The following is an unedited excerpt from a new book I am hoping will be finished and published by this February, “Helping Moms Get Close to Their Sons.” This is the concluding section about the unique factors that boys experience that their sisters don’t. TG
We have seen how boys are impacted from within by their brain differences and organizational testosterone. We have seen how the testosterone pushes them towards competition which then translates to impressing women with higher status and then to reproductive success. But there is another factor that greatly impacts boys not from within but from outside. Researchers are calling it “Precarious Manhood.”
When girls successfully go through puberty they are nearly always considered to be women. They have no need to prove their “womanhood” to anyone. It is simply accepted. Not so with boys. Boys may successfully navigate the physical side of puberty but this does not make them men. Nope. Manhood is something that he must prove. Repeatedly. Scientists have dubbed this phenomena “Precarious Manhood” and state that manhood is not a condition that comes about through biological maturation, that it is a “Precarious or artificial state that boys must win against powerful odds.” They have studied this around the world and say that this is nearly universal. In a wide range of cultures boys often face a difficult task to prove their manhood and even when he succeeds he must continue to prove his manhood throughout his life.
Generally at puberty and beyond boys are expected to prove their worth. According to a leading expert on this topic Joseph Vandello, “manhood must be earned and maintained through publicly verifiable actions.” This unwritten mandate leaves men and boys anxious about proving themselves. Research has shown that men are indeed more anxious over this than are women and that in response to being challenged are likely to exhibit risky or maladaptive behaviors.
Whether it is on the soccer field, at school, with girls, or schoolyard brawls boy’s manhood is being observed and graded. This, along with his biology creates a profound difference in boy’s lives. His sister does not have the testosterone differences we have described, she is not pushed into a competitive mode, and is not graded at every step in a similar manner.
These three things, the testosterone flood, being the competing sex, and precarious manhood play are large role in how boys will act in the world, how they will behave towards themselves and others, and how others will perceive them. The testosterone pushes the boys to succeed from within as it pushes him to strive for status while the precarious manhood pushes him to succeed from outside as the culture demands he repeatedly prove his manhood. All the while he lives in an invisible competing role that says he should win or at least look good in order to succeed reproductively. He gets it from all ends.
Knowing these things makes it easier to get a sense of boys and to understand some of their ways. Boys are thrust onto a stage that expects them to strive for status, to succeed, and to prove their worthiness at every step. This is a profound difference from his sisters who do not face these three things.
What does a boy need to do to win in this sort of scenario? One ironic answer is that he needs to do the very things that his parents have been telling him for eons but therapists have been telling him he should ignore. Things like be tough, be strong, big boys don’t cry, and so many others. These messages begin to make more sense when you can see that the boy’s parents love him and want him to succeed. They can intuitively understand that being tough and strong will place him higher on the hierarchy while crying will send him in a downward spiral. My sense is that parents are aware on some level that their son is indeed in a race and needs to look good in order to succeed.
The mental health industry has missed these critical differences and continues to push boys to be more like girls. One well known psychologist told me once that men simply need to developmentally “catch up” with women and that the world would be a better place if only men could be more like women! I hope you can see now the danger in that sort of thinking. All of the related urgings of the mental health professionals for boys like “You don’t need to be tough.” “Be sensitive” “talk about your feelings” “Crying in public is a good thing.” Knowing what we know now about boys and the world they face makes this like telling a long distance runner that he does not need to train for that upcoming marathon! It would be like the mama big horn sheep telling her son to stop butting heads, he doesn’t have to do that! Telling him this sort of thing would complicqte his task rather than helping. Being sensitive and crying in public would drop him in the hierarchy and make his task all the more difficult. With our boys we need to be aware of the stressors they face and help them navigate those as best we can.
This reminds me of an experience I had the other day when talking with a group of male psychologists. They were all impressed that the winner of the Heisman trophy had cried during his speech and heralded that event as a sign that things are changing and men and boys are becoming more sensitive. I laughed. What they didn’t understand was that when any man or boy is at the top of the hierarchy he can do whatever he wants. If he wants to cry he can get a way with it since he is at the top. He is the proclaimed winner. Just think of what reaction they might have had if one of runners up might have cried during his speech. They might have liked it but the world would see him immediately as a whiner and a poor loser.
We’ve gone over some of the basic male tendencies. The impact of the testosterone flood, the hierarchical mindset, the push to strive for status and compete, some information on boys and girls different ways of communicating and of getting what they want and their differences at play. With that under our belt we are in a good position to tackle something that has confounded women for some time: Why can’t you see boy’s and men’s emotions?
Tom Golden is the author or three books, Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing, The Way Men Heal, and Helping Mothers be Closer to Their Sons: UnderStanding the Unique World of Boys. Tom was the creator of the youtube channel Men Are Good and served as the vice chairman of the Maryland Commission for Men’s Health. He has been a therapist in private practice for over 30 years.