of rejection and loss also. One sixteen-year-old boy was told by his first girlfriend, after months of going together, that she didn’t love him anymore. “You feel sick,” confessed Cam. “But you just keep it inside. You don’t tell anybody about it. And, then, maybe after a while, it just sort of goes away.”

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